Stephen Harper’s overhaul of election laws needs close scrutiny
TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials – Apart from its slap at Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand, the Fair Elections Act looks like a credible bid to update the laws. But the Conservatives don’t deserve much benefit of the doubt.
Feb 04 2014. Editorial
There’s a lot to like in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s sweeping overhaul of Canada’s elections laws. There’s quite a bit to be suspicious of, as well. This is one package of proposed legislation that shouldn’t be rushed into law. It needs careful scrutiny.
Given the sulphurous mistrust between the Conservative government and opposition parties, and the Tories’ history of, well, creativity, toward the electoral rules, Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre can’t expect to be taken at his word when he says the Fair Elections Act will put “everyday citizens in charge of democracy.” New Democrat critic Craig Scott fears it is stacked to give the Tories an edge in the next federal election. In truth, it may be a little of both.
The massive bill’s most controversial feature is a direct blow to Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand’s office. He loses his power to police infractions of the laws by appointing a Commissioner of Elections and directing him or her to look into problems. It’s hard not to see this as sheer political payback. As the Star’s Susan Delacourt has reported, Mayrand has locked horns with the Tories over the voter-suppression “robocall” affair, the so-called “in-and-out” shuffle of funds between local and national campaign operations, and spending abuses. All this embarrassed Harper and tainted the Tory brand. Now, says Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, they aim to “strip Elections Canada of its investigative powers, attacking its independence.”
In future it will be up to the federal Director of Public Prosecutions, who reports to Justice Minister Peter MacKay in his role as attorney general, to name the Commissioner of Elections, and without consulting Mayrand’s office. Beyond that, the director will have no say over the commissioner’s investigations.
Poilievre maintains this will give the commissioner more status and more independence. Maybe so. But it’s not reassuring that Elections Canada wasn’t consulted on the fine print. People need to know that the commissioner will indeed have a free hand and won’t be hobbled in some way.
The new law also contains measures to save errant MPs undue embarrassment. New “procedural safeguards” require that probes by the Commissioner of Elections be kept confidential. And MPs who are in a dispute with Elections Canada over their expenses will get to keep their seat in the Commons until a judge can sort out the matter, instead of being suspended as they are now. Nice for the MPs. But what about the public’s right to know?
Other proposed reforms are less controversial. Indeed Mayrand has lobbied for some of them.
Welcome changes include tougher penalties — including potential prison time — for obstructing an election officer, voting more than once, offering a bribe, applying for a ballot under a false names and other offences. There would be a mandatory public registry for mass political calling as a hedge against rogue callers. And voters would face tougher rules to prove their identity.
The new rules also raise the donation limit for individuals to $1,500 from $1,200, and increase spending limits by 5 per cent. And in a gain for free speech in the Internet era they lift the outdated ban on transmitting election results before all votes are counted.
Apart from its slap at Mayrand the bill looks at first blush like a credible effort to update the election laws. But the Conservatives don’t deserve much benefit of the doubt. They have played fast and loose with the rules too often. This sweeping and complex bill — with its investigative changes, higher spending limits, confidentiality rules, new voter ID rules, crackdown on fraud, tighter surveillance of mass calling and tougher criminal penalties—needs a fine going-over before it becomes law. The Tories would be wrong to push it through in a hurry.
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