The Tories were right to be nervous. [Fair Elections Act]

NationalPost.com – Full Comment – Marc Mayrand shredded their ‘Fair Elections Act’ almost line by line
March 7, 2014.   Andrew Coyne

No wonder the Tories were so nervous. The government had been noticeably skittish about what Marc Mayrand would say before the Commons Procedure and House Affairs committee Thursday: not only had it kept the chief electoral officer largely out of the loop in the months before it introduced its landmark Fair Elections Act, but there was doubt whether he would even be allowed to testify about it afterwards. A promise to that effect had been made to the NDP’s David Christopherson the night before to persuade him to end his filibuster of the Act in committee. Yet on the day Mr. Mayrand’s testimony was interrupted by the calling of not one but two votes in the Commons just as he was scheduled to speak.

At any rate, at length he was allowed to give his testimony, at the end of which very little of the Act was left standing. The chief electoral officer, in his quiet, workmanlike way, simply shredded it, almost line for line, proposing more than two dozen amendments that would effectively rewrite the bill.

The provision banning “vouching” came in for particularly heavy fire: while the government insists the practice, by which voters who lack proper identification can have another voter vouch for them, has given rise to widespread voter fraud, Mr. Mayrand observed there was no evidence for this. It did not help the government’s position that the authority it cited in response, Harry Neufeld, author of a report on electoral irregularities in the 2011 election, later backed up Mr. Mayrand’s stance. (“I never said there was voter fraud,” he told Canadian Press.)

The treatment of Mr. Mayrand, like the misrepresentation of Mr. Neufeld’s report, is unfortunately of a piece with this government’s approach generally, in which secrecy, deception, and brute force are very much the watch words. But what is objectionable in ordinary legislation is intolerable in a bill such as this, one that touches upon the very heart of the democratic process. Of all bills, you would think, this is the one that should invite the most transparency, the most public input, the most reaching out to opposition parties, so as to leave no room for doubt that the fairness of elections had been preserved. Yet from the start, the very opposite course has been pursued.

Entrusting the matter to Pierre Poilievre, among the most ruthlessly partisan ministers in a government filled with ruthless partisans, was an early warning sign. Sure enough, not content with blindsiding the chief electoral officer, the minister — for Democratic Reform! — gave media and opposition members the merest sniff of the mammoth bill before thrusting it upon Parliament, where, after the usual curtailing of debate, it was packed off to committee, whose hearings will be likewise restricted (hence Mr. Christopherson’s filibuster). This is not how a government interested in fairness conducts itself.

But then, the speed and secrecy are understandable, in a way, since the closer one reads the bill, the worse it looks. It is not that the bill is all bad: some provisions, such as the limits on bequests to political parties or the stiffer penalties for election fraud, are quite welcome. But good or bad, what is true of every part of the bill is that it furthers the interests of the parties in general, and of the Conservative party in particular.

The bill would raise the limits on both contributions and spending. All parties would benefit from this — needlessly: there’s never been so much money in our politics — but the Conservatives, as the most successful fundraisers, would plainly benefit most. It would exempt from those limits expenses incurred to raise funds from previous donors: again, without justification, but again to the benefit of the party with the longest donor list — or the greatest willingness to abuse it, the distinction between a fundraising call and an advertisement being self-evidently hard to enforce.

It would allow incumbent parties, rather than Elections Canada, to choose important officers at polling stations: yet again, without offering any justification, and with the same potential for abuse. It would allow the parties to collect and assemble the so-called “bingo cards,” lists of who voted and who did not in each riding — information currently given out only to individual candidates — without any of the usual privacy safeguards, the parties not being subject to federal privacy legislation.

Elections Canada would be hamstrung in all sorts of ways. It would be forbidden from communicating with the public in anything but the most rudimentary terms — not even to encourage people to vote. It cannot be entirely coincidental that, as with the ban on vouching, the people most likely to be affected — the young, the poor, the marginalized — are the ones least likely to vote Conservative.

Likewise, the office of the Commissioner of Canada Elections, charged with enforcing the elections laws, has not only been denied the power to compel evidence, as it had requested — federal parties do not even have to provide receipts for expenses — but has been hived off to a different section of the bureaucracy altogether, though it will be under much the same gag order: it is not even clear whether it will be allowed to communicate with Elections Canada. I leave it to the reader to judge who benefits from that.

The thing is just riddled with this sort of stuff. Perhaps each measure would not seem so troubling on its own; nor even would the whole if the government did not seem so intent on smuggling it into law. But as it is I think some alarm bells should really be going off

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