The strange course of a strange bill

One year ago, nearly to the day, the former minister for Democratic Reform stopped by my desk in the House of Commons to tell me that he planned to introduce an electoral reform act the next day. Tim Uppal said he hoped I would like the coming reforms.

The next day there was a small tremor in the planned order of things. Media reported that Uppal’s briefing of the caucus had not gone well. Stephen Harper had been absent from that caucus meeting, attending the funeral of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Media reported that Conservative MPs were unhappy that Uppal’s bill would give Elections Canada new powers of investigation, increasing its ability to get to the bottom of such things as the fake calls that misdirected voters in the 2011 election. Uppal’s bill was scrapped.

By summer, Uppal had been replaced with Pierre Poilievre, he who had distinguished himself as the PM’s parliamentary secretary—loyally repeating nonsense even he could not have believed about Nigel Wright, the famous cheque, and the subsequent cover up. Had Tim Uppal actually listened to experts and crafted a bill responsive to their recommendations? And for his trouble, was he sacked?

On December 23, 2013, Paul Estrin, president of the Green Party, received an undated letter from Pierre Poilievre requesting our proposals for Elections Act reforms by January 4, 2014. Now, that was a pretty nasty turn-around time even coming from the Harper gang—letter received the day before Christmas Eve; response due January 4th. My January 4 letter is at:

Subsequently, I had a telephone conversation with him about our concerns. He revealed nothing of what would be in the new act. As I recall that conversation, it is increasingly clear what a charade it was.

I had written him: ‘The crisis in declining voter turn-out and citizen engagement should concern all political leaders…While the reasons for declining voter turn-out are complex and multi-faceted, nevertheless some common themes emerge.’ I recommended: move away from First Past the Post so that every vote counts; and repeal the changes to the Elections Act requiring government-issued photo ID in order to be allowed to vote. These changes have resulted in voters within certain groups (students, seniors, First Nations, the homeless) being denied their franchise.

Our problem in Canada is not voter fraud (people voting more than once), it is people voting less than once.’

In our conversation, he did not once suggest that his bill would make it harder to vote. Nor did he ask me why I believe Canadahas no issue of voter fraud.

We discussed Michael Chong’s reforms (Bill C-559), which was supported in our letter. We talked about how it would work when the leader no longer signed nomination papers for that party’s candidates. He wasn’t supportive.

Our other recommendations (eliminate television advertising by political parties; restore the per vote subsidy, at any level, as an incentive to vote; establish rules for the leaders’ debates) we hardly touched on.

When I read C-23, I was shocked to find that vouching was removed. This is the issue that has attracted the most attention. But, with over 200 pages of legislated changes, there is so much more wrong with the so-called Fair Election Act. It has done the opposite of what the aborted Uppal bill was reported to be planning. Rather than grant new powers to Elections Canada to investigate electoral crimes, it will cut Elections Canada out altogether. Rather than encourage Elections Canada to explore new ways to increase voter turn-out, it will hobble and gag the Chief Electoral Officer. No longer could Elections Canada work to help with the high-school based student votes. Even the press releases EC issued during our last voting day, to tell voters to ignore any phone calls claiming to be from Elections Canada, would be forbidden under the new act.

As well, major new loopholes in campaign spending are opened up, by exempting fundraising activities from campaign spending caps. While some changes are not objectionable, such as a CRTC role in tracking the use of campaign robocalls, nothing in the act would prevent the large-scale attempts at voter fraud in 2011—and investigating those crimes would be harder and talking about them, prohibited.

In his desperation to get C23 passed quickly, Poilievre enticed Conservative Senators to start their study of the bill even before it has completed its review in the House. If there was any doubt that this process is being driven by the Prime Minister’s Office, that move dispelled it. But Conservative senators have joined many non-partisan experts in criticizing the bill.

Now, lo and behold! On April 25 the Harper Conservatives has changed course! The Conservative administration caved on key points. They have reinstated vouching. They have removed the gagging of the Chief Electoral Officer, removed the political party prerogative to appoint poll supervisors and closed the loop-hole to treat fundraising as an exemption to election spending.

More must be changed. There is nothing in this new bill to stop the efforts at electoral fraud represented in the 2011 robocall scandal. Elections Canada must have the power to compel testimony and properly investigate campaign criminality.

Let’s hope that this attempt at a brazen assault on the essence of democracy will have provoked Canadians into an energetic exercise of mobilization, of citizen engagement, and a revival of youth voter turn-out.

A partial victory has been scored. Let’s keep pushing for real democracy, an end to First-Past-the-Post, ‘false’ majorities and give Canadians a democracy where every vote counts!