Apparently it doesn’t matter that most Canadians are unfamiliar with the contents of the Conservative government’s recently introduced Fair Elections Act.
A majority of Canadians don’t trust the governing Tories to play fair with Elections Canada.
According to an Angus Reid Global poll released this week, a significant majority of Canadians are understandably skeptical about Conservative motivations for the proposed legislation.
“While nearly two-thirds (62 per cent) of Canadians say in introducing the legislation, the Conservative government is motivated politically and dislikes Elections Canada — that rises to 69 per cent among those aware of the issue,” the report states.
“Conversely, 38 per cent of all respondents feel the Conservatives are making a genuine attempt to improve the rules and administration of Canada’s elections. This drops to 31 per cent among those most aware.”
Why are Canadians so skeptical? They have good reason to be — and even more so when they learn the contents of the 242-page bill. Three years after the robocall scandal in which allegedly misleading phone calls were made to voters in Guelph, Ont. — and possibly other locations in the country — during the 2011 federal election, Canadians are no closer to understanding exactly what happened, or which individuals and/or organizations were responsible.
The reason is quite simple: Elections Canada does not have the power to compel witnesses to talk.
Last October, Elections Canada investigator Al Mathews told media that his robocalls investigation was being stymied largely due to the unwillingness of some witnesses to speak and provide information.
In order to prevent any future electoral fraud and to curb a lack of witness co-operation, Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand asked Parliament one year ago to overhaul Canada’s elections law to prevent deceptive phone calls by introducing stiffer penalties, and giving Election Canada new investigative powers.
And in his recent report on election procedures in the wake of the robocalls scandal, election administration professional Harry Neufeld recommended widening the use of voter information cards to reduce the need for something called “vouching,” a process in which a registered voter vouches for another voter who is unable to produce proper identification.
A Globe and Mail report this week noted that about 120,000 Canadians used vouching and 36-73 per cent of youth, aboriginal people and seniors used VICs in a 900,000-person pilot program during the last federal election.
So what does the federal government do instead? Citing possible voter fraud — without so much as a single concrete example — the Conservatives have decided to do away with both VICs and vouching, thus disenfranchising thousands of Canadians. Of course these marginalized groups are less likely to vote Conservative, but that’s just a convenient coincidence.
And instead of enhancing the investigative powers of Elections Canada, the Tories have decided to separate the office of the commissioner, where investigators work, away from Elections Canada to the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. As the Director of Public Prosecutions answers directly to the minister of justice — who then reports to cabinet — there is a very real possibility of government interference with an Elections Canada investigation.
And to add insult to injury, the act would limit the authority of the chief electoral officer, and effectively muzzle his ability to speak to the public about anything except the location of voting booths.
There are several other problematic aspects to the bill that should be further debated, including the raising of political donation limits, and the fact that the Conservative bill was created in a political vacuum, without any consultation with Elections Canada nor opposition parties, as they should have done. How exactly these changes would enhance democracy in this country, let alone improve slumping voter turnouts, is a mystery — but one is tempted to assume that Conservatives have no interest in improving voter turnout.
And on top of all this, the Conservatives — as they have often done with contentious legislation — cut short debate on the legislation in the House of Commons, and then defeated an NDP motion that called for cross-country hearings on the proposed act.
For a political party that has had far too many run-ins with Elections Canada in recent years — including having pleaded guilty to breaking elections rules stemming from the 2006 election, charges that came with a $52,000 fine — it’s clear to us that the Fair Elections Act is really just an act of vindictiveness.