As per usual in Canadian federal politics, a genuine reform bill is tabled in the House of Commons and an onslaught of doom-and-gloom scenarios are painted by opponents to the Conservative government of Stephen Harper.
When Minister of State for Democratic Reform Pierre Poilievre introduced the Fair Elections Act in Parliament last week, one would have thought the Conservative government was proposing to massacre every Canadian family’s first-born child or completely do away with the idea of democracy.
Truth is, the 252-page electoral reform bill addresses many of the concerns raised by the Liberal and NDP parties in the last several years, particularly after a number of scandals which put government officials on the hot seat.
The bill requires stricter audits on political parties’ fund raising, as well as their spending in advertising and outreach. It advocates stiffer penalties for those who run afoul of election law, sometimes up to CAN$50,000, and would severely penalize any person or group falsely representing a political party or election official.
The bill would also require all telephone calls launched by political campaigners to be registered and monitored by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission. It also mandates Elections Canada, the nation’s voting authority, to put out advertising on the exact location, time, and instructions needed to vote.
In the wake of the robocall scandal during the 2011 federal election, in which calls from burner phones directed voters to incorrect polls or gave false information about voting time and eligibility, the electoral reform goes above and beyond to provide methods and penalties for those caught in the act. Many have pointed their finger at the Conservative Party as the originator of the 2011 robocalls, but no substantial proof has yet surfaced.
The law would require some type of voter identification, doing away with the “vouching” system which allowed anyone to show up at the polls without any form of ID whatsoever.
“It will require in law that Elections Canada inform Canadians through the advertising function of the required forms of identification,” said government cabinet minister Pierre Poilievre when the bill was tabled last Friday. “But the good news is that Elections Canada will accept 39 different types of identification.”
This issue was brought to the country’s attention when Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj claimed to have lost in the 2011 election because of ineligible voters taking up other identities to cast ballots. It went all the way to the Supreme Court, where Wrzesnewskyj eventually lost.
While these are all points of legitimate reform that any political party would introduce, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s opposition is looking for any reason to slander the law as discriminatory and unfair.
“The Unfair Elections Act aims to suppress the vote of groups that may not vote conservative, including students, Indigenous people, seniors, and people on low-incomes by eliminating the vouching system,” said Jessica McCormick, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). The CFS began a petition opposing the bill, and has allegedly been signed by over 30,000 students.
The New Democratic Party, the official opposition, claims the bill amounts to nothing other than “voter suppression tactics,” and has floated a petition website with 4,761 signatures. It has used Question Time in Parliament to make this bill the focus of populist ire against the government.
“Mr. Speaker,” said NDP leader Thomas Mulcair in Parliament on Tuesday, “Would the Prime Minister agree to amend his unfair elections act to remove the gag order against the Chief Electoral Officer, yes or no?”
French-language newspaper La Presse accused the Harper government of “muzzling” Elections Canada because the law prioritizes advertising specific election information instead of the multiple “Go Vote” ads seen on Canadian television and in newspapers across the country.
The newspaper claims stopping the ads would be an affront to democracy, and backs its claim with a 2012 Élections Québec survey filled out by 1000 people. The survey found that 34 percent voted only because they saw government advertisements on television.
To answer this, the Conservative government says political candidates, not the state’s advertising budget, are what drive people to vote in mass.
“We just have to look at the [US] elections and Barack Obama to see that political candidates who are aspiring for office are far better at inspiring voters to cast their ballots than are government bureaucracies, and that’s exactly why we want to change the law,” said Poilievre.
In a sense, this is what upsets opposition parties the most about the current government.
Most can’t get over the fact that the Conservative Party, a party that didn’t exist more than 11 years ago, has led the country for over eight years, achieving territory usually held by the Liberal Party, in existence since confederation in 1867.
It’s upsetting to the Nordic Democratic model envisioned by Canada’s social democrats that Stephen Harper, an Albertan laissez-faire economist with acceptably good French, would lead the country almost a decade on.
Harper has governed with a western mentality, focused on growing the economy, industrializing the country, and forever unafraid of backlash from the power centers of the eastern provinces. Outrage about the Fair Elections Act might be fair in itself, but it’s unfair to blow the mild reform out of proportion and discourage millions of Canadians on their country’s political system.
The Canadian federation remains one of the most decentralized and most fascinating democracies in existence. We should praise efforts to streamline and legitimize that reputation, not berate and demonize them.