Canada’s Proposed “FAIR” Elections Act is Anything But Fair

voterballot.jpgVolumes have been written over the past month or so, almost all of it highly critical and extremely negative, about the Bill being ram-rodded through the Canadian Parliament, known as the “Fair Elections Act”. The actual Bill, known as C-23 is formally entitled An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and other Acts and to make consequential amendments to certain Acts and can be found in its entirety here.

The Bill

For those like me who find legislative bills almost impossible to navigate and understand, this one will be particular confusing. I am happy to point you instead to a particularly clear and readable summary of what’s what and who’s who in this bill. The article Everything you need to know about the Fair Elections Act by Josh Wingrove and Chris Hannay is an excellent overview from the Globe and Mail on March 25 2014.

Like many others, I had not even heard of this Bill until about a month ago when the popular press started to take the Harper government to task on this. My very first exposure to this Bill came from a column by Jeffrey Simpson in the March 14, 2014 Globe and Mail: With so many critics, how can the Fair Elections Act be fair?

Mr. Simpson really caught my eye and raised my hackles with his piece. He started it out thus:

In the summer of 2010, more than 200 institutions and individuals asked Stephen Harper’s government not to eliminate the long-form census.

They represented a Who’s Who of experts in statistics. All sorts of groups, from B’nai Brith to business associations and trade unions, argued that the long-form census, which required some, but only some, citizens by law to answer questions for Statistics Canada, was essential for presenting the most accurate statistical profile of Canadians.

To no avail. The Prime Minister had made up his mind. His hapless minister, Tony Clement, had to toe the line. He did so in such a way as to misstate the true views of the head of Statistics Canada, who resigned in protest.

It is worth recalling that assault on basic information and disregard for expertise now that more than 150 political scientists, including some of the most eminent in Canada, not to mention the head of Elections Canada, have urged the government to reconsider some of the key provisions of its Fair Elections Act.

The very name is a misnomer, as the critics have argued. It will not make elections fairer; indeed, it will likely produce the reverse.

This column alarmed me and I started to do a bit more digging. What started to become obvious to me was that this was not really a non-partisan electoral reform bill, but was much more an attack from the Conservative government that would likely benefit the Conservatives while disadvantaging the Opposition parties. It smacked of recent voter suppression tactics in the USA by Republicans who have brought in stricter regulations that have been aimed at voters who typically would vote Democrat. For example, this article in December 2011 in AlterNet by Steven Rosenfeld entitled GOP Voter Suppression Plan: Seven Tactics To Block Your Vote in 2012 began with the following premise:

If you are a member of a racial minority, student or young voter, working poor, elderly or disabled, your ability to vote may be a lot harder in 2012—especially if you live in states that have a history of racial repression during the Civil Rights Movement. Simply put, the Republican Party knows which segments of society helped to elect President Obama and other Democrats in 2008, knows tens of millions of these people did not vote in the 2010 midterms, and has worked very hard to stop these people from voting again next year.

Their strategy has been simple: raise the barriers by complicating the rules to register to vote, to get a ballot, to vote early, or speedily. What follows are seven major trends that will affect you if you live in a state with new rules. Republicans know that most people do not pay attention to the fine print of election law. They get excited in the final days before presidential votes. But that may not be good enough in 2012.

Sound familiar?? The Fair Election Act seems to be aimed in exactly the same ways at a potential suppression of those who traditionally are not Conservative supporters. And this is “fair”?

 Opposition to the Bill is Growing

As I said, volumes have been written and no attempt will be made here to suggest any sort of comprehensive list. Suffice it to say that many mainstream political affairs specialists have decried this bill. National and international scholars have said that this is bad for Canada’s gold standard electoral process.

According to Andrew Coyne, writing in the National Post Full Comment blog (March 7, 2104), Canada’s own Chief Electoral Officer, Mr. Marc Mayrand, who should have exactly the right expertise to make a valid judgment on the merits of the bill was not only left out of the loop until almost the end, but when he was brought in he trashed the proposed Bill. As Mr. Coyne wrote the Tories were right to be nervous. Marc Mayrand shredded their ‘Fair Elections Act’ almost line by line

From that piece:

The treatment of Mr. Mayrand, … 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.

In other words, what seems to be particularly galling, as evidenced by the way in which expert opinion has been disregarded, is the process by which this bill is being shepherded through Parliament on a very fast track. Debate is being curtailed, experts are not being listened to let alone even solicited.

 Entrusting the matter to Pierre Poilievre, among the most ruthlessly partisan ministers in a government filled with ruthless partisans, was an early warning sign.

– Andrew Coyne 

.National Post

The fact that the very person most responsible for this Bill, Canada’s Minister of State for Democratic Reform (most inapt title under the circumstances!) is Mr. Pierre Poilievre  (pictured above) who at the age of 34 must be one of the youngest (and least experienced) members of Mr. Harper’s cabinet, and who, by all accounts that I have read is a bit of a bulldog when it comes to this Bill. He appears to be the least likely kind of person you would want in this portfolio, let alone fronting this Bill. What this needs is a diplomat, a statesman, someone who can reach out for consensus to all stakeholders and chart a democratic, non-partisan line. He appeasers to be anything but: a stubborn, aggressive type who in the face of every criticism doubles down and draws harder lines and curtails debate and discussion. He has misrepresented the reports and words of experts. In other words, he seems to have the quintessential “Don’t confuse me with no steenkin’ experts; I have already made up my mind” kind of attitude.

Perfect fit for Mr. Harper’s Government but not for anything resembling democratic reform.

If you want to read a few other “representative” rants about the Bill I suggest these:

Fair Elections Act proof the Conservatives are no normal government by Andrew Coyne, National Post March 28, 2014

Bill C-23, Fair Elections Act, Criticized By Professor Paul Thomas by Althia Raj, Huffington Post, March 31, 2014

Or this one that is particularly disturbing since it signals to other countries (in this case Australia) that Canada is going down a slippery slope: Canada’s attack on democracy sets tone for Australia by Sally Young, The AGE (Australia)  March 31, 2014

To boot, in what must surely be a historic move, the Globe and Mail devoted FIVE full editorials over FIVE days to this subject. I can’t say they have never done this, but I can say I don’t recall ever seeing it. Their 5-part editorial series (March 9th through 13th, 2014) was entitled Fair Elections Act: Slow it Down, Mr. Poilievre and had as its final recommendation that the Bill, in current form, should be killed. You can read all 5 parts for yourself here: one, two, three, four and five.

What Can We Do?

One thing that we as ordinary citizens (remember us, Mr. Harper??) can do is to contact our MPs and tell them in no uncertain terms that this is an unacceptable bill, at least as it currently stands, and this is unacceptable behaviour, even from governing party that is replete with unacceptable behaviours.

Last night I went to the website of Democracy Watch which is “a national non-profit, non-partisan organization, and Canada’s leading citizen group advocating democratic reform, government accountability and corporate responsibility”. Democracy Watch is facilitating a letter writing campaign in opposition of Bill C-23 and you can join the chorus of angry citizen by writing a letter here.

I sent one last night (here is a link to my Facebook page where my version of the letter can be found in its entirety for anyone interested to see how I customized the template etc) and I have already received a reply from one of the national party leaders. I’m sure it is a form letter from Elizabeth May, Leader of the Green Party, but the point is that it was received and it is being counted as part of the growing opposition. We can all do our part.

If you agree with me, but most of all if you agree with the overwhelming, if not unanimous, opposition from national and international experts and analysts who say that this is an odious Bill in its current state and that the the Harper government is ramming this through for political gain as opposed to anything resembling true democratic reform, then I urge you to take your own action in some way.

Our democracy is a gold standard for the rest of the world. Let’s not let Mr. Harper and his band of thugs railroad us with this. He has created a crisis where none existed and plans to use that invented crisis for partisan political gain.

Let’s not let him get away with this, at least not without a fight.

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Canada’s Proposed “FAIR” Elections Act is Anything But Fair — 9 Comments

  1. Wish I could leave a more learned opinion here but as an American I have trouble enough keeping up with our politics…more than a little complicated and getting worse! From what you have stated here, it seems backward?

    • Thanks Jacquie, for the read and the comment. Bottom line is that Canada already has a very good election system. Doesn’t mean it can’t be improved, because it obviously can be. But this proposed bill, at least in part, is trying to fix a problem that the experts agree does not exist. Voter fraud is not unheard of, of course, but it is NOT a material problem in Canada according to those who are expert. This Bill, by trying to eliminate this non-problem, creates so many more problems that it is going to make things far worse, not better.

      And the Minister who is driving this is a still-wet-behind-the-ears, aggressively partisan politician who seems to think he knows better than national and international experts since a) he didn’t consult them in the first place and b) when he did, he disregarded, misrepresented and ignored what they said.

      Not exactly the process you want for “democratic” reform.

  2. I am with Jacqueline, this went completely over my head. I am not really into politics but this post was written well and had a lot of information.

  3. The act is not entirely without merit and the idea that its intent is to dissuade voters of other persuasions is paternalistic nonsense by those who stereotype. That said it is so deeply flawed as to be a net negative. The lack of consultation and dismissal of expert advice were appalling. Even worse, our biggest problem is not electoral fraud but voter apathy and this does not help one iota

    • Thanks Paul. I agree with almost everything you said. There is no doubt that there are some good proposals in the Act – and ironically even some of the good things (like restrictions on robocalls) don’t even go far enough. And you are right – I did not highlight the “good stuff” since my intent was to show why this needs to be stopped in its current form, and so my clear bias was overtly to the negatives.

      I do not agree with your “paternalistic nonsense” comment however. I concede that assuming that all of the folks who will now find it more difficult to vote were not all going to vote against the Conservatives (to your stereotyping point), but that doesn’t mean that this bill will not have a very partisan benefit to the Conservatives if passed in its current format.

      If Mr Harper had not shown over and over again, over many years, that he is a controlling, power-hungry, secretive and deceitful man, who has over and over again shown disdain for traditional parliamentary processes (e.g. like overuse of prorogation)and a penchant for burying controversial details in gargantuan omnibus bills that get rammed through Parliament using closure on debate over and over, and so on, then I might give him and his henchmen the benefit of the doubt.

      But given his past performances and his disdain for many democratic processes, don’t try to convince me that the attack on “traditionally” non-conservative voters is just an unintended byproduct of this bad bill.

  4. I am a Canadian and this went over my head too! I am a horrible Canadian, I try not to get into politics if I can help it 🙂 I have always tried to vote for the best out of the worst, although in my opinion all candidates are pretty much on an even playing field – each with their own agenda, and usually never help the ‘average’ Canadian.

  5. I was thinking in a democratic country why it was deemed necessary to put forward such bills.
    As you have mentioned that democratic party just wanted to get something out of this bill in future but it will be really disadvantaging for opposition parties.
    You may have learned about corrupt politicians of Kashmir and Pakistan this behavior is common here where ruling party always pass some bills to get benefits and risk other parties in Elections.

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