The Fair Elections Act Showdown

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So Brad Butt lied.

Yes, lied.  There’s no two ways about it.  He said a thing that was untrue, and that he knew to be untrue, and he dang well said it anyway.

It was a lie.

He told the House of Commons, while making the case that the shadowy elements committing electoral fraud in our midst must be stopped, that he personally witnessed electoral fraud taking place.

Parsing his story a bit: he saw hooligans stealing voter information cards, and he followed those miscreants all the way down to the polling location, and he saw, with his own to eyes, those n’er-do-wells cast a ballot on the behalf of some poor sap, to propagate their election-stealing scheme.

Of course, he later admitted that he saw no such thing.  But, he says, he heard of that happening anecdotally.  (Which, still, raises the question of why he didn’t encourage those people to report it to Elections Canada or that, perhaps, it was Conservative campaign staff committing the fraud.  One way or the other.)

The House now considers what to do with Butt — who, to his credit, retracted the statement and apologized.

Well, he retracted the statement and apologized after your’s truly noted the absurdity of his statement, and after one person had the clever idea of lodging a complaint with Elections Canada.

But now, as I sit in the Committee and House Affairs Committee, his seat is empty.

The committee is currently facing a wall of words from NDP Deputy Leader David Christopherson, who is filibustering the committee until the government agrees to on-the-road consultations for the bill.

This, after the House moved to end debate on the question of privilege that could find Butt in contempt.  Instead, they moved on to considering a report on the fate of Jewish refugees worldwide, thanks to a government motion aimed at curtailing consideration of the Butt motion.  The NDP tried to avert that, by introducing a second motion, but that was roundly defeated.

After that procedural hankypanky, MPs adjourned to their respective committees, including Procedure and House Affairs, where Christopherson’s two-week-long filibuster was set to continue.  But, a twist: Parliamentary Secretary Tom Lukiwski moved that the committee would not adjourn until David Christopherson finished his arguments.

So we are now in the large, ornate committee room, watching Christopherson exercise his superhuman ability to talk coherently for hours at a time.

We could die here.

This is an illustration that the system is not, in and of itself, broken.

There is hope.

Notwithstanding any questions of policy — which is a matter of some perspective — there is little question that this government has shown wanton disregard for the Parliamentary process.  While there is a case to make that the process is tooled towards allowing a minority party to hijack and stall the agenda of the majority, which the NDP has been known to exploit, there is a more primordial point that this system is virtually our only democratic check on abuse of a Prime Minister’s power.

And a majority government has a lot of power.  Far too much power.  Whether it’s Chretien, Mulroney, Trudeau or Harper — the Prime Minister and their governing party wields unnerving amounts of control over our democratic system.  And the average Canadian does not, nor should they, care.

It is Parliament’s job to deal with Parliament.

So when the government tabled the Fair Elections Act, there is hardly an issue more suited for Parliament and Parliament alone to deal with.  For 99.9% of the country, voting is an easy exercise — show up with your driver’s license, and vote.  And as for questions of what office runs investigations into breaches of the Electoral Act?  Snore.

The opposition parties, as well as those of us in the Media Party who started realizing that there are profoundly worrying implications in the bill, know this bill should get more than the regular treatment.  This isn’t the type of bill that should be muddled through in the House and ultimately passed, unchanged.  This bill needs fundamental and serious consideration.

The NDP’s plan to take the committee across Canada is a good idea.  When the government initially signalled its tepid support for the idea, it appeared as though the mechanisms of Parliament may yet win out.

But alas, the Tories reneged.  And the NDP geared up for a fight.

As they should.  When the government pushes forward on a bill, using only the numerics of its majority and not the power of its argument, that’s contrary to the spirit of our system.

So the opposition should let loose the hounds of hell on the government.

This is not a question of, say, the Tories’ tough-on-crime agenda — because, indeed, there is a persuasive case to be made that sex offenders should be refused release back into society in some cases, or that certain gun crimes should carry mandatory minimums.  And it’s not a question of immigration reform — reform which, without contest, streamlined the process for Canadians to come into Canada.  And this is not a debate about the government’s plan to remove federal funding for political parties — a move which forces parties to live off the support of their voters, not the taxpayers.

It’s not a question of any of those things.  Because on all of those policy fronts, the government has a reasonable case to make, and the objections to the bills are largely a difference of an opinion and not a question of the rights in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

This is different.

Because this is actually that serious.  And, whether or not this bill passes or fails, amended or unamended, this is a question of how our system works, and how it is supposed to work.

This is a question of an MP who lied in the House.  It’s a question of the government using its procedural sledgehammer to knock away consideration of a bill that it, perhaps, did not consider well enough itself.  It’s a question of ensuring that our system is still able to fix legislation that needs fixing.

And there’s no point in, like Christopherson is currently doing, accusing the government of doing this because they want to facilitate their win in the next election.  Maybe it is, but it’s probably not.  Poilievre and his staff introduced this bill with the belief that it is the best reform that they could enact.  But they’re almost certainly wrong.  And they should be willing to admit that.

If this sounds overwrought, consider the problems still outstanding with the Fair Elections Act:

  • Vouching will be eliminated, which could disenfranchise as many as 120,000 Canadians who do not have current ID, against the recommendations of both Elections Canada and its independent auditor, Harry Neufeld.
  • Voter information cards will be eliminated, which worked as a secondary piece of ID in thousands of polling locations in 2011.  Millions of Canadians believe that the card works as a valid piece of ID.  It was an important proof-of-address for voters who may not otherwise have valid proof of address.  This, too, goes against the recommendations from both Elections Canada and Neufeld, who recommended expanding its use.
  • There is no consideration to improving the voter-tracking system.  That is, there is nothing that allows the elimination of the antiquated system of polls, and paper-based poll books, in favour of an electronic system that could track voters, regardless of where in the riding they vote, to facilitate voting wherever is convenient for voters, and to ensure that they cannot vote twice.
  • The bill limits the power of the CEO to encourage Canadians to vote.
  • The bill vastly increases the power of political parties to recommend polling staff to Elections Canada.  Whereas, currently, only the candidates for the first and second-place parties can recommend poll clerks and deputy returning officers, this bill would give Electoral District Associations and political parties that power.  This is particularly troubling because the Neufeld and the Chief Electoral Officer both singled out ill-trained political-suggested staff, who are usually not chosen until mere weeks before Election Day, as being a main catalyst for the “serious” irregularities that raises the ire of Pierre Poilievre.  They suggested removing the ability of partisans to recommend Elections Canada staff.
  • There is nothing in the bill to improve enumeration, per the suggestion of Neufeld and the CEO, and ensure that more Canadians are registered prior to election day and fewer irregularities happen.
  • Fundraising efforts, loosely defined, will be exempt from spending caps, raising the question of just how Elections Canada will be able to determine where fundraising ends and voter persuasion begins.
  • It lacks provisions allowing Elections Canada to compel evidence from witnesses, which was a key power that they were seeking (that many other Officers of Parliament have) and would almost certainly aid in the Robocalls investigation.
  • The Elections Canada commissioner, who investigates infractions, will be sent to the Office of the Public Prosecutor, making it one step removed from the staff and resources of Elections Canada.

And there are other problems.  There are good parts of the bill, too.  And those good parts are so good that they ought be passed as soon as possible.

But the problems are substantial, and steaming forward without seriously addressing them would be an affront to the way that our system is supposed to work.

Now, in the meantime, Christopherson is still talking.  Can someone bring me a sandwich?

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RELATED ARTICLES

Pierre Poilievre Responds
The cases for and against vouching
The Fair Election Act Goes to Committee
Democratic Reform Take Two
Building Poilievre’s Electoral Fraud in the Sky

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Follow Justin Ling on twitter: @Justin_Ling

 

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