Noted in this weekend’s Canada Gazette was a compliance order signed between the Commissioner of Canada Elections and the former official agent of NDP MP Charlie Angus. The broken rule was reusing a bank account from the 2008 general election in 2011, something that the Elections Act forbids. With the account now closed and the former official agent now aware of section 437 of the Act, it seems all well and good, right?
Well, not so fast. When asked about the infraction over the weekend, Angus said that Elections Canada is coming down hard on infractions in order to be seen like they’re taking action after the various allegations of shenanigans from the last election. That’s fine, but I doubt very much that his particular agent is being singled out, considering that there are a number of infractions coming to light, such as the allegations around Shelly Glover or James Bezan overspending in the 2011 election. Others, like the cases surrounding Dean Del Mastro for donations in 2008, or Michael Sona with the Guelph robocalls in 2011, are heading for the courts.
But then Angus went and added, “My concern is that, in the case of minor mistakes by volunteers on campaigns, it could put a chill on volunteering.”
Forgive me if I’m wrong about this, but aren’t the rules in place for a reason, and expected to be followed across the board? Angus’ comments seem to indicate that he’s applying a different standard to the minor infractions as his volunteer made, than the bigger issues of things like robocalling. Obviously the big things matter, and the investigations into them are ongoing, much as the courts have now settled the “In and Out” issue and the Conservatives’ interpretation of those financing rules no longer stands. It begs the question of when do the minor infractions start to matter?
This is not the first time that this kind of thing has come up, and it is perhaps most notable that these were some of the very same kinds of issues at play when Ted Opitz’s election results were challenged before the Supreme Court of Canada in 2012. At issue were a number of voting irregularities across the riding, and a margin of victory of a mere 26 votes. Opitz’s lawyers argued that the lack of proper record keeping by Elections Canada officials were just “mere technicalities,” and shouldn’t be used to disenfranchise voters.
Optiz’s lawyers got challenged by the Justices on the bench, and rightfully so. Justice Rosalie Abella asked that if technicalities don’t matter then why bother having the Elections Act guidelines at all? Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin pointed out that the presumption was that because we’re not Afghanistan we needn’t worry about such breaches even though they may be questioned in another country. And while Opitz ended up being victorious and kept his seat, those concerns very much still stand.
Angus seems to be taking that very same line of argument – his infraction wasn’t fraudulent robocalls or the “in and out” affair, so why bother? Go after the big fish and leave my people alone. But isn’t that where these kinds of problems start? After all, if you can’t enforce some of the smaller rules, at what point does someone start thinking that they can get away with the bigger stuff as well? And what makes his volunteers so special that they should leave them volunteers alone and not someone else’s?
The point about the role of volunteers was also brought up during the Opitz trial, that many of the scrutineers or polling station attendants were also volunteers, and was it fair to ask them to spend twelve hours being hyper-vigilant, and have them sent on additional training courses, or would these volunteers – many of them elderly – simply cease to give their time because it’s too much work?
The problem with this line of thought, be it from Angus on the campaign side or those defending the admittedly sloppy actions of Elections Canada volunteers is that elections matter a lot. They’re kind of central to our form of government, so it behoves us to treat them as such. And if that means spending more time and money to train volunteers, to better supervise them, and to have better accountability mechanisms around their actions, then we should be jumping at that chance. (I mention accountability because Angus never once takes personal responsibility for his official agent’s actions, never mind that as the candidate, he is responsible and his signature would be on everything.)
Treating elections as though they matter means ensuring that the rules are followed across the board – no matter how small, or whether it’s Elections Canada or the campaigns themselves. After all, free and fair elections demand both the level playing field and consistent application of rules – rules that are the very foundation of our democracy. Add to that, if there isn’t sufficient enforcement, would it not then demonstrate that there is not a sufficient moral hazard around the conduct of elections in this country, that the consequences of not following the rules is nothing, rendering the rules meaningless?
Because elections matter so much, it should be unconscionable that anyone, let alone an elected official, should be so cavalier when it comes to the application of the rules that surround them. If our democracy is to mean anything, then we can’t simply excuse it when people shrug off “minor infractions” or “mere technicalities,” nor should we condone it for the sake of keeping volunteers. We shouldn’t content ourselves with the double standards of “Oh, my volunteers aren’t the real problem,” or “The prime minister has to take personal responsibility but not me,” or even “This isn’t Afghanistan, so we’re not going to concern ourselves with these niggling details.”
If a crackdown on broken rules means that we lose a few volunteers who weren’t suited for the task, then perhaps it’s a small price to pay. After all, this is democracy we’re talking about.
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