Whenever there’s a vote in either the House of Commons, or the Senate, members are alerted by ‘the bells’ — a complimentary name for an otherwise irritating, and incessant, computer-generated sound that echoes through Centre Block, alerting members that a vote is imminent.
For the committee rooms, where such annoying chiming would drive some hapless journalist like myself to murder, the noisy reminder is replaced by a less conspicuous sign — the lamps on the wall flash on and off.
That was the scene this morning, as the committee chairs at Procedure and House Affairs sat empty, and the lights flashed. Journalists fidgeted with phones. The lights flashed. Activists chatted amongst themselves. The lights flashed. Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand waited patiently down the hill. And the lights stopped flashing.
Members of Parliament were voting on bringing in time allocation on C-25, the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Act — a bill that had support across the aisle, and had been up for debate for exactly one day. The bill was not scheduled for a vote, but the government had announced an hour prior that they were moving time allocation on the bill.
You may ask what pressing matter of urgency was transpiring in the Qualipu Mi’kmaw First Nation that compelled the government to guillotine debate on a bill, deciding the expiration date on its debate by way of an immediate and unceremonious vote.
Well, there was none. The bill was about giving the reserve the ability to edit its membership rolls. (As an aside, the Qualipu First Nation oppose the bill, as they say it removes federal liability on being left out of the initial registration process. That’s another story.)
Bumping up the vote was a clear move to disrupt the committee.
To underline that point — the government pulled the same move, not a half hour after the committee finally sat down to quiz Mayrand. This time, on C-20, which implemented the Hondouras Free Trade Agreement.
If this isn’t already abundantly clear: the Conservative Government does not want you to hear from Marc Mayrand.
Perhaps they have good reason.
Mayrand, to the Tories, is what Eliot Ness is to the owner of a speakeasy.
The long-time CEO is the hook at the end of a system that the Conservatives figure to be unfair and harsh. The Conservatives, however, find themselves at the ire of Mayrand more often because, frankly, they break the rules more. That’s not even a point of contention.
That’s not to say that the Conservative Party is, in and of itself, corrupt. That is far from the truth. But after years of alienation at the hands of a particularly autocratic Prime Minister, as they plotted in church basements, the Conservatives and their forebearers plotted and swore — when our time comes to pass, things will be different. We will get there by any means necessary, and we will stay there on the courage of our conviction that we will not face conviction.
And now, things are no different in the Ottawa autocracy. The only change is that, while the Liberals sat smugly confident in their chances of re-election, the Tories fret and fear their demise.
As such, their flirting with the line set out by the Elections Act — whether it’s by concerted effort, or by lone wolves — is less about moral bankruptcy, and much more about insecurity.
But their disregard for the rules — evidenced by shenanigans in Mont Royale, clandestinely transferring money around to skirt the spending cap, or striking shady deals with private airlines — has nevertheless brought them before a judge with frequency.
As such, their pity parade has wound itself through the town more than once.
And so their perceived persecution levies itself at their tormentor — the unassuming man from Trois-Riveres who had brought his own fork and knife with which to tear apart the Fair Elections Act.
“It is essential to understand that the main challenge for our electoral democracy is not voter fraud, but voter participation,” Mayrand told the committee. “I do not believe that, if we eliminate vouching and the [Voter Information Card] as proof of address, we will have in any way improved the integrity of the process. However, we will have taken away the ability of many qualified electors to vote.”
Conservative MPs tried, tried, and tried with all their might to dig into Mayrand’s case.
Scott Reid told the story of how he and his wife received numerous voter information cards that, he asserted, would have allowed them to vote more than once.
Mayrand pointed out that, yes, if the stars aligned and some morally bankrupt person got more than one card, and wanted to show up to the advance poll, as well as the Election Day poll, they could go ahead and try — but they’ll still have to present other ID, and they’ll have to ensure that no attention-paying poll clerk notices the duplicate names, from the same address, on the voter rolls.
To satisfy those conditions would not be simple.
The Conservatives lightly noted that the estimated number of Canadians who needed to be vouched for in 2011 was 120,000, but that Elections Canada had no real clue how many actually availed themselves of that problem-fraught process. Then Tom Lukiwski said with very serious countenance that the documented number of irregularities in that election was well over 100,000. In fact, Mayrand forgot to correct him, those two numbers come from the same survey — the oft-cited Neufeld report. They are both estimates.
He did note, however, that many of those “irregularities” constituted circumstances like when a mother, vouching for her son, was listed as “mom” on the line where her name was supposed to go. Her address was still logged, the voter’s name was captured, and she still had the proper identification. That is not, he contended, exactly “serious.”
Mayrand raised issue after issue — with the removal of his ability to encourage voters to exercise their right, with the loopholes allowing parties to exempt fundraising costs from their spending cap, with forcing Elections Canada investigation expenses to go through the Treasury Board, with giving campaign staff in the polling location the right to examine voters’ identification, with giving campaigns more access to the grand list of who voted and who didn’t, with giving parties extended power to nominate Elections Canada staff, with a move to increase the spending cap if an election is longer than 36 days (normal elections are 37 days), with moving the elections commissioner to the Office of Public Prosecutions, with the lack of power to compel witnesses in investigations, with the requirement to inform politicians if they are under investigation by Elections Canada, with the lack of definition for leadership and nomination expenses, with the lack of privacy protections around voter databases —
Mayrand raises issue with, well, 27 aspects of the bill, ranging from the broad and concerning to the minute and technical.
And we should listen to him.
But the government is not.
Whether this bill has originated from the dispassionate ether between the ears of Pierre Poilievre, or whether it was an edict from on high, transmitted from the angels in the Prime Minister’s Office, I’m not sure.
This bill may well have been a plot to stab Elections Canada in the gut over their past tiffs, or perhaps a stacking-of-the-odds for 2015. I tend not to think so.
It is perhaps the product of information that we’ve not been given, but I doubt it.
My personal opinion is that this bill is the product of many late, pizza-fuelled nights with the Minister and his staff. I think it was the genesis of a firm belief in three things: vouching is bad; the opposition will like the other parts of the bill; and this will all come out in the wash.
If that’s the calculation — that the opposition to aspects of the bill will wear itself down, as it always does on issues of controversy — it is erroneous.
The Fair Elections Act is exceptional.
In the same way that that the Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act fell to unanimous opposition, the Fair Elections Act is extraordinary and deserves a grave behind the woodshed.
To flaunt and whirl past objections to the merits of legislation is to be expected by government, any government.
But C-23 goes beyond normalcy.
The Canadian Elections Act prescribes that “every person who is a Canadian citizen and is 18 years of age or older on polling day is qualified as an elector,” and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms commands that “every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons.” This is not a thing to be trifled with.
This bill could deprive someone their right to vote because their ID is expired, or because they just moved, or because they simply didn’t feel like getting a proof of address. That’s not just wrong, it’s unconstitutional.
I asked Marc Mayrand that very question. He looked at me with furrowed brow and refused to speculate.
But we know the answer. The Harper Government’s lawyers told the BC Superior Court that vouching is a “failsafe,” ensuring that nobody’s rights will be run roughshod over. The court determined that identification requirements were constitutional, partly on the balance of that argument.
At the risk of sounding like I’m stumping for the opposition — which is something I really loath doing, as though so rarely deserve it — the NDP, Liberals, Bloc Quebecois and Greens are right to raise hell over this bill. And they should continue to do so. And they should be supported in those endeavours. NDP Democratic Reform critic Craig Scott, and Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux should be given props to that end.
David Christopherson should get special accolades. While the member is usually long on permeable and short on points, his crusade against the government strategy on this bill is nothing short of inspiring.
The fact that I even need to fawn of the efforts of our MPs to protect the enfranchisement of Canadians is embarrassing, and sad.
And while Pierre Poilievre is happy to go on broadcast television, where he has the upper hand of time on his hand, he has shirked his duty as a Minister of the Crown to actually take questions on this bill.
If he would like to call me, my phone is on.
At the end of the day, the government has proven that dangers posed by vouching and the voter information cards present about as much as a danger to our democracy as they have risen the dangers of ghosts.
The Fair Elections Act Showdown
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
Follow Justin Ling on twitter: @Justin_Ling