Canadians chime in on ‘unfair’ Elections Act

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Those habitues of the Ivory Tower who have, from time to time, harboured serious misgivings about the average Canadian’s commitment to democracy in this country need worry no longer.

Thanks to his Fair Elections Act – which purports to reduce the risk of voter fraud by eliminating “vouching” (in which a voter vouches for another if the latter lacks sufficient ID) and rewriting much of the rulebook to render Elections Canada more accountable, but also less independent – Pierre Poilievre, the federal government’s Minister of State for Democratic Reform, has done more in one year to light a fire under his fellow citizens’ butts than an invading army could in 10.

Having passed its second reading, Bill C-23 (officially saddled with the cumbersome descriptor, “An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and other Acts and to make consequential amendments to certain Acts”) represents Mr. Poilievre’s earnest effort to fix what he and his political masters perceive is a seriously flawed system.

The problem is, the more time one spends examining the substance of the proposed legislation, the less one tends to agree with its sponsors and proponents. The most contentious issue is the attack on vouching, which would very likely undermine the democratic rights of First Nations citizens, students in transition and residents of old-folks homes, among others.

In fact, according to an Angus Reid Global poll last month, “Canadian support for changes to the Elections Act proposed by the Harper government is highest among those who aren’t aware of the issue. Among those who are familiar with the contents of the Fair Elections Act, 44 per cent say they support it and 56 per cent are opposed. However, among those who are only aware of the issue in passing or who are just not paying attention, that support rises to 53 per cent, while 47 per cent say they’re opposed.”

How this breaks down along party lines is instructive, of not especially unexpected. “When it comes to awareness and political affiliation,” the pollster reports, “awareness is highest among past Liberal and NDP voters (25 per cent and 24 per cent respectively) followed by past Conservative voters (18 per cent).”

Meanwhile, the survey indicates that Canadians, in general, are fed up with the Conservative government’s fetishistic tinkering with the cogs and gears of a system that is not, essentially, broken. Angus Reid Global interprets its poll results bluntly: “Canadians do not trust the motives of the Conservative government in introducing the proposed legislation, and do not feel the Harper government’s impact on the democratic process has been positive.”

Not that Mr. Poilievre hasn’t done his level best to knock some sense into our recalcitrant noodles. In an opinion piece for The Globe and Mail earlier this week, he decried his critics’ “hyperbolic” reaction to the Bill, which, he insists is “common sense. “Canadians instinctively understand that these changes are reasonable and fair. That is why they have not shared the critics’ hysteria.”

Again, though, that’s not entirely accurate.

Yes, a group of international scholars have grabbed headlines by claiming, in an open letter to national media, that “the governing party in Canada has proposed a set of wide-ranging changes, which if enacted, would. . .undermine the integrity of the Canadian electoral process.”

And, yes, an assemblage of Canadian academics recently echoed these sentiments when they publicly stated, “Beyond our specific concerns about the Bill’s provisions, we are alarmed at the lack of due process in drafting the Bill and in rushing it through Parliament.”

But, increasingly, what fills the letters and comment pages of print and online versions of major media are the grumblings of the the hoi polloi, i.e., the Great Unwashed. i.e., you and me.

“The Harper government’s latest assault on democratic ideals and practices with its proposed Fair Elections Act, while roundly criticized, is at least consistent in its semantic tactics with earlier attacks, notably in the 2006 Federal Accountability Act,” writes Neil Burk of Nepean, Ontario. “As the fair Elections Act has nothing to do with fairness principles, the Accountability Act is unaccountably silent on accountability principles.”

His screed appeared in the Globe’s letters section on one of two days this week during which the newspaper published nine archly critical, and well-written, letters from readers.

No, no, all you professor of political science, fear not.

From the recent evidence you may deduce that the condition of democracy in Canada is just fine, after all, thank you very much.

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