Facing down the music on democratic reform

 

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As the choir of experts sings ever more harmoniously about the perils of the federal government’s Fair Elections Act, its ardent champion continues to counter with his patented – and, by now, painfully familiar – version of white noise.

Simply and evidently, insists Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre, critics of Bill C-23 are misguided, ill-informed, disingenuous, or politically motivated – maybe a toxic mixture of all ingredients. 

There’s nothing wrong with the bill, he says. In fact, there’s everything right with legislation that improves the accountability, transparency and impartiality of the election process, and prevents voter fraud from drowning the system. Those who say otherwise are doing themselves and their fellow Canadians a grievous disservice.

To every other Canadian than Mr. Poilievre, however, those who say otherwise are not so easily dismissed. 

There’s Marc Mayrand, Canada’s chief electoral officer, and Yves Cote, commissioner of Canada Elections. There’s former Auditor-General Sheila Fraser and notable Elections Canada analyst Harry Neufeld. There’s even Preston Manning, former leader of the old Reform Party. 

Armed with impressive credentials, each trills the same melody: Any piece of legislation that curtails a citizen’s right to cast a ballot (in C-23’s case, by disallowing registration cards and voters “vouching” for one another as means of identification) is purely and self-evidently wrong.

What’s more, they argue, the measure to transfer the commissioner of elections into the Office of Public Prosecutions is, at best, unnecessary. At worst, it could obstruct the collaborative relationship between the chief electoral officer (who is responsible for overseeing the vote) and the commissioner (who is responsible for enforcing the Elections Act) –  a development that would not be, in Mr. Cote’s estimation, a step in the right direction.

Indeed, says Paul Thomas, an emeritus professor at the University of Manitoba and a well-known political scholar says, “This should not happen in Canada.” In an interview with The Huffington Post Canada last month, he noted, “(We have) one of the strongest reputations in the world for staging fair and free elections under the supervision of Elections Canada, the oldest independent and impartial national election body among established democracies.”

Earlier this month, Ms. Fraser appeared to concur, telling the Canadian Press that she had serious misgivings about the bill as it now stands. Not only would it deprive thousands of people their right to vote, she insisted, it would tip the playing field in favour of the government’s party, and hinder due process, generally. 

“Elections are the base of our democracy and if we do not have truly a fair electoral process and one that can be managed well by a truly independent body, it really is an attack on our democracy and we should all be concerned about that,” Ms. Fraser said.

“When you look at the people who may not be able to vote, when you look at the limitations that are being put on the chief electoral officer, when you see the difficulties, just the operational difficulties that are going to be created in all this, I think it’s going to be very difficult to have a fair, a truly fair, election.”

Yet, for all these principled objections – not one at variance with any other, not one even obliquely self-serving or politically motivated  – Mr. Poilievre refuses to acknowledge that his bill’s critics might have a legitimate point or two to make.

Instead, he chooses to make partisan hay, launching bitter, personal attacks, especially against Mr. Maynard, about whom, he said in the Commons on Tuesday, “The reality is that regardless of amendments and improvements that the bill potentially will have included, the CEO (Mr. Mayrand) will not ultimately approve it. (His) recommendations really boil down to three broad requirements for him: he wants more power, a bigger budget, and less accountability.”

When called to apologize for such a clear display of intemperance, Mr. Poilievre replied calmly, “I stand by my testimony” – a posture that is all the more lamentable.

For many who spend their days and nights pondering the weighty subject of democratic reform in Canada, C-23 is an eminently flawed document. 

Their concurrence on this matter should give the nation’s duly elected government reason to, at least, pause and consider – not crank up the volume of their noise makers in Parliament.

 

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