Canada’s election laws used to be the gold standard among the Anglo-Saxon parliamentary democracies and countries from around the world came here to learn how to ensure free and fair electoral contests.
Until, that is, the Harper Conservatives decided to blemish this country’s stellar reputation with their oxymoronic Fair Election Act now awaiting passage in the Senate.
That’s the inevitable conclusion of an analysis by Paul Thomas, Professor Emeritus of Political Studies at the University of Manitoba.
In an address to the Association of Retired MLAs/MPs of Manitoba in Winnipeg Monday, Thomas pointed out that not only has Canada slipped as the gold standard in elections, he fears the Fair Election Act “will weaken public trust and confidence in the election process, the one democratic activity in which a majority of Canadians participate.”
Even more foreboding is his worry that, despite Elections Canada doing everything possible to implement the new provisions, “there is the real possibility that both foreseen and unforeseen consequences will flow from the hasty and unilateral manner in which major changes to the law were formulated and adopted.
“I predict that as a result there will likely be administrative complications and political controversies associated with the next general election scheduled for October, 2015,” he warns.
Canada’s Fair Elections Act imitates some of the worst features of the U.S. electoral system, Thomas says. He characterizes the American model as dysfunctional and rife with partisanship and manipulation.
The Canada Elections Act is not ordinary legislation, he told his audience. “Rather, it qualifies as being quasi-constitutional because it provides the foundation and framework for fair and free elections.”
Other democracies recognize that such fundamental laws should not be changed without consultation with election authorities and certainly not, at least in a democracy, in a unilateral, partisan manner by the governing party alone.
But that is exactly what has happened in Canada, causing it to slip from being a role model to other countries to having both the country and Elections Canada fall far behind the international parliamentary standard.
The bill, Thomas continues, “has denigrated the reputation of Canada and Elections Canada…We were the first with an impartial national election authority. People would come and visit and we’d go overseas and promote electoral democracy as sort of the role model.”
Today, because of the Conservatives’ Fair Election Act, Canada, the erstwhile leader, is now trailing far behind. The United Kingdom and Australia have a far superior election laws to Canada’s.
For instance, the UK has a national electoral commission. “ It actually has mixed membership with some political people on but they are in a minority but they do very deliberate, slow and careful reforms and they keep partisanship outside of the enforcement of the law,” Thomas says.
All parties are part of the game,” Thomas continues. “Here, we are now out to not only not include parties, but to disadvantage them.”
Thomas provides two explanations for the government’s hardline partisanship. The first is that the Fair Election Law “is an expression of an ideology which sees politics as a marketplace with all players in competition with each other. In this perspective, political parties are seen primarily as private associations, not as public institutions that directly serve democracy. The rules that Elections Canada enforces are seen as too intrusive into the decision-making and operations of political parties.”
The second is that the government is exacting revenge on Elections Canada because of past clashes the Conservative Party had with it.
In fact, Harper has been on a collision course with Elections Canada since his days heading the right-wing, libertarian National Citizens Coalition in the 1990s.
Back then , Harper called Elections Canada “a bunch of jackasses” for threatening to fine those who released election results prematurely over the internet.
Second, early on as leader of the newly-formed Conservative Party, he confronted Elections Canada over the Conservatives’ infamous “in and out” campaign finance scheme allowing the party to claim money to which it wasn’t entitled.
Finally, angered by Elections Canada’s ruling allowing Muslim women to vote without removing their veils, Harper claimed the Crown agency needed to be “reined in.”
The decision by the prime minister in July 2013 to name Pierre Poilievre as Minister for Democratic Reform was also not a good sign, Thomas says. “Mr. Poilievre is a hyper-partisan aggressive politician for whom winning is everything. He demonstrated impressive mastery of the details of the bill but made exaggerated claims of perfection and was sneering in his rejection of proposed improvements…
“As a long-time analyst of the parliamentary process, I found it interesting that the governing party caucus had far more influence on the final shape of the bill than the hours of testimony by so-called experts like elections officials and academics.”
Thomas cites other major shortcomings, particularly the restrictions on the Chief Electoral Officer’s ability to communicate with the public and educate and encourage people, especially young people, to vote.
Oddly, the new law allows the CEO to undertake educational activities from Kindergarten to Grade 12 but cannot do the same at universities and colleges, where students have attained voting age. Are the Conservatives trying to suppress their vote too?
From now on, contracts for research on issues of electoral democracy will have to be approved by the Treasury Board committee of cabinet.
Finally, cabinet approval will be required for Elections Canada even to engage in collaborative work with other election agencies abroad.
Thomas also questions the decision to move the office of the Commissioner of Elections, who investigates and prosecutes violations under the Canada Elections Act, to the Justice Department which contains the Office of Public Prosecutions.
The relocation is “problematic,” Thomas says. It “brings risks of actual or perceived loss of independence because the position now reports to a minister and operates within the wider communications and cultural context of government.”
Thomas notes that while all three opposition parties have tried to alert a disengaged public to the dangers of a “deeply flawed” Fair Elections Act, the complexity and technicality of the bill has made it “difficult to explain the issues to the public even though there were fundamental values of electoral democracy at risk…”
All this will inevitably work in the Conservatives’ partisan favour, as they undoubtedly knew and planned.
Warns Thomas: “Research in other countries indicates that the entanglement of election agencies in controversy can weaken public trust in them and reduce confidence in the integrity of the electoral process. This in turn can contribute to lower voter turnouts and weaker voter satisfaction…”
Thomas fears the government’s complicated and multi-faceted solution for the new act’s most contentious issue – vouching – “will be confusing for voters and cumbersome for Elections Canada to administer.”
Vouching is required when, for a wide variety of reasons, individuals, usually citizens who are disadvantaged in one way or another, such as students, on-reserve Aboriginals, the homeless and residents of long term care facilities, do not have the required documents to verify their identity and so may be denied the right to vote.
Thomas warns that voter disenchantment with the political process is already producing low turnouts in elections. Thus, “we have to be careful not to create unnecessary obstacles to voting.”
He issues this warning to Canadians: “Expect long lines and political controversies over the eligibility of voters in the October, 2015 election.”
That’s because, as the now-infamous 2011 election robocall scandal in select ridings across Canada proves, voter suppression by actively discouraging or preventing your opponents from voting is an easier path to victory than having to energize your own base to cast their ballots.
As the 2011 election appears to have proven, all you have to do to win is download your computerized lists of opposition party supporters, hire a phone bank to pretend to be helping them find their polling stations and deny them their basic democratic right by sending them to wrong or non-existent polling stations miles from their homes.
Frances Russell was born in Winnipeg and graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and political science. A journalist since 1962, she has covered and commented on politics in Manitoba, Ontario, B.C. and Ottawa, working for The Winnipeg Tribune, United Press International, The Globe and Mail, The Vancouver Sun and The Winnipeg Free Press as well as freelanced for The Toronto Star, The Edmonton Journal, CBC Radio and TV and Time Magazine.
She is the author of two award-winning books on Manitoba history: Mistehay Sakahegan – The Great Lake: The Beauty and the Treachery of Lake Winnipeg and The Canadian Crucible – Manitoba’s Role in Canada’s Great Divide. Both won the Manitoba Historical Society Award for popular history.
She is married with one son and two grandsons and lives in Winnipeg.