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Hill Dispatches

karl nerenberg's picture
Karl Nerenberg has been reporting on federal politics from Parliament Hill for rabble.ca since September, 2011. In his long career, he has won numerous awards as a broadcaster and documentary filmmaker.

Seven ways to make the Fair Elections Act really fair

| February 25, 2014
Seven ways to make the Fair Elections Act really fair

The Fair Elections Act, Bill C-23, is now before the House at the Committee stage.

The NDP wants the Committee considering the Act to cross the country and get the views of Canadians everywhere.

Conservatives say that would be "a circus." And they add, incongruously, that they have "already heard" from Canadians in the preparation phase of this proposed legislation.

But the NDP is soldiering on.

The Party had a resolution before the House that politely but firmly asked the Committee to take to the road and give the Fair Elections Act a full public hearing. The Conservatives used their majority to vote it down.

During debate on that resolution the Prime Minister's Parliamentary Secretary, Paul Calandra, told the House that he has yet to hear from the Official Opposition as to "what difference" it would make to the Act.

Opposition members, and many other Canadians, have been quite clear about what they want changed in the Fair Elections package.

But if Calandra has not been paying attention, here is a seven point list.

1. Get rid of the provision in the Act that would eliminate the capacity to vouch for a voter who does not have ID. Vouching has not been identified as a source of fraud. The Chief Electoral Officer points out that there are stringent rules surrounding it. And getting rid of vouching will likely prevent tens of thousands of young, poor and First Nations Canadians from voting.

2. Leave the Commissioner of Elections in Elections Canada. The argument that there should be a separation of administration and enforcement is invented out of whole cloth. Moving the official responsible for investigating fraud and abuse out of independent Elections Canada and into the federal public service, indirectly reporting to the Minister of Justice, will only serve to diminish the Commissioner's effectiveness.

3. Remove the provision that would prevent Elections Canada from fully and completely communicating with Canadians. The Chief Electoral Officer should have the right to inform Canadians about their right to vote and encourage them to exercise that right. The Chief Electoral Officer should also have the right to talk to the media, and to tell Canadians when Elections Canada believes there has been abuse or fraud.

4. Do not exempt spending on "fundraising" from campaign spending limits -- that would be an open invitation to massive, unregulated campaign spending. Immigration Minister Chris Alexander's email to Conservatives on Monday about Trudeau's now-famous verbal gaffe on French language television is just the sort of campaign communication that could be exempt from spending limits if this bill passes. For the Conservatives to slip this non sequitur -- this barely disguised loophole -- into legislation they claim will put "special interests on the sidelines and rule breakers out of business" is truly outrageous.

5. Give Elections Canada, and, more specifically, the Commissioner of Elections, the power to ask a judge to compel people who have information about possible fraud to testify. As well, force political parties to make available to investigators information on the access to and use of their voter contact databases.

6. Raise the fine for campaign overspending to the amount proposed by former Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley: twice the amount by which a campaign overspent. The $50,000 fine in the current legislation is barely a slap on the wrist. It is, in fact, just a cost of doing business.

7. Restore the status of the voter ID cards Canadians receive in the mail. Voters should be able to use those cards, together with, say, student cards, as legitimate ID. There is no evidence that voter ID cards have been involved in fraud. Indeed, the Conservative Member of Parliament who claimed he had seen such cards scooped out of recycling bins (presumably to be used fraudulently) has now entirely recanted. He never saw any such thing, he now says. Maybe he was having an out-of-body experience.

Americanization of Canadian elections?

There you have it. Repairing the flaws in this bill and getting rid of its poison pills would require some fairly major legislative cutting and sewing. But the task is not brain surgery.

It is not too late for the government to take the high road and work with the opposition parties and Elections Canada to produce a bill that would truly do all the good things the Conservatives claim their Fair Elections Act now does.

Never before has a government tried to ram through changes to the electoral process without buy-in from the other parties in Parliament. It would be yet another first for the Harper Conservatives; but it is not too late to change course.

We do not need to follow the America model where the management and supervision of elections are crude partisan enterprises.



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