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The 'Fair Elections Act' is scary!

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"Einstein's scared, and if Einstein says he's scared, I'm scared!"

That's a line from a nearly forgotten song called the "Talking Atom Blues." The recently deceased Pete Seeger used to sing (or, more precisely, speak) it back in the early days of the Atomic Age.

Today, Canadians who care about our democracy should be singing: "Marc Mayrand's scared and if Marc Mayrand says he's scared, I'm scared!"

Mayrand is the Chief Electoral Officer and this past weekend he told CBC's The House he believes the Conservatives' Orwellian-titled "Fair Elections Act" endangers our democracy.

Those are strong words from a respected public official.

But he is not alone.

Columnists and editorialists across the country, many of whom not by nature unfriendly to the Harper government, have almost unanimously condemned measures in the proposed Act that fly in the face of its stated purpose: cleaning up elections and avoiding fraud.

In his CBC interview, Mayrand pointed out that the Act would have the effect of gagging him and his office.

Elections Canada would only be allowed to communicate factual information about how and where to vote. It would not be permitted to engage in any activity designed to encourage folks to exercise their franchise.

In fact, the Chief Electoral Officer told the CBC's Evan Solomon, in future he might not even be able to accord interviews like the one he did last Saturday.

To his knowledge, Mayrand said, no other democratic country imposes such draconian limits on the free speech of its most senior elections official.

The good stuff in the window was reassuring -- at first

When Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre first unveiled this proposed Act, last week, many commentators (including this writer) admitted that it -- maybe surprisingly? -- contained at least a number of important and positive reforms, such as making impersonating an Elections Canada official a crime.

Former Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley even gave the Act a grade of A minus.

Subsequently, and having had a chance to review the Act in more detail, Kingsley has been much more caustic in his critique.

Indeed, in the cold light of day, many are seeing more clearly what the Harper government is really up to.

This Fair Elections Act is, in reality, a classic exercise in political double-speak.

Poilievre says he is "closing big money loopholes," all the while creating a huge new loophole that will allow parties to spend as much money as they want contacting folks who donated at least $20 to them.

As Mayrand points out, there is a name for that kind of contact activity, which is an increasingly important part of campaigns. It is called "getting out the vote" and Poilievre wants it to be totally unregulated.

Poilievre says his Act would "make it harder to break the law," while it, in fact, weakens the capacity of the chief enforcer, the Elections Commissioner, to enforce the law.

The Democratic Reform Minister blandly dismissed the Chief Electoral Officer's proposal that the government give the Commissioner the power to compel people who might have vital information to testify, a power the Canadian Competition Bureau now has.

Poilievre knows full well that numerous Conservatives associated with the 2011 campaign have refused to cooperate with the current robocall investigation.

So much for giving enforcement "sharper teeth, a longer reach and a freer hand," to use another example of Poilievre's double-speak language.

The truth about that Federal Court decision on robocalls

The scandals and abuses arising out of the 2011 campaign were associated with as-yet-unknown persons using the Conservative Party voter database to identify non-Conservative supports and give them false information about polling places.

Those are classic voter suppression tactics, which, until recently, were more a feature of U.S. than Canadian campaigns.

The Prime Minister tried to claim, in the House, that his party had been exonerated of all that malfeasance in a Federal Court case brought by six aggrieved electors.

That claim too is pure doublespeak.

The six Canadians asked Federal Court Judge Richard Mosley to overturn the 2011 vote results in their ridings and order new elections, something Mosley ruled he could not do.

However, in his decision, Mosley said he believed there was very significant evidence of fairly extensive efforts to prevent people from voting in 2011, efforts undertaken by, in the Judge's words, "one party." (Pssst: It was the Conservative Party.)

And Mosley also noted, very pointedly, that Conservative Party lawyer, Arthur Hamilton, had made every effort to obstruct the proceedings throughout the whole process.

Harper should read that Mosley decision again, or, maybe, for the first time. There's not much exoneration there.

Good governance 101?

And then there are the outrageous rationalizations Poilievre and his colleagues have been trotting out to justify moving the Elections Commissioner from independent Elections Canada to the Public Prosecutor's office, which is part of the federal public service.

Poilievre used the glib argument that this is "governance 101": separation of administration from enforcement.

Oh yeah? Tell that to the Ontario Securities Commission (OSC), National Post columnist Andrew Coyne suggests. The Ontario Commission says of itself that it "administers and enforces securities legislation in the Province of Ontario."

No one has yet accused the OSC of "bad governance."

Worse, Poilievre tried to besmirch the reputation of Elections Canada by saying its officials wear "team jerseys."

Conservatives have been claiming Elections Canada has it in for them since the agency levied the first fines for the so-called "In and Out" scandal.

But who could have guessed they would use the 2011 abuses for which at least some Conservative-linked folks were responsible as a pretext to hobble Canada's highly respected, non-partisan elections agency.

That is more than double-speak; it is pure political chutzpah (or, if you prefer the Greek: hubris).

The Fair Elections Act even finds a way to exacerbate the very problem it is supposed to solve.

In one of its provisions, it, in effect, legalizes a form of voter suppression. The Act does this by eliminating the time-honoured practice of vouching, whereby a registered voter can "vouch" for a person in the same riding who lacks identification papers.

No study has identified vouching as a notable source of fraud.

But the Conservatives could not pass up a chance to discourage, or even disenfranchise, several cohorts of voters who are not likely friendly to their cause: Aboriginals, the young and homeless people.

Where is the outrage?

There is pushback to this sneak attack on democracy -- from the Opposition, of course, but also from the Council of Canadians and some student groups.

But one might have expected more resistance.

If we're lucky, that may yet come.

The predecessor to Harper's Conservative Party was the Western based right-of-centre, but populist, Reform Party.

Its first Leader was Preston Manning, who used to say that not all issues divide on a right/left axis. Some are about the effectiveness of democracy itself and can unite folks on all parts of the political spectrum.

Under Manning's leadership, the Reform Party was, in fact, much seized with the democracy agenda. The Party's advertizing used to depict an empty House of Commons chair, with the message that "this seat is your seat" -- you the voter and citizen that is, not some elite folks in Ottawa.

It is hard to imagine that Manning would be too impressed with a political strategy that used electoral reform for partisan gamesmanship.

And Manning should be quite up to speed on all the issues the Fair Elections Act is supposed to confront.

The former Reform Leader was one of a group of eminent Canadians the Chief Electoral Officer appointed to a special advisory committee, in October of last year.

Other members of that committee include former Supreme Court Justice Ian Binnie, former Mulroney Minister and Harper Ambassador to the United States Michael Wilson, Conservative Senator Hugh Segal and former Auditor General Sheila Fraser.

We don't know what advice they may have given to Mayrand. Poilievre would not have been much interested in any event.

But all of those advisors must have thoughts on the government's belated handling of the reform process.

Is there a chance some of those eminent Canadians might raise their voices now? Manning, Wilson: your country needs you! It is a time of clear and present danger!

The Fair Elections Act is not, in the end, merely a legislative package that has some good and some not-so-good measures.

Those good measures are only window dressing for the nasty ones. And it is hard to conclude that the Conservatives' aim is any other than the weakening of Canada's democratic electoral system -- something they seem to have calculated will be of benefit to them.

That's plenty scary, and Canadians should be more angry than they appear to be about the Fair Elections Act.

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