People’s Voice Commentary
Seventeen long months after promising to clean up Canada’s electoral system, the Harper Conservatives finally tabled their “Fair Elections Act” in the House of Commons on Feb. 4. But despite its name, Bill C-23 was immediately condemned by most observers as an attempt to protect and expand the electoral advantages already held by the Conservatives, without addressing the corrupt activities which tainted the 2011 campaign.
This is not the first time a Conservative government has introduced sweeping undemocratic changes to the electoral system. Back in 1993, the Mulroney Tories amended the Elections Act, just months before being reduced to just two MPs in Parliament. That legislation included little-known draconian measures to “deregister” small political parties, seize their assets, bar them from the ballot, and ban them from spending any funds to oppose the entire process. It took a seven-year political and legal campaign by the Communist Party of Canada to overturn the worst aspects of the legislation.
This time around, Pierre Poilievre, the “minister of state for democratic reform”, told Canadians that the changes in Bill C-23 will “increase democracy.”
Yet this 240‑page bill was tabled one day, and debate forced to begin the next day. Next, the government refused to agree to an NDP motion to send the bill to committee study after First Reading, cutting down on any opportunity for amendments. The indications are that the Tories intend to drive C-23 through all three readings in the Commons as soon as possible, with a minimum number of changes.
This strategy is consistent with the government’s track record, including their refusal to consult with Elections Canada (EC) prior to introducing C-23. This was hardly surprising, considering that the Harper clique in the PMO can barely control their disdain for the arms-length body responsible for conducting federal elections. For years, the Tories have used U.S. Republican-style maneuvers to get around or simply ignore Elections Act provisions which cramp their style.
Yet Poilievre brazenly told the House of Commons on Feb. 3 that the government had consulted with Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand. “I did meet with the CEO of Elections Canada some time ago and we had a terrific and a very long meeting, at which I listened carefully to all of his ideas,” Poilievre declared.
(Some will recall Mr. Poilievre as the Tory attack dog after the 2006 federal election, when he savaged critics of the “in and out” expense laundering scheme perpetrated by the Conservatives. That scheme was found to be illegal, yet the “law and order” Harper Tories pretend the opposite to this day.)
Poilievre’s latest lie was immediately exposed by EC spokesperson John Enright, who pointedly stated that “There’s been no consultation on the contents of the bill."
Much of the current animosity directed at EC by the Harper Tories goes back to the so-called “robocall" scandal during the 2011 election. The Conservatives were widely accused of dirty tricks in that campaign, most notably engineering thousands of calls from phony "Elections Canada" representatives to tell voters leaning to the opposition parties that their polling places had supposedly been "moved."
Investigations into that scandal are still dragging on, hampered by Tory foot-dragging. Elections Canada has sought increased powers to deal with similar crimes in future elections. Instead, C-23, would take away power from the independent, arms-length EC, by moving the Commissioner of Canada Elections office to within the Director of Public Prosecutions, i.e. under the government’s control.
As an Ottawa Citizen editorial said, “With another election coming soon, Canadians still don’t know what really happened in 2011 or who was responsible. Mayrand has said that the Commissioner of Canada Elections should have the power to compel testimony; this bill does not create that.”
This editorial actually understands the problem. As the NDP has pointed out, C-23 limits the ability of investigators to force violators to provide testimony; it prevents both the Chief Electoral Officer and possibly the Commissioner of Elections Canada from speaking about possible or suspected fraud; it prohibits the Chief Electoral Office from hiring technical experts or other specialists without the approval of the government; and it does not address the problem of foreign telecommunications service providers hired to get around Canadian laws.
In another Orwellian turn of phrase, Poilievre claims that C-23 “closes loopholes to big money”. Yet the legislation actually does the opposite, by raising campaign spending limits a hefty five percent. The bill also raises the maximum donation limit from individuals to parties, from the current $1200 up to $1500. This is a huge benefit to the Tories, who have a wider base of wealthy donors capable of contributing another $300 annually.
The legislation also changes the definition of “campaign expenses” to give the Tories yet another edge. The costs of calling anyone who donated $20 or more during the past five years will no longer be considered a campaign expense. This change gives the Tories wide scope to campaign among their donors, freeing up thousands of dollars from every constituency campaign budget for other forms of spending.
Among the widely reported changes proposed by Bill C-23 are amendments to make it harder to vote. Again following in the footsteps of their Republican mentors, the Tories seek to use every method to suppress voter turnout among “unfriendly” sections of the population.
The bill proposes to “tighten up” voter identification rules and to eliminate the practice of “vouching” for other voters who lack proper I.D. at polling stations. Not coincidentally, those voters largely include First Nations, students and people who live in poverty.
The 2011 campaign saw 120,000 voters register at the polls through this method, and through expanded acceptance of the EC Voter Identification Cards. These are people who do not have standard or up-to-date I.D. documents, or have no fixed address, or who have recently moved, or otherwise don’t meet the requirements of the Elections Act. They are not criminals or fraudsters, just citizens who want to vote. Despite all the right-wing fear-mongering, only a handful of accusations have been made about illegal voting, a pattern similar to the U.S.
And Bill C-23 gets even worse on this point. The legislation actually makes it illegal for Elections Canada to conduct public campaigns urging people to get out and vote. Perhaps uniquely among major capitalist countries, such activities by the body which conducts elections would become a criminal offense.
This sweeping change even extends to the annual Democracy Week conducted by Elections Canada, and its Student Vote Program (SVP), which will now be an illegal program for the Chief Electoral Officer to run. During the 2011 general election, over 500,000 students across Canada cast mock ballots through SVP, an effort designed to encourage them to vote when they turn 18. (The Conservatives usually do very poorly in this mock student vote, while Communist candidates get a much higher vote than their average in the “real” campaign.)
One NDP Member of Parliament has provided an interesting insight into this aspect of C-23: “Well over a year ago, MPs were briefed by the Chief Electoral Officer that, in the 2015 election, Elections Canada would continue to expand its efforts to enhance voter turn‑out by placing polling stations on over 20 university and college campuses across Canada, as well as in or near urban Aboriginal Friendship Centres or similar facilities. I was present with Conservative MPs during this briefing, and I can testify that the faces of several of them went either white or purple upon hearing this news.”
Quoting the Ottawa Citizen once again: “One might have thought that when the Conservative government finally got around to reforming election law, it would be to try to prevent the kind of voter suppression and electoral fraud Canada saw in the 2011 election. But when they said they would make it harder to break the rules, it seems they were talking about cracking down on homeless voters, not party bagmen.”
When it comes to electoral procedures, the message from the Harper Conservatives is clear. There is no fundamental human or civil right to cast a ballot in Canada or to encourage others to vote; instead, our laws are rapidly being amended to make such activities grounds for suspicion or even criminal charges. It’s a scary prospect, and it’s taking place right before our eyes.