The Harper government is trying to prevent close public scrutiny of the changes it has unilaterally made to our election legislation in its Fair Elections Act and that is cause for deep concern.
Election rules are fundamental to our democracy and should only be changed after extensive consultation with all parties and election experts and the Canadian people. The act should then be openly debated clause by clause in Parliament so everyone is fully aware of its impact on our democracy.
Instead, Harper is trying to keep it under the radar.
He introduced the act when he knew Canadians were distracted by the Olympics and then he limited debate on it in Parliament. The Harper government refuses to hold Canada-wide hearings on it, saying such a public review of this important legislation would be a “gong show.” This shows great disrespect for all Canadians and our democratic process.
The act needs close scrutiny. According to the new legislation, voter vouching is no longer allowed, which could have the effect of disenfranchising certain segments of our population, including students. Spending limits have also been unilaterally changed and require careful examination to ensure they don’t confer a hidden benefit on any one party.
Harper has made no secret of his disdain for Elections Canada, which is disturbing. When he was president of the National Citizen’s Coalition (NCC), he fought with Elections Canada and called them “jackasses” because their electoral laws limited third-party spending on political advertising. He fought those limits right up to the Supreme Court, which ruled against the NCC, deeply frustrating Harper.
In the new act, Harper has stripped the chief electoral officer of most of his duties, including conducting investigations into voter fraud, which has been given to a commissioner.
The commissioner reports to the director of public prosecutions, and he answers to the justice minister, who happens to be a member of the ruling party.
This raises the possibility of political interference in investigations.
This should be very alarming to all Canadians, particularly since the Conservatives are under suspicion for possibly playing a role in the 2011 robocalls scandal, which is currently being investigated. Under Harper’s new rules, the public wouldn’t even be allowed to know an investigation into possible voter fraud was taking place.
During the bill’s limited Parliamentary debate, Conservative MP Brad Butt justified the new legislation by twice telling the House he had personally witnessed discarded voter cards being collected which were then used to commit voter fraud.
After the bill passed, he admitted to Parliament that he “misspoke” and had never witnessed any such acts.
Why is Harper still allowing this MP to sit as one of the Conservative members entrusted to review the election act in committee?
As prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper should be the foremost guardian of our democratic rights. Instead, he is undermining our democracy by refusing to
hold cross-Canada hearings which would allow extensive public scrutiny, understanding and news coverage of the terms of the Fair Elections Act.
In Harper’s own words in 2006, “You won’t recognize Canada when I get through with it.” He’s right. Our Canada is changing, and not for the better.
Eleanor Clouter writes from St John’s.