Keeping House: The Unfair Elections Act: Part II

"The second category of problems can be regrouped under the heading, 'Pretending to Fight Electoral Fraud'."

In Part 1 I talked about the first of three main themes that our critic for Democratic Reform has identified in Bill C-23, that of voter suppression.

The second category of problems can be regrouped under the heading, “Pretending to Fight Electoral Fraud”.

According to our critic, Craig Scott, Bill C-23 is being spun as a response to the fraudulent voter calls that constituted, as the Federal Court ruled, a cross-Canada fraud.

The Conservatives are also trying to sell the move of the Commissioner of Elections Canada into the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, which is part of the Ministry of the Attorney-General (Minister of Justice), as an enhancement of investigative powers.

However, the reality of C-23 is that the above reforms actually are being deployed by them as a smoke-and-mirrors, carefully constructed effort to make it far less likely that electoral fraud will be prevented, rigorously investigated and prosecuted.

For example, C-23 muzzles the Commissioner of Elections Canada – the head investigator of offences under the Canada Elections Act – from providing Members of Parliament and Canadians with information about what was learned during investigations after the investigation has been ended.

The Third theme identified by Craig Scott is, “Worsening the Distorting Impact of Money Politics on Our Democracy”.

The government trumpets its bill as somehow being about keeping “big money” out of federal party fund-raising and election campaign financing, but how believable is this when we consider the following changes in C-23?

The Conservatives are jacking up maximum individual donations from $1200/year to $1500/year. Nobody asked for this.

So, why is it there? Well, the Conservatives receive 20% of their donations from people who can already afford to give $1200, more than the Liberals and far more than the NDP.

C-23 re-introduces a scheme from a previous Political Loans Bill that representatives of Canadian banks made clear was unworkable. The likelihood of banks providing start-up loans for campaigns under this scheme are clearly limited, or at the very least unpredictable. This will benefit candidates from parties that have enough cash on hand to transfer to their candidates or that will guarantee loans to their candidates

Then there was the Moby Dick of loopholes in C-23. In this bill as introduced, parties would not have had to count as campaign expenses any phoning of previous donors (defined as anyone who has given at least $20 over the previous 5 years).

This would have given advantage to a party with large donor bases and, more importantly, with the extra cash on hand to pay for this kind of fund-raising in the first place.  I say “was” a loophole because the NDP Opposition caused the government to back down and drop this “reform”.

Clearly, the Conservatives are using this bill as a way to try to stack the deck in their favour for the 2015 election, and beyond.

No wonder the process they have carefully planned has unfolded as it has: it is designed to short-circuit awareness, scrutiny, and opposition.

There was a 17 month delay from the month they had committed to table this bill (promised for September 2012). Then, there was no consultation with Elections Canada or with other parties and MPs in the House — something that had been the tradition when it comes to changes to such a foundational statute in our system as the Canada Elections Act.

Then, a lengthy 240-page bill was tabled one day and debate forced to begin the very next day. Next, the government refused to agree to the NDP motion to send the bill to committee study after First Reading.

After only three speeches in the House, the government moved to curtail Second Reading debate with a time allocation motion that resulted in a total of only three days of debate.

In conclusion, what in effect can be said of this piece of legislation? As the Op-Ed in the Globe and Mail of May 24th states, the opposition to the Fair Elections Act was so great that the government was forced to back down.  There have been some positive changes:

-As noted, the “Moby Dick” of loopholes that I mentioned above is gone.

-The winning party in each riding no longer has the power to name the central poll supervisor at each polling station.

-Vouching was restored, but becomes more complex.

-The Chief Electoral Officer is no longer muzzled. However, Elections Canada is. It will not be allowed to run public education and outreach campaigns to promote voting.

Obviously, the amended version of the Fair Elections Act is better than what was originally proposed.  But, as the Globe article also states, “The bill’s history is a case study in how legislation affecting the fundamentals of our democracy should not be drafted, amended or passed.  Almost everything about the process has been wrong.”

Finally, I would go so far as to say that this whole exercise has been a colossal waste of time.

The system was working, and there was no major abuse – Elections Canada was doing its job.  Surely there are more important issues to debate and correct in our country than an electoral process that basically works well for Canadians.

Alex Atamanenko is the MP for BC Southern Interior