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Wednesday, 19 February 2014 12:49

Bill on fair elections needs proper public scrutiny

Written by  Matthew Liebenberg
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One would think that the introduction of a bill, aptly named the Fair Elections Act, to improve the election process will garner the support of all federal political parties without too much dissonance.

Instead the discussion about Bill C-23 to amend the Canada Election Act and other acts has quickly unraveled into a debate between opposition parties and the Conservative government about the potential impact of this legislation on Canadian democracy.
Minister of State (Democratic Reform) Pierre Poilievre introduced the bill in the House of Commons on Feb. 4. It did not take long for concerns over the government’s intentions with the bill to surface.
Opposition parties questioned the government’s decision to invoke closure to limit debate during the second reading of the 242-page bill to just a few days before its referral to committee.
The Conservative government claimed the bill will make the enforcement of election rules more effective by increasing the independence of the commissioner for elections, who will be operating out of the office of the director of public prosecutions and at arm’s length from the chief electoral officer.
Opposition parties questioned the motivation of these changes, which will make the commissioner of elections accountable to the Department of Justice instead of Parliament, and the bill also does not include additional investigative powers previously requested by the chief electoral officer.
The Conservative Party’s sometimes tense relationship with Elections Canada over alleged improper election spending in 2006, allegations of election voter suppression during the 2011 election and other spending violations quickly resulted in allegations by the NDP and Liberal Party that the bill is simply an attempt to muzzle Elections Canada.
Bill C-23 proposes an end to the practice of vouching for another voter without proper identification at the ballot box and it will eliminate the use of voter information cards as proof of identity.
According to opposition parties, these changes will make it harder for many people to vote. For example, in the 2011 election the practice of vouching made it possible for 120,000 Canadians to cast their ballots.
Discussion of the bill did not go any smoother at committee, where opposition parties asked for cross-country hearings on the bill.
This was dismissed by Conservative Party MPs as a delaying tactic by the opposition.
It is unfortunate that an important piece of legislation, which has a direct impact on the democratic rights of Canadians to vote in a free and fair manner, is falling victim to the all too familiar political partisanship on Parliament Hill.
Only 53.8 per cent of adult Canadians voted in the 2011 election, which was slightly higher than the lowest ever rate of 53.6 per cent in 2008. According to a Conference Board of Canada report, a low voter turnout might be an indication that the democratic system is not reflecting the interest of all citizens.
Elections Canada has identified lower participation of young people as an important factor in declining voter turnout.
Reform of the Canada Election Act should address two key issues — improving the system to increase voter turnout and increasing voter confidence in the system. But while this bill will allow more financial contributions to political parties, it restricts the ability of Elections Canada to communicate with Canadians to encourage them to vote.
The bill is supposed to increase election oversight, but it does not include key recommendations by the chief electoral officer after the 2011 election for improved enforcement, i.e. the power to the commissioner of elections to apply to a judge for an order to compel any person to provide information that is relevant to an investigation.
Canadians need answers on what the intent and consequences of the proposed Fair Elections Act will be, and that means more debate, not less, because democracy is about more than just voting.
Matthew Liebenberg is a reporter with the Prairie Post. Contact him with your comments about this opinion piece at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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