Partisan barbs weigh down Conservative electoral reform pitch

Times-Herald Editorial Staff
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Fair Elections Act contains some good, some bad measures

The Harper administration’s proposed Fair Elections Act could do as much harm as it does good for this country’s political process.

The Act was pitched in the House of Commons by Pierre Poilievre, Canada’s minister of democratic reform, as legislation that will tighten up Canada’s election laws and make the process more accessible.

There are positive measures in the proposed legislation.

The repeal of the ban on transmission of election results is one notable step forward, as the ban is “an infringement of freedom of expression” and is impossible to enforce when people have access to smartphones and social media.

A shift in promotional campaigns, from pushing people to vote to educating people about important information such as where and when individuals can vote — including through advance polls — will help spread the message that there is no such thing as being “too busy” to vote.

Shifting the Commissioner of Canada Elections’ office out of Elections Canada, tightening up voter identification requirements and doing away with “vouching” for electors, and introducing new offences almost exclusively aimed at preventing future robocall scandals are also worth lauding.

While these measures — in particular further education — might go some distance toward improving voter turnout and faith in the system, there are others that appear to fly in the face of the Act’s intent, and others still that are very clear double-edged swords.

The act does nothing to empower the Commissioner’s office in its endeavour to investigate potential violations of the Canada Elections Act apart from making it independent — the same problem that made a timely resolution to the robocall scandal impossible.

Meanwhile, the new legislation would seek to eliminate the statute of limitations when dealing with elections law and potential violations of the Elections Act. This would open the door to partisan counter-attacks, such as drudging up the Liberals’ sponsorship scandal.

The oddest change lies in the proposed increase to individual contributions, which will be bumped up from $1,200 per year to $1,500.

That $300 difference doesn’t seem like much, but an increase of 25 per cent can be a big deal when your party appears to be hemorrhaging supporters to another’s benefit.

That is precisely the case for the Harper Conservatives, according to quarterly data from Elections Canada, which shows that the CPC surpassed the Liberals in both the total value of contributions and the total number of contributors every quarter of 2012 and for the first quarter of 2013.

But when Justin Trudeau took the reins of his party in the second quarter of 2013, more people were willing to part with money for the Liberal war chest. Every quarter since Trudeau was elected leader, the Liberals had at least 10,000 more individual contributors than they had in the same quarter of the previous year.

This wasn’t simply a honeymoon phase, either: the fourth quarter of 2013 — traditionally a strong period anyway — was the best quarter for total fundraising for the Liberals in two years, seeing them close to within $1 million of the Conservatives’ efforts.

With Trudeau gaining fundraising steam, and the Liberals having more contributors but fewer overall contributions — suggesting smaller donations — the answer for Harper appears to be raising the contribution cap so Conservative donors can dig a little deeper.

Meanwhile, the new legislation will reduce the amount of money that can be left in bequests to political parties — a significant source of income for the New Democrats — to the same $1,500 cap per year.

In its entirety, the Fair Elections Act isn’t a terrible piece of legislation — but there are some sharp, partisan barbs included therein that severely hamper its stated intent, which is making elections fairer.

And the Harper government’s desire to squelch meaningful debate by capping discussion at a period of three days only reinforces how grave the oversights contained within the legislation appear to be.

All Times-Herald editorials are written by its editorial staff.

Organizations: Elections Canada, House of Commons, Harper Conservatives

Geographic location: Canada

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