Fair Elections Act attacks participation and debate

For many months the Conservative government has blatantly taken away by fiat the right to strike of union members within federal jurisdiction. They are now threatening to shut down environmental charities that are talking about climate change. And they are ramming through Parliament changes to the elections act that will almost certainly mean that many thousands of Canadians will not be able to vote.

Taken together these actions restrict freedom of association, limit freedom of speech and curtail a citizen’s right to vote. In short, there is a steady chipping away at the underpinnings of democracy.

Inspired by the voter suppression tactics used by the Republicans to disenfranchise marginalized groups in the U.S., the new election law would make it harder for certain groups to vote. The law would end the ability to “vouch” for the bona fides of a neighbour, a tool that allowed 120,000 voters — disproportionately aboriginal, youth and seniors — to cast ballots in the last election.

Conservatives claim that vouching allows for widespread fraud, a charge that experts deny.

The move is part of a broader sweep of changes that also serves to suppress the vote. For example, the new law will remove the ability of electors to use voter identification cards. Elections Canada had only in the last few years piloted the use of the cards to make it easier to cast a ballot at polling sites serving seniors’ residences, long-term care facilities, aboriginal reserves and on-campus student residences. The conclusion of this pilot project was that the “initiative made the voter identification process run more smoothly and reduced the need to ask the responsible authorities for letters of attestation of residence.”

In other words, voter identification cards had been successful in enfranchising these groups. Conservative MP Brad Butt, a member of the committee dealing with this measure, has been compelled to retract a completely fabricated story he had told in the House about this so-called fraud. Despite his apparent breach of parliamentary privilege, the Conservatives rejected an opposition bid to have a House committee look into Butt’s false claims that he saw voter identification cards stolen from recycling boxes to commit fraud.

Just as anti-democratic are changes that amount to a massive clawback to Elections Canada’s outreach mandate. This would severely restrict the agency’s public education and information programs, essentially prohibiting Elections Canada from encouraging people to vote. Gone would be its ability to support programs in our schools, like Student Vote’s mock elections, or the outreach work in aboriginal communities. To believe it’s accidental that these groups normally prefer the opposition parties is to believe in the tooth fairy.

The government’s bill also denies Elections Canada the kinds of powers it needs to investigate serious electoral wrongdoing, such as the robocalls fraud perpetrated by Conservatives in 2011 — the most important new powers requested by Elections Canada.

It is fitting, then, that the new law is being rammed through Parliament. Once more, Harper is using closure — a way to end debate early — to prevent people asking, for example, why school programs that teach kids how to vote are so bad. Why let MPs actually debate democracy when it’s not valuable enough to educate children about? The government has also voted down an opposition motion to have public hearings on a bill that will make such fundamental changes in our electoral system.

But such is the new normal in Ottawa, where sweeping bills that change dozens of laws are rammed through without debate. The government is also vowing to silence environmental charities because they engage in “political” activity. In Canada and other democracies such activist charities are widely seen as core institutions in a democratic civil society.

Canadian charities helped stop acid rain and smoking in restaurants. Their advocacy helped bring about mandatory seatbelts and led to tough drunk driving laws. Charities participating in public debate are helping the whole world understand how environmental degradation is threatening the planet.

While shutting down environmental charities would make it harder for Canadian voices to join others to tell the world what’s happening to the planet, it is also the case that the U.S. and Europe see the Canadian government’s indifference to the environment as a negative in reaching major decisions on trade in oil.

Having spent more than two decades in the House of Commons, I can think of no prime minister who has been so focused on undermining electoral participation and public debate.

We have a tradition of Conservatives, New Democrats and Liberals respecting everyone’s right to have a say. Past governments have avoided turning democratic process into a tool for one party’s advantage. Changes in electoral processes were always based on all-party consensus.

That Harper derides such all-party consensus is, sadly, no surprise. That his robotic backbench will unquestioningly obey is not news either. Except now, the victims of his disregard for debate aren’t only the people we elect. It’s those doing the electing as well.

Photo: midnightglory. Used under a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 licence.