Feds try to ‘demotivate, demoralize’ opposition against controversial elections overhaul bill, says Leadnow’s Biggar

Chris Plecash / Hill Times

The federal government sees the public isn’t interested or engaged in its controversial elections overhaul bill and is using that to “demotivate and demoralize” political opponents, says Jamie Biggar, executive director of Leadnow.

Asked what could be done to mobilize the public against Bill C-23, Mr. Biggar suggested that Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre (Nepean-Carleton, Ont.) recently “lied” when he said that only academics and journalists, but not the general public, oppose the legislation.


Mr. Biggar made the comments on Sunday at the Broadbent Institute’s inaugural Progress Summit in Ottawa. 

“First, I think it's really important to say Polievre, is to a certain degree, lying... The reason that he’s lying is that he wants to demotivate and demoralize opposition—that’s the point. There’s this big cacophony that’s coming at [him], so he’s pretending he’s not hearing it,” said Mr. Biggar, who accused Mr. Poilievre of ignoring public opposition “in hopes that it will just go away.”

Opponents of Bill C-23, dubbed the ‘Fair Elections Act’ by the Conservative government, has been widely criticized not only by opposition parties, but by Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand, former B.C. chief electoral officer Harry Neufeld, dozens of academics, and editorial boards across the country.

Among the changes to the Canada Elections Act, Bill C-23 would eliminate the voter information cards, end the vouching process for voters lacking proper identification, strip the chief electoral officer of the power to communicate with the electorate, move the elections commissioner from Elections Canada to the Director of Public Prosecutions Office, centralize data identifying voters, and limit third-party election advertising. Mr. Polievre has repeatedly insisted that the general public supports the bill, and that the opposition is from academics, opposition political parties, and journalists opposed to the government’s agenda.

Mr. Poilievre recently wrote a piece in The Globe and Mail saying the government’s critics have reacted with “predictable hyperbole,” and said Canadians will support the government’s bill because the changes “are reasonable and fair. That is why they have not shared the critics’ hysteria.”

Recent public opinion appears to back up Mr. Poilievre’s views, despite opposition from political parties and non-partisan experts.

An Ekos poll conducted between Feb. 26 and March 6, indicated 24 per cent of respondents were opposed to the Fair Elections Act, 10 per cent supported it, 32 per cent were neutral, and 33 per cent didn’t know. An Angus Reid Poll released last month showed 38 per cent had not heard about the issue, 42 per cent had heard of it, but weren’t familiar and only one in five were either very or fairly familiar. And an Abacus data online poll conducted from March 19 to March 23 found 20 per cent said the bill would change things for better and worse, respectively, while 60 per cent said it would have no real effect.

Mr. Biggar told attendees of the left-wing Broadbent Institute’s inaugural summit that online campaigning is necessary to bridge the gap between the “chattering classes” of columnists, commentators and experts and the general public to sustain opposition to Bill C-23.

“What we’ve seen is that online campaigning can be extremely effective at bridging the chattering classes to the broader public,” said Mr. Biggar. “[It’s] a vehicle, a platform, to bridge and share. Things go viral, they spread when they say things that people want to say, but maybe better and in a way that will make a difference.”

Mr. Biggar participated in a panel on progressive social media campaigning on Sunday following a keynote address by Anastasia Khoo, marketing director for U.S.-based Human Rights Campaign. Other panellists included MediaStyle president Ian Capstick, who previously served as a press secretary to former NDP leader Jack Layton; and Elizabeth Plank, executive social editor of progressive digital news site PolicyMic.

In her keynote address, Ms. Khoo said that the objective of social media campaigning is “to build a drum beat” leading up to pivotal moments for progressive political causes. Ms. Khoo is credited with the creating the viral Equal Marriage campaign that saw millions of social media users switch their profile photos to a red-hued equal sign last spring when the U.S. Supreme Court considered challenges to federal and state laws prohibiting same sex marriage.

Ms. Khoo said that a “comprehensive work plan” was essential to Human Rights Campaign’s work on LGBT rights.

“The objective was to make sure we were building a drum beat up to those cases to position our organization as the go-to resource around these cases and to continue that dialogue,” Ms. Khoo said. “Our digital strategy often times leads our communications strategy. It’s not an after thought, it’s an integrated part of how we communicate.”

In the panel discussion following Ms. Khoo’s address, Mr. Biggar also detailed Leadnow’s previous work in building public opposition to the federal government’s Canada-China Foreign Investment Protection and Promotion Agreement (FIPA), which would give Chinese investors the ability to challenge Canadian labour and environmental regulations through international arbitration.

Canada and China concluded negotiations on the FIPA in the fall of 2012 amidst a coordinated effort by Leadnow to mobilize opposition amongst both progressives and conservatives against the international agreement.

“We crowd-funded some really hard-hitting radio ads that I’d actually be nervous to play to progressives who funded them, that we targeted into Conservative ridings. That caused a mild panic in their caucus, which we knew was already reeling from the backlash to the Nexen takeover bid,” said Mr. Biggar. “The deadline came and passed and [FIPA] wasn’t ratified. We were getting really nervous that they were pursuing a strategy that we’ve seen from this government time and time again. They see a wave of opposition [and] they duck their head, wait, and pass it quietly.”

Leadnow went on to partner with B.C.’s Hupacasath First Nation to launch a legal challenge to the Canada-China FIPA on the grounds that it violated treaty rights by failing to consult with First Nations.

“We were able to crowd-fund the money for the legal injunction which has now delayed the Canada-China FIPA from being passed for over a year and a half and may kill it for good. In the process, it really substantially disrupted the investment of Chinese state-owned enterprises into Canada’s tar sands,” he said.

Broadbent Institute executive director Rick Smith closed out the conference by challenging attendees to mobilize opposition to Bill C-23, telling a crowd of some 600 activists to organize against the “Unfair” Elections Act.

“Today, Conservatives attack basic trade union and democratic rights, they rip up environmental legislation, they sit by and watch the erosion of decent jobs,” Mr. Smith said. “The best defence is a good offence and I think it’s clear that it’s time for progressives to go on the offence again.”