Ding-dong, the Fair Elections Act is dead. Or at least amended beyond recognition. After months of mounting opposition, with experts lining up to take shots, opposition parties salivating at the prospect of running against the bill, and some Conservative members begging their leaders to step back from the ledge, the Harper government has finally relented. On Friday, Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre announced a major pullback. He talked tough – “The Fair Elections Act is common sense. It is reasonable. And we are moving forward” – but he did so while announcing changes removing the bill’s major defects.
This bill just got a lot better. And that’s mostly because of what Mr. Poilievre is no longer promising to do.
Remember that giant election spending loophole? A gift to all parties and especially to the Conservatives, it said the cost of calling and mailing previous party donors would no longer be considered a campaign expense. “This proposal is not particularly important,” said Mr. Poilievre on Friday. “It can go.”
All of those limits placed on the Chief Electoral Officer’s ability to communicate with the public and with the Commissioner of Elections Canada? The government now says that both can communicate away. The government will also modify the bill to “ensure that the CEO of Elections Canada knows he has all the freedom to speak or report on any matter,” said Mr. Poilievre.
That plan to give the winning party in each riding the power to name key and heretofore non-partisan elections officers? Struck out. “The bill will be amended to maintain Elections Canada’s discretion to appoint central poll supervisors.”
And vouching? The practice allows people who cannot prove identity or address – and many students, seniors, natives and people who have recently moved are in this boat – to have another voter swear on their behalf.
The government is still committed to getting rid of vouching, but it’s now promising to replace it with the similar sounding “oath of residence.” If you cannot prove your address, you can sign an oath and another qualified voter can co-sign, vouching – sorry, attesting – to your place of residence. This sounds like a fair compromise, though admittedly designed more for saving the government’s face than improving the electoral system.
Calling companies that get in touch with voters, the subject of the Robocalls scandal, will also be required to keep calling scripts for three years instead of the previously proposed one. This is a case of the government actually promising to do more, rather than simply refraining from making the system worse. Good.
One area where Mr. Poilievre still won’t budge is on his plan to prevent Elections Canada from engaging in democracy promotion. He is, however, promising amendments that will allow the agency “to support programs that explain voting to primary and secondary school students,” which is also something the Senate recently called for. Elections Canada’s outreach program for kids would be permitted to continue, but outreach to actual voters would be forbidden. The restriction might make sense if the government were proposing to fund a new agency designed to increase voter turnout. It is of course doing no such thing.
There are investigative powers that the Chief Electoral Officer requested but still has not received. There’s the bill’s splitting of the Commissioner of Elections from Elections Canada, though the fact that the two appear to no longer be restricted in communicating may make this a moot point. In these and other ways, the bill is still not perfect. But after months of promising to stay the course, the government has finally made a sharp turn. Not quite 180 degrees, but close. Better late than never.