The Harper government seems determined to muscle its Fair Elections Act into law with as little debate as possible. The massive, 252-page overhaul of the Canada Elections Act is on track to go through second reading in under a week. This is a disservice to voters. There is still too much we do not know about the government’s motivation for tabling the bill, and there has been far too little examination of the possible consequences.
What we do know is that there is no love lost between the Conservative Party and Elections Canada, the non-partisan agency that oversees federal elections. The well-documented animosity began in 2000 when the future prime minister Stephen Harper, then out of elected politics, referred to Elections Canada officials as “jackasses.” It has gone downhill from there, the nadir attained last year when a federal court ruled that unidentified robocallers had used a Conservative Party database to try to prevent non-Conservative voters from casting their ballots.
The government argues the new bill will give Elections Canada “sharper teeth, longer reach and a freer hand.” Nice phrase, and partly true. The bill does indeed toughen some penalties and create new offences. But it also strips the chief electoral officer, a non-partisan appointee who answers to Parliament, of key investigatory powers and gives them to civil servants who answer to the government.
The chief electoral officer would no longer appoint and manage the commissioner of Canada elections, the person charged with enforcing the rules. The commissioner would be appointed by the director of public prosecutions, a civil servant who answers to the attorney-general, which is a cabinet post. The government has presented no evidence that this change is needed, and the proposed structure raises questions about impartiality.
There are other troubling aspects, such as new rules preventing the commissioner of Canada elections from revealing that an investigation is under way. Canadians have the right to know when election fraud has been reported, if it is being investigated – and if an investigation is being stymied.
The government needs to slow down and allow more consultation on this bill. Elections are the foundation of democracy. There’s too much at stake.