The so-called Fair Elections Act, however it eventually turns out, will have shown again the hard face of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government.
Everything about the bill was wrong, from the way it was conceived to the method of presentation to the scorn for expert evidence. From conception to eventual adoption, even if amended by the Senate (a move obviously orchestrated by the government), the bill will have demonstrated a government determined to wring political gain from every measure, a fierce partisanship for something that ought to have been non-partisan, a dismissal of experts who, by virtue of dissent, were deemed enemies of the party.
It did not have to be this way, but to imagine another approach is to misunderstand the Harper government. It does not know how to do politics or public policy another way. It has its core vote – maybe 30 per cent of the electorate – to which it wishes to bolt another 10 per cent for re-election. And, frankly, it doesn’t care a damn for the other 60 per cent, from which it believes all these so-called “experts” and editorial writers and assorted other critics come.
(What is the Fair Elections Act? Read The Globe and Mail’s easy explanation)
There is a dark and deep “them-against-us” mentality that pervades almost every move the government makes, in domestic or foreign policy. It is perhaps one reason why former finance minister Jim Flaherty’s death has been so lamented. He was a steady minister, struck down at a particularly tragic moment in his personal life, who had a rumpled humanity about him. He could actually tell a joke, including on himself, which made him stand out in a government that is utterly without humour.
The Fair Elections Act reveals a characteristic that is known to many governments but is a definer of policy and approach for this one: the dressing up of political advantage as a matter of “principle.” We see this all the time in what’s called the government’s “principled” foreign policy, which is often driven by the pursuit of domestic votes. And now this bill, which contains elements designed to assist the partisan interests of the Conservative Party, is being dressed in the rhetoric of the “principles” of making elections fairer.
Various measures have been designed to discourage voting by chunks of the electorate not central to the Conservatives’ targeted core and that additional 10 per cent they hope to woo. By scrapping vouching and preventing Elections Canada from encouraging higher turnout, the Conservatives are trying to help themselves, although this is explained tortuously as a matter of “principle.”
These and other problems with the bill have been explained by a range of experts, including the head of Elections Canada, his predecessor, provincial election officials, former auditor-general Sheila Fraser and more than 160 political scientists who have probably forgotten more about fair elections than Minister of State for Democratic Reform Pierre Poilievre ever learned.
Nonetheless, in another example of how this government does business, Mr. Poilievre was placed in cabinet, mostly for his screeching partisanship, then handed the sensitive file of electoral change. He has lashed out at critics in ferociously partisan fashion, thereby illustrating much more about himself and his government than anything about the critics.
The government obviously dislikes Elections Canada head Marc Mayrand, who has caught out the Conservatives for various electoral misdeeds. For this, his name has been added to the “enemies” list, a notional concept rather than something written in black and white – it means those who have crossed or criticized the government, and are therefore to be mistrusted, demeaned and, if possible, destroyed.
The Harper government, focused on its core, likely assumes – perhaps correctly – that the vast bulk of the electorate couldn’t care less about the Fair Elections Act. After all, about 40 per cent of eligible Canadians don’t even vote, so why should they care about how elections are conducted? It’s like asking questions about eliminating the red line or adjusting the size of goalie pads to someone who never watches a hockey game.
Then there are those for whom the details of public issues are of little or marginal concern. Only if an issue hits them in the pocketbook do they pay attention. Politically alert voters pay attention, and many of them do not like this bill or how it has been handled. The government figures most of them aren’t likely to vote Conservative, so who cares about them?
Editor's note: An earlier version of this column misspelled Marc Mayrand's last name. This version has been corrected.