In the summer of 2010, more than 200 institutions and individuals asked Stephen Harper’s government not to eliminate the long-form census.
They represented a Who’s Who of experts in statistics. All sorts of groups, from B’nai Brith to business associations and trade unions, argued that the long-form census, which required some, but only some, citizens by law to answer questions for Statistics Canada, was essential for presenting the most accurate statistical profile of Canadians.
To no avail. The Prime Minister had made up his mind. His hapless minister, Tony Clement, had to toe the line. He did so in such a way as to misstate the true views of the head of Statistics Canada, who resigned in protest.
It is worth recalling that assault on basic information and disregard for expertise now that more than 150 political scientists, including some of the most eminent in Canada, not to mention the head of Elections Canada, have urged the government to reconsider some of the key provisions of its Fair Elections Act.
The very name is a misnomer, as the critics have argued. It will not make elections fairer; indeed, it will likely produce the reverse.
Recall the process before considering the bill’s provisions. Democracy and elections do not belong to any party. Organizing them is not the responsibility of the government of the day.
Therefore, the proper way to proceed in updating the election law is to a) ask the office that knows the most about elections, that is Elections Canada; b) ask an all-party committee to study the issues. The way not to proceed is to have an elections bill drafted by the government, rammed through the Commons on second reading, then sent to committee, where the government’s majority will prevail.
This is how the government is proceeding, led by Minister for Democratic Reform Pierre Poilievre, a young man who leaped into the cabinet principally for his leather-lunged abilities at partisan verbal jousting. Anyone who believes Mr. Poilievre can act on just about anything without the interests of the Conservative Party at heart has not been observing his career thus far. Unbridled partisanship has its place in politics, one supposes, but not for updating elections law.
As Prof. Paul Thomas of the University of Manitoba (and a member of the Elections Canada advisory board) pointed out in a paper he wrote about the proposed changes, Britain’s electoral commission was extensively consulted before changes to the law. Here, Mr. Poilievre said he spent an hour with Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand before drafting the bill. Obviously, he did not highly value Mr. Mayrand’s analysis during their brief meeting, since the Chief Electoral Officer just dumped all over important parts of the bill before the parliamentary committee.
Prof. Thomas also explained that 2011 public-opinion surveys reveal a high level of confidence in Elections Canada. Eighty-five per cent of eligible voters felt Elections Canada ran a fair election in May, 2011.
The Conservative Party, however, was mad at Mr. Mayrand, because the elections office had caught the party out on the “in-and-out” scheme, which involved circumventing election spending rules, and in the robocalls affair. So the Conservatives set about, as they do with those whom they decide are “enemies,” to weaken the powers of Elections Canada.
This weakening is among the issues that has the 150-plus political scientists up in arms. They highlight that the new bill would move enforcement from the commissioner of elections under Elections Canada to the director of public prosecutions, who reports to the government, not Parliament.
The bill would exempt fundraising costs from campaign expenses as long as the fundraising is directed at those who have given more than $20 in the past. This is clearly designed to assist the Conservatives, who have more donors and already raise more money.
The bill would eliminate vouching – taking an oath if standard forms of voter identification are not available. This change could disenfranchise some of the poorest citizens. The bill would also prevent – and this is simply crazy – Elections Canada from encouraging people to vote, leaving this effort entirely up to political parties.
There are other dubious parts of this ill-considered bill. Will the critics, who know a great deal about elections and have no partisan axes to grind, be heeded? We can only hope.