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In Tories' push for ‘fair’ elections, there's no such thing as neutral

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons Tuesday April 8, 2014 in Ottawa.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

There are no neutrals in Stephen Harper's Ottawa.

When he sent out a junior minister, Pierre Poilievre, to attack the Chief Electoral Officer last week, it had been a long time coming. Where most Canadians think of Elections Canada as the neutral referee for the country's voting, Mr. Harper and some of the Conservatives around him have decided it is biased against them.

(What is the Fair Elections Act? Read The Globe and Mail's easy explanation)

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Their controversial Fair Elections Act is driven by a long-time desire to force Elections Canada to see things their way.

Unlike other governments, Mr. Harper's Conservatives don't shy away from attacking and pressuring the people who run what are supposed to be neutral institutions, whether it's the Governor-General or the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

But Mr. Poilievre unleashed an unusually vitriolic assault on Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand, alleging that his critiques of the government's elections-law reforms were motivated by his desire for bigger budgets, more power, and less accountability.

It stems from a special grudge against Elections Canada.

There's long been a mistrust of Ottawa institutions among Conservatives, from the days when the Reform Party came to Ottawa, feeling like outsiders, and promising to shake up institutions such as the Senate, the Supreme Court, and the bureaucracy.

But the dislike of Elections Canada is something that developed under Mr. Harper. His Conservatives now see the watchdog as both unduly harsh on their party and institutionally biased toward activities that help their opponents.

In fact, some Conservatives believe it's Elections Canada that harbours a grudge, from the time when Mr. Harper, as head of the National Citizens Coalition, challenged election laws up to the Supreme Court. They think that court battle annoyed elections officials, who've engaged in payback.

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In 2006, the Conservatives transferred spending between local and national campaigns so they could spend more. The Conservatives argued it was a loophole other parties had used, if less aggressively. Elections Canada judged it – labelled the in-and-out scandal – illegal. Mr. Harper, according to one insider, angrily insisted they were wrong.

When four senior Conservatives were later charged, the Tories were irate. And they blamed news reports on other investigations into Tories on leaks. Although it was Mr. Harper who appointed Mr. Mayrand, Conservatives started to believe he was co-opted.

That's why, in their new Fair Elections Act, the Conservatives decided, out of the blue, to cut investigations out of Elections Canada: to clip Mr. Mayrand's wings, and move enforcement away from an institution they suspected of a double-standard.

There's another reason for some of the surprise measures in the new bill: The Conservatives have come to see a lot of what Elections Canada does as helping their opponents. That's why they decided to prevent Elections Canada from encouraging people to vote.

Elections Canada thinks it has a mandate to encourage certain groups that usually experience low voter-turnout – such as young people and native people – to vote, several Conservatives said in interviews. But those groups tend to vote Liberal or NDP.

Those Conservatives argued privately that Elections Canada should not be spending money to encourage certain groups to go vote – especially when it helps one side. Conservative Senator Linda Frum tweeted just that point: "Elections Canada's role is to administer. Not to motivate. Not to induce."

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That same sentiment is behind Conservative eagerness to abolish vouching – having one voter vouch for another's identity – and instead requiring voters to produce ID.

Mr. Poilievre's claims that it's needed to combat widespread fraud are not backed up by evidence, but many Tory MPs do believe the system is vulnerable to abuse, and they don't see why it should be left that way to help members of certain groups – young people and native people – vote.

Of course, that's at odds with what was an accepted view in Canada that it's good to encourage turnout, especially among groups where it is traditionally low, and that promotes fairness. Mr. Harper's Conservatives have a different view of what's fair.

And Mr. Harper might have looked at the in-and-out scandal, and decided his party pushed a loophole too far. He didn't. He decided the arbiter was biased.

That is a hallmark of Mr. Harper: There's not much room for neutrality in his politics. He's not inclined to see the rules, or the referee, as neutral. So he's willing to attack them.

Follow me on Twitter: @camrclark

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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