The Conservatives can't seem to decide whether they love partisanship, or hate it.
Their new elections bill undoes some of the changes they brought in with their Accountability Act, the first real piece of legislation put forward when Stephen Harper came to power in 2006.
The Accountability Act made election workers less partisan, and the Conservatives touted it as an important step for fairness. The new elections bill, the Fair Elections Act, increases partisanship.
The Tories' new elections bill puts the right to name poll supervisors – the people who co-ordinate big voting locations where there's more than four polling stations – into the hands of the party that won the riding in the last election. Of course, the Conservatives won more ridings than any other party, so they get to dole out most of the jobs.
And it's a lot of jobs: there were 16,149 central poll supervisors hired for the last elections, according to Elections Canada. It means the Tories can offer a few days work, for advance polls and elections day, at $18 an hour, to supporters, or their kids and relatives. It also means the incumbent party gets to name the supervisor who is supposed to help the poll workers sort out problems in the big voting places.
There is a history of partisan elections workers in Canada. And there are still partisan appointees at polls, in the form of deputy returning officers and poll clerks, chosen from lists provided by parties – but they are paired up, one from the first-placed party and one from the runner-up, to provide a check-and-balance system.
It used to be worse. Before 2006, the government in power appointed the returning officers who supervised elections in each riding. The Accountability Act changed that, allowing the Chief Electoral Officer to appoint them instead – and the Tories publicized the move and touted their step for non-partisanship in elections.
Now, for some reason, the Conservatives have decided to make elections-workers more partisan. Why? The office of Pierre Poilievre, the Minister of State for Democratic Reform, didn't provide an answer.
It almost seems like the topic of partisanship is confusing the Conservatives, who've been known for no-quarter party politicking. Yesterday, there was Mark Adler, the Conservative MP for York Centre, at hearings on his bill to "support non-partisanship" in the workings of agents of Parliament – like the Chief Electoral Officer – and having trouble explaining it.
Obviously, there is a time and place for partisanship. Mr. Adler, after all, is the MP who went to the Western Wall in Jerusalem and begged Prime Minister Stephen Harper's aide to let him into the PM's photo op, pleading, "It's the re-election. This is the million-dollar shot."
But his bill is noteworthy, at a time when the government is putting the hiring of election poll supervisors into partisan hands, because it would require everyone working in the agencies of nine parliamentary officers – including the Chief Electoral Officer – to report political positions they've held in the past decade.
Transparency is a good idea, as Mr. Adler notes, but his bill is full of misguided sections and overkill. Requiring disclosure from applicants for reasonably important posts is one thing, but demanding it from every existing employee, every administrative assistant and clerk hardly seems necessary, given no problem has been reported.
Among its flaws, as pointed out by the Auditor-General, Conflict of Interest Commissioner, and the Chief Electoral Officer, is a requirement that employees of those agents report their current partisan activities – suggesting that such activities would be allowed, when currently, they're not.
A bigger flaw with Mr. Adler's bill is that it's a springboard for flimsy partisan allegations. Any MP or senators can make an allegation that an employee of one of these agencies has behaved in a "partisan manner." That person's boss, the officer of Parliament, would report their findings publicly to both houses of Parliament. But as Conflict of Interest Commissioner Mary Dawson pointed out, it doesn't require those complaints to be based on reasonable grounds, or any facts whatsoever.
That would make it a mechanism for trumping up allegations of partisanship within the agencies that are supposed to be the agreed, non-partisan referees.
With a bill that hands control of election jobs to parties, and another that seems more intent on fuelling accusations of bias among parliamentary agencies, it's hard to tell exactly what kind of partisanship the Conservatives are fighting.
Campbell Clark is The Globe's chief political writer.