You can build a good case that the Conservative government of Stephen Harper hurt the democratic process in this country. Its implementation of fixed federal election dates in 2007 and its ridiculous Fair Elections Act in 2014 made Canada a place when election campaigns never end but fewer people get to vote in them.
Setting a fixed election date was particularly bad. Mr. Harper did it, he said, to “prevent governments from calling snap elections for short-term political advantage.” A year later, in 2008, his government called a snap election for short-term political advantage, because nothing short of a constitutional amendment can prevent a prime minister from doing so.
All that the fixed-election law has accomplished is to turn the third Monday in October in the fourth calendar year after the previous election into a hard target for political parties, with the result that the parties never stop campaigning, politicking and fundraising.
The Tories also invented a fiction about rampant voter fraud that they said could only be halted by barring the use of voter information cards as identification at polling stations, and by curtailing voters’ ability to vouch for one another. They also saw the chief electoral officer’s ability to promote voter education as a partisan ploy, and outlawed that as well.
Perhaps this sort of paranoia is to be expected from a party that has a hard time getting elected with a majority, and then staying in power once it does. What is more puzzling is why the Liberal Party, which has had a pretty good run in Canadian elections, to say the least, has been so inexcusably slow in dealing with this file – and on multiple fronts.
Not only has it stalled on its promise to undo the Tory reforms – thereby running the real risk that much needed changes will not be in place before the election in October of next year – but it has also refused to name a new chief electoral officer in the wake of the retirement of the previous one almost 18 months ago.
The acting chief electoral officer, Stéphane Perrault, said in April that any election reforms should have been adopted by now in order to be fully implemented before the 2019 vote.
Instead, the Liberals let a previous and perfectly good election-reform bill die, and then only tabled a new one this week. Barring a miraculous outbreak of all-party support, not to mention the co-operation of a Senate that is making a name for itself as a habitual staller of major legislation, Bill C-76 is unlikely to be passed before the summer recess.
Most likely, whoever happens to be chief electoral officer in the fall may well be unable to implement complicated reforms that affect not just voting day itself but the months that lead up to it.
For instance, one important aspect of the new bill is its measures to limit political spending and advertising in the pre-writ period prior to the fixed election date.
Basically, the weeks between January 1 of an election year and the moment the writ is dropped in late summer are an unregulated free-for-all, as we saw in 2015. Under the proposed law, campaign spending limits and advertising restrictions will be extended to a pre-writ period that begins on June 30 of an election year. That’s a smart way to resolve some of the issues caused by a fixed election date.
The bill does other good things, such as restoring the use of voter information cards as ID and giving back to the chief electoral officer the job of educating voters about their rights. It also gives him or her the ability to seek a court order to compel testimony, and to impose a monetary penalty for political financing offences or minor voting offences.
As well, it limits the actual election period to 50 days and forces political parties to be more transparent about the data they collect on voters.
But it also tries to tackle the issues of “fake news,” illegal third-party advertising on social media and other developments that have arisen since it became clear that foreign countries meddle in elections via Facebook and Twitter.
Bill C-76 needs to be properly debated, lest it go too far in its effort to limit election interference and winds up hurting legitimate speech. But a lengthy debate might mean that its measures can’t be effectively implemented in time for the next election, even if the bill is passed this year.
The 2019 election could be a real mess, with no important issues resolved, even though it was once well within the Liberal government’s grasp to prevent that from happening. We should not have gotten here.