There is no love lost between Stephen Harper and Elections Canada. The relationship began to fray long before Pierre Poutine became a household name. But it would be wrong to dismiss the Fair Elections Act, unveiled Tuesday, as an act of revenge by a government stinging from the robocalls scandal of 2011.
The bill contains some sensible reforms. The government claims that 38 of them are even lifted directly from Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand himself, who complains he wasn't consulted in its drafting. In one of the bill's more unexpected steps, it also strips his office of the power to investigate breaches of electoral law. Mr. Mayrand argued for the opposite, seeking new powers for the commissioner of Canada elections, who currently answers to him.
Instead, the Conservative bill would separate the job of administering election law – the business of the chief electoral officer – from the enforcement of election law, which the bill gives to a commissioner, housed in the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. The Liberals and the NDP suggest that such a move could undermine the independence of any investigation, because while the chief electoral officer is accountable to Parliament, the commissioner in the new structure will reside inside a branch of the government. Is this a problem? Before this legislation passes, the government needs to offer Canadians a full and persuasive explanation of this new approach.
On the whole, the bulk of the 279-page bill represents less of a major overhaul than a lot of minor tinkering. Most of the proposed changes involve strengthening the rules as they already exist – punishing breaches more rigorously in some cases, or jolting the law out of the Stone Age, by lifting an outdated blackout on election-night transmission of results before the last poll closes. There will also be four days of advance polls instead of three.
This is an important bill, but it is nothing like the radical overhaul triggered by Jean Chrétien, who took his leave of 24 Sussex Drive after introducing an electoral finance law that banished union and corporate money from politics. That forced a sea change in Canadian politics, creating a new world where parties have no choice but to raise small amounts of money from large numbers of individuals. This bill slightly raises the maximum donation, to $1,500 from $1,200, but it otherwise maintains the status quo. Corporations and unions can't fund parties or candidates. Only individuals can, and given the low campaign-contribution limits, a successful party needs to get a lot of individual donors on board.
The reforms of a decade ago reshaped Canadian politics. This legislation is less radical, but it's being rushed. The government needs to do a better job of explaining and justifying the less-clear elements of the bill. Elections are not theirs, after all. They're ours.