This week, a Senate committee took the unusual step of beginning its study of the Fair Elections Act at the same time as a Commons committee is conducting its own hasty review. Normally, the Senate would wait for the Commons to finish its work, but the Harper government wants this legislation passed as quickly as possible, before any more Canadians realize how flawed it is. And so the government issued marching orders to the Senate, erstwhile chamber of sober second thought. The Conservative majority in the Upper Chamber, hearing its master's voice, is marching as instructed.
Canadians might be under the impression that a parliamentary committee reviewing legislation, and holding hearings, would use said hearings to listen, and even hear. Sometimes that's how it goes. On a bill that remakes the electoral system, the heart of our democratic process, the government should be relying on experts, seeking all-party support, and generally taking a non-partisan approach to what is supposed to be a non-partisan matter. But this is not a normal government. The point of these parliamentary hearings for the government has been to hear nothing, to learn nothing – and to say just about anything.
To wit, Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre this week told senators that Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand has been so critical of the Fair Elections Act because "he wants more power, a bigger budget and less accountability." Yes, that is surely the reason.
It cannot be because the bill's change to voter-identification rules threatens to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Canadians. Or that the bill introduces a campaign-spending loophole that eviscerates spending limits, and benefits the Conservative Party. It could not be because the bill gives the winning party in each riding the power to name some of the officials who will oversee the next election. It must not be the way the bill meddles with Elections Canada's role in investigating or reporting on electoral irregularities. It cannot be because, as a group of academics put it last month, the bill will "undermine the integrity of the Canadian electoral process, diminish the effectiveness of Elections Canada, reduce voting rights, expand the role of money in politics and foster partisan bias in election administration." No, the criticism must derive from the fact that the man charged with running fair and free elections is as partial, biased and self-interested as Mr. Poilievre.
Conservative senators didn't just accommodate the government's rush-rush schedule. At last week's hearings, they one-upped each other with offers of rhetorical support for the bill.
At the head of the class was Senator Thomas McInnis. On Tuesday, he said he'd seen the type of voting fraud that Mr. Poilievre's bill aims to stamp out. The Fair Elections Act would end the practice of vouching, a process by which a voter without proper ID, especially ID indicating a current address, can be vouched for by another elector. There is no evidence that this process has led to voter fraud, but now here was a distinguished lawyer and senator saying, hang on, I've got evidence.
"I can tell you that vouching is a problem," said Mr. McInnis. "It's not just vouching. I've witnessed it personally on the streets of Halifax and Dartmouth. It is a problem. Many of these people, first of all, don't even know who the candidates are and haven't been involved. That doesn't absolve them from the right to vote; I realize that. I've seen people take them in and almost mark their ballot. That's how serious this is, and it's thousands and thousands."
But the next day, his office issued a clarification. When the senator said he had "witnessed it personally"? What he really meant was that he had not witnessed it personally. He hadn't meant to say that he'd seen thousands of cases of voter fraud. He hadn't meant to say that he'd seen even one case of voter fraud.
It sounded a lot like what we'd heard earlier this year from Conservative MP Brad Butt, who said he'd personally seen widespread voter fraud in his riding. He later rose in the House of Commons to abruptly retract his words, saying that none of what he'd said was true.
Mr. McInnis, in his day-after statement, said that the "thousands and thousands" he'd referred to came from Elections Canada's Neufeld report. But that report, according to the Chief Electoral Officer, the experts, the author of the report, and anyone able to read either of Canada's official languages, does not contain evidence of widespread voting fraud. It does not even contain evidence of rare and unusual voting fraud. Mr. Poilievre, Mr. McInnis and some of their Conservative colleagues have nevertheless decided to quote parts of the report out of context, and to pretend that the report says the exact opposite of what it says. They are operating on the assumption that Canadians are morons.
There is no evidence that Canada has a voting fraud problem. But thanks to Mr. Poilievre, Mr. McInnis and Mr. Butt, Canada does have a serious problem of members of the government inventing false evidence of voter fraud. Why, it's happening by the thousands and thousands.
This lack of evidence, and a lack of interest in evidence, are the most disturbing part of the push to pass the Fair Elections Act. Does the government have any studies supporting the bill? No. Any independent research? No. The Democratic Reform Minister spends so much time attacking his opponents because he has no defence.
The government's plan to ram through the Fair Elections Act, critics be damned, experts be damned, evidence be damned, has been a case of partisanship squared. And the Conservative Party isn't just undermining Canadian democracy. It is authoring its own future misfortunes, and courting its own disaster.