Democracy and elections are where lofty philosophical idealism collides with raw political pragmatism. Debate on the Harper Conservative government's Fair Elections Act is suffused with both. It is too bad the legislation itself contains more of the latter and not enough of the former.
This is the most significant election reform since 2003, when the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien eliminated corporate and union donations to political parties and instituted a regime of public subsidies instead. We are here today largely because of those decisions.
With the demise of 'big' money from fewer donors, parties have had to rely on 'small' money from more donors. The Conservative party has been the most nimble and efficient at making this transition. In power, they are unsurprisingly reinforcing an advantage they built, but Liberals sparked. It led them first to eliminating all public subsidies to parties after the last election. Now, raising the individual donation limit to $1,500 and exempting fundraising costs targeted at previous donors in the bill fits this new meme of party hegemony.
For this is the animating impulse behind the Harper government's Fair Elections Act, its view of parties, elections, and by extension, democracy itself. Parties are to compete for funds and votes with as little interference as possible from intrusive rules and restrictions. Citizens are voters only. Political parties are to be the dominant and legitimate player only in our electoral life. Civic engagement in Canada's democratic life is to be narrowed to donating and voting.
The proof point can be found in the provision that eliminates any and all Elections Canada role in "public education" on voting and democracy. Section 18 (1) under the current Act states this:
"The Chief Electoral Officer may implement public education and information programs to make the electoral process better known to the public, particularly to those persons and groups most likely to experience difficulties in exercising their democratic rights."
That whole section will be replaced with a new clause severely limiting the independent agency to communicating with voters on a very restricted list of designate topics only, namely, how to vote. The one national agency with a role to educate citizens on elections and voting can no longer do so.
Why should we care? And what will this mean?
We should care because every political party is, by definition, self-interested and self-serving. Strong, vibrant parties are essential for a strong, vibrant democracy. But they are not the guarantors of it.
We are. Citizens as voters.
Parties have no interest or obligation to contact or persuade all potential voters; rather, it is the reverse. They only need and will only engage with voters likely to vote for them. Declining voter turnout or rising voter cynicism and disengagement are of interest only in how it affects their own political fortunes. However, our democracy rests upon an engaged, informed electorate.
What this all means can be illustrated by a likely incidental and unforeseen casualty of removing the public education role for Elections Canada.
Research shows that turnout decline is mostly driven by young voters not participating; yet, we also know early voters are more likely to become systematic voters later in life. Knowledge of the elections process itself is the top barrier to more youth voting.
Ten years ago, an entrepreneurial and quixotic venture called Student Vote set out to remove this barrier. They would give high school students an authentic voting experience by conducting parallel elections in schools at the same time as federal and provincial elections occurred.
In the last federal election alone, more than 560,000 students in more than 3,700 schools cast ballots and learned about voting and democracy. Elections Canada helped fund that effort under Section 18 and the public education clause of the current Elections Act.
Under the proposed Fair Elections Act, Elections Canada will no longer be able to do so.
It is ironic that civic literacy will be sideswiped while Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's very worthy Student Budget Consultation initiative seeks to foster greater financial literacy with the same organization.
Irony aside, conservatives properly believe in instilling greater responsibility among Canadians. Why not young Canadians in this most important civic responsibility of all?
Amidst the heat of today's political battles, we need to remind ourselves that it is the longer-term civic engagement of students and young Canadians – the voters of tomorrow – that will help keep our democracy vital.
Keep Section 18 as it is.
David McLaughlin, a former Conservative chief of staff, was Deputy Minister to the New Brunswick Commission on Legislative Democracy from 2003-05.