Last week Canada suffered an attack in our nation’s capital, at our very centre of government. It was an attack on both our democracy and our values as Canadians.
No, I am not talking about the shooting that left one soldier dead. That attack was horrendous and violent, and much has been and should be said about it. Our leaders have expressed resolve not to let that attack change our nation, but the truth is, Canada has already changed.
The day after the shooting, the government resumed sitting, and the Conservatives tabled their latest budget bill. It was yet another omnibus budget. This may hardly seem newsworthy, but it needs to be said again and again: the Conservative’s omnibus budget bills are nothing short of an affront to our democratic system. The Conservatives have made a habit of stuffing their budgets with a vast array of non-budgetary items, ensuring that none get the scrutiny they deserve and require. Debate in the House is limited, and the only examination a budget gets is from a finance committee, which for obvious reasons is inherently ill-equipped to scrutinize unrelated matters.
Prior to the Conservatives taking power, budget bills hovered in the range of 50 to 120 pages. The controversial 2012 omnibus budgets weighed in at 425 and 443 pages—the latter, it was noted, being roughly the length of Crime and Punishment (my partner suggests War and Peace as more apt, given that no one can get through it). This most recent omnibus budget surpasses those two, at 458 pages.
Pity the poor refugee
Buried somewhere in those 458 pages is a change to how Canada treats its refugees—to once again make things more difficult for them. There is currently a safeguard in place to allow refugee claimants to access social assistance, in that provinces (who administer social assistance) are not allowed to impose a minimum residency requirement for eligibility. The omnibus budget bill will remove this safeguard, opening the door for provinces to deny refugee claimants much-needed financial assistance during the months or years that it takes to have a claim accepted.
For refugees who come here with few, if any, resources, social assistance is one way of ensuring that they integrate into society and do not remain marginalized. It is a humanitarian and compassionate measure that we as a nation put in place deliberately. Why did we do this? Because we believed in not just equality of opportunity but the value and dignity of every person and the right to a decent, prosperous life. We believed that it was important to help our neighbours, no matter their place of origin, and to build inclusive, supportive communities.
These are Canadian values, or at least they should be.
After Wednesday’s shooting, Prime Minister Harper addressed the nation, saying that attacks “on our institutions of governance are by their very nature attacks on our country, on our values, on our society, on us Canadians as a free and democratic people who embrace human dignity for all.”
He was not talking about what I wish he was talking about.
Two months ago today the federal Conservatives introduced their changes to the Elections Act, which they called, apparently without any irony whatsoever, the Fair Elections Act—an audacious title for something defined by its utter lack of fairness.
The bill will disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters, give the Conservatives advantages over other parties, ban Elections Canada from encouraging people to vote, muzzle Elections Canada’s reports and investigations, and hold Elections Canada back from conducting proper investigations, notably of Conservative-linked election fraud. It also creates a voter fraud bogeyman, distracting from actually existing election fraud, conducted by and connected to the Conservative Party itself. Fair Elections Act indeed.
Since the bill’s introduction in Parliament we’ve seen street protests, petitions, and harsh criticism from people whom we should take very seriously. The Conservatives are used to meeting resistance when introducing new bills, but rarely is that resistance so sustained and mounting. Not even the mainstream and corporate media’s interest has waned.
It’s encouraging to see that people do indeed take their democracy seriously. Canadians are proud of their democratic system. We like to think that we live in a model democracy, that we have a fair and just system, and that keeping this system fair and just is not only desirable, not only important, but fundamental. When a government attempts to erode the democratic system and twist it to their advantage, people tend to get concerned.
Over the last two months we’ve also witnessed some crass and downright juvenile politics, with the Conservatives doing everything in their power—and using every loophole in the parliamentary procedure handbook—to make sure this bill passes. If you could thrust a middle finger at democracy, it might look something like this.
Unfortunately, this bill is forging ahead, en route to becoming law well ahead of the next election. In light of this impending triumph, I thought a recap would be in order.
The Fair Elections Act
The Fair Elections Act is perhaps most seriously offensive in its removal of the vouching system and the use of voter information cards as a form of identification. This will effectively take away the right to vote of nearly half a million Canadians—something that many argue amounts to voter suppression. Currently, anyone who doesn’t have valid ID showing their address can use voter ID cards and/or be “vouched for” by someone else. In the last election, around 400,000 voters used voter election cards as proof of residence, and 120,000 of these relied on vouching—mostly students, seniors, low-income people, and Aboriginals (Indian Status cards do not include an address). The vouching process is quite stringent, and there has never been a reported case of abuse, or voter fraud.
Perhaps it’s worth noting that the right of every citizen to vote is in our very own Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Have a look. It’s the third point in the Charter, making it rather hard to miss.
What else? The bill prevents Elections Canada from promoting voter participation, by banning all marketing and educational materials and programs. That’s right, the government would rather you didn’t vote. They especially don’t want young people to vote (most of the soon-to-be-banned programs are directed at young people). The bill also puts a gag order on Elections Canada, preventing it from publishing any of its research into the electoral process. So if they ever find problems with the electoral system, we’ll never know. A gag order is also placed on Elections Canada investigations, meaning we’ll never know when offences have occurred, either.
The bill also allows the incumbent party in each riding to appoint central poll supervisors, who oversee the running of voting stations during elections (currently they are appointed by Elections Canada), thus opening the door to political influence over activities and decisions made at voting stations.
The bill also changes election funding rules, creating a loophole that exempts all fundraising of past supporters (anyone who has donated $20 within the past five years) from regular spending limits. This creates a clear disadvantage to smaller parties, and especially to independents. The bill also increases the amount individuals can donate to a campaign (from $1,200 to $1,500) and the amount candidates can personally give to their own campaign (from $1,200 to $5,000), benefiting parties whose supporters have deeper pockets.
Finally, it’s notable what the bill does not do. It does not fulfill its original mandate, which was to deal with the problems resulting in the robocall scandal of the 2011 election (which involves the Conservative party itself, though perhaps this isn’t relevant?).
Elections Canada is frustrated with its inability to properly investigate the robocall fraud case, and Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand has requested that Elections Canada be given the powers and resources it needs to properly investigate serious electoral offences, like this one. Elections Canada has warned that it may never get to the bottom of the robocall case if it is not given the power to compel testimony from witnesses. It has also requested the power to require political parties to provide documentation of election spending. Neither this nor the power to compel testimony were granted.
Now, on to the shenanigans
Normally I wouldn’t bore you with details of Parliamentary procedure, because normally they bore me, too. But I’m making an exception, because the Conservative’s posturing around this bill illustrates not just their obstinacy (they are determined to see this bill pass, no matter the criticism, and no matter the legitimacy of that criticism) but their disregard for democracy even in the very house of that democracy.
Shutting down debate
No sooner had the Conservatives tabled the bill then they moved for time allocation, a procedural device used for ending debate (or in this case, shutting it down). Rarely used by previous governments, the Conservatives toss time allocation around like candy at a town parade. By this point they’d used it around 50 times, far exceeding that of any other government. Of course, the irony of shutting down debate on a bill about democratic reform was not lost on critics.
Brad Butt misleads Parliament
That same day, Conservative backbencher MP Brad Butt (not to be confused with Corner Gas star Brent Butt) stood up in Parliament and lied. He claimed to “have actually witnessed” campaign staff picking up discarded voter information cards and turning them over to party supporters, who then used them to commit voter fraud. Ergo, vouching was inherently problematic and must be stopped.
Later, Mr. Butt made the mistake of owning up to his lie, and apologized. He had misspoken. He had not personally witnessed voter fraud, as he had originally claimed. He had merely been relaying information given to him by “second and third parties.” It had never been his intention, he said, to mislead the House. The opposition disagreed, and the NDP rose on a point of order to recommend Butt be found in contempt of Parliament.
Now, being found in contempt of Parliament is a serious thing, and can result in jail time. There have only been a handful of cases in Canada, two of which were committed by the Conservatives in 2011—one of those being the entire Conservative cabinet, for refusing to hand over detailed cost estimates of its anti-crime bill. It was a “breach of privilege” that, as you may recall, triggered the 2011 federal election.
As for Brad Butt, the Speaker of the House, Andrew Scheer, agreed that Butt appeared to have misled Parliament. However, given that the point of order was an opposition motion, the matter had to first be debated in Parliament. Lo and behold, the Conservatives invoked closure (another of those once rarely used parliamentary devices) to shut down all debate on the Brad Butt affair. Brad Butt got off scot-free, and parliamentary democracy hid its face in shame.
No public consultation
Meanwhile, more trouble was brewing. Due to the lack of consultation in the writing of the Fair Elections Act, the opposition NDP called for the bill to be given public hearings. Not surprisingly, the Conservatives refused. Yet again, the irony of a bill on democratic reform not being given its democratic due.
And so the NDP rolled up their sleeves and tried their own hand at Parliamentary shenanigans. A number of other bills were up for public consultation at the same time (evidence of this being common practice), awaiting approval of their proposed travel budgets. The NDP gave the Conservatives an ultimatum: give the Fair Elections Act public hearings as well, or we won’t sign off on the travel budgets for these other bills. The Conservatives called their bluff, and refused, finding out the hard way that the NDP don’t bluff.
Next, MP David Christopherson, the Official Opposition Deputy Leader, began a filibuster in a House of Commons committee to demand public consultation. A filibuster is the most common form of protest within government. The idea is that you stand up and start talking, and you don’t stop. It’s what Jimmie Stewart’s character did in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Christopherson filibustered for seven hours, finally striking a deal with Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski—not for public consultations, but to at least let Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand speak at an upcoming committee hearing.
The absurdity of this should be noted. Not only would the Chief Electoral Officer normally be among the first people invited to speak at committee, but they would already have been consulted about the bill while it was still being written. Not so with the Conservatives. Their failure to consult with Mayrand had not gone unnoticed.
More time allocation
Mayrand was scheduled to appear in committee two days later, and was given 90 minutes to speak. Now check this out. At the exact time he was to begin, the Conservatives introduced time allocation yet again—this time not just once, but twice, on two separate bills. The thing with time allocation is that all activity in Parliament must come to a stop, so that members can sit in the House to vote. Each time allocation imposes a final 30 minutes of debate, plus time for members to get to and from the House. Just like that, Mayrand’s 90-minute speaking window vanished. At most he would get 15 minutes.
But perhaps time allocations were necessary for the bills being debated, you might think. You’d be wrong. Neither were contentious bills, and all parties were in agreement on them. Debate would already have been smooth and brief. Time allocation was imposed for Mayrand’s benefit, only. Thank you very much, Harper, for treating parliamentary democracy with such respect.
Criticism from the experts
Thankfully, in the end, the Conservatives relented and let Mayrand have his 90 minutes after all. They must have regretted doing this. Mayrand proceeded to give a scathing critique of the Fair Elections Act, ripping into its voter suppression, its tilting of the level playing field in the Conservative’s direction, its muzzling of Elections Canada, its banning of programs to promote voting, and its failure to give Elections Canada sufficient investigative powers.
Mayrand also attacked the Conservative’s claims of mass “irregularities” in the vouching process, which Mayrand said were procedural, only. His exact words were: “There is no evidence tying those errors with ineligible electors being allowed to vote.”
Evidence of these irregularities came from a report by former BC Chief Electoral Officer Harry Neufeld, who was commissioned by Elections Canada to look into voting irregularities during the 2011 election. The Neufeld report has been brandished by the Conservatives (MP Pierre Poilievre, Minister of State for Democratic Reform, in particular), who cited it again and again as justification for banning vouching. How unfortunate for them, then, when Harry Neufeld himself appeared in committee and said that the government was misquoting his report.
Like Mayrand, he confirmed that irregularities were procedural, and evidence not of voter fraud, but of a lack of training of electoral officers. In fact, the only mention of fraud in Neueld’s 76-page report appears in the curious phrase “there was no evidence of fraud.” So there you have it. As NDP leader Thomas Mulcair wondered, “Is the government going to prevent hundreds of thousands of Canadians from voting because it is incapable of properly training people? Is that their policy?”
More recently, another scathing criticism has come from Sheila Fraser, the former auditor general with near-universal respect who ferreted out the sponsorship scandal in 2004. “Elections are the base of our democracy,” she said, “and if we do not have truly a fair electoral process and one that can be managed well by a truly independent body, it really is an attack on our democracy and we should all be concerned about that.” She added that with the bill, “it’s going to be very difficult to have a fair, a truly fair, election.”
Will all this criticism result in any changes? Not likely. The committee stage used to be a place of expert analysis and amendment, but the Conservatives have turned it into a mere formality. If any amendments are made at all—even the slightest word change—it will be a rare and triumphant thing. What we have is what we’ll get.
So, why do we need a Fair Elections Act? Well, we are told it will protect Canada’s democratic system from voter fraud. But we know that this fraud does not exist, at least not in the form the Conservatives have identified.
Yet fraud does exist. In May of last year, a federal court judge ruled that election fraud had occurred during the 2011 election, in which a Conservative voter database was used to make misleading robocalls (tellingly, the Conservatives have refused to disclose the list of people who had access to that database). In 2011, Elections Canada found that election fraud occurred during the 2006 election, when the Conservatives exploited a loophole in campaign spending, referred to as the in-and-out scandal.
Yes, fraud does exist, but it has not been committed by citizens—it has been committed by the Conservative government, and they have tabled this bill as a distraction. They may get away with it, but in doing so, 400,000 Canadians will be prevented from voting. And they won’t be the only collateral: so will be the integrity of our democratic system.