BLAST FROM THE PAST: That whole veiled voting debacle

Note to readers: I suddenly felt the need to repost this from the archive:

Procedure and House Affairs Committee
originally posted on September 13, 2007

Round 1 – Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand vs. the Will of the People (according to the Conservatives on the committee, that is)

Not only does Mayrand stick to his guns, but he fires back at the Prime Minister who has accused him of flouting the law, albeit indirectly. In response to a question from the Liberals, Mayrand tells the committee tha back in August – more than a month before the “veiled voter” controversy had surfaced in the press – he had alerted the Prime Minister’s most senior civil servant advisors that there could be problems with the Conservative government’s recent amendments to the Elections Act.

In his letter, he explicitly mentioned the issue of visual identification/photo ID, but received no official response. In fact, the first time he became aware of the PM’s concern was when Harper took time during a post-APEC press conference to excoriate Elections Canada for, in his view, thwarting the will of Parliament.

This does not go over well with Conservative committee members, particularly the inescapable Pierre Poilievre, who wonders why Mayrand won’t just do what the committee tells him, rather than getting all picky by insisting that the law be amended by Parliament first.

The Liberals and the New Democrats, on the other hand, are torn. On the one hand, it’s easy to see the political advantage in defending Mayrand — who is, after all, an independent Officer of Parliament – against what is clearly a coordinated offensive coming from members on the government side. At the same time, both parties have to be mindful that, at least as far as the official record goes, their members backed the hard line “Veils off!” position by signing onto a motion calling on the CEO to reverse his ruling (full gory details here).

The Liberals compromise by trying to slip in questions about the advertising scandal; the NDP, meanwhile, finally remembers that the party actually spoke out against the overly stringent ID requirements that had initially been proposed, which, New Democrats had warned, could make it impossible for certain already vulnerable groups – homeless individuals, for instance – to exercise a fundamental right.

Mayrand is, perhaps, most eloquent on this issue – he notes that those so-called emergency powers that the Tories and the Bloc Quebecois want him to deploy against the threat of veiled voters in Outrement are, in fact, supposed to be used in order to make it easier for citizens to vote, not to restrict them from doing so.

After Mayrand’s hour long appearance is up, Poilievre attempts to call the opposition bluff by proposing that the committee, acting as the voice of Parliament, direct him to change the policy, and bar the veil from the upcoming byelections. Unfortunately, it’s ruled out of order, but don’t worry – it will be back.

Round 2 – A Panel Made Up of the Former Chief Electoral Officer of Quebec, the Canadian Coalition for Democracies and Several Prominent Muslim Groups Vie To See Who Can Agree With The Committee Most Vehemently

At some point between the changeover between the first and second round of witnesses, the issue of the day seems to have evolved from veiled voters to the problem with Islam, or at least with the more extremist interpretations thereof.

Representatives from various high-profile moderate Muslim groups, including the Muslim Canadian Congress and the Muslim Canadian Council of Women, use the one minute alloted for opening statements to castigate Elections Canada for having let itself be “held hostage” by the same sort of interests that support the Taliban in Afghanistan. One witness calls for a complete ban on burquas in public places.

Committee members quiz the panel about everything from the requirements for unveiling voters in Islamic countries – where, they are told, there is a separate process for female voters – to the actual number of voters who would be affected by this decision. According to one witness, there are three hundred women who wear the full veil in Canada, but another disagrees with her, and suggests there are, in fact, many more.

Conservative Scott Reid tries to alleviate concerns that the Muslim community is becoming a scapegoat for a loophole in the law that, contrary to what some people seem to think, they never asked for this particular right; it’s being “forced” upon them. How a right can be forced upon anyone is, alas, never properly explained.

The testimony goes on like this for a while, with the witnesses always seeming to bring the issue back to the danger in giving in to the demands of radical Islam; the MPs don’t seem to quite know what to do with that. Why they didn’t bring in non-Muslim groups – maybe some civil libertarians, or legal experts – to discuss the Charter issues – is never explained, although the fact that the clerk only had one day to round up suggested witnesses could have something to do with it.

Anyway, everyone pretty much agrees with the committee, which makes it far less entertaining than the bearpit session with Mayrand.

With just a minute or two left on the clock, Poilievre makes a second attempt at forcing the opposition to support an even more sternly worded letter to Elections Canada on its refusal to heed the will of Parliament, as voiced by the committee. In a rare act of mercy, the Chair takes pity on both the members, and the audience, and sets everyone free for an hour long lunch break.

Round 3 – The committee as a whole vs. common sense and the law as written

2:15 sharp, members are back at the table, to a man (and woman) looking
distinctly less irritable. Of course, it doesn’t last, because now it’s
time to vote on Poilievre’s motion to smack down an Officer of
Parliament for refusing to change the law on a whim.

And they do
– unaimously – since at this point, they’ve pretty much nothing left to
lose, except some credibility amongst the few Hill observers who
cherish the quaint, outlandish belief that Parliament, as an entity, is
more important than any one Parliament may be, and that ordering around
ostensibly independent entities – even by all-party popular demand – is
not a precedent that anyone should want to set. But no one ever listens
to us.

The deed having been done, the committee goes in camera
to draft a report on the veil issue, although why they bother to do so
is a mystery, since the position of the committee has been made
perfectly clear by the edict handed down to Mayrand.

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