Pierre Poilievre defends the ‘common sense’ of the Fair Elections Act

The minister appeals to popular wisdom

Canada's Minister of State for Democratic Reform Pierre Poilievre. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

(Chris Wattie/Reuters)

The professional politician that he is, Pierre Poilievre opened with a joke.

“It’s going to be a great speech,” the minister for democratic reform said, pausing for a beat. “I can vouch for that.”

Get it? (I confess I didn’t realize it was a joke until I heard a reporter behind me groan.) You see, the current option by which an eligible voter can “vouch” for the eligibility of another voter is something the Fair Elections Act would eliminate. And this has caused some consternation among those who fear some voters will consequently have a significantly harder time casting a ballot. And so this bit about Mr. Poilievre vouching for the quality of his own speech is funny because, well, actually, come to think of it, what precisely is the joke here?

As the government has made abundantly clear over the last two months we can’t simply trust our fellow citizens to vouch for the names and addresses of themselves or each other. But if we can’t trust our fellow citizens in such regards, we surely can’t trust a politician to vouch for the quality of his own oratory. Perhaps we should certify politicians and ask them to carry around cards that establish that they deserve to be listened to.

The minister’s speech, to a lunchtime audience at a ballroom in the Chateau Laurier, was billed as “Discussing the Facts: the Fair Elections Act.” This discussion of the “facts” would take all of six-and-a-half minutes.

“You might have noticed that we have an election bill before Parliament,” he quipped, after first taking five and a half minutes to offer vague assurances on Senate reform ahead of tomorrow’s Supreme Court ruling and then expound on the greatness of the government’s economic policy in light of recent findings from the New York Times. “If you’ve been following the news, you would think that every part of the bill is controversial. In fact, much of the bill has brought consensus. Let me give you some examples of some little discussed elements of this bill, which have received almost no opposition. That is because they are common sense.”

The minister proceeded here to identify several points of agreement that basically exist: the creation of a robocall registry, new penalties for various chicanery, new rules for loans and donations, an extra day of voting and the end of a ban on communicating election results before polls close.

“The major disagreements about the bill are very small in number,” the minister tried to assure. “So what is all the fuss about? Well, I don’t have time to go into all of the debate.”

Possibly he was hungry and eager to get to lunch.

“What it really comes down to is a disagreement over ID,” the minister clarified, apparently deciding here that every other issue raised about his bill was not worth discussing.

“The opposition believes that we should allow people to vote without even showing a shred of identification,” Mr. Poilievre now simplified.

Not a shred. Not even a slice of a health card.

“Canadian disagree,” the minister explained. “In fact, public opinion data shows they overwhelmingly disagree.”

Indeed, according to Angus Reid, this basic notion of identification is supported by 78% of the 69% of respondents for whom the Fair Elections Act is some vague idea or something they’d not heard of before the pollster called. Among the minority of those surveyed who have at least some idea what is being discussed here, support slips to 59%.

Perhaps Angus Reid’s next survey should ask what mix of popular opinion, popular knowledge and partisan positioning should be necessary to override the concerns of experienced observers when legislation is being considered.

“In a 21st century democracy, where people are required to produce ID to drive a car, buy a beer or even exercise their Charter right to cross the border,” Mr. Poilievre continued, “it is common sense to expect people to show ID to demonstrate who they are when they vote.”

“Common sense” was the minister’s phrase of the day, his way of claiming the rational virtue of the common man’s everyday wisdom.

The common man presumably understands the experience of driving a car or buying a beer or travelling. Or, as Conservative MP Blake Richards mused in his hometown paper this week, renting skis, boarding a commercial flight or checking in to a hotel. But it is unclear why the common man should accept these comparisons as particularly definitive. To vote, one must establish both one’s identity and one’s address, the latter being linked to the specific jurisdiction within which one hopes to cast a ballot. Neither leaving the country, nor buying a beer, nor boarding a plane, nor renting skis, nor checking in to a hotel necessarily require substantiating your address in such a way.

Unless the minister and the government are prepared to permit voting or vouching with the same evidentiary burden of performing these tasks, these comparisons are basically unhelpful. And if the minister is remotely interested in a compromise on this issue, he has not said so far and would not say today. Common sense might have our politicians more readily seeking out compromises.

With the last moments of his twelve minutes, he reached for the profound.

“Away from the noise around political Ottawa, everyone understands that this is common sense. We are just finishing two weeks away from Parliament, out in our communities. It has been refreshing to be reminded of the massive gulf between those in the political bubble and everyday Canadians on the ground,” mused a 34-year-old man who has worked on Parliament Hill for more than a third of his life and who has been an MP for nearly a decade.

That a politician might sigh about the “noise” and the “bubble” might seem a bit rich, perhaps even rather cynical. But Mr. Poilievre, you’ll understand, is not like the others here. He understands the common man, or at least possesses the same common sense. Though hopefully the minister is more familiar with the Fair Elections Act than the common man.

“The House of Commons is so named for a reason,” he finished. “It is the house of the common people, of which it is my great honour to be a very small part. Whether on Senate reform, the Fair Elections Act or the economy, we have the duty to stand beside the common sense of the common people. That is democracy, that is my job and I won’t forget it.”

But he will surely understand if your common sense tells you to not simply take his word for it.

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