The Fair Elections: More quibbles, some compromise?

Is Pierre Poilievre ready to deal?

As hearings on the Fair Elections Act continue, to the list of those quibbling with the legislation, you can add the elections commissioner, Ontario’s chief electoral officer and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. David McLaughlin’s opening statement to the Procedure and House Affairs committee is here. Professor Paul Thomas’ opening statement is here.

Thomas opened with a potentially interesting take on the very process of reforming election law.

I start with the observation that there has been considerable decline of public trust and confidence in politics and democracy in Canada. A similar trend has been happening in established democracies. There are many long-term causes and short-term factors that have contributed to public disillusionment with the political process. I fear that both the process by which Bill C-23 was formulated and is being passed in Parliament, and the substance of the bill will further weaken public trust and confidence in the integrity of the election process, the one democratic activity in which a majority of Canadians participate.

Sound electoral governance arrangements based on as much as consensus as possible contribute in important ways to public trust and confidence in the election process and to democratic legitimacy.

Turning to the process of electoral law, on process I would observe that the Canada Elections Act is not ordinary legislation. It provides a foundation and framework for fair and free elections. Other countries have recognized that such fundamental laws should not be changed hastily and unilaterally by the governing party.

In the U.K., most election law require advanced consultation with the national Electoral Commission. Usually this involves a review of draft bills with the commission officials to ensure that the proposed legislation is workable.

In New Zealand, the Electoral Act 1993 requires a “supermajority” of members of the House of Representatives to repeal or modify a list of eight key features of the election law framework. This provision ensures that there is some measure of cross-party support for those changes. This leads me to recommend that the bill be amended to provide for mandatory consultation with Elections Canada concerning future changes to the Canadian Elections Act.

I also recommend that before the fixed-date election scheduled for 2019 that a comprehensive evaluation of the framework of election law and administration put in place by Bill C-23 be conducted by an all-party committee of the House of Commons.

This is similar to something Peter Loewen (a former housemate of Pierre Poilievre) has raised.

Unfortunately, this is not happening in the abstract. Instead, it is being proposed by a party which, while in government and before, has been engaged in a long-running if sometimes low-level fight with Elections Canada. That the electoral agency has been aggressive in the pursuit of potential electoral wrongdoing by this party is an equally fair conclusion.

Our great concern, then, should not be the specifics of the Act, but the potential of it and the larger political reaction to it to bring our political system into greater disrepute. If ever we needed even-handedness and non-partisanship, we need it here.

I’ve gone back-and-forth on this question: to what degree the government should be expected to compromise on legislation such as this. In the abstract, compromise is a lovely idea. But compromise does not necessarily result in better laws. But the Fair Elections Act has perhaps not proceeded as smoothly as one might have hoped.

But might there be compromise? The CBC thinks there might be, at least on the matter of vouching. If that’s the case, a compromise might’ve been hinted at last Thursday during Harry Neufeld’s appearance before the committee (scroll to the bottom of this piece).

If the minister’s interested in alternatives, he’s not yet saying so. Here, via his office, is his statement on the CBC’s story.

Every single measure in the Fair Elections Act is reasonable and I am prepared to defend and promote them all. We have always said we are open to good ideas. There is a month left before the committee hearings end.

We think it is reasonable to expect people to bring identification when they vote.

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