Unrelenting tension between the Conservative government and Elections Canada has emerged as one of the defining themes of the Stephen Harper era in federal politics. The latest skirmish, but only the latest, has two Tory MPs from Manitoba asking the courts to free them from having to comply with Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand’s order that they clean up their 2011 campaign financial returns.
Against that backdrop, the mystery surrounding why the government hasn’t yet introduced long-promised legislation to modernize the Canada Elections Act takes on ever greater significance. Back in April, Tim Uppal, the minister of state for democratic reform, gave notice that he was about to table the electoral reform bill in the House, but failed to do so after Conservative MPs reportedly raised objections when they were briefed on it in a closed caucus meeting.
Exactly what sparked that backlash remains unknown. But there is plenty of potential for Tory MPs to feel anxiety about the changes. The reform push was driven largely by the so-called robocalls affair, so Uppal’s proposals will be judged by many mainly on whether they truly make it easier for Elections Canada to swiftly get to the bottom of future cases of suspected dirty campaigning.
Asked yesterday in question period about when he plans to get around to introducing the reform package, Uppal offered only this vague answer: “Our government takes election reform very seriously. That is why we are taking the time to ensure that we get it right. We committed to introducing legislation in this regard, and we will.” I fared perhaps a little bit better when I asked Government House Leader Peter Van Loan in an interview this week why Uppal’s legislation remains a work in progress.
Van Loan pointed to a spate of highly relevant reports that were only just available, or not yet released, back when the government seemed about to take the wraps off its reforms earlier this spring. “One thing that keeps happening,” he said, “is we have new reports and new pieces of information that I think give the government occasion to reflect on the contents of the bill, and to incorporate all the input that’s been there.”
Answering a follow-up question, his office listed exactly which reports are being taken into consideration—three from Elections Canada and a fourth from the Institute for Research on Public Policy. Here’s a brief account of the studies Van Loan’s office says are in the mix, which suggests the sorts of recommendations Uppal is presumably mulling:
- On April 30 Elections Canada released its interim report on the problem of temporary election officers at polling stations failing to properly follow the rules for overseeing voting. This was the issue raised by the court cases over the 2011 election result in the Toronto riding of Etobicoke Centre. The Supreme Court of Canada allowed the Tory win there to stand, but identified mistakes made concerning who was allowed to vote. The report suggests a range of solutions, including practical ideas like holding elections on Saturday to broaden the pool of potential polling-station workers.
- On March 27 Elections Canada released its report on preventing deceptive calls to voters during elections campaigns, like the ones in 2011 that directed many to the wrong polling locations. This report also touched on other skullduggery, such as “illicit fundraising methods.” The report makes many recommendations, including requiring parties, riding associations, candidates and others to report on their use of telemarketing services, and turn over all documents when Elections Canada asks for them. (Van Loan’s office says Elections Canada’s earlier report from last fall on the same broad issues is also being considered.)
- On March 15 IRPP released the results of a round-table discussion it held into the issues raised by the robocalls affair. Elections Canada incorporated many of the IRPP’s ideas into its report. The Montréal think-tank highlighted some key points, notably that any new rules shouldn’t just crack down on dishonest campaigning, but also promote transparency and protect privacy by forcing disclosure of even legitimate communications between parties and voters. As well, the IRPP proposed the novel notion of asking the federal parties to negotiate a voluntary code of conduct amongst themselves—or having one imposed if they fail to do so.
Skeptics will wonder, no doubt, if the government is really taking time to seriously consider putting far-reaching ideas like the ones in these reports into its legislation. Another possibility is that whatever Uppal presented to caucus was already viewed by Conservative MPs as too much new power for Mayrand, who is viewed by some of them as an antagonist to be constrained, rather than a watchdog who needs more scope.
Still, I think it’s worth having it clearly on the record that the government says it is working to “incorporate all the input,” as Van Loan puts it, from these reports into its reforms. Whenever Uppal’s legislation finally sees the light of day, his proposals can fairly be judged in terms of how thoroughly they synthesize the best recommendations from all this intriguing raw material.