The sketch: Kids, this is how we met our new elections law

The Fair Elections Act is now about protecting stay-at-home moms from undue red tape

Why does the NDP want to make life miserable for the old people and stay-at-home moms who sustain our democratic heritage as they selflessly give of themselves to political parties?

More specifically, does C-23, the so-dubbed Fair Elections Act do enough to provide oversight of the phone calls that political parties make during election campaigns?

The NDP’s Craig Scott attempted (twice) yesterday to explore what the New Democrats believe to be an unfortunate loophole in the legislation, only to be resoundingly scolded (twice) by the minister of democratic reform. But where yesterday the minister referred only to a senior calling to ask if a supporter might put up a lawn sign, today, provoked by a reference to the issue by the NDP’s Megan Leslie, Pierre Poilievre upped the pathos.

“If she is asking me whether I am going to support the NDP’s idea to force volunteers who are making daily calls out of campaign offices,” Mr. Poilievre explained, “most of them seniors, stay-at-home moms, and other local citizens who are taking part in democracy, to register with a national telecommunications regulator, the answer is absolutely not. We will never bury Canadians in that kind of red tape.”

Consider it now the Fair Elections And Ensuring Enduring Freedom From Red Tape For Old People And Moms Act. With a name like that it would be impossible to oppose.

There would seem to be a distinct difference of interpretation here. And the possibility of resolving each and every of the disputes that now exist over the proper functioning of our electoral system seems slim. At present, it is not even clear to what degree the government would consider certain options for the purposes of a compromise on just one (vouching) of the half dozen issues (the election commissioner’s situation and powers, the use of voter information cards, the fundraising expense exemption, the ability of the chief electoral officer to communicate, the retention of phone records) that have received the most attention over the last month and a half.

Perhaps the solution is to run concurrent elections in 2015, or perhaps a few practice elections before the official vote. Perhaps we could run one election under C-23’s rules and another under the rules proposed by C-23’s critics and then we could judge which design worked best. Or perhaps we could ask voters to only vote under their preferred system and then we could run duelling parliaments based on each system’s results.

Or perhaps that would be silly.

Is there anything to Paul Thomas’ argument that this is no way to go about reforming electoral law? Possibly. There is something to be said for the will of the majority of the House of Commons, and there is something wonderful about the nature of oppositional debate, and ministers are entitled to their views, but possibly the conception, birth and life of the Fair Elections Act have not been idyllic. You might mount the same complaint about various other pieces of legislation, but perhaps the fundamental nature of these laws should require a specific touch. Though we could have a longer debate here about whether we would necessarily end up with better law through compromise or cross-party cooperation.

That the minister seems to have not meaningfully consulted with any of this country’s authorities in this area, not run his ideas by any of those who might’ve quibbled or suggested alternatives, at least seems to somewhat weaken his position. It might have produced the sorts of compromises that have only emerged in committee hearings—for instance, Harry Neufeld’s alternatives to vouching—and thus saved everyone some grief, but even if not, it would have at least given him a chance to say he had heard out experienced minds and found their arguments wanting.

Should you, even if you are not prone to do so, allow for the possibility that, whatever the criticism and whatever the sources of that criticism, the government has some valid points here? Yes. We can’t simply show deference to the complainants, but must weigh the proposals and the concerns.

Erin O’Toole, a parliamentary secretary who has been participating in the C-23 committee hearings, was asked this morning by reporters how he could explain why various electoral officers opposed his bill. On this count, Mr. O’Toole deferred to the insight of Harry Neufeld, whose recommendations the government otherwise rejects. “Mr. Neufeld suggested that any time that you try and raise substantial changes to a system, you’re going to have resistence,” Mr. O’Toole explained, presumably in reference to a passage contained on page 24 of Mr. Neufeld’s report. “He said that clearly in his report, which is why governments in the past have not ruled on these things.  But one of the things I like most about our government is we’re bold and we’re willing to go and move on to important reforms like these.”

So perhaps this can be sold as the government standing strong against the vast forces of electoral-officer timidity and inertia.

As it is, you have something like the census fight of four years ago: a government being “bold,” while nearly every expert in the field objects (and any talk of compromise is mostly secondary to the sturm und drang).

With the concerns of the elections commissioner put on the record last night, Thomas Mulcair accused the government this afternoon of potentially stymying current investigations “against the Conservative party.” The Prime Minister responded that “all matters, including the various irregularities that we have seen under the NDP, will be investigated.” And off we went, each side attempting to explain why the other had behaved most dishonourably, with all of the gesturing and hollering and applauding that involves.

Ms. Leslie and Mr. Poilievre managed to talk past each other on the matter of vouching and there was a discussion about the applicability of American voter identification laws. The NDP’s Craig Scott wondered why Mr. Poilievre had not consulted with the commissioner and the minister mused that the commissioner would be newly independent because, in part, he could not be fired and Mr. Scott pointed to the section of C-23 that suggests the commissioner could be fired and a discussion of voter information cards then ensued, in which the minister declared that “there are regular reports of people receiving multiple cards and using them to vote multiple times,” a claim that would seem to be definitively supported by only the cases of these two people in 2011 (though Conservatives would argue that Elections Canada is unable to detect and confirm fraud anyway)*.

At one point, Ms. Leslie would wonder if the government might agree to withdraw the bill and “work with us” to draft a new bill, a suggestion that seemed to draw some guffaws from the Conservative side.

After Question Period, the NDP would attempt to move a motion that would have the House expand the purview of the committee studying the bill to allow it to consider amendments related to the elections commissioner’s ability to compel testimony—a procedural allowance made necessary, in the official opposition’s view, because after a bill has passed at second reading, a committee’s freedom to amend the legislation is somewhat limited. But the Conservatives would respond with their own motions—that a member now be heard and that the House proceed immediately to orders of the day—that would block any vote on the NDP’s motion for the moment.

Is this all a bit silly? Perhaps. But at least maybe the Fair Elections Act has lived up to its promise as an educational example for the youth whose participation was, at some point, part of the discussion here. Kids, democracy is silly. And this is the story of how we met our new election laws. (Presumably, whatever happens, our democracy won’t die at the end.)

There are, it must be stressed, advantages to making our laws this way. All sides are given a chance to offer their views. Vigorous debate tests both the participants and the arguments. And, in cases such as this, there is a clear line of responsibility. If 2015 comes and goes with C-23 in substantially the same order that it is now, it and its ramifications—however large or small, however good or bad—will be the responsibility of the minister and the government who tabled it and stood by it.


*I’ve asked Mr. Poilievre’s office for clarification on the fire-ability of the commissioner and voter information card abuse and will update if necessary.