The sketch: Pin the tail on the Fair Elections Act - Macleans.ca

The sketch: Pin the tail on the Fair Elections Act

Pierre Poilievre faces a second day of questions

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For the second day, the opposition attempted variously to pin an unflattering tail on the government’s new bill.

Thomas Mulcair’s opening gambit was to claim a redundancy—specifically, that the offence of impersonating an election official covered by an amendment in the new Fair Elections Act (see section 480.1 at page 185 here) was perhaps already covered by the existing Elections Act (see section 482(b) here)—and thus raise again the matter of 2011’s robocalls. Mr. Mulcair apparently wished for Mr. Harper to confirm that what happened in 2011 was, in fact, already illegal.

Presented with the suggestion that the robocalls were “Conservative” in nature, Mr. Harper dismissed the NDP leader’s questions, though he did, at one point, allow that what happened in Guelph was “probably illegal.”

Having covered what the Fair Elections Act might somehow be thought to imply about the previous election, Mr. Mulcair moved then to what the Fair Elections Act might mean for future votes.

First, the matter of vouching—a polling station option that the Conservatives would like to see eliminated.

“Mr. Speaker, the bill is more about suppressing the vote than helping people to vote,” Mr. Mulcair ventured. “Elections Canada has confirmed that there are no irregularities with the overwhelming majority of people who vote with the help of the current vouching system. If there are problems with the system, why not fix them? Why is the Prime Minister removing tools that actually help people to vote?”

The Prime Minister was unpersuaded.

“Mr. Speaker, the opposite is true,” he reported. “The Fair Elections Act lays out specifically the jobs of Elections Canada to make sure it informs people, where, when and how to vote, and what ID specifically to use at a vote.”

A short while later, the NDP’s Craig Scott returned to this point.

“Mr. Speaker, 100,000 people had their vote vouched for in the last campaign,” the NDP critic explained. “This includes aboriginal citizens, low-income people, new Canadians, students and people with disabilities. The question is why is the government making it harder for these Canadians to exercise their right to vote?”

Pierre Poilievre stood here to enthuse that the government would mandate Elections Canada “to advertise to these very people which types of identification are required to vote.” Conversely, the minister lamented that there was a 25% error rate with vouching.

“The reality is that vouching is not safe. It is not secure,” he declared. “After the elections act is passed, it will not be allowed.”

Mr. Scott was unpersuaded.

“Mr. Speaker,” he came back, “the Supreme Court said that there was no evidence that any of those irregularities occurred with people who did not have the right vote, so this is an absolute red herring.”

And so surely it will be chased.

But now, a second issue—the matter of moving the elections commissioner out of the office of Elections Canada and into the office of the director of public prosecutions. Here Mr. Scott suggested that this was moving the commissioner beyond the purview of Parliament. Mr. Poilievre scolded Mr. Scott and advised to consult the Director of Public Prosecutions Act, in which it is set out that a vote of Parliament can remove the director from office.

“That is accountability and it is also independence,” Mr. Poilievre proclaimed. The Conservatives stood and cheered and Mr. Poilievre’s seatmate, Maxime Bernier, mimed a dramatic baseball swing (presumably to suggest that a home run had just been hit).

This particular matter might deserve further parsing, but the minister is certainly handling himself well so far—speaking confidently (and without notes), seeming knowledgeable and prepared and capable of mostly responding to whatever his critics might ask. But even if the minister has had what might be described as a good couple days, his bill is still not quite beyond question.

“Mr. Speaker, Elections Canada has been working to get people without fixed addresses registered and voting. It has been doing outreach to young people and engaging first nations communities to increase voter turnout, but the Conservatives new bill slams the door on all of that very important work,” testified the NDP’s Chris Charlton awhile later. “The minister claims his bill would target special interests but in reality it would reduce Elections Canada’s powers and remove its ability to do public education. Why? Does the minister believe Elections Canada is now a special interest?”

Mr. Poilievre pleaded here that his bill would “focus” Elections Canada’s efforts.

“Mr. Speaker, half of youth in this country are unaware that they can vote by three different methods prior to election day. That number is 73% among aboriginal youth,” the minister lamented.

“The way to fix that problem is to focus Elections Canada’s advertising on providing people with information on when they can vote, advance ballots, special vote, voting by mail. Even if they were busy on election day, younger people would have an opportunity to cast a ballot if they were aware of these extra methods. The Fair Elections Act would ensure they get that information.”

If the Fair Elections Act should somehow solve the inattentiveness of youth than it will surely be remembered as one of the more important pieces of legislation in our history. But it is early days yet.