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The Salon is ONW's weekly gathering place where three of Canada's brightest and most respected political strategists - John Capobianco, Joe Cressy and Richard Mahoney - come together to analyze national issues affecting Ontario.

Former Reform Party leader Preston Manning is publicly criticizing the federal Conservatives' Fair Elections Act, saying it should be amended.  And the opposition parties call it mean-spirited and a ploy to re-elect Stephen Harper's government. We asked our ONW Salon experts to comment:

Richard Mahoney:

You can usually count on most governments to do things that don't enrage or inflame. Political parties generally carry a self-preservation gene that moderates excessive behaviour, or, worse, nastiness. But sometimes governments do things that inadvertently reveal the true secrets of their real natures.

I think the Fair Elections Act is an example of that. The Harper government fears the upcoming report on the so-called robo-calls or voter fraud issue - as they should. If an investigation finds any culpability of the Conservative Party, it would be more than the beginning of the end.

But that fear, and their hyper-partisanship, has led the government to make some serious errors of judgment in the framing of the Fair Elections Act. I think they would be wise to pause, consider a number of amendments, or risk being branded seriously as anti-democratic autocrats.

Joe Cressy:

I have to agree with Richard on this one. It seems Stephen Harper and the Conservative government borrowed the playbook from the more radical Tea Party types south of the border on the (un)Fair Elections Act.

This Act was supposed to go after those who orchestrated the widespread voter fraud in the last election.  Instead, they proposed a bill that disenfranchises those in our society who are less likely to vote Conservative, a bill that limits the power of Elections Canada to ensure a level playing field, and they did all this unilaterally by shutting down debate in Parliament.

The way in which the Conservatives handled this Act really does represent the worst of this government. A government that takes an issue such as the Elections Act, which should be about all-party consensus, and turns it into partisan play for votes.  A government that deliberately attempts to suppress the vote of those less likely to vote for them. And a government that at times proves itself to be simply mean-spirited.

John Capobianco:

I think it is critical for any government to review various acts and legislation to ensure they are keeping with the time and to close any potential loopholes that may have been created to the disadvantage of the system. I can understand why both Joe and Richard are critical of the government's move to close certain loopholes within the Act, but the government is acting on principle and addressing concerns from MP's and voters.

Actually, it's more of a frustration in some cases than concern. I was a candidate in the 2004 and 2006 federal elections and have heard from many folks then and now about how the system is not working. That there were situations where voter turnout had increased so much from previous elections that many became concerned.

This is why this government is taking the brave decision to pass the Fair Elections Act.

Richard Mahoney:

John, I like you and have respect for you and your opinion. But there is nothing brave about this.

There are many issues that we need to address in our electoral process. But this Act fails to address, and, in fact, exacerbates the two most critical flaws.

The first is the reality that the Federal Court found, as a matter of fact, that a “deliberate attempt at voter suppression” took place “across the country” during the 2011 general election that was targeted at non-Conservative Party supporters, and identified the Conservative Party’s database as the most likely source of information for those efforts.

This is hugely important. Putting aside what that finding does to the ethical reputation of the Conservatives, it completely undermines confidence in the fairness of our system.

This Act, if it becomes law, would do absolutely nothing to increase accountability for misuse of the Conservative database, or that of any political party. It also forbids the Commissioner of Elections from letting the public know about vote fraud as it is happening.

This is unacceptable, as it makes the government appear to ignore or encourage law breaking, and threatens to undermine fair elections. It fails to hold politicians and parties accountable for the kind of vote fraud that happened last time.

Joe Cressy:

As with most things, and with this Act in particular, the details matter. So, let’s unpack the details of this Act.

Fact: the Act disenfranchises voters who don’t have a fixed address or government issued identification. A fact that impacts young people, First Nations, and those with lower incomes especially hard.

Fact: the Act will not result in higher voter turnout, which is an actual problem that needs addressing. Instead it bans advertising by Elections Canada aimed at public education and young voters.

Fact: the Act does not address the issues raised by the widespread voter fraud in the last election. Instead the bill fails to give the Commissioner of Elections Canada the power to get additional financial information from parties without a court order.

Fact: the Conservative Minister for Democratic Reform, Pierre Poilievre, didn’t event consult with the Chief Electoral Officer on the details of this sweeping bill.

Fact: In response to the proposed Act, the Chief Electoral Officer of Elections Canada criticized the Act saying the following: “My reading of the Act is that I can no longer speak about democracy in this country." The details matter.

John Capobianco:

I will not tolerate anything to do with voter suppression in any form (I certainly didn't when I was a candidate), including through robocalls, and I know this government spoke out very harshly on this as well. No political party condones this kind of behaviour. This Act is meant to level the playing field and protect voters from these sorts of rogue calls.

This Act is also intended to give law enforcement (the Commissioner) more power to seek tougher penalties, not only for exiting offences, but the independence to investigate future issues and complaints. And most of all, it is meant to prevent voter fraud.

The fact of the matter is that the 'vouching' system has been an issue at the polling stations for many years and has caused many complaints from candidates' scrutineers and election officials. The Act clearly states that to vote you must have proper ID...and not just the voter information cards. Most think this is reasonable.

Richard Mahoney:

There are tougher penalties in the Act. A good thing, I think. But as pointed out, the ability to enforce and expose these efforts in time to be of use to Canadians is not there. It does not increase accountability for party officials for doing the kind of vote suppression, using the Conservative database, that the Federal Court found happened in the last election.

Having gone through some of the flaws of the Act here, the question arises as to what should happen now.

Not everything in the Act is objectionable. But the flaws are significant enough that the government should go back to the drawing board.  It should, as previous governments have done when significant changes to our electoral rules and process are contemplated, strike an all-party process to come up with a consensus on dealing with these issues. That would instill confidence and deal with the suggestion that the Conservatives are up to something nasty here.

Secondly, the experts at Elections Canada should be consulted. They are an impartial referee of the process and are experts. They are not perfect, but they have a lot more credibility in these matters than Pierre Poilievre does, or a political party under investigation does. Change can be achieved but this is no way to do it.

Joe Cressy:

The truth is we do have some real problems when it comes to elections in our country, and the biggest one in my opinion is low voter turnout. We should be exploring ways to engage citizens in elections and the democratic process – between and during elections. We should be exploring best practices from other countries on how to increase voter turnout. This Act did none of that. The Act identified solutions in search of problems.

I think the Act was an incredible missed opportunity because there are many practical things we could be doing as a country to improve elections and turnout.

For instance, Internet voting. We bank online and many municipalities in Ontario already have the option of online voting. Why not look at a pilot study?

Weekend voting.  For every other major event in the country (whether it’s the Santa Clause Parade or a march) we do it on the weekend. Why not consider weekend voting?

It seems to me that the Conservatives weren’t interested in dealing with actual problems with this Act. It was political. It was mean-spirited. And, it was a huge missed opportunity for politicians of all stripes to come together to deal seriously with democratic reform.

John Capobianco:

Richard, I agree there could always be a better way to present changes to legislation. I wish that Parliament worked better and that all the parties would collaborate on these types of significant changes, but you know the reality is that it doesn't work that way.

That said, this Act is important and the changes will make a significant difference in the electoral process. Can it be better? Sure, but at least this government is addressing some concerns they have been hearing about for some time.

I like Joe's thinking on what we can do to improve voter turnout - I do agree that is a huge issue and hopefully this Act can help in getting more folks to vote. But I seriously believe we need to fix the current system before we try out new things like Internet voting. The fact that there are more opportunities for advance voting has helped, but just not enough.

About The Salon

John Capobianco is a former CPC candidate and long-time party activist in both the federal and Ontario Conservative parties; Richard Mahoney is a former Liberal advisor to Rt. Hon. Paul Martin; Joe Cressy sits as on the NDP federal council and has chaired numerous NDP campaigns at all government levels.
Posted date : March 05, 2014

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