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

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's "Fair Elections Act" is now running into obstacles even from his own Conservative Senators. Are amendments necessary and if so, what should they be? 

Marit Stiles:

Well, first let me say it ain't being called the "Unfair Elections Act" for nothing. This is a frightening piece of legislation that undermines the fundamental (and likely Charter) rights of Canadians, threatening to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters. The Senate has taken the highly unusual position of 'pre-studying' the Bill, which speaks to both its highly contentious and also the Senate's desire to seem relevant and useful while under considerable scrutiny.

Are these amendments necessary? Absolutely, and at the very least. Will the government take the bait? Let's hope so. This is the kind of change/legislation that really should merit multi-partisan, national consultations. All Canadians should have a say. It's an insight into the truly cynical approach of the Conservative government that they would try to bring in changes like this without any such conversation.

Can the Senate push the government to amend the legislation? Not really. But they can hold up the process. They can delay this Bill becoming law. They can refuse to pass it and then push it back to the government.

It is pretty significant that the Senate - including Harper's own handpicked Senators - are saying this Bill doesn't cut it. But at the end of the day, the Senate can do little to stop the Bill from eventually passing in whatever form the Government wants it.

Blair McCreadie:

Unfortunately, this is indicative of much of the overblown melodrama surrounding this bill. I appreciate that the opposition parties want to drive a certain narrative around the government and, unfortunately, that narrative appears to be overtaking what are, I think, some common sense reforms to elections law.

Protecting the integrity of the voting process is important, and I think that there is also likely common ground around toughening the penalties for those who break elections laws.

As an activist, I also think that the legislation's push to clarify elections rules for all parties and candidates is well placed. That said, all of those points are currently being lost in the public discourse. The Minister has publicly said that he's open to constructive amendments; hopefully, this Senate report creates an opportunity to turn down the temperature a bit and refocus on some of the needed reforms in this bill. .

Richard Mahoney:

When the Conservative government talks about protecting the integrity of the voting process, most neutral observers and experts are highly sceptical. First of all, there is no evidence, none, that "vouching" has been abused in the past, or that a significant amount of vote fraud exists, at least as it pertains to vouching. That is what experts say.

On the other hand, we have had serious issues recently in Canadian elections that deserve attention. First of all, the Conservative Party of Canada was convicted of Elections Act violations in the 2006 election when they overspent their limit on advertising by over a million dollars.

Secondly, the 2011 election saw attempts at fraud, through the robocall affair. Investigations into that continue, and one charge has been laid. The Federal Court of Canada has found that the Conservative database was used in those attempts at misdirecting voters. So if the Conservatives were serious about protecting integrity, they would start there.

The most sensible thing said so far is the commitment that Justin Trudeau has made to scrap this Act if it is passed by this Parliament and should he become Prime Minister following the next election.

The Act itself, and the process around it, is beyond repair at this point.

Marit Stiles:

Blair, I find it hard to take the Minister's "openness to constructive amendments" seriously after the way he has so publicly -- and very inappropriately -- gone after even the Chief Electoral Officer.

This is a government that has shown repeatedly their disregard for the rules that govern our elections, as Richard notes. Just last night, I was on a national TV panel when a Conservative strategist proclaimed she would be happy to see this become an issue in the next election because no one cares. That's a very telling comment. At the end of the day, the Conservative government knows that these changes will absolutely disenfranchise some voters - particularly students, youth, the homeless - and these are voters that generally don't vote Conservative. It's a very calculated and shortsighted move on their part.

Notwithstanding the Conservative government's interest in ramming this Bill through, we can still hope that there may be some amendments and the Senate's attempts are welcome. But we can't count on the Senate to fix this problem. Anyone concerned about the Unfair Elections Act should not be waiting for the next election. It really must be stopped now.

It's odd that the Liberals would appear to be throwing in the towel so soon. They always fall back on the "elect us and we'll fix this" line. The fight is now.

Blair McCreadie:

Richard's comments underscore the problem with the current debate over this bill. It's become highly personalized among the stakeholders involved - on all sides - and, unfortunately, the substance of the reforms is being drowned out by inflammatory discourse.

My personal view is that the Senate report may give the government an opportunity to take a "time out" and reframe the debate; hopefully, the Minister will seize upon that opportunity to move forward with some of the key reforms envisioned in the draft legislation.


Richard Mahoney:

Other problems with the Act include removing the mandate of Elections Canada to encourage turnout and to speak out publicly on the process, the appointment of partisans as election officials, and the obvious failure to give greater investigative teeth to the Commissioner of Elections.

The biggest problem with the Act is that the Conservative government, through its own pigheadedness, has seriously injured the process. Serious changes to the act are being proposed by a Minister who does not listen to the other parties and failed to consult the head of Elections Canada and the Commissioner. When opinions are offered by officers of Parliament, the very people Parliament appoints to be above and beyond the process, the Conservatives attack them.

How can Canadians have any faith that this is about "fair" elections, when it reeks of partisan rancour and advantage?

The Salon pays tribute to Jim Flaherty:


Blair McCreadie:

He had the courage to stand up for the things that he believed to be important, even when another road more travelled might have been more expedient.  And, having achieved success at the highest levels of government, both at Queen’s Park and on Parliament Hill, he never forgot the values that led him to public life; the community that he served; or the responsibility of government to help people who, through no fault of their own, face unique barriers or challenges.  

Although there has been much commentary about Jim Flaherty’s legacy in recent days, I think that the depth and genuine outpouring of affection from his current and former colleagues from across the political spectrum is, in itself, a measure of Jim’s accomplishments and the significant impact he had on those around him.  At this very difficult time, I only hope that Christine and her three sons, John, Galen and Quinn, find some comfort in this profound sense of shared loss.  Jim’s contributions both to public life and within our party will be missed.

Marit Stiles:

I was a young staffer in the Harris Government days, and Jim Flaherty came into that Government with a right-wing agenda that saw some terribly regressive laws enacted in Ontario ... Those were not very pleasant times. The tenor of debate at Queen's Park was nasty and difficult. There was none of the camaraderie and cross-partisan work across the aisle that used to characterize relations between parties.

So, it's been very interesting over the last few years to see how he evolved. Because, surprisingly, even politicians can evolve and mature. And while maybe his politics may not have changed, his relations to his colleagues did.

The outpouring of respect and affection from all sides of the House of Commons has come as no surprise. He had opened up and was listening. He wouldn't necessarily take the actions other Parties wanted, but he was respectful. That matters in politics as in life.

And one last note: I thought it was terribly gutsy of him to put the brakes - even if only temporarily - on the Conservatives' income splitting scheme. It's not often that a Minister in this government steps outside the bounds, but he took the chance.  

Richard Mahoney:

I have had the pleasure of knowing Jim Flaherty since his time in Ontario politics. In the Harris cabinet, he was a fiery partisan, known to be on the right of his party. When he went to federal politics, he seemed to grow into more of a statesman. He was funny, kind and often considerate. I remember gracious things that he did towards me and others - showing up at a fundraiser for my nomination years ago, kind remarks here and there in public events.

What it says to me is that you can hold your beliefs strongly, and have serious policy disagreements, but you don't have to demonize your opponents. Jim taught us that you could be gracious and friendly, and still get the job done. His loss is tragic to his friends and family, but it also leaves a hole in the Conservative party and governments. There are not enough people like Jim Flaherty around these days. He will be missed.


About The Salon

Richard Mahoney is a former Liberal advisor to Rt. Hon. Paul Martin; Marit Stiles is a federal and Ontario NDP strategist; and Blair McCreadie is past president of the Ontario PC Party (2002-2008) and a partner with Dentons Canada LLP.
Posted date : April 16, 2014

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