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Fair Elections Act democratically suspect

Posted on April 9, 2014 by Taber Times

There are few things more troubling in an established democracy than attempts to undermine the few things that make them great. We know, of course, that democracies aren’t perfect. There are aspects of “the system” that are far from what anyone would describe as equitable or in the best interests of every citizen — despite the professed best efforts of our many elected representatives.

We take the bad with the good, because the alternatives — at least still here in the early 21st century — are not exactly desirable from the perspective of personal freedom. Admittedly, there are things that are viewed  as attractive about authoritarian-style systems, which essentially amount to extreme solutions decisively acted upon for economic, social and military problems.

Enter any coffee shop across the country and you are bound to encounter at least one table where individuals are advocating for how they would decisively “run things” and are irritated by “red tape.” Unfortunately, so-called “red tape” is often the kinds of checks and balances that distinguish a democracy from a dictatorship — which tends to illustrate that radical solutions don’t always seem to be radical among wide swaths of the population. Just what is considered radical and what isn’t is a matter of perspective. What many Westerners might think about Quebec, for instance, might seem downright fascist to those walking the streets in Quebec City or Montreal, and vice versa.

There seems to be a growing sympathy in many democracies to dispense with anything that would require citizens to actually participate. The idea that government should just “take care of things” so that everyday people don’t need to “be involved” with voting or any of their other democratic duties is a concept so drastically flawed and rife with apathy it beggars the imagination.          

And yet growing numbers seem to be embracing it without realizing the fatal Catch-22 — things will not continue to remain the same in your democracy if you abdicate all of your rights in favour of something less democratic.

The attraction of undemocratic forms of government to succeeding generations of people around the world is a disturbing avenue of thought that seems to rear its head in democracies where people have never experienced its excesses. The idea can seem attractive, but it has rarely — if ever — matched the reality. The eventual failure of dictatorships have been proven to be written into their very DNA. They are violently opposed to change, blind to their own failures, and tend to offer little in exchange for their single-minded dominance and limited freedom of thought and expression. So why does the idea never seem to go away?

Today, the real threat to democracies seems to be the stripping away of democratic principles and values in place of something less, while still preserving the democratic pomp and circumstance like window-dressing for the public.

Slowly instituting reforms that tend to help entrench established political parties at the expense of more upstart political movements seems to be a quietly unstated policy goal of the current federal government, if recent events are any evidence.

While perhaps not about to usher in an era of enthusiastic goose-stepping and mandatory spontaneous celebrations in Ottawa, the federal Conservatives’ new Fair Elections Act is being attacked in many quarters as a dangerous leap in the wrong direction, instituting new election rules that have been suggested to be anything but “fair.”

Provisions in Bill C-23 would boost current spending limits for political parties during election campaigns, an inclusion that would seem to be directed at giving the Conservatives an upper hand, as they certainly represent the most affluent of federal political parties.

The imposition of strict spending limits in Canada has in the past been an attempt to maintain a level playing field between federal political parties, something that would be undermined by Bill C-23. Huge bankrolls and virtually unlimited campaign spending has been instrumental in creating a heavily-entrenched two-party system in our neighbouring democracy in everything but name.

Diversity of political thought and expression should never be viewed as a negative in any democracy. In fact, it can often make democracies much stronger — being confronted by the left makes those on the right much more conscious of their policy choices and the decisions that they make. That, in a nutshell, is perhaps the greatest advantage of a multi-party system.

Bill C-23 would also seem to be a veiled attack on Elections Canada, an organization which has been no friend of the Harper Conservatives. The independent agency exposed the Conservatives’ illegal in-and-out method used to exceed campaign spending limits in 2006, helped topple former cabinet minister Peter Penashue for illegal over-spending, and is still hot on the trail of the robocalls scandal that directed mostly non-Conservative voters to incorrect polling stations during the 2011 election.

The Fair Elections Act would move the commissioner of elections, who investigates violations and enforces the Canada Election Act, from an independent position and place it under the Director of Public Prosecutions, and will limit what can be discussed publicly about investigations.

Another troubling inclusion would prohibit the use of voter information cards as one of the documents voters can use to identify themselves at polling stations, as well as the ability of individuals to vouch for the identity of voters without proper identification. More than 120,000 voters are estimated to have relied on vouching in 2011, which is raising questions about how many voters might be effectively disenfranchised under Bill C-23.

The Conservatives have maintained a stonewall defence of the bill since its inception, despite heavy opposition coming from federal and provincial elections watchdogs, academics and electoral experts, not to mention opposition political parties.

Bill C-23 might seem to be a far cry from undermining fundamental democratic principles in Canada. But the slippery slope argument does hold water when it comes to stripping away the freedoms of an electorate. It is rare indeed to encounter a regime that institutes the wholesale elimination of a society’s established rights overnight — at least not regimes that outlast that night.

Notably, some individuals might point out that what is being proposed here are only minor changes to electoral laws which do not directly impact an individual’s fundamental rights or freedoms.

But allowing Canada’s richer political parties more freedom to spend those dollars doesn’t exactly enhance our political choices at the ballot box. Limiting Elections Canada’s independence doesn’t exactly increase our confidence in the democratic process. And potentially disenfranchising more than a 100,000 voters doesn’t make our electoral system a new paragon of equality.

So the real question isn’t who doesn’t benefit from some of the more suspect inclusions in Bill C-23. The question is who does?

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