Elections Bill Fires Up Critics

Tories struggle to defend against accusations of ill intent
February 26, 2014 Updated: February 26, 2014

News Analysis

PARLIAMENT HILL—The Conservatives are continuing to face heated criticism as the controversial Fair Elections Act becomes a lightning rod for critics.

The ambitious bill runs 250 pages but has too many measures that raise questions about intent. Those questions have fuelled criticism the new act is meant to help the Conservatives keep their troubles with Elections Canada under wraps while simultaneously dissuading voters unlikely to cast a ballot for the blue team.

It’s a narrative the Tories have struggled to quell while critics have used it to breathe new life into past controversies. A provision of the bill that would limit Elections Canada from discussing ongoing investigations has the opposition charging the Tories are trying to keep dirty laundry—like the robocalls investigation—hidden in the closet. 

It’s the kind of allegation that strikes at the heart of a party’s credibility and one the Conservatives have been challenged to counter. That means the longer debate about the bill drags out, the more harm it could inflict on the Conservative brand. 

There are points where the government has mustered a defensible position. For example, critics have charged the bill opens a major loophole to campaign expense limits by exempting certain fundraising efforts from expenditures counted as campaign expenses. 

But the change limits those fundraising efforts to targeting past donors and the bill gives Elections Canada the ability to review those efforts to make sure parties aren’t campaigning under the guise of fundraising.

That’s not to say parties couldn’t use fundraising during a campaign as an indirect way to get out the vote, but the change is far less dramatic than some critics would suggest.

But other changes to election rules have left the government hard pressed to offer a compelling explanation. 

Harder to Vote

For example, the NDP is charging that a change that would prohibit voters from using Elections Canada voter cards as ID to cast a ballot would make it unnecessarily harder for those such as the poor, aboriginals, and youth to vote. Worse, those very same people are less likely to vote Conservative.

Earlier this week, Tory MP Brad Butt was forced to apologize for false statements he made that he had seen people pull voter cards out of recycling bins in a scheme to use them to commit voter fraud. 

That scenario prompted NDP leader Thomas Mulcair to ask: “Does the prime minister have any actual evidence of voter fraud, or just bogus stories from Conservative backbenchers?”

While Stephen Harper countered that there were 39 different pieces of ID a person could use to vote, his inability to immediately offer up a real example of voter fraud involving the cards let Mulcair carry the narrative. 

It’s that kind of scenario—played out repeatedly—that has made the debate around the Fair Elections Act a difficult one for the Tories to dominate. Pierre Poilievre, the Minister of State for Democratic Reform, has gone as far as directly quoting the act in question period. Unfortunately, citing the legal language of the bill, which depends entirely on its context, is not the kind of defence the Tories need to mount to appease concerns.

Poilievre says the new act “would keep everyday Canadians in charge of democracy by putting special interests on the sidelines and rule breakers out of business. It would close loopholes to big money, crack down on fraudulent voting, and bring in jail time for political impostors who make illegal rogue calls.” 

While all of that may be true, it doesn’t address the core concerns critics are raising.

United Opposition

Concerns appear to be mounting. While some Tory MPs say they haven’t heard anything from constituents about the act, more than 50,000 Canadians have signed a petition to have it stopped.

NDP, Green, and Liberal MPs helped present that petition on Tuesday. The petition drive was organized by left-leaning citizen’s group Lead Now, which has framed the act as American-style voter suppression.

The NDP had wanted to capitalize on the concerns by holding committee hearings on the bill in cities across the country. A motion to that effect was voted down in the House of Commons on Tuesday, meaning the bill will be reviewed in the normal way in committee hearings on Parliament Hill.

But while the government has fast-tracked it through the House so far, the Conservative lead on the committee, Tom Lukiwski, Poilievre’s parliamentary secretary, has pledged the opposition can call any witnesses they like to testify at committee. He also promised as many as a dozen hearings, and that those hearings could even go over time. 

Assuming the opposition calls powerful witnesses and the hearings are not held in-camera behind closed doors, that scenario could further drag out the debate and offer critics more ammunition. 

Of course, if the Conservative MPs on the committee can call their own compelling witnesses there’s always the chance they could make a better case for the Fair Elections Act. That would likely come as a relief to those worried the bill is overly motivated by partisan politics.