"Fair" Elections Act?

Ted Hsu
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I was supposed to give a speech about Bill C-23 in the House of Commons. Unfortunately, the Conservative government put a four day time limit on debate, called “time allocation”. Then the NDP compounded the problem by putting forward a series of procedural motions to protest the Conservative’s use of time allocation. I think that the Conservatives are wrong to use time allocation on such an important bill. C-23 was tabled last Tuesday, and debate started the very next day. We didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for this debate on a 252-page piece of legislation, but, because of the series of NDP protest votes, we actually have even less time. So, rather than give a speech in the House, here is an abbreviated online statement:

elections canada

I’ve been listening closely to the debates about Bill C-23, the so-called “Fair Elections Act”. I’ve been really struck by the sports analogies that keep coming up: the Red team versus the Blue team versus the Orange team; the referee being taken “off the ice,” the general idea that somehow this is a competition and there can be a winner. But I believe that when it comes to democratic rights, we are all actually on the same side.

I believe that we all have the privilege and duty to represent the interests of all our constituents, not just those who support our respective parties. We may differ in terms of how we represent the best interests of Canadians, but I am confident that we all agree that the right to vote is a cornerstone of a democratic society, and a fundamental right that must be protected. I am proud that the right to vote is, in fact, preserved under Section 3 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which clearly states that “every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of the members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.”

That’s why I’m a bit confused about some of the amendments to the Canada Elections Act proposed in Bill C-23, the Fair Elections Act. The bill is 252 pages long and there are some discrepancies between the English and French versions, so it’s possible that maybe some of the amendments I find troubling made it in to this new legislation by accident.

The Good

I’ll start out by saying that there are some parts of this bill that are important steps forward. There are changes that will make automated phone calls (a.k.a robocalls) more transparent and will increase penalties for their misuse. We have to do everything we can to make sure that no Canadians are disenfranchised due to abuse of this technology.

Bill C-23 also increases the fines for violating the Elections Act. In 2012, my colleague, Dominic Leblanc, the Liberal Party House Leader, put forward Bill C-424, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act, which proposed raising the fines for violating the Elections Act.  I’m happy to see this built in to this new legislation, even though the bill failed when the Conservative Party voted against it a year and a half ago.

The Bad

But there are also a lot of problems with this bill. First of all, it changes the donation limits. Right now, individuals can donate $1200 to registered parties, registered associations, candidates and nomination and leadership contestants. This legislation proposes bumping this limit up to $1500, and by another $25 each year after that. I think the current donation limits are completely reasonable, and I see no reason to raise them. People who have the financial ability to donate $1,200 to a political party aren’t the ones who need help to engage in politics. Participation in politics should not be linked to financial capacity.

Under the current rules, the $1200 limit also applies to candidates and leadership contestants, but Bill C-23 raises the amount that one can contribute to one’s own campaign to $5000 and $25 000 respectively. This sets out an uneven playing field, and I don’t think that’s fair.

The Ugly

But the changes that most concern me have to do with voter outreach. Right now, Elections Canada does a lot of important, non-partisan outreach encouraging people to vote. Specifically, Elections Canada targets groups who historically have lower voter turnout rates, such as youth, Aboriginal groups, Ethno-cultural communities, and people with disabilities. I think this is some of the most important work coming out of Elections Canada. Right now, Section 18(1) of the Canada Elections Act clearly states that “The Chief Electoral Officer may implement public education and information programs to make the electoral process better known to the public, particularly those persons and groups most likely to experience difficulties in exercising their democratic rights.”

I think this Section is completely fair, and I’m baffled as to why the Fair Elections Act repeals it. Under the new legislation, the Chief Electoral Officer is only allowed to provide the public with very specific information, such as how to become a candidate or how to establish your identity and residence in order to vote.

This limits the capacity of the Chief Electoral Office to engage in public education and to promote voting – two things that I think are crucial. The Conservative Party seems to be saying that it is the responsibility of parliamentarians, political parties and candidates to encourage voting. That is true, but I see no harm in getting as many groups and individuals involved with encouraging political participation and voting. Especially given that the 2011 election is tarnished with allegations of robocalls, physical barriers keeping voters from casting their ballots and voting impropriety, I think it’s particularly important to make sure that we have groups promoting voter participation who do not have a vested interest in the election outcome, who do not have a vested interest in encouraging one group of voters to vote, nor suppressing the vote of others.

I believe that I and my colleagues from all political parties represent each and every one of our constituents – not just the ones who voted for us, or those who support our respective parties. It’s a big responsibility and all parliamentarians should be doing everything they can to encourage more involvement in the political system. I don’t think the Fair Elections Act is our government doing everything it can to ensure that everyone is able to be engaged politically. In fact, I think it is a fairly transparent attempt to further disenfranchise those who already, unfairly, have to work harder to participate in Canadian politics at the most basic, fundamental level.