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Harper’s ‘Fair Elections Act’ prompts concerns

The Toronto Star reports, “Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government is set to finally unveil measures to clean up Canada’s election laws — nearly three years after an election plagued with spending abuses and alleged voter-suppression schemes. …Pierre Poilievre, the Minister of State for Democratic Reform, will be placing the law before the Commons on Tuesday morning (at 10:30 am EST).”

In what’s proving to be the first controversial aspect of this bill, “Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand has been asking for tougher election laws for several years now, but his office said on Monday the government had not consulted with Elections Canada on the contents of the new bill.”

Liberal MP Ralph Goodale says, “It’s ominous. Given their track record with Elections Canada, which has been confrontational right from day one, and then resentful and now may have moved to vindictive, it’s significant that they have prepared this without any meaningful discussion with anyone at Elections Canada.” NDP democratic reform critic Craig Scott says, “The party that lies behind this government has proved to be extremely creative in how it’s tried to get around election rules. I have no confidence that this party doesn’t have other tricks up its sleeve if we don’t have a much better Canada Elections Act.” 

No details about the bill have been released yet, but Poilievre has said, “The fair elections act would keep everyday citizens in charge of democracy by putting special interests on the sidelines and rule-breakers out of the game altogether. It will give law enforcement sharper teeth, a longer reach and a freer hand, and it will crack down on and close loopholes to big money in politics.”

But the Canadian Press already critically notes “Mayrand has long been calling for reforms, including tighter reporting rules on automated phone calls during election campaigns, penalties for impersonating election officials, stronger investigative powers and more protections for voter privacy. The government was poised to introduce a bill last April but balked at the last minute after Conservative MPs who were briefed on its contents objected to some of the measures.”

Additionally, there are concerns being expressed about the compromised independence of the commissioner of Canada Elections under this new act, and the impact it might have on third-party groups. Postmedia News reports, “Conservative sources expect the government to make significant changes to the agency’s investigative office, which has caused repeated headaches for the party by prosecuting Conservatives for alleged Elections Act violations. The official in charge of enforcing the Elections Act – the commissioner of Canada Elections – is now appointed by the chief electoral officer. The bill is expected to change that, providing for the commissioner to be appointed by the Director of Public Prosecutions, who reports to the justice minister. …Since corporate and union donations are already banned, one left-leaning group, leadnow.ca, speculated that the government will move to control political advocacy by third-party groups.”

“The Conservatives promised the bill during the height of the ‘robocalls’ affair in March 2012, voting unanimously for an NDP motion that called for the government to bring in a new bill — within six months — to give more power to Elections Canada to prevent and prosecute election crimes. The six-month deadline slipped by quietly.” And now, time is tight. iPolitics notes, “Mayrand has said the government needs to introduce changes by Spring 2014 in order to be prepared for a 2015 election. …The bill is slated to be debated on Wednesday, one day after it is to be tabled (which is an unusual practice).”

This morning, the Council of Canadians issued a media release noting eight points that should be reflected in the new Fair Elections Act “in order for it to have real teeth”.