Feds mak­ing tepid changes to elec­toral laws, fail­ing to tackle the real is­sues

The Woolwich Observer - - COMMENT -

HAV­ING JUST COME THROUGH a pro­vin­cial elec­tion and, just this week, a mu­nic­i­pal vote, we have a lit­tle respite be­fore the next trip to the polls: 2019’s fed­eral race.

That elec­tion won’t fea­ture any changes to the first-past-the-post sys­tem, de­spite Justin Trudeau’s prom­ise of elec­toral re­form. He changed course in very short or­der, putting the ki­bosh on any kind of pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

What his gov­ern­ment has done, how­ever, is tin­ker at the mar­gins of the Canada Elec­tions Act, mak­ing a few use­ful changes but largely ig­nor­ing the big is­sues and ma­jor loop­holes in pro­vi­sions cover­ing the likes of po­lit­i­cal do­na­tions and mis­lead­ing cam­paigns.

Mon­day, as vot­ers in On­tario mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties went to the polls, Bill C-76 made its way back to the House of Com­mons from the Stand­ing Com­mit­tee on Pro­ce­dure and House Af­fairs. The bill stems from ef­forts to pre­vent for­eign in­ter­fer­ence in elec­tions – see, for in­stance, the likes of Rus­sian ma­nip­u­la­tion and Face­book trolling – and to reel in third-party ad­vo­cacy, es­pe­cially with for­eign ties.

Crit­ics note, how­ever, that the bill does not ad­dress do­mes­tic pro­pa­ganda, false elec­tion prom­ises and high do­na­tion lim­its that give more weight to wealthy and cor­po­rate donors.

Democ­racy Watch, which has tes­ti­fied be­fore the House com­mit­tee about Bill C-76, iden­ti­fies a long list of short­com­ings in the leg­is­la­tion. It’s call­ing on the gov­ern­ment to de­crease do­na­tion lim­its and not to in­crease the spend­ing lim­its for third par­ties, the ex­ten­sion of fed­eral pri­vacy laws to cover po­lit­i­cal par­ties, and to ac­tu­ally stop of­ten-se­cret, false on­line elec­tion ads, among other sug­ges­tions.

The bill does lit­tle to en­sure fair, demo­cratic elec­tions, the group main­tains. Nor does it stop the un­eth­i­cal in­flu­ence of big money in Cana­dian pol­i­tics. The bill doesn’t change the an­nual in­di­vid­ual do­na­tion lim­its of $1,575 to each party and an­other $1,575 to the rid­ing as­so­ci­a­tions of each party (both in­creased each year by $25) nor does it de­crease the $5,000 amount an elec­tion can­di­date can give to their own cam­paign or the $25,000 a party lead­er­ship can­di­date can give to their cam­paign.

These high do­na­tion lim­its are much more than an av­er­age adult Cana­dian can af­ford, says Democ­racy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher. As such, they favour wealthy donors and can­di­dates and fa­cil­i­tate fun­nel­ing of do­na­tions from busi­nesses and unions through their ex­ec­u­tives, which he says has oc­curred in ev­ery ju­ris­dic­tion in Canada with such high do­na­tion lim­its.

As well, Bill C-76 more than dou­bles the spend­ing lim­its for third-party in­ter­est groups and in­di­vid­u­als dur­ing elec­tion cam­paigns (from ap­prox­i­mately $200,000 up to $500,000). The Lib­er­als claim this in­crease is needed be­cause the spend­ing limit is be­ing ex­tended to cover elec­tion sur­veys and “par­ti­san ac­tiv­i­ties” such as door­knock­ing, phone calls and ral­lies, but only cit­i­zen groups do those kinds of ac­tiv­i­ties (busi­nesses usu­ally only spend money on ads). As a re­sult, the limit should be in­creased only for cit­i­zen groups as the in­crease in the limit will more than dou­ble the amount of ad­ver­tis­ing busi­nesses can do dur­ing an elec­tion cam­paign pe­riod, Conacher notes.

“The only way to stop big money in pol­i­tics is to stop big do­na­tions and Bill C-76 does noth­ing to lower the fed­eral do­na­tion lim­its that are much higher than an av­er­age Cana­dian can af­ford, and that al­low lob­by­ists to buy in­flu­ence with politi­cians and par­ties,” says Conacher. “Bill C-76 also more than dou­bles the ad spend­ing lim­its for in­ter­est groups and lob­by­ists dur­ing elec­tions, which will in­crease the power of wealthy in­ter­ests to dom­i­nate elec­tion cam­paign de­bates with mas­sive ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paigns. Cana­dian-based sub­sidiaries of for­eign-owned busi­nesses should es­pe­cially be pro­hib­ited from ad­ver­tis­ing dur­ing Cana­dian elec­tions be­cause they are owned by for­eign­ers.”

Along with fail­ing to rein in do­na­tions and spend­ing, the act needs to strengthen the process and penal­ties as­so­ci­ated with false elec­tion prom­ises by par­ties and can­di­dates. Though al­ready pro­hib­ited, such acts rou­tinely go un­pun­ished.

Such was the case with Trudeau’s about-face on elec­toral re­form, for in­stance. And with on­line and so­cial me­dia ma­nip­u­la­tion a grow­ing is­sue, the leg­is­la­tion should en­sure that can­di­dates’ cam­paigns can’t be un­der­mined by false ac­cu­sa­tions.

Ap­peals to the likes of the Com­mis­sioner of Canada Elec­tions and Ethics Com­mis­sioner have proven fruit­less, Conacher notes.

“Bill C-76 must be changed to strengthen the rule in Canada’s elec­tion law pro­hibit­ing par­ties and can­di­dates from vi­o­lat­ing vot­ers’ fun­da­men­tal rights by bait­ing them with false prom­ises be­cause the Com­mis­sioner of Canada Elec­tions re­fuses to en­force the rule,” he says. “This is not the first time the Com­mis­sioner has failed to ef­fec­tively en­force the fed­eral elec­tions law as the Com­mis­sioner has an over­all weak record in­clud­ing many se­cret rul­ings.”

The bill’s fail­ure to ad­dress the big is­sues is no ac­ci­dent. Politi­cians rou­tinely ex­empt them­selves from rules that ap­ply to oth­ers. For in­stance, if a cor­po­ra­tion lies in its ad­ver­tis­ing, it can be taken to the Com­pe­ti­tion Bureau. If cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tives mis­lead their share­hold­ers, the share­hold­ers have the right to go to court and seek com­pen­sa­tion. Like­wise, there are laws re­quir­ing tax­pay­ers, wel­fare ap­pli­cants, im­mi­grants and most pro­fes­sion­als to tell the truth when they fill out gov­ern­ment forms. But still there are no such rules for politi­cians.

Other changes, such as tighter con­trols on elec­tion fund­ing and fixed elec­tion dates, would in­ject ad­di­tional cred­i­bil­ity into a

sys­tem that has fallen into dis­re­pute, but would take money out of their pock­ets, di­rectly and in­di­rectly.

As dif­fi­cult as it would be to get politi­cians to move on those kinds of re­forms, the ef­fort would pale in com­par­i­son to try­ing to re­place our cur­rent elec­toral sys­tem with some kind of pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion, which would be more demo­cratic and could en­cour­age more peo­ple to vote – most no­tably those who feel their bal­lots don’t count for any­thing.

Af­ter many years of push­ing for re­form, we had a stab at it a decade ago in On­tario, where the pro­posed mixed-mem­ber pro­por­tional sys­tem fell to the wayside. The cur­rent sys­tem didn’t win the sup­port of those who both­ered to vote in the ref­er­en­dum so much as it re­mained the devil we know. The MMP sys­tem of­fered up was not the best al­ter­na­tive, but its de­feat is not grounds to give up on the re­form process. That, how­ever, ap­peared to be the in­tent of the gov­ern­ment at the time, which could say “we tried,” and drop the sub­ject.

But the fail­ure in ef­fect lies with the way the process was con­ducted. The On­tario ex­am­ple clearly shows re­form is a longterm project, one that re­quires a great deal of pub­lic hand­hold­ing be­fore a fi­nal de­ci­sion is made.

Crit­ics ar­gue a pro­por­tional sys­tem would frag­ment the House, lead­ing the way to more mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ments. Ne­glect­ing the fact that we’ve had a num­ber of mi­nori­ties un­der the ex­ist­ing sys­tem, the frag­men­ta­tion is al­ready un­der­way due to the in­crease in the num­ber of par­ties.

Left to their own de­vices, to­day’s crop of politi­cians will not make changes to ben­e­fit the pub­lic – oh, they’ll pay lip ser­vice to that, but that’s all. Clearly, re­form is needed. Politi­cians and bu­reau­crats won’t move away from their cul­ture of en­ti­tle­ment with­out pub­lic pres­sure.

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