Election reform bill still needs cross country hearings

Par Andrew Cardozo

The Hill Times

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Politicians can really be quite loveable. I had three politicos over to a third-year class I teach at Carleton University recently and we all had a love fest.

Jim Armour of Summa Strategies and a director of communications to Stephen Harper in his opposition days was the Conservative speaker. For the New Democrats was Marlene Rivier, a psychologist, union activist and former NDP candidate, and from the Liberals was former Cape Breton MP Francis LeBlanc. Incidentally, LeBlanc also chairs the Canadian Association of Former Parliamentarians Foundation, which is dedicated to the education of young people about our political system.

Their task was to introduce these young Canadians to their parties and they did an extraordinarily good job. They held their own about their parties, but did so with passion and facts and with plenty of humour, some of it even self-deprecating.

I’ll admit that these three guests are a particularly well-mannered group, so decorum was to be expected, but they did their profession proud.

I couldn’t help think that this was such a contrast to Question Period and, more precisely, such a contrast to the controversy around the election reform bill introduced by the federal government.

It would be nice if the government would take an approach to this extremely important bill that was worthy of its contents, i.e. the advancement of democracy. Even if they do have it all right and it is fair and beyond anyone’s reproach, the very subject demands that it be dealt with in a way that looks and feels totally fair. Perception is as important as the content. And when you add that the contents are indeed being questioned, the perception can only be negative. What are they trying to push through? What are they trying to rig in their favour? What scores are they trying to settle?

Crooked elections are the purview of contemporary dictators and crooks such as those right now in Egypt, Thailand, Zimbabwe, and Ukraine.  Canada does not belong in that gallery of rogues.

Changes that were announced by the Democratic Reform minister on April 25, are an improvement but really, don’t go far enough.

If there is one and only one kind of legislation that demands unanimous agreement in an elected democracy, it is election laws.  When one party with a majority of the seats rams through any kind of election reform at breakneck speed—regardless of how benign—it not only looks wrong, it is morally wrong.

The government has the power of a majority government and a taxpayer-funded PR machine in the bubble of Ottawa. This makes it all the more necessary that they not ram this through here in the confines of Ottawa. If it is so good for democracy, surely it will do well on a cross-country tour.

The Conservative Party, which governs today, is the single governing party in Canada that has run afoul of our non-partisan and internationally recognized elections commission, more than any other party in our history, governing, or otherwise. Think of the in-and-out scheme, robocalls, Guelph, and Peterborough. All this makes it look like the fox unilaterally deciding to renovate the henhouse.  The metaphors abound.

Things are going to get a lot worse in this controversy before they get better, so now would be a good time to change course rather than wait until later. So what should we do now? Here are a few steps that will ensure that the elections law is reformed in a manner that is fair and worthy of our reputation as a fair, democratic country.

The process should begin with a commitment that only those clauses that receive unanimous agreement of all parties, will be allowed to become law.

The Conservatives say they don’t want cross-country hearings, but they really should reconsider. The House Affairs Committee should conduct cross-country hearings in the coming months, with at least one meeting in every province, and preferably later in the spring so that Canadians have time to get by the Olympics and learn more about the bill.

The committee elects a new chair for these special hearings and they should elect an MP who is agreeable to all parties—such MPs can be found.

The committee should be given more than two months and at least six months for full hearings and report back to the House in the fall.

Failing committee hearings across Canada, Canadians can take it upon themselves to organize town halls across the country and invite MPs to listen in.

The government needs to step off its pedestal on this one, and for the good of democracy in Canada, put this bill forward as a concrete package of ideas for discussion, and those aspects with wide favour will become law and those that do not, will be dropped.

Here’s the thing.  This is not just Pierre Poilievre’s bill.  This is not just the Conservative government’s bill.  This is about elections and it, more than any other legislation, belongs to the Canadian electorate.  So when Poilievre’s gets all tough about what changes HE will not make, he really doesn’t get it.  It’s not his.  It’s all of ours.

Cynicism towards politicians is high and growing. Perceptions that the governing party is rigging our election laws in its favour will only further the cynicism towards our political system.

Back to Armour, Rivier and LeBlanc in that classroom at Carleton, the reason they all seemed so loveable was not only that they were nice folks and got one with each other, but when it came to the affairs of our country, they had respect for each other, they were each passionate about their world view, but they also understood that none of them had the hegemony on the right ideas. They believed in a Canada that included them all. A lesson in how to truly reforms our political system!

Andrew Cardozo is president of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Policy and is an adjunct professor at Carleton University.

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