So the call went in 2011: Long Live King Stephen, the first of his name of House Harper and theoretical protector of the Realm, King of the Ten Provinces and Three Territories of Canada…
Or so it could have been said. I mean no offence, but when one considers Mr. Harper’s actions and law-making ability, it isn’t difficult to see that this Prime Minister seems to have a lot more sway than his predecessors. The supposed Fair Elections Act is a recent and obvious example of excessive overreach as we gear up for the next election. Sadly, with the way things stand right now in our home and native land, with or without the Fair Elections Act, whoever rules post 2015 will likely continue the sad trend of power-grabs and authoritarian tendencies. But, just in case the PM chokes before he’s ready to give up the thrown, Harper’s pushing through legislation as fast as possible, deaf to the wails of the people, the House of Commons, and the Senate.
A review of the past few years has, yet again, seen the dreaded Omnibus Bills make national headlines. To be fair, we have to acknowledge that these were not a Conservative invention. The elder Trudeau was most notorious for them, and he was followed by Brian Mulroney, and, of course, Chretien. These leaders also famously cut the debate short, bullied their cabinets into submission, and stacked the senate and civil service with their own people. Few can forget Mulroney’s appointment of eight new senators to get the Free Trade Agreement passed, or Chretien’s threats to dismiss cabinet ministers who disagreed with him.
Harper has, however, pioneered limitations on debates in the House of Commons to the extent that our House doesn’t really debate anymore. Why would they need to? He has the majority he needs to get legislation passed. In theory (and through party discipline, in practice), his MPs are bound to vote for him.
The Honourable Member is also guilty of gross hypocrisy. He who has promised to abolish the Senate for almost two decades appointed 18 new Senators in one fell swoop several years ago, many of whom have proven to be national embarrassments for his government and our house of sober second thought. By now, this former anti-monarchist and senate abolitionist has courted the Queen and her family quite cordially, and has appointed well over 30 of his own senators to our senate. The past eight years haven’t seen Harper lead us down a radically new path that counters the democracy we know and love. He merely continued down the path of democratic deficit his predecessors, Liberals and Conservatives alike, have led us down for decades. In a shocking display, Senate reform is “off the table” because it would actually require provincial approval, a can of worms no absolutist wishes to open.
It is the supposed Fair Elections Act that takes the cake; in many ways. The notion of allowing the incumbent party to appoint electoral officers is appalling, but it isn’t something new. Remember, in the last provincial election in Quebec, the Chief Electoral Officers were chosen by the incumbent party (at the time the PQ). All of us are well aware of Pauline Marois accusing anglophone students of “stealing the election,” and the resulting trouble that many students had in registering to vote could be linked to those partisan appointments. But such appointments have always been partisan; Harper’s Law is simply making it more so.
The financial aspects that the Act would change are troubling. Raising campaign spending and donation limits points to an unsettling Americanization of our political spectrum. Our parties have not been immune to money before, but our politics have seemed to be a great deal more independent of “Big Business” than that of our American brethren. Such changes, of course, favour the incumbent party who have their hands on the purse strings, ready to trade influence for ad buys.
Limiting the ability of Elections Canada to encourage people to go vote is likewise ridiculous. In other parliamentary democracies, you are fined if you don’t go out to vote. This surprising clause comes at a time when voter apathy is at a discouraging high. Only 60% of eligible voters actually voted in the last federal election, and, of that group, only 40% voted for our loving majority government. Ignorance is bliss, perhaps, but this clause of the bill seems to make it appear that the Conservatives, forgive me, Harper, wants to retain that disheartening status quo. Everyone is willing to gripe about something but few are willing to do anything about it. Well, why do something about it if encouraging ordinary Canadians to vote could hurt the party in power? A great deal of noise has been made regarding the ways that people can register to vote, notably the ban on vouching. Although, I have to admit, given the number of people who vouch, I’m not certain that disallowing vouching is such a big deal. The issue is the principle of the matter. All citizens have the right to vote and should be able to exercise that right. If even a single Canadian is barred from voting because they don’t have a way to prove who they are and where they live without the ability to have someone vouch for them, the election can hardly remain fair.
Canada’s democracy is imperfect. We have long been imperfect. For much of the last twenty years, although many of our MP’s are hardworking individuals, the party line remains a hard one. You either agree with your boss, or you’re out of the game. The omnibus bills and the halting of debates are not all Harper’s fault. He is merely the most recent culprit, and his last half dozen predecessors can all have the fingers pointed at them too.
Mr. Poilievre’s amendments to the Bill come as a sign that, when the public is passionate about an issue, (as we have become about the Fair Elections Act), politicians must act. However, the changes, which loosen the leash that the government wanted to put on Elections Canada, and returns the fundraising to the status quo, are too little too late. This is due to fact that it comes only after massive public and government outcry on both sides of the House. Mr. Poilievre had previously asserted that the bill was perfect, now he’s making changes.
If we want a “Fair Elections” Act, why don’t they make it so that there are preferential ballots for the single member districts? Rather than the MP who got twenty thousand votes getting the seat, the seat will actually go to the preferred choice of the forty-five thousand people in the riding who voted for the other parties. Instead of limiting which Canadians can vote, how about discussing ways to counter voter apathy and encourage more people to vote? Consider lowering the minimum voter age to 16, as many European countries have done, to try to get youth involved early. One could even look at putting together youth or aboriginal parliaments to further that goal. If we want fair elections, why don’t we find a way to transform the makeup of either the House of Commons or the Senate so that it accurately reflects the political reality of our country? Why should there only be Liberal and Conservative Senators—forgive me Liberal Independent and Conservative Senators? I believe in the Senate; it is a good idea to have an institution to check up on the lower house, but it needs to reflect the country. No one else seems to consider the proposition to make the senate reflect the popular vote as it does in Australia.
If we stay the course we are on right now, the confederations envisioned by Macdonald or Pearson may slip from our grasp. Harper is not the only guilty party, much as some would like him to be. However, our Right Honourable Prime Minister is taking big steps toward degrading our democracy even further than it had been in 2006. We need to change. We need to get our politicians to change their party. We need to do away with all encompassing omnibus bills and open up debate in the House. Tackle voter apathy and the reform of the Senate will follow. End party discipline. We need to start making baby steps back toward the democracy we admire, otherwise we will find ourselves going down an unpleasant route. Whether we elect JT, Mulcair, or Steve in 2015 (if we can call a victory an “election”), until we demand institutional change from our leaders, they’ll keep pushing the broken status quo.