Large Banner Ad
Small Banner Ad

May 23, 2014

Democracy issues go beyond Tory election bill

Thomas Walkom

More by this author...

Yes, the Conservative government's proposed election reform bill is wrong-headed. But take a deep breath. Its adoption will not materially hasten the end of civilization as we know it. There are deeper forces at play.

New Democratic Party Leader Tom Mulcair says the Conservative government's decision to ram Bill C-23 through the Commons is unprecedented. This isn't exactly true.

Canada's last major election reform, in 2000, was also rammed through. The Liberal government of the day did so over the objection of all four opposition parties — including the NDP.

Then, the Liberals used time allocation to limit debate so that the new rules could be in place for a fall election. Today, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives are using similar measures to get Bill C-23 passed before going to the polls next year.

In this round of reforms, the experts — including chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand — are almost universally critical.

But we should remember that in 2000, chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley was equally critical of some Liberal reforms.

Then, the main point of contention was a plan to limit third-party advertising during election campaigns. That provision was vigorously opposed by both the Reform and Progressive Conservative Parties

It was also opposed by Harper, at that time head of the right-wing National Citizens Coalition.

The 2000 reforms were so contentious that they ended up in the courts. So, too, did another set of comprehensive election reforms passed in 1993 by all-party agreement.

Both the 1993 and 2000 acts contained measures that discriminated against smaller political parties.

The courts tossed those out as unconstitutional, although they did uphold limits on third-party advertising.

Democracy, such as it was, survived.

My guess is that Canada's struggling democracy will survive both Harper and Pierre Poilievre, the abrasive minister tasked with promoting Bill C-23.

Like most election act reforms, this one reflects the interests of those in charge.

It would, for instance, loosen the rules around political fundraising — a measure expected to favour the Harper Conservatives.

The bill would also make it more difficult for those without a full array of photo identity cards to cast a ballot. That's expected to particularly affect poor and aboriginal voters who, it is said, do not always vote Tory.

So, yes. Much is wrong with this bill.

But the real problems of Canadian democracy are much deeper. They centre on the fact that, even without these new impediments to voting, so few Canadians bother to cast ballots.

In 2011, only 61 per cent of those eligible to vote did so.

Younger people in particular don't vote. When I ask them why (and over the years I've done a fair amount of interviewing on this) they usually shrug and say they aren't interested. Or they don't have time to research the issues. Or they had no idea an election was on.

The standard response to low voter turnout is to blame the politicians. If only the Commons were more relevant, it is said, more people would vote.

Yet politicians make decisions that affect everyone. They set tax rates. They decide whether to spend public money on youth employment schemes or use it to subsidize multinational corporations. Their actions affect the tuition fees that university and college students pay. They decide who gets baby bonus cheques, who gets pensions and whether there will be enough money for health care. They determine if we go to war.

How much more relevant to everyday life can you get?

Harper's Conservatives are right about one thing: Feel-good ads from Elections Canada won't persuade non-voters to vote. People will vote only if they are inspired to do so, presumably by those seeking office.

The new election reform bill tilts the field ever so slightly in favour of Harper's Conservatives. But the bias is already there. As long as two out of five Canadians don't care enough to vote, those at the top will stay there — regardless of what happens to Bill C-23.

Thomas Walkom is a news services columnist.

  • Think green before you print
  • Respond to the editor
  • Email
  • Delicious
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • MySpace
  • StumbleUpon
Subscribe to the E-bulletin

Dotan Rousso. Holds a Ph.D. in Law—a former criminal prosecutor in Israel. Currently working as a college professor in Canada.

Subscribe to our YouTube Channel