Op-ed: Backbenchers’ calculus

New comment up at the Ottawa Citizen. It’s an attempt to lay out the political case against the proposed legislation, which is related to, but distinct from the principled case against it. Basically, it’s bad law that could easily come back to haunt the Conservative Party. Then the only question will be how much damage it does to the reputation of the party and its MPs. To wit:

Unless every one of the controversial elements are stripped out, C-23 will remain antidemocratic and, whether Conservatives realize it or not, an exceedingly risky political ploy.

Click here for the original. I have reproduced the original in full here as well:

Published on: April 16, 2014
Last Updated: May 20, 2014 6:12 AM EST

In tabling a set of nine unanimously endorsed amendments, the Conservative-dominated Senate committee examining the proposed Fair Elections Act has offered Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre a face-saving way to climb down from his previous position of intransigence. Given the minister’s initial reaction to the report, he may be inclined to use it.

Either way, action now shifts back to the House, where Conservative members of Parliament must soon decide whether to vote for, amend, or reject outright legislation denounced as antidemocratic in both content and process by experts throughout the media, academia, and in the public service.

Even if they accept all nine unanimous Senate amendments however, it will remain so.

Consider the principled case against bill C-23. From the soft disenfranchisement of voters, to changes in party finance rules that advantage the Conservatives, to the partisanization of elections officials, to restrictions on the chief electoral officer’s (CEO) ability to communicate with Canadians, the bill is replete with measures antithetical to the principles of democracy.

Many of the most controversial issues, including vouching, the use of Voter Identification Cards, and new financing loopholes remain unaddressed in the recommendations endorsed by the full Senate committee. The committee’s minority offered its own set of recommendations that go much further, but even they miss out some key problems with the nearly 250-page bill.

Unless every one of the controversial elements are stripped out, C-23 will remain antidemocratic and, whether Conservatives realize it or not, an exceedingly risky political ploy.

For one thing, it is a potent potential mobilizer for the opposition. Polling on the issue so far suggests that while most Canadians are not engaged on the issue, the more they know about C-23, the more they dislike it. A limited set of amendments will not change that calculus.

Should the bill’s opponents — a group including many voices that normally remain studiously nonpartisan, as well as those who had previously endorsed this government — break through to some of those disengaged Canadians with a simple message like “the Tories are stacking the deck,” it would be a powerful narrative for the next election, one that plays into an existing Conservative reputation for ruthlessness, even recklessness, in the pursuit of power.

Further, there is the lack of political cover to consider. Effectively, party and country alike have been put on notice that the bill is proceeding over the considered judgement of virtually every independent observer with expertise in the subject. If anything goes wrong because of this bill, the Conservatives alone will own the consequences.

That’s important, as things could go very wrong indeed. One slow-to-emerge narrative surrounding bill C-23 is the effect it would have on the nuts-and-bolts administration of elections. Former Auditor General Sheila Fraser, for instance, echoed concerns raised by current CEO Marc Mayrand regarding new barriers impairing the CEO’s ability to make decisions around the hiring of technical personnel. By making remuneration subject to Treasury Board approval, the act complicates the already complex process of election administration.

More outrageously, the bill injects incumbent members of Parliament directly into that administrative process, mandating that they or their representatives put together the lists from which key officials like the central poll supervisor are selected. This is one of the problems missed even by the Senate committee minority.

It is also one of the most puzzling aspects of the bill. Why any incumbent would want such power is quite simply beyond me, as it would make any victory potentially tainted simply because the possibility for mischief was there. If anything controversial were to happen at a polling station, the incumbent involved would come in for personal blame for whatever problems resulted — no matter if it was just an irregularity, no matter if someone were undertaking fraud on their behalf without their knowledge.

Finally, there is the impending spectacle of Canadians watching their fellow citizens turned away from voting. Even some Conservative supporters now talking a good game about the “reasonableness” of the bill’s identity and proof of residency requirements might waver a bit once they see and hear the stories of one friend’s aunt, of another’s son, who couldn’t vote, who were barred from exercising the most fundamental right of citizenship.

Whatever the shortcomings of the Senate committee’s recommendations, we must commend them for slowing momentum, allowing everyone to take a deep breath. In doing so, they have provided Canadians with a window of opportunity.

The one thing guaranteed to make parliamentarians take notice is an earful from constituents. Indeed, James Rajotte, a Conservative MP, has already signalled to the minister that his constituents have problems with the bill. If enough Canadians express concerns the Conservative caucus will have no choice but to finish the work that the Senate committee has started.

Stewart Prest is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of British Columbia. Twitter.com/StewartPrest

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