Canada's Conservative Government is in the middle of trying to change its election rules to benefit itself - while its PM Stephen Harper has become the thing he once most hated.
New Zealand's political landscape has been pretty weird of late, what with Judith Collins up to her fiercesome (sic) eyebrows in milk, the Maori Nationalist/neo-Marxist Mana Party playing footsie with a recent immigrant millionaire who lives in one of New Zealand's biggest and most expensive houses, and Hekia Parata doing just whatever it is that she does on a regular basis. Lots and lots to talk about there.
So, contrarian that I am, this post is about that bastion of normality and sensible niceness ... Canada. Because it seems like someone has been putting crazy pills in the maple syrup over there, too.
I refer to the ongoing tale of the Conservative Party's attempt to change Canada's electoral laws through the "Fair Elections Act". (Here's an iron-clad rule ... whenever a Government decides to call one of its proposed laws the "Fair Something Act", you can be pretty much sure it's designed to have the opposite effect.) The Globe and Mail has a primer on what the proposed law will do, but generally it's been attacked as an overreaction to some minor problems with the existing system that is designed to skew the election process in favour of the current Conservative Party Government.
(I note, for the sake of full disclosure, that I'm amongst those who've sort-of said this, albeit in much more guarded terms.)
There's a bunch of stuff contained in the Act, but I want to talk about three particular parts of it. The first is its intent to put an end to the practice of "vouching" at Canada's polls. This practice arises from the requirement that Canadians show both ID and proof of residency at the polling place before they can get a ballot paper. Some people, of course, may turn up without the appropriate materials (or may not have them in the first place). In which case, another voter who knows them is permitted to "vouch" for that voter's identity and so permit them to get a ballot.
(While we're on the topic, why don't we here in NZ have to show any sort of ID when we turn up to vote? Well, it's because every ballot paper in NZ is numbered, with that number then recorded against the name of the voter it is issued to. So, let's say someone pretends to be you in order to get a ballot paper. Then you also come along and get a ballot paper. Once the fact you've apparently voted twice shows up, the election officials can go into the pile of ballots and take out the ballot the "fake you" cast, thus removing it from the final vote count. So we can afford to have lax rules about people being given ballot papers ... at the cost of enabling election officials to determine which particular ballot paper we cast (and so who we voted for).)
Back to Canada, but. This "vouching" practice caused a bit of trouble at the last Canadian election. Not because anyone was caught actively abusing it (i.e. there was no hard evidence (as opposed to made-up lies) that people were using it to pretend to be people they weren't in order to vote on multiple occasions). Rather, the electoral officials were pretty slack about making sure the right paperwork was completed to record that all "vouched for" voters actually were entitled to be given ballots, and so there was some confusion over whether their votes should be treated as valid. That confusion helped to propel one election contest all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court, which decided by a bare 4-3 majority that it wasn't quite bad enough to justify a new election in the electorate (or "riding") in question.
So there undoubtedly was a need for some tightening up of practices, and maybe some legislative tweaking. Instead, the Conservative Government has decided to legislate to put an end to the practice of vouching altogether - kind of like carrying out an amputation in order to fix a minor cut that needed stitches at most. Meaning that at future elections, the 1% of voters (some 120,000 people) who didn't have the right ID to get a ballot paper at the last election won't be able to cast a vote.
Who are that 1%, you ask? Well ...
Citizens most likely to be affected by that change are aboriginals who live on reserves who may be challenged to verify where they live because their home may not have a typical residential address.
Young people who are moving around a lot for school or new jobs also have trouble keeping their identification and other documents up-to-date, as do seniors who move into care facilities and may not have access to their papers.
And are these groups big supporters of the current Conservative Government? Surprisingly ... not.
The second change under the "Fair Elections Act" has to do with the body that oversees the election process, Elections Canada. At present, it does what the NZ Electoral Commission does, and runs an advertising campaign before each election to encourage people to use their democratic rights by actually casting a vote. Admittedly, those campaigns probably could do with some work; at the last Canadian election in 2011, the turnout was just 61%.
But once again, the Conservative Government has responded to the problem of declining voter turnout by taking an axe to the Commission's role. Henceforth, Elections Canada will be prohibited from engaging in "voter turnout" activities. Instead, it will be left to individual political parties to do the work of encouraging voters to take the time and effort to cast a vote at election time.
Oh, I hear you ask, which Party has the most highly-motivated voter base that require the least amount of effort to persuade to go to the ballot box? Well, that would be the Conservatives. And who has the most to gain if groups that traditionally are hard to get to the polls - such as the young and the poor - don't turn up to vote? That would be the Conservatives, once again.
The final matter is one that is just too soaked in irony to let go by. As the Globe and Mail puts it:
Outside groups are currently allowed $200,100 in ad spending during an election campaign period. Under the bill, they’ll now be allowed that for anything in “relation” to an election – not just during the campaign itself. This would dramatically reduce the amount groups can spend on political advertising, because the sum outside groups could spend in a campaign – as little as 36 days – would now be applied, theoretically, to a period of four years.
Note that this proposal makes New Zealand's experience with the Electoral Finance Act seem pretty benign. And also note that it continues the trend of right-of-centre Governments proposing laws that would radically curtail the ability of outside groups to have a say at election time. So the next time you read someone plaintively asking why those on the left hate freedom so much, feel free to link back to this page.
What make this proposal so especially piquant, however, is the fact that back in 2004 the current Canadian Prime Minister, Steven Harper, fought a case all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of putting limits on "third party" election speech. That was back before he was an MP, of course, and when he was the head of the "National Citizens Coalition". Then he got elected as Prime Minister, albeit in a minority Government. Then he got elected as Prime Minister in a majority Government. And now, a decade on from his crusade to the Supreme Court, he's using that majority to ... impose extra restrictive (and most probably unconstitutional) limits on third party speech.
To which there really is only this to say (NSFW).