Prime Minister Stephen Harper used to say great things about Sheila Fraser when she was the federal auditor general.
Why, the Canadian Press dug up this laudatory 2004 quote from Harper about Fraser’s work on the Liberal sponsorship scandal: “Her competence and her courage have shone a bright light on the mismanagement, incompetence and corruption that this Liberal government has been trying to hide for more than a decade,” Harper said, calling Fraser “the mother of all accountants.”
“(She) did not say that she thought that something smelled fishy. She identified the fish.”
But those plaudits are probably long gone.
Because the always-blunt Fraser has found a new fish, and has joined the almost-unending series of people stepping up to speak out about the federal government’s so-called Fair Elections Act.
Her take, again captured by the Canadian Press?
“When you look at the people who may not be able to vote, when you look at the limitations that are being put on the chief electoral officer, when you see the difficulties, just the operational difficulties that are going to be created in all this, I think it’s going to be very difficult to have a fair, a truly fair, election.”
Contrast that with what Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre was saying about the bill on Wednesday: “I think the bill’s terrific the way it is. The Fair Elections Act is common sense.”
Such common sense that, in addition to Fraser, Marc Mayrand, the current head of Elections Canada, the former head of Elections Canada, Jean-Pierre Kingsley and Paul Thomas, a Manitoba professor and specialist in Canadian election laws, are among the notable opponents. More than 160 Canadian university academics have voiced concerns.
Then there’s this March 19 letter to the editor in the Globe and Mail: it started “We, the undersigned, international scholars and political scientists, are concerned that Canada’s international reputation as one of the world’s guardians of democracy and human rights is threatened by passage of the proposed Fair Elections Act.”
The signatories? A worldwide collection of specialists in election law and democracy — fascinating, then, that they would write so harshly as to say, as they did, that “We believe that this act would prove (to) be deeply damaging for electoral integrity within Canada, as well as providing an example which, if emulated elsewhere, may potentially harm international standards of electoral rights around the world. In particular, the governing party in Canada has proposed a set of wide-ranging changes, which if enacted, would, we believe, undermine the integrity of the Canadian electoral process, diminish the effectiveness of Elections Canada, reduce voting rights, expand the role of money in politics, and foster partisan bias in election administration.”
There are petitions about the act, and there have been scores of protests — but the Harper government marches on.
As the scholars point out, “The substance of the Fair Elections Act raises significant concerns with respect to the future of electoral integrity in Canada. The process by which the proposed act is being rushed into law in Parliament has also sparked considerable concern. The governing political party has used its majority power to cut off debate and discussion in an effort to enact the bill as soon as possible. By contrast, the conventional approach to reforming the electoral apparatus in Canada has always involved widespread consultation with Elections Canada, the opposition parties and the citizens at large, as well as with the international community.”
Be alarmed. The simple fact is that the Conservatives are using their majority in Parliament to essentially help themselves to future political success. It is petty, abusive and downright dishonest.
Calling the whole mess the Fair Elections Act would be hilarious, if it wasn’t for the fact that the legislation is so terrifying. Elections Canada investigators would report to a representative of the sitting government; the head of Elections Canada would be muzzled and not allowed to speak about investigations. Scores of voters — as many as 120,000 — would be disenfranchised, some forms of election advertising would be hidden from view and spending in that area would be almost limitless.
Heck, the governing party would be able to submit the names for poll supervisors — that’s like letting the home team pick the referees.
But isn’t that what we’ve got already?
A federal government always makes rules for its own benefit, and then says the economy trumps all.
Smell the fish, see the fish. It’s time it was gutted, once and for all.
Russell Wangersky is news editor of the St. John’s Telegram. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.