Tories’ anti-democracy push gets help

The push by Conservative senators to amend Stephen Harper’s elections act had all the elements of a marvelous yarn. The unelected senators had taken their revenge, biting back and riding in on their white steed to save democracy, showing their relevancy and putting the government on its heels.

The push by Conservative senators to amend Stephen Harper’s elections act had all the elements of a marvelous yarn.

The unelected senators had taken their revenge, biting back and riding in on their white steed to save democracy, showing their relevancy and putting the government on its heels.

Unfortunately, it is nonsense.

What Conservative senators have really done is give the government cover to suddenly shift course, drop their bullying demeanour and pretend to be reasonable and conciliatory, then go ahead and pass a deeply flawed bill with nothing more than cosmetic tweaks.

As Craig Scott, the New Democrat’s democratic reform critic put it: “They’re putting lipstick on two pigs —themselves and this bill.’’

Conservatives have already won the early communications battle over this bill by focusing on the vouching question, leaving the other problems with the legislation floating through the Ottawa bubble.

The two opposition parties have been unable to succinctly explain to Canadians why the proposed legislation stacks the deck in favour of the Conservatives and hurts democracy in this country.

That adds to the odds that somehow the proposed amendments will be given more weight than they are worth, wrapping this saga up with a nice bow, as the Senate flexes its muscle and the Harper government feigns flexibility.

Like so much in Ottawa, this is less than meets the eye.

The most serious amendment is the one that would kill a provision lifting limits on what parties could spend on election fundraising from donors over the past five years, a move critics said would benefit richer parties like the Tories.

But the senators would only “clarify” Elections Canada’s new reduced role of promoting voting so it can still go into schools with get-out-the-vote efforts. They would not go beyond that.

They would also only extend the retention of robocall records to three years from the proposed one, still well short of a complete election cycle.

They would still allow victorious parties to appoint poll supervisors and they do nothing to fully restore vouching, where one voter can confirm the right to vote of another.

Forcing First Nations, homeless shelters and old age homes to provide addresses if asked and allowing e-bills to be presented as valid proof of residence are only half-steps.

They do nothing to compel testimony for the Elections Commissioner during investigations, something all parties agreed to in a vote two years ago.

New Democrats can name you six wobbly Tories who they believe can be shamed into voting against the bill. It is hard to imagine, however, 12 brave Conservatives bucking the party on a signature legislation.

Better to latch on to a hodge-podge series of weak amendments as an artificial show of good faith and save your political career.

The Conservatives already know that four Canadians in 10 don’t vote, six in 10 in the age category 18 to 25 didn’t vote in 2011 and that swath of the electorate is paying no attention to the legislation. They believe opposition to the bill rests with a noisy, but irrelevant (to them) segment of the population that would not vote Conservative anyway.

They believe opposition MPs are hearing from constituents because the act has become the latest vessel for anti-Harper sentiment but once passed, opposition criticism will simply sound as so much bleating from losers.

They maintain their MPs are not hearing from voters in their ridings.

The Senate has given them the cover they need to try it all again.

It is still up to the elected opposition to push back.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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