Democracy goes to work

Before the inevitable happened in Ottawa on Tuesday evening and Conservatives rose to vote for their overhaul of Canada’s election rules, we witnessed 99 days of acrimony and apocalyptic warnings and some of the worst features of our parliamentary system.

Before the inevitable happened in Ottawa on Tuesday evening and Conservatives rose to vote for their overhaul of Canada’s election rules, we witnessed 99 days of acrimony and apocalyptic warnings and some of the worst features of our parliamentary system.

In the end, however, we witnessed a little bit of the best as well.

First, the bad — it was 99 days that included Conservative MP Brad Butt’s hallucinatory vision of voter fraud (later withdrawn), Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre’s “sharper teeth, longer reach and a freer hand’’ talking points and unprecedented attacks on independent officers of Parliament.

It was 99 days that saw a government introduce a bill that would suppress voter turnout and dress it up with a name that evoked images of puppy dogs, then wave some non-controversial shiny parts of the bill and hope no one really took a harder look.

But we also saw 99 days during which independent officers of Parliament, past and present, including former auditor general Sheila Fraser, chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand and former British Columbia elections official Harry Neufeld, took the Conservative hits but refused to waver.

We saw some of the best analysis we have recently seen from members of the parliamentary press gallery and the nation’s editorialists that kept the issue on the front burner and, most importantly, we saw at least a partial defeat for the cynicism of the Harper Conservatives — a cynicism built on a belief that they could race it through Parliament because Canadians wouldn’t pay attention, the opposition would sound like whiners and the country would not notice that they had stacked the deck.

It was an example of an issue that did escape the shrink-wrapped parliamentary precinct and was noticed by voters and, for that reason alone, this was not the full-on defeat for democracy where we once appeared headed.

And in the end, the bill passed with some 45 amendments.

Has democracy been saved or are we still headed to an electoral train wreck next year?

It is not accurate to call the amended bill a full victory for the opposition, despite the Poilievre climb down. It is still a flawed bill, and after 31 hours of committee study, testimony of 71 witnesses (almost all opposed), and NDP filibusters, virtually all of the close to 200 opposition amendments were rejected by the majority Conservatives, a government that treats opposition amendments as mere irritations.

Most of the changes announced by Poilievre appeared to be a result of what NDP democratic reform critic Craig Scott called a “persuaded or somewhat fearful” Conservative backbench.

Poilievre did blink on the question of vouching, allowing those with ID, but without proof of an address, to vote if vouched for by another elector. He eliminated a fundraising provision that would have benefited deep-pocketed parties to spend more during the campaign.

But he did not give Mayrand the power to promote voting anywhere but primary and secondary schools, he would not accept voter notification cards for voting and he would not give the commissioner of elections, Yves Côté, the power to compel witness testimony during investigations of suspected electoral wrongdoing.

Aboriginals and students will still be disenfranchised — students, more particularly, if Prime Minister Stephen Harper moves next year’s vote to the spring when they are in transit.

It’s unclear how long these rules would last if Conservatives are defeated at the polls next year.

Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair has bluntly said the Conservatives have cheated in every election they have won this century and are trying to pre-cheat next year.

If he were to win under these rules, they will look a lot purer to the NDP.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has promised to repeal the bill, again, a tall order should he prosper under the system in place.

Tuesday, as the flawed bill was being passed in the House, Elections Canada invited expatriate Canadians to register to vote regardless of how long they have been out of the country, a reaction to an Ontario Superior Court decision earlier this month.

The government had limited the vote to Canadians who had been out of the country for fewer than five years. But in a sign of the continuing acrimony between Elections Canada and the government, the agency did not wait for a potential Conservative appeal of the decision. No one can be surprised, given the flaws and the continuing opposition anger, that Harper’s beloved court could ultimately be involved in adjudicating a Conservative re-election in 2015.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.

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