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Feds making only tepid changes to electoral laws, failing to tackle the real issues

Having just come through a provincial election and, just this week, a municipal vote, we have a little respite before the next trip to the polls: 2019’s federal race.

That election won’t feature any changes to the first-past-the-post system, despite Justin Trudeau’s promise of electoral reform. He changed course in very short order, putting the kibosh on any kind of proportional representation.

What his government has done, however, is tinker at the margins of the Canada Elections Act, making a few useful changes but largely ignoring the big issues and major loopholes in provisions covering the likes of political donations and misleading campaigns.

Monday, as voters in Ontario municipalities went to the polls, Bill C-76 made its way back to the House of Commons from the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. The bill stems from efforts to prevent foreign interference in elections – see, for instance, the likes of Russian manipulation and Facebook trolling – and to reel in third-party advocacy, especially with foreign ties.

Critics note, however, that the bill does not address domestic propaganda, false election promises and high donation limits that give more weight to wealthy and corporate donors.

Democracy Watch, which has testified before the House committee about Bill C-76, identifies a long list of shortcomings in the legislation. It’s calling on the government to decrease donation limits and not to increase the spending limits for third parties, the extension of federal privacy laws to cover political parties, and to actually stop often-secret, false online election ads, among other suggestions.

The bill does little to ensure fair, democratic elections, the group maintains. Nor does it stop the unethical influence of big money in Canadian politics. The bill doesn’t change the annual individual donation limits of $1,575 to each party and another $1,575 to the riding associations of each party (both increased each year by $25) nor does it decrease the $5,000 amount an election candidate can give to their own campaign or the $25,000 a party leadership candidate can give to their campaign.

These high donation limits are much more than an average adult Canadian can afford, says Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher. As such, they favour wealthy donors and candidates and facilitate funneling of donations from businesses and unions through their executives, which he says has occurred in every jurisdiction in Canada with such high donation limits.

As well, Bill C-76 more than doubles the spending limits for third-party interest groups and individuals during election campaigns (from approximately $200,000 up to $500,000). The Liberals claim this increase is needed because the spending limit is being extended to cover election surveys and “partisan activities” such as door-knocking, phone calls and rallies but only citizen groups do those kinds of activities (businesses usually only spending money on ads). As a result, the limit should be increased only for citizen groups as the increase in the limit will more than double the amount of advertising businesses can do during an election campaign period, Conacher notes.

“The only way to stop big money in politics is to stop big donations and Bill C-76 does nothing to lower the federal donation limits that are much higher than an average Canadian can afford, and that allow lobbyists to buy influence with politicians and parties,” says Conacher. “Bill C-76 also more than doubles the ad spending limits for interest groups and lobbyists during elections, which will increase the power of wealthy interests to dominate election campaign debates with massive advertising campaigns. Canadian-based subsidiaries of foreign-owned businesses should especially be prohibited from advertising during Canadian elections because they are owned by foreigners.”

Along with failing to rein in donations and spending, the act needs to strengthen the process and penalties associated with false election promises by parties and candidates. Though already prohibited, such acts routinely go unpunished.

Such was the case with Trudeau’s about-face on electoral reform, for instance. And with online and social media manipulation a growing issue, the legislation should ensure that candidates’ campaigns can’t be undermined by false accusations.

Appeals to the likes of the Commissioner of Canada Elections and Ethics Commissioner have proven fruitless, Conacher notes.

“Bill C-76 must be changed to strengthen the rule in Canada’s election law prohibiting parties and candidates from violating voters’ fundamental rights by baiting them with false promises because the Commissioner of Canada Elections refuses to enforce the rule,” he says. “This is not the first time the Commissioner has failed to effectively enforce the federal elections law as the Commissioner has an overall weak record including many secret rulings.”

The bill’s failure to address the big issues is no accident. Politicians routinely exempt themselves from rules that apply to others. For instance, if a corporation lies in its advertising, it can be taken to the Competition Bureau . If corporate executives mislead their shareholders, the shareholders have the right to go to court and seek compensation. Likewise, there are laws requiring taxpayers, welfare applicants, immigrants and most professionals to tell the truth when they fill out government forms. But still there are no such rules for politicians.

Other changes, such as tighter controls on election funding and fixed election dates, would inject additional credibility into a system that has fallen into disrepute, but would take money out of their pockets, directly and indirectly.

As difficult as it would be to get politicians to move on those kinds of reforms, the effort would pale in comparison to trying to replace our current electoral system with some kind of proportional representation, which would be more democratic and could encourage more people to vote – most notably those who feel their ballots don’t count for anything.

After many years of pushing for reform, we had a stab at it a decade ago in Ontario, where the proposed mixed-member proportional system fell to the wayside. The current system didn’t win the support of those who bothered to vote in the referendum so much as it remained the devil we know. The MMP system offered up was not the best alternative, but its defeat is not grounds to give up on the reform process. That, however, appeared to be the intent of the government at the time, which could say “we tried,” and drop the subject.

But the failure in effect lies with the way the process was conducted. The Ontario example clearly shows reform is a long-term project, one that requires a great deal of public handholding before a final decision is made.

Critics argue a proportional system would fragment the House, leading the way to more minority governments. Neglecting the fact that we’ve had a number of minorities under the existing system, the fragmentation is already underway due to the increase in the number of parties.

Left to their own devices, today’s crop of politicians will not make changes to benefit the public – oh, they’ll pay lip service to that, but that’s all. Clearly, reform is needed. Politicians and bureaucrats won’t move away from their culture of entitlement without public pressure.

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