Jim Flaherty, 65, the former minister of finance, was one of the few cabinet ministers in the Harper government who could smile. Maybe it was because both his parents were from New Brunswick. Maybe it was his Irish blood, or his leprechaun-like appearance, but his was one of the few friendly faces on the government’s front bench.
Mr. Flaherty, a Toronto area lawyer before he became a politician, served in five portfolios, including finance, in the Harris government in Ontario. A government noted for cutting government spending. He may have been an ideologue, but he was a flexible, practical one. A seasoned veteran, who, as the federal finance minister abandoned government budget cuts and became a big spender in order to stimulate a sluggish economy.
Pierre Poilievre is the exact opposite to Mr. Flaherty. He is young and had no political experience before being elected to Parliament. He is a Franco-Albertan, who attended the University of Calgary where he was mentored by Tom Flanagan, Ted Morton and Barry Cooper, right-wing ideologues who became known as the ‘Calgary School.’ Prior to his election, in an Ottawa suburb, Pierre Poilievre served as a political assistant and lobbyist.
As a back bench MP he was one of the Conservatives’ attack dogs. He has had to apologize for using foul language in committee hearing. He accused the Liberals of supporting terrorist organizations and has labelled the then Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff as a ‘tar baby.’
He is considered by many observers to be arrogant, with little to be arrogant about, and as nasty a politician as there is in politics today. Because of these perceived qualities it was a surprise when he was named to cabinet as the junior minister responsible for democratic reform.
Though two years ago, because of the controversy around robo calls and some dodgy actions concerning election expenses in the last election, Parliament unanimously passed a motion to give Election Canada stronger investigative powers. No one saw this as ‘democratic reform.’
Initially it was thought Mr. Poilievre would be working on reforming the Senate, no one expected him to overhaul the Elections Act and the operations of Elections Canada.
Bill C-23, entitled by the Conservatives as The Fair Elections Act, is the first major re-write of the elections act since the changes preventing corporate and union financing of political parties were made ten years ago.
Instead of granting more investigative power to the Chief Electoral Officer the act takes away his investigative role and moves it to a commissioner who has nothing to do with the running of elections. And while C-23 creates new offences and increases penalties it doesn’t give the new commissioner any of the enhanced investigative powers that Parliament asked for two years ago.
But the bill does put limits on the Chief Electoral Officer. He can no longer conduct campaigns encouraging people to vote. Under the new act he can simply tell the public where, when and how to vote. This means Elections Canada can no longer run politically unbiased ads encouraging young people and ethnic minorities to participate in the democratic process. Many observers, journalists and academics, see this as an attempt by the Conservative to suppress votes from groups of people who aren’t like to vote for them.
The Fair Elections Act also does away with vouching. Vouching was a process that allowed someone to declare that a friend is an eligible voter and lives in the electoral district. The minister says this led to voter fraud, but the only expert he quoted to support these allegations, says Mr. Poilievre has mis-interpreted his findings. Harry Neufeld says there is no evidence that vouching has led to voter fraud. Again this is seen as an attempt to suppress the votes among poor and indigenous people who don’t possess identification papers.
Despite of all of the experts who have pointed out these and other flaws in Bill C-23 the government seems determined to ram it through Parliament and in Mr. Poilievre it’s using one of its crudest salesmen.
If the government were serious about electoral reform and participation in elections, which hovers around 50 per cent of eligible voters in federal elections, it should consider making voting mandatory. All elections are about the future, but the elderly, which have a somewhat limited future, turnout in far greater number than young people who will be living in that future. But the young aren’t seen as Conservative supporters, so why have them voting.
Alan Holman is a freelance journalist living in Charlottetown. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org