Election observers needed in Canada to ensure fairness, report urges

A new report concludes that Canada needs outside observers to monitor the federal election for fairness due to the rise of big money, nasty attack ads and new voting laws.

Calls for more restrictions on campaign spending, independent body to organize leaders' debates

A new report concluding that Canada needs outside observers to monitor the federal election for fairness also recommends a code of conduct for political advertising, more restrictions on campaign spending and an independent committee to organize national leaders' debates. (Canadian Press)

Canada needs outside observers to monitor the federal election for fairness due to the rise of big money, nasty attack ads and new voting laws, says a report based on a survey of civil society groups.

The non-partisan Civil Election organization, which promotes open and fair discussion during campaigns, invited 70 groups to participate in a survey about the Oct. 19 election.

It got responses from about two dozen groups active in fields including health care, human rights, the environment, education, child care, social justice and aboriginal issues.

The resulting report, "Poisoned Discourse," recommends a code of conduct for political advertising, more restrictions on campaign spending and an independent committee to organize national leaders' debates.

Such a committee could also help community groups plan all-candidates meetings at the riding level.

In addition, the report calls for efforts to improve civic literacy, including stronger public-school programs.

"I think inclusiveness is key to our democracy. I've been concerned about declining civility and public discourse for several years," said Christopher Holcroft, a Toronto consultant and founder of Civil Election.

"It's a pendulum — and it's swung too far the other way. And it's excluding people from having a thoughtful, substantive debate."

Almost all survey respondents expressed support for the idea of outside observers overseeing the election results to ensure fairness.

The response was "a bit of a red flag for me," said Holcroft.

Fair Elections Act unfair?

In fact, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, to which Canada belongs, plans to send a team to monitor the campaign.

Elections Canada said Tuesday the OSCE mission is expected to focus on the overall electoral process and make recommendations on such things as better inclusion of marginalized groups.

Elections Canada has "a long tradition of sharing best practices" with the international electoral community, the Canadian agency said.

Almost three-quarters of respondents said the Fair Elections Act passed last year would make the coming election somewhat or much less fair. Among other things, the act introduced stricter identification requirements for voters — changes critics say could disqualify some from casting a ballot.

Elections Canada has briefed staff to be mindful of the sort of underhanded tactics parties have repeatedly used in the United States to stymie voters — from challenging eligibility to circulating false information about polling dates.

This year there may be no national televised debate in English aired by all of the major broadcasters. Instead, there will be several privately sponsored exchanges.

"Following the clumsy manner in which political parties have approached participation in national leaders' debates this year, it is time a mechanism was created to take the tactical political manoeuvring out of the process," the report says.

It advocates a permanent, neutral body to provide predictability and allow for comprehensive access to debates in English and French.

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