Analysis

The Trudeau government gets another chance to do election law reform right

Andrew Scheer's suggestion that the Liberals' new bill is an attempt to "rig the next election" may be over the top, but it's down to the Liberals to meet him halfway.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer's claim that the Trudeau government's reform bill could be an attempt to "rig" the next election suggests this reform effort could wind up like all the others - in a grisly political brawl. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Andrew Scheer suggested this week that Justin Trudeau is trying to "rig the next election."

It's quite a thing to say. In fact, it's just about the most serious charge one can level at a government. It apparently failed to make much of a ripple on Parliament Hill — an indication, perhaps, of how numb everyone has gotten to the effects of apocalyptic political rhetoric.

Whether Bill C-76 — the Liberal government's expansive set of changes to elections laws — amounts to fixing the 2019 election is rather debatable. But perhaps, in the interests of maintaining the public's faith in our democratic system, the Liberals might try meeting the Conservative leader halfway.

​Scheer's stated fear of a "rigged" election is apparently linked to the Liberals' proposal to regulate political activity in the weeks immediately preceding a federal campaign.

In this new "pre-writ period" — to begin on June 30 in years with a fixed election date in October — parties would be permitted to spend a maximum of $1.5 million on political advertising, while third-party groups and other outside organizations would be allowed to spend up to $1 million on partisan advertising, activities and opinion surveys.

Scheer has two problems.

Putting a leash on pre-writ government PR

First, he suggests that two third-party organizations — advocacy groups that take up particular causes — could team up to effectively outspend a political party, even though the bill would prohibit collusion between such groups.

Second, Conservatives say they're troubled by the fact that the pre-writ spending limits would not apply to government activity or advertising. Scheer notes that ministers would still be able to travel the country making announcements and promoting government policy. (As an example, Scheer could always point to Pierre Poilievre's cross-country Universal Child Care Benefit PR tour in the summer of 2015, just months before the election his government lost.)

Under guidelines drafted by the Liberals in 2016, government advertising is banned in the 90 days before an election date — but that does not line up with the new pre-writ period. In 2019, for instance, the ban on government advertising would kick on July 24.

Fixing that timeline discrepancy should be easy enough. And the Conservatives would like to see the government's advertising rules written into legislation.

Banning government travel and activity during the pre-writ period could be trickier. The pre-writ rules would only apply to advertising; Andrew Scheer and all other opposition MPs would also still be free to travel the country. And if cabinet ministers were to be banned from appearing in public during the pre-writ period, it might make sense to also sequester opposition leaders in an undisclosed location.

That's not the sum of opposition concerns about C-76, of course. The Conservatives have backed away from raising fears about voter fraud, but they also want tighter restrictions to ensure third-party groups don't use foreign sources of funding for election activities. The New Democrats are calling for more oversight of how political parties collect and use data on voters.

Expert testimony at committee hearings no doubt will raise other concerns — maybe about how well this bill deals with the emergent digital threats of the social media era.

But the prime minister says the government is open to amendments. And none of the gaps identified by Conservatives or New Democrats seem unbridgeable.

Let's make a deal

And it's in the Trudeau government's own interests to limit the grounds on which it might be accused of running roughshod over democracy — partly because the recent precedents are so ugly.

Election reform has been a source of woe for the Liberals, some of it self-inflicted. Trudeau's promise of deep electoral reform ended in retreat and recrimination. A subsequent proposal to explore parliamentary reform was met with such outrage from the opposition parties that the government felt it had to back away.

But it's not like Trudeau's government is the only one to burn its fingers on this file in recent memory.

In 2008, Stephen Harper's government was nearly toppled after proposing to eliminate a vote subsidy for political parties.The Conservative government's Fair Elections Act in 2014 prompted warnings that thousands of Canadians could be disenfranchised.

Significant parts of C-76 are meant to repeal and rewrite measures in the Fair Elections Act. But the Fair Elections Act also was more than a series of legislated changes. It was a grisly affair that ultimately did nothing to maintain Canadians' confidence in the electoral system. Before it was over, a cabinet minister had publicly questioned the chief electoral officer's motivations.

In hindsight, that was a dangerous moment that could have seriously shaken public confidence in the democratic system.

Bill C-76 is a chance to demonstrate that debating election law needn't go that far.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail.

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