Fair Elections Act: Why Canadians are shrugging it off

Every day, the federal Opposition ramps up its criticism of the Federal Elections Act. And while it’s certainly big news on Parliament Hill, some observers note that it doesn’t seem to be causing much of a stir with the rest of Canada.
Minister of State for Democratic Reform Pierre Poilievre has been regularly fending off Opposition attacks on the Fair Elections Act during question period in the House of Commons. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Over the past couple weeks, the federal Opposition has been ramping up its criticism of the Federal Elections Act, pounding the Conservative government during question period over the proposed bill that many critics have claimed is a threat to democracy.

Several newspaper editorials across the country have decried it and election experts have denounced it. Meanwhile, some of those very same experts have come under fire by the Tories, who have questioned and attacked their integrity and motives. 

And while this has all generated lots of headlines and the issue is certainly big news on Parliament Hill, it doesn’t’ seem to be causing much of a stir with the rest of Canada.

“It’s not an issue which is registering much with the public. And when you think about it, it’s not surprising,” said Frank Graves, president of EKOS Research Associates.  

“When 40 per cent of the public don’t even bother voting, then how whipped up are they going to be over, what is seen as arcane changes to regulations governing something that, if you’re under 40, most people don’t do. Which is vote,” Graves said.

Graves' firm was commissioned in March to conduct a survey on the Federal Elections Act by the Council of Canadians, which subsequently put out a news release headlined "New poll shows majority oppose key sections of the Unfair Elections Act.”

When respondents were asked about a section of the act that would eliminate the voucher system, 61 per cent said it made them less supportive of the bill.

The poll also found that 70 per cent of respondents said that the act’s elimination of Elections Canada’s ability to publicly report on voter complaints it receives, including about fraudulent calls, made them less supportive of the legislation.

But the survey also found that only 27 per cent of respondents were familiar with the bill. EKOS Research conducted a national telephone survey of 1,001 Canadians 18 years of age and older between Feb. 26 and March 6. The margin of error is 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

“Telling them a little bit about it raised people’s concerns dramatically. Once people heard about it, they said that doesn’t sound like a good idea," Graves said.

“But the challenge is, and I’m sure the government is pleased about this, is that in a world where democratic engagement is so low…it’s an area where people aren’t paying much attention.”

With research indicating Canadians are at an historical low point in terms of trust in democracy, the Fair Elections Act does nothing to restore people’s faith, Graves said.

Shachi Kurl, vice president of AngusReidGlobal, said their research found a direct link to how much Canadians were aware of the act and their opposition to it.

Only 20 per cent of Canadians surveyed were very or fairly familiar with the issue. The vast majority — 80 per cent — said they were either not very familiar or had not heard of it.

Overall support for the changes were evenly split, she said. The results are based on an online survey of 1,511 randomly selected Canadian adults who are Angus Reid Forum panellists conducted Feb. 21.

“But for those who were super aware, that’s where the highest level of opposition was. And for those who had kind of heard about the issue, the support levels were a little bit higher.”

But Kurl cautioned that their surveys were taken in late February, before the act was regularly making headlines, and that opinions may have changed since then. 

Jaime Watt, head of the Toronto-based communications firm Navigator, studies what issues are most talked about in Ottawa and the rest of Canada for a weekly segment called Political Traction on CBC News Network's Power & Politics.

He recently told Power & Politics host Evan Solomon that while the Fair Elections Act has been one of the biggest topics of conversation he's ever tracked inside the political and media sphere in Ottawa, it is engaging a far smaller percentage of Canadians.

“This issue is not connecting with very many Canadians,” Watt said.

So far, no one has figured out how to make this issue important to a lot of Canadians, Watt said.

"Right now, when Canadians look at this, they look at the issue, for example of vouching and some of these other issues, and they don’t see that applying to them. They see it applying to very few people.

“And people who really want to stop this bill or get it changed, need to think hard about how they can adjust their messaging so that it affects more Canadians.”

But Graves said that while the Fair Elections Act may not be on the radar of Canadians, you never know what issue can gain traction among voters.

He said while not directly comparing the two, very few people knew about the sponsorship scandal a year before they went to the polls. 

"Things can take off. And this thing may be one of them."


  • This story has been updated to include the methodology for the EKOS Research and Angus Reid surveys.
    Apr 10, 2014 9:18 PM ET

With files from The Canadian Press