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Fair Elections Act Critics Are Bad for Democracy

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It's funny. For all the squawking on the left about the need to preserve and strengthen democracy in this country, no one on the progressive side seems terribly interested in standing up for one of the key principles of the practice. Namely, the right of the elected part of our government to make law and the obligation of the unelected part  --  the bureaucracy  --  to respect and enforce it.

You can visit the Elections Canada website right now and view a long laundry list of the department's problems with bill C-23, the Harper government's Fair Elections Act. The Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, Marc Mayrand, has spent some $439,333 of taxpayer money hiring what Ezra Levant has accurately dubbed a "celebrity panel" of lobbyists to oppose it, including ex-auditor general Sheila Fraser, ex-Liberal leader Bob Rae, ex-Reform Party boss Preston Manning, and various other aging all-stars who don't necessarily know a lot about electoral law, but possess some degree of moral authority Mayrand is eager to purchase for his cause.

In testimony to press and parliament, Mayrand's pals (and indeed, Mayrand himself) have denounced the Fair Elections Act with fiery resolve, calling it an "attack on democracy." The Conservatives have responded in kind, observing the completely accurate fact that that since bill C-23 strips some powers from Mayrand's office (specifically, his ability to appoint the guy charged with investigating electoral fraud and infractions -- now to be chosen by the Department of Public Prosecutions) and constrains his budget (the salaries of any new staff he hires will henceforth require the approval of the Treasury Board), it's something he has a personal stake in opposing, and therefore something on which his credibility as a neutral witness is somewhat compromised.

The Canadian media has deliberately avoided telling the story this way, however. A breathtakingly biased piece of ostensible hard news reporting from the Canadian Press published on Tuesday, for instance, gasped in horror at the Tory government's "incredible personal attack on the chief elections watchdog" before spending much of the rest of the story quoting sympathetically from Sheila Fraser  --  who again, Mayrand is paying to take his side  --  about how ghastly it all was. The preferred narrative, shared by the opposition parties, is that the obligation of our elected politicians is to blindly defer to the opinions of Ottawa's bureaucrats, who are increasingly portrayed as a sort of priestly caste who have no motivations or concerns beyond Doing What's Right for Canada. I'm reminded of a quote by Bart Simpson, said in a moment of cloying self-righteousness  --  "if I'm guilty of anything, it's caring too much."

We can have a debate about the Fair Elections Act. Frankly, the more I read of it, the less I'm troubled  --  I've already shared my views on the non-event of eliminating so-called "vouching," and much of the remaining fear-mongering over the act strikes as a thoroughly unpersuasive mix of stereotypes and conspiracy theories.

Some have fretted that the bill's decision to end government-financed "get out the vote!" campaigns will depress turnout in general and youth participation in particular  --  though there seems to be little hard evidence such campaigns have ever been anything but a waste of money, given that voter turnout has been declining for decades despite record spending on often painfully cheesy pro-voting propaganda.

Likewise, fears that severing the investigative office of Canada's Election Commissioner from the administrative office of the Chief Electoral Officer is all part of some elaborate long con to discredit the current CEO in anticipation of his imminent release of a report that will supposedly document massive Tory electoral fraud in the 2011 election (as was recently asserted by noted Harper-basher Lawrence Martin) is more than a wee bit paranoid. Claims that a fraud investigator appointed by "the government" will be biased to the Conservatives makes no sense either, given that the Chief Electoral Officer is, er, appointed by the government too.

More pragmatic opponents of the bill have simply offered criticisms of the "if-it-aint'-broke-don't-fix-it" variety, but such responses seem more in reaction to the media caricature of the bill than the substance of the thing itself. Bill C-23 contains lots of important reforms the press has largely ignored as they're hard to spin against the integrity of the ruling party  --  reforms like dramatically hiking fines and jail time for breakers of electoral law (including, it should be noted, making false-pretext robo-calls), extending the advance voting period from three days to four, and repealing the absurd Depression-era ban on releasing election results from the east before polls close in the west.

All these arguments are fine. Productive, even. What we shouldn't tolerate, however, is the emergence of a political culture in which an elected government's ability to pass legislation is understood  --  if not encouraged  --  to be subject to the veto of unelected civil servants with the most to lose.

Already, Officer Mayrand is beginning to emerge as a sort of personality cult figure on the left, a beatification previously enjoyed by ex-census president Munir Sheikh, and former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page, both lavishly praised for defending their bureaucratic turf in their wars against the reform agenda of the country's elected government. Munir Sheikh has since given keynote speeches at Liberal Party gatherings and Page is now BFFs with Elizabeth May, and once Mayrand eventually steps aside, he'll no doubt become a prominent fixture on the progressive speakers' circuit, too.

And why not? The Canadian left rarely meets an unelected official they don't like  --  spend a few minutes chatting with a self-identified progressive and you'll walk away with the impression that basically all laws and policies should be dictated by bureaucrats, judges, and professors, with politicians simply giving a submissive thumbs-up.

In Justin Trudeau's Canada, we'll even have an unelected chamber of parliament appointed by an unelected panel of "experts" to further ensure no one chosen by the people has any sort of influence over anything that matters.

I can understand partisan hostility to an elected government  --  particularly this one. But progressives must be careful about the precedent they're setting in consistently and dogmatically supporting, defending and strengthening the powers of the unelected faction of the political system over the part the people themselves have explicitly entrusted to run the country.

That's a vision for a certain sort of future for Canada, but a more democratic one it's surely not.

Proposed Changes Under 'Fair Elections Act'
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