If you get your news solely from the nation's opposition parties and editorial pages you can be excused for thinking the Harper government's proposed Fair Elections Act is something vile indeed. An "assault on democracy" getting "rammed through" Parliament, as the left-wing Tyeerecently put it.
But never fear, those same voices comfort, the bill is so bad it will invariably spawn a cross-country "voter surge" of opposition as Canadians of all stripes repulse at its sheer horror. Both Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau have pledged to make the thing a centrepiece of their 2015 election campaigns, and doubtless all the very smart people in their inner court insist they'll be winners for sure if they do.
Or not. A recent poll from the Angus Reid people reveals a reality that doesn't quite match the hype.
"Sound does not necessarily equal Fury," they declare. What's being spun as the most important debate in the history of the nation may just be another boring partisan squabble. If that's the case, critics might want to reflect on the diminishing returns of political hyperbole.
As it stands, public opinion on the Fair Elections Act is split 50-50. Despite two months of endless media coverage and opposition outrage, support has shifted a staggering two points over that period -- from 51 per cent in February to 49 per cent today -- well within the 3.4 per cent margin of error.
Even more revealing is the stark ideological cleavage of such opinions; 70 per cent of Conservative voters back the Act; only around 30 per cent of left-leaning party supporters do. There's little evidence, in short, that the vast backlash to the bill is in any way politically neutral, a conclusion re-enforced by similarly polarized responses to the question of whether the Tories can be trusted to "ensure Canada has the best elections oversight possible."
Partisan polarization also helps explain the high amount of public ignorance regarding the Fair Elections Act -- only 30 per cent of Canadians claim to be "very familiar" or "fairly familiar" with what it does -- particularly why those most boastful of their knowledge tend to be the most skeptical (56 per cent of the know-a-loters profess opposition).
Critics, by definition, are often malevolently well-informed about what they despise, and the rise of the Fair Elections Act as a subject of endless left-wing editorials, blog essays, open letters, petitions, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, YouTube videos, infographics, and terrible editorial cartoons certainly reveals a culture of obsession unmatched by the quiet deference of the right. Unless you're highly motivated to hate this government, in other words, it's hard to get too worked up over "arcane changes to regulations," to quote EKOS pollster Frank Graves. He found disinterest rates closer to 80 per cent.
But ignorance can also foster opposition, especially when the conventional summary of the Act's content occurs on the critics' terms.
Some 56 per cent of Canadians are said to oppose "transferring election 'watchdog' responsibilities away from the Chief Electoral Officer," for instance, which does indeed sound bad if that's all you hear. But the Act doesn't transfer those 'watchdog' powers into the trash can -- they're being reassigned to the Department of Public Prosecutions. Name-dropping that impressive-sounding office would probably shift replies.
Ditto for "reducing Elections Canada's public information activities," which garners 62 per cent opposition -- the most of any specific provision. Who could be opposed to information? Possibly lots, if pollsters made clear the info in question is not useful stuff like where and how to vote, but rather maudlin pro-voting propaganda with a proven track record of failure.
What's most interesting of all, however, is that the provision of the act most contentious with critics -- strengthening the requirement for voters to show valid ID and eliminating honour-system "vouching" for those without -- is enormously popular, boasting over 70 per cent in favour, including 59 per cent of the well-informed set. The NDP and Liberals may have thus pulled a rather significant strategic blunder in making the supposed "disenfranchisement" of the ID-less (always a far-fetched fear) the central focus of their opposition campaign.
Though conventional cliche holds Canadians to be a jolly, friendly people, we're actually pretty strict and unforgiving when it comes to anything that whiffs of rule-breaking. In that sense, strengthening voter ID laws is perhaps best seen as a logical outgrowth of the Conservatives' "tough on crime" agenda, which remains popular with the public despite constant media and opposition scolding that it shouldn't.
Though debate over the Fair Elections Act currently feels like one of those bogs from which the news cycle will never emerge, there's increasing reason to believe it's in everyone's interest to bring the conversation to a swift close. The overblown rhetoric of critics has simply not moved public opinion -- particularly Tory opinion -- where it needs to be, in part, I suspect, because overblown rhetoric is starting to lose its impact by virtue of over-use.
We may recall hearing some years ago that Stephen Harper had a sinister backdoor plan to re-criminalize gay marriage. It never happened. We may also recall that he was supposed to build boatloads of private prisons, blow billions on expensive fighter jets, and take a meat cleaver to science funding, none of which happened either. These were all hysterical tropes of the Canadian left at one time or another, yet as accurate warnings go, they bring to mind a certain little shepherd boy who wouldn't shut up about a non-existent hairy carnivore.
No one should be surprised that the conspiratorial claims of the Fair Elections Act -- you know, that it'll instigate a Mugabe-esque dystopia of rigged elections run by partisan bagmen as the streets run red with the blood of disenfranchised undergrads -- aren't really sticking. There's only so many times you can evoke the spectre of looming right-wing tyranny before folks start to tune out.
Election policy may be important, but if Canadians seem disinterested -- well, it's not just the Conservatives' fault.
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