THE DEMOCRATIC REPORTER
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Toronto Star - May 5, 2008 - By Nelson Wiseman, who teaches political science at the University of Toronto.
Elections Canada imbroglio sours already cynical public
If there is a single Canadian public agency with an outstanding international reputation, it is Elections Canada.
Nearly nine decades old, it was established as a non-partisan office reporting directly to Parliament. Its purpose was and continues to be the prevention of partisan manipulation and flagrant abuse of the electoral system by the government of the day.
In the wartime election of 1917, for example, the ruling Conservatives enfranchised female relatives of servicemen and simultaneously disenfranchised Canadian citizens who hailed from Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Conservatives also provided for "floater" votes, allowing the parties to determine in which constituencies their soldiers' votes would be distributed. Since Conservatives won 90 per cent of those ballots, the scheme served them well. Populist outrage expressed by farmers' parties and the Progressives -- who soon became Parliament's second largest party -- provided the yeast for reform and Elections Canada was created in 1920.
Many Canadians would prefer to see Elections Canada personnel, rather than military personnel, serving in international theatres. The international community thinks highly of their professionalism, too. Since the 1970s, Elections Canada has become a world-respected mentor for emerging democracies in the impartial management of elections, providing technical assistance and professional support. International agencies and the United Nations regularly request its services, expertise, and counsel. Between 1990 and 2004 alone, it was involved in more than 300 democratic development missions in about 80 states.
The Canadian government is now assaulting this image of impartial professionalism as the Prime Minister chastises Elections Canada as unfair and partial. His party is suing it in court. A judge will determine the merits of their case.
In the court of public opinion, however, the Conservatives have already lost. A survey reveals that nearly six in 10 Canadians disbelieve them in their fight with the agency.
For many Canadians, Elections Canada buttresses the imprimatur of legitimacy and credibility to the electoral process. Stephen Harper would have them believe that its essential credibility is suspect and faulty.
Harper cannot win the public relations battle with Elections Canada, but he may avoid the consequences of losing it. In the aftermath of the sponsorship scandal, the sordid Mulroney-Schreiber-Airbus saga, and the apparent fizzling of the Chuck Cadman affair -- in no small part due to Conservative sabotage of a parliamentary committee that wishes to pursue it -- much of the public's cynical view of parties, if not the electoral system per se, has been reinforced.
It is a sad comment that Conservative candidates, who were called by Elections Canada for information about their campaign expenses, were told by Conservative party lawyers to stonewall the agency.
The Conservatives have declared open warfare on Elections Canada. Harper has done this kind of thing before. Recall his vendetta against the non-partisan, long-serving civil servant head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. He fired her just hours before she was to testify at a parliamentary committee.
He cannot accuse the chief electoral officer and the commissioner of elections (who is responsible for enforcing the Elections Act) of being Liberal hacks, however, for it is he who nominated them. Although they, like the auditor general and the privacy, information, and ethics commissioners are independent officers mandated to report directly to Parliament, concerns were raised last week that the government will require their comunications to be vetted in advance.
These are sad developments for Canadian public administration. Indeed, the public service has already paid a steep price, labouring for a government that attacks its own independent agencies. How did we get to this woeful state of affairs where public servants are sued for making judgments that the law calls on them to make?
The implicit human understandings that once characterized the relations of politicians and civil servants have been shredded in the name of increasing "transparency" and "accountability." The Conservatives rode this horse to their 2006 election victory. Not long ago it would have been unimaginable that the RCMP could raid a party, especially a ruling party, headquarters. (The Conservatives first labelled it a "visit," but now decry it as a "storming.")
With the suspicion that money buys elections, came a near-psychotic drive to impose more rules, more laws and more regulations. Paranoia about potentially stolen elections feeds demands for sanctions and punishment.
The Elections Act, which first incorporated election expenses restrictions in 1974, has been repeatedly amended since then and now runs hundreds of pages. Pick it up at the risk of suffering a hernia. It covers everything from the eight separate details newspapers must report (but few do) about the methodology of polls they publish during election campaigns, to how much broadcast time parties are entitled to purchase, to requiring that a candidate secure his party leader's signature before her party affiliation is listed on the ballot. With more laws, there are inevitably more miscreants.
We have entered an era of juristocracy -- the regime of laws, judges and prosecutors -- where only those admitted to a professionally approved class of lawyers may plead a case.
This may very well be at the price of democracy because the rest of us are out of luck. It is a world of incessant litigation and mushrooming legalisms. Issues once resolved behind the scenes and based on human interaction -- in parliamentary debates, the press and on the hustings -- have given way to legalistic canons and precepts. This has happened in the name of imposing a theoretically attractive, but practically unattainable legal, rational model.
May the best lawyer win?
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