Democracy Under Fire: Promises- Electoral Reform, spending & advertising.

Electoral Reform is probably the most called for item on the democratic reform agenda, and I suspect will be the most difficult to keep from being a very divisive promise given the strong opinions held by various individuals and citizen groups across the country. The promise is to:-
Form an all-party parliamentary committee to bring recommendations to Parliament on the way forward, to allow for action before the succeeding federal election. Ensure that electoral reform measures – such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting – are fully and fairly studied and considered. And within 18 monthsbring forward legislation to enact electoral reform.

I will cover the various possibilities regarding the types of voting systems in future posts, despite having written on that subject several time in the past I have some new thoughts as to the suitability of some of the proposals (in particular the much vaunted ‘proportional representation’). For now all I am going to say that I am very pleased that this proposal call for ALL systems to be “fully and fairly studied and considered” and that voting methods such as on line voting (and hopefully other ways of improving ways to vote) will be included in the committees deliberations. I hope that wide consultation will take place with all the ramifications of any proposed system considered, including the effect of more complex ballots upon the voting process.

Repeal the anti-democratic elements in the Fair Elections Act and scrap the Citizen Voting Act, restore the voter identification card as an acceptable form of identification. Work with provinces and territories, and support Elections Canada, to register young Canadians as a part of their high school curriculum. Support voter registration as part of a civic ceremony in high schools, support Elections Canada in proactively registering Canadians from groups that historically have lower voter turnout.

Given some of the problems identified by voters during the election its pretty clear that the entire voter identification system needs a major overall and modernization. Various government agencies both federal and provincial have multiple databases with our information in which they check our electability for various programs, make sure we pay our taxes etc etc but seem unable to maintain an accurate list of voters. Much of the problems encountered stem from the necessity to vote at a particular location, perhaps an updated system can eliminate that need. And YES, lets give our youth and other non voters the tools and information to get them involved in deciding their future governance.

Provide Elections Canada with the resources it needs to investigate matters that threaten the integrity of our electoral process. Ensure that the Chief Electoral Officer and Elections Canada have the tools and mandate to encourage more Canadians to vote. Restore the independence of the Commissioner of Canada Elections so that they are freely able to prosecute electoral violations.

Even before the Conservatives removed much of their powers Elections Canasta was not doing a good job of identifying and prosecuting those (almost exclusively political operatives) who abused the system, whether this was from lack of power or lack of resources is hard to tell but we do indeed need a strong independent body with the power to fully investigate such fraud. Election Canada is such a body, let us give them the tools they need to do their job which should indeed include urging all Canadians to vote when given the opertunity.

Appoint an Advertising Commissioner to assist the Auditor General in providing oversight on government advertising. Proposed messages will be reviewed by the Advertising Commissioner to ensure they are non-partisan and related to actual government requirements. Review electoral spending limits, and also ensure that political party spending between elections is subject to limits.
Create a more inclusive, independent commission that will organize leaders’ debates during election campaigns, with a mandate to increase Canadians engagement and knowledge of the issues.

These three items are all part of the same thing in my view, the ability of those who would seek to represent up, both individuals and partys, to be able to place their point of view and proposals before the public with some measure of “fairness’ as compared with the incumbent partys and / or individuals or partys with resources far in excess of some of their oponents. Elections have become far to much about who can spend the most in ‘advertising’ (although it does not always result in the expected result as we have just seen) and as a result alternative views are all but unheard in the ensuing media war. We know that the Harper regime was using public money to toot its own horn for years prior to the election and this tenancy now seems to be spilling over into provincial governments (at least here in Ontario) so any oversight to check this practice is a good thing. The practice of excluding this or that leader of an established party from national debates is part and parcel of the ever increasing tilt to that “playing field” and must be corrected.

Its hard to say how all this will shake out but each of the proposals are a step in the right direction IMHO, at this point I remain optimistic that our new government and our parliamentarian’s will work together to bring many of these reforms into being. I truly hope that our MPs will put partisan rhetoric aside and agree to strengthen our democratic systems for as we have seen it can so quickly and easily go the other way however we are already seeing some rhetoric that this system or that will benefit this party or that. I do not envy the “committee” on this one!

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Democracy Under Fire: Promises – Parliamentary Accountability

As promised in my post A cabinet that looks like Canada, this week I am going to take a closer look at the Liberal Government’s quite modest promises as regards to parliamentary reform as listed in their platform document. Taking them one at a time they are (in shortened form):-

Strengthen the role of parliamentary committee chairs, including elections by secret ballot. Ensure a more robust system of oversight and review for legislation.”

This one bothers me a little given that committee chairs already have considerable power over the way such meetings are conducted and can, as we have seen in recent years, use procedural actions to disrupt open discussion should they wish to. They need to be more open and accountable with rules established to ensure such partisan or personal biases cannot substantially effect discussions not more power over the process. I am not at all sure what “ a more robust system of oversight and review for legislation” means, reviewing proposed legislation is after all THE function of committees. Government House Leader Dominic Leblanc says House committees should be independent from government with non-partisan chairs and possibly no parliamentary secretary members. As with all things the devil is in the details, this one is a wait and see item.

Liberal Caucus members will only be required to vote with the Cabinet on those matters that implement the Liberal electoral platform or traditional confidence matters…..”

Whilst more ‘free’ votes are highly desirable I am not sure that this actually promises that, in the short term at least most, if not all legislation could be said to “implement the Liberal electoral platform”. No MP should be “required to vote” in any particular manner, naturally those who disagree with their own party’s legislation and vote against it may face some kind of ‘disciplinary’ action from the party but telling an MP how to vote is wrong and antidemocratic. The ONLY vote that could result in a minority government falling should be one that specifically says “This house has no confidence in thus ‘whipping’ the vote would be unnecessary…..”

Create a new, nonpartisan, merit-based, broad, and diverse process to advise the Prime Minister on Senate appointments.”

We do not know at this point what this “process” will be however given the restrictions placed upon the PM by the constitution, and if he truly wants to make the Senate the non partisan chamber of ‘sober second thought’ then taking advice, or even better, candidate recommendations from outside government is the only alternative. I have said before that given that Senators are meant to be representative of the province in which they reside that it seems appropriate that said provinces should be able to propose at least some of those candidates. Once again this is a wait and see what the ‘process’ involves but is far better than proposing reforms that involve opening up the constitution in a long and potentially divisive process..

Work with all parties in the House of Commons to ensure an inclusive, representative, transparent, and accountable process to advise on appointments to the Supreme Court.”

It is my understanding that such a process was already in place, it is just that the previous PM chose to ignore such processes.

Introduce a Prime Minister’s Question Period, empower the Speaker to challenge and sanction Members during Question Period.

The PM is supposed to be one amongst equals, is having a special question period just for him reinforcing the perception that he and he alone is responsible for policy? I agree that the speaker should have more power to enforce members to behave and to answer actual questions put, not go off on some unrelated time passing distraction. Good luck with that.

Change parliamentary financial processes, ensuring accounting consistency among the Estimates and the Public Accounts, providing costing analysis for each
government bill and restoring the requirement that the government’s borrowing plans
receive Parliament’s pre-approval.

Duh!

Ensure that all of the Officers of Parliament – the Chief Electoral Officer, the Access to Information Commissioner, the Auditor General, the Parliamentary Budget Officer etc, etc, are all properly funded and respected for doing their important work to help Canadians.

We have seen during the last governments tenure that when you cant get rid of an officer whos reports you don’t like the next best thing is to cut their funding. We hope that they all do get sufficient funding restored to do their job effectively but must ask if there is a way to ensure that future governments cannot silence these officers by such methods.

Not use prorogation to avoid difficult political circumstances, change the House of Commons Standing Orders to end the practice of using omnibus bills to reduce scrutiny
prevent future governments from using this method to silence critical reports.’

Both of these promises are a very good start and we hope that they can indeed “prevent future governments (and their own) from using omnibus bills“ although how you ‘lock in’ such rules to prevent future governments from changing them back and what penalties can be put in place to prevent the rules being ignored is questionable. All the rules around prorogation, forming coalitions upon the defeat of a minority government, and similar constitutional matters need to be clarified, particularly if electoral reform takes place that results in a greater probability of more minority’s being elected.

The above is almost identical to the ‘list’ proposed by Ms May of the Greens as presented in the post Fixing What Harper Broke where she says “Ideally, a parliamentary committee will be mandated to review the abuses of the last ten years and recommend a full suite of measures to ensure it never happens again.“ There is the rub, any incoming government can seemingly come in and change the rules (or ignore them) as most are not enshrined in law, but for a few citizens invoking constitutional challenges it could have been much worse.
As we have seen in recent years the rules around prorogation, minority and coalition governments and even House proceedings are easily abused, and how and when such constitutional maneuverings can take place is far from clear and governed more by ‘tradition’ than any hard and fast rules or guidelines. Such things need to be formally documented to avoid future ‘constitutional crises’. With the House setting its own rules this is not an easy task, we wish the new Liberal government well with these changes and await the recall of the House to see exactly how much the ‘tone’ and substance of the proceeding will change under what we hope and expect to be a more open and respectful leadership.

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