If Yukon MP Ryan Leef faces one big obstacle in seeking re-election next year, it will be in fending off accusations that he is merely a patsy for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and that, push come to shove, he puts the interests of his party ahead of his constituents.
These are terms of debate that Leef helped set. During the last election campaign, the major criticism levelled by Leef and his supporters against the incumbent Liberal, Larry Bagnell, was that he abandoned Yukoners by supporting his party’s long-gun registry.
Don’t be surprised if Leef receives a similar savaging over some of the stupider stuff he’s had to defend as a Conservative MP.
Every governing party is burdened with some indefensible decisions, but the Conservatives seem to go out of their way in their efforts to further debase Canadian politics. They’ve made a mockery of the idea of Parliament vetting the legislation it passes by larding hundreds of unrelated changes into budget bills. They’ve undermined the accuracy of the federal census – presumably, so that the government is no longer encumbered by the nuisance of having reliable statistics upon which to base its decisions.
And, in the latest example of the thuggish behaviour that the Conservatives show at their worst, the government is now rewriting Canada’s election laws, in a variety of ways that all happen to benefit the ruling party.
Sadly, on this matter Leef is reduced to his usual role as cheerleader for the government. In a recent letter to the editor, he recited the Conservative talking points, claiming, among other things, that the changes would give the commissioner of Elections Canada “sharper teeth, a longer reach and a freer hand.”
Funny that the commissioner, Yves Cote, doesn’t see things that way. By removing his office from Elections Canada, Cote worries that future investigations will be less effective. And he won’t receive the powers he has sought – namely, the ability to compel testimony, and to force people to co-operate with investigations. Without such powers, Cote has complained his efforts to investigate the robocalls affair were stymied.
Even more worrisome than the widespread condemnation of the bill is the government’s cynical response, by attacking officials who dare disagree with it, and its utter lack of evidence to show that the planned changes are needed.
Pierre Poilievre, who is pushing the bill, has accused Canada’s chief electoral officer, Marc Mayrand, of “wearing a team jersey” for criticizing the bill. Poilievre similarly ascribed the basest motives to Mayrand, saying he was merely motivated by his own desire to expand his own authority and budget.
Mayrand has warned that two changes could disenfranchise many Canadians.
One is a decision to eliminate voter identification cards, which are used by many citizens as proof of residency. Another measure would also end the practice of vouching, which allows voters without proper ID to still vote, provided someone else swears for them.
Together, Mayrand has estimated these measures would deny the vote to at least 100,000 voters, if the last election is any indication. A big share of the disenfranchised are expected to be youth, aboriginals and the poor – groups that can be expected to be less likely to vote Conservative.
Poilievre asserts that voter information cards and vouching are being exploited to conduct electoral fraud. As evidence, he cites a report prepared by Harry Neufeld into the 2011 election. But there’s a problem: the report doesn’t actually single-out vouching and voter information cards as a issue.
When Neufeld made as much clear, Poilievre retorted, absurdly, that Neufeld must not have properly understood the report he authored.
There’s a lot else wrong with the bill that couldn’t be covered in this space. National and international elections experts have all panned the legislation, as have respected Canadian public figures such as past-auditor general Sheila Fraser. The Globe and Mail recently penned a five-part editorial explaining why the bill deserves to die. Its defenders, beyond government stooges, are few and far between.
Poilievre’s response to all this has been that the bill is “terrific” as it stands.
Sceptics shrug their shoulders and wonder what’s so difficult about producing ID. What they overlook is that voting is supposed to be a fundamental right, and that some residents – including students, the elderly and on-reserve natives – face genuine difficulties in obtaining ID that includes their address.
Some changes proposed by the Senate – which Poilievre says he will consider – would assist these groups, by requiring First Nation bands, homeless shelters and seniors’ residences to provide documents attesting to residents’ names and addresses, and by treating the use of electronic correspondence as ID. Critics worry that won’t be enough to prevent residents from being needlessly deprived their vote.
Sceptics also ignore the fact that electoral laws are so fundamental to our democracy, any changes to them should enjoy broad cross-party support – something the Conservatives have made no genuine effort to build.
Leef won the last election by a narrow margin, in a campaign that was later embroiled in the robocalls scandal, in which a wave of misleading phone calls were placed to voters who had expressed loyalty to parties other than the Conservatives. Our MP has always maintained he knew nothing of how this occurred, and he may very well be right – it probably wouldn’t make sense to implicate a greenhorn candidate like himself in such chicanery, when there are other henchmen to do such dirty work.
But Leef will be hard-pressed to deny that he wasn’t involved in the latest effort to manipulate the election results. It will have happened right out in open, when he votes for the bill – as he doubtlessly will – in Parliament.
That’s bound to harm Leef’s efforts to cultivate the appearance that he is his own man. But if enough people who would cast their ballots against him are deprived a vote, it may not matter.