As I’ve watched the events in the Ukraine unfold, it has evoked the usual sense of anger and disappointment, but also of hope. After all, it all began when, in the face of autocratic and corrupt rulers, hundreds of thousands of passionate Ukrainians took to the streets to defend their young democracy. (See here and here for brief overviews of what’s happened in Ukraine.)
It’s also got me thinking about the state of our democracy. By many measures, Canada is one of the most successful, fair and prosperous democracies in the world. We should feel fortunate and proud about this. But it isn’t something that ‘just happened’. It is the result of a long and difficult evolution of our democratic institutions – important advances like free and fair elections, an independent justice system, and the creation of a Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Yet, we’re increasingly taking our democracy for granted. Voter turnout has steadily fallen and Canadians have been disengaging from politics. Younger Canada has been the quickest to tune out and stay home (Jane Hilderman has written about this for GenSqueeze). A result has been a willingness to stand idly by and allow the corrosion or neglect of the democratic institutions it has taken us centuries to build up.
The latest example is the Fair Elections Act (FEA), a law proposed by the federal Conservative Government. The Government’s objectives, laid out here, all sound quite noble: things like, limiting voter fraud, tightening election laws, and better enforcement against ‘robocalls’ and other violations.
The problem is, the Act – and the Government’s process in crafting it – threatens to undermine Canadian democracy in important ways.
Legal expert Yasmin Dawood, speaking at a forum at the University of Toronto last week, described the FEA as an effort at “partisan self-entrenchment.” In plain English, this means an elected government changing laws to improve its chances of winning future elections.
The FEA diminishes the role of Elections Canada, the non-partisan, arms-length body responsible for administering national elections and enforcing elections laws.
The Act eliminates ‘vouching’ and the use of voter information cards (VICs) – two methods that allow people without fixed residences or IDs with a current address to vote. Despite little evidence of voter fraud, these changes will be a barrier to voting for many Canadians such as the homeless, mobile young renters and students – groups that tend not to vote Conservative.
Third, the Act loosens election spending rules by exempting fundraising expenses, allowing parties and candidates to spend more during campaigns. This should benefit the party that is the best at fundraising, which happens to be…the Conservatives.
Just as troubling is the way these changes are being made. Because elected governments clearly have a vested interest in how elections work, they have traditionally appointed non-partisan, independent commissions to propose reforms and consult with citizens, civic groups and experts on the proposals. This hasn’t been the case with the FEA.
Now, if all these issues sound arcane and technical, it’s because they are (for more on the FEA, see here or here). And safe to say that it’s pretty tough to get fired up about electoral reform on the best of days. But the reforms have sparked some fierce resistance.
Lead Now, a younger-Canadian led activist group, have launched a petition campaign that has 60,000 signatures. A long list of Canadian scholars have voiced their opposition. Experts from countries including the US, UK, Australia and Denmark also published an open letter expressing their concern “that Canada’s international reputation as one of the world’s guardians of democracy and human rights is threatened by passage of the proposed Fair Elections Act.” (It is frankly both stunning and embarrassing that we’d need foreigners to sound the alarm bells for us like this.)
In closing, I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting the implications of the FEA are in any way comparable to what’s been happening in the Ukraine. They aren’t.
But the Act is anti-democratic and against the spirit of free and fair participation. That the Government had the nerve to table it also plainly shows the extent to which they believe we are tuned out and taking our democracy for granted. They certainly didn’t believe Canadians would hit the streets in protest.
There is a clear lesson for us: maintaining the democracy we’ve built requires an engaged and active citizenry. It’s an ongoing project. We in Younger Canada might have legitimate beef with the state of our politic and how we’re being represented. But we also have an obligation, as the fortunate citizens in a free and open society, to protect and build upon the democratic institutions we have.