Promise of Electoral Reform Arrives Too Little, Too Late

Recently the government used time allocation to end debate on their Bill C-76, which they are calling the Elections Modernization Act. While the electoral reform debate may seem as if it’s been around forever, this bill has only been debated in the House for less than eleven hours after being tabled at the end of April -  a well-understood deadline for any changes to be in place for the next election. Opposition parties and democratic reform advocates are worried the bill is being treated as an afterthought once the government abandoned the reforms promised in the 2015 election. They feel the government waited until the eleventh hour to bring their most recent proposal.

It’s no secret electoral reform played a major role in the last election, but the government shouldn’t be going it alone and all parties should have been consulted before any changes were proposed. The campaign promise to end the first past the post system of voting has long been abandoned, but other reforms that could make our electoral system more democratic are also being ignored. The most obvious is the exorbitant amount of money third parties are allowed to spend trying to influence campaigns. Although the current legislation requires disclosure of third party participation, it makes little difference when they are still allowed to spend enormous amounts of money to influence elections. That’s why New Democrats are saying the loopholes that allow third party influence should be closed altogether.

Another area of concern is foreign influence in elections. As more information is revealed about the role outsiders played in the Brexit vote in the UK and the 2016 US election, it’s obvious Canada should be looking to defend our electoral system from possible threats. But under C-76, foreign-funded advertising is still permissible, and there’s no attempt to address false advertising. The Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal exposed how vulnerable Canadian’s information has become, which is why the government claims this bill has protections for personal information. What’s missing are requirements for political parties to report how they actually handle personal information. Also, this bill makes no effort to establish consequences when rules about this are broken. 

Despite introducing this last minute legislation, the role of Chief Electoral Officer remains vacant after almost two years. If the government is serious about reforming our electoral system, they must appoint a qualified candidate to this position. This will help ensure that any changes made have oversight from the individual responsible for running the upcoming federal elections.

The Elections Modernization Act is a watered down version of what was promised by the government in 2015. Though portions of this legislation, such as the section that limits the length of elections, are necessary, the sheer size of C-76 and the government’s lack of awareness about its implications make it seem rushed and problematic. Parties must be held accountable when it comes to protecting the personal information of Canadians. While these are reforms to our electoral system, it would be a stretch to call all of them democratic. All parties should have been consulted in a meaningful way before drafting this legislation. A party that wins 40% of the popular vote shouldn’t use that “majority” to impose amendments that change the Elections Act to best suit their interest.