February 5, 2014 6:24 pm

The Conservatives’ electoral reform: open with care

Above: The Conservatives’ proposed electoral reforms come under fire in the House of Commons Wednesday.

You’ll have to forgive the skepticism.

It’s quite possible the proposed election reforms unveiled yesterday will, as the Conservatives claim, make the system more robust. There’s also a chance the changes are innocuous.

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But the critics listening in yesterday all jumped to the worst-case scenario: the move to sever the investigative arm from Elections Canada and place it under the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions will damage oversight and impair investigations.

“I think removing the commissioner from Elections Canada, the agency responsible for monitoring and ensuring the independence of our elections, will mean less capacity to investigate because he won’t be surrounded by the system,” Liberal leader Justin Trudeau said after the bill was made public Tuesday.

Similarly, NDP leader Tom Mulcair said he can’t trust the Conservatives on electoral matters on account of their “proven track record of consistently cheating in elections.”

But the skepticism and distrust is rooted not only in the government’s prickly history with Elections Canada (see: Peter Penashue, the in-and-out scandal, and the ongoing robocalls investigations) but also in its dysfunctional track record with watchdogs—even those they created.

As part of an effort to bring accountability back to Ottawa when they first formed government in 2006, the Conservatives passed the Federal Accountability Act, which included a promise to create a public appointments commission.

WATCH: The Harper government introduces legislation to toughen up parts of Canada’s election law, while loosening the rules governing political donations and party spending.

The patronage watchdog was intended to vet appointments to federal agencies, commissions and Crown corporations, with the aim of ridding the federal government of cronyism.

Almost immediately, however, Prime Minister Stephen Harper pulled the plug on the office when he ran into an opposition hostile toward the man he appointed to head the commission— a recently-retired oilman from Alberta named Gwyn Morgan.

Without that commission, Canadians often remain in the dark about how some officials earn their positions in the federal government.

READ MORE: Elections law changes will register robocalls, raise spending caps

Then there was the famously rocky relationship between the Conservatives and the parliamentary budget officer, another office born of the Federal Accountability Act.

It didn’t take long before Canada’s first budget watchdog, Kevin Page, got the sense his tenure wouldn’t be smooth sailing. In fact, he has said it started in his very first year after releasing a report during the election campaign on the cost of the war in Afghanistan, followed by a lookahead at the economy in 2009 that ran contrary to what the Conservatives were touting (recession and deficit vs. no recession and no deficit).

A couple of weeks later, Page said he received a letter from the Speaker of the House advising him to stay out of public debate. Another week later, his budget was cut by a third.

WATCH: In an exit interview, Kevin Page describes his tumultuous five years in office, and why he has few regrets.

The office of the privacy commissioner, meanwhile, has for years called for reforms to the laws intended to protect Canadians’ privacy—a law adopted in 1983, long before the wide-spread use of the Internet, not to mention ubiquitous use of smart phones and social media. Instead she is left swinging at giants with a flyswatter.

And the watchdog responsible for ensuring Canadians can access government documents and data is consistently asking for sharper teeth, but her ability to punish those who unlawfully withhold information or intentionally delay the release of information remains as weak as ever as her office becomes inundated with public complaints.

Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand has spent the past few years watching the clock ticking toward the 2015 election, waiting for the government to act on his reforms he says will help ensure the next federal election meets the highest standards expected in a modern democracy.

Now yesterday’s announcement of the proposed election reforms offered some good news: if passed, the law would tighten rules surrounding automated phone calls made during election campaigns, impose penalties for impersonating election officials, get rid of the blackout period for reporting results on election night until all polls across all time zones have closed and make it illegal to obstruct an investigator.

WATCH: Electoral reform bill comes under fire again in House

But it’s the move that strips Mayrand, the head of Elections Canada, of the power to direct investigations that has critics wondering whether there are motivations behind the reforms other than putting “everyday citizens in charge of democracy,” as the minister of state for democratic reform, Pierre Poilievre, declared yesterday.

As it stands, Mayrand appoints the commissioner, who is in charge of enforcing election laws. The chief electoral officer also oversees the commissioner’s staff and budget, and directs investigations.

It’s possible this change will result in a more independent investigator. It’s possible the move, coupled with the new offences and sanctions proposed in the bill, will strengthen the overall system.

It’s possible. But few people seem willing to accept that possibility at face value.

Given the Conservatives’ history of struggling with organizations tasked with overseeing government activity and defending Canada’s democracy, it’s understandable that critics are being skeptical and observers are calling for strict scrutiny of the lengthy bill.

If you deal with people in good faith, people will accept your actions in good faith. But given the Conservatives’ relationship with Elections Canada and watchdogs, it’s difficult for their critics to accept there is no hidden meaning, nothing potentially destructive in the proposed reforms.

© Shaw Media, 2014

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