After more than two years riding the brakes on a raft of promised reforms to election laws, the Trudeau government is preparing to put the pedal to the metal to get them in place in time for the next federal election in 2019.
With Elections Canada generally needing a year to implement changes to the rules governing elections, that leaves the government with just seven months to push at least three bills through Parliament – one of which hasn’t even been introduced yet and another of which has been parked at the introductory stage for 16 months without any attempt by the government to move it along.
“The window of opportunity to implement major changes in time for the next general election is rapidly closing,” Stephane Perrault, the acting chief electoral officer, warned a House of Commons committee last month.
Appointing a permanent chief electoral officer – a position that’s been vacant for almost 18 months – remains another important piece of unfinished business as the clock ticks down to the next election.
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During the 2015 campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised a host of changes to the way elections are fought and conducted. He has since jettisoned his vow to replace the first-past-the-post voting system but Liberals insist the others remain in play.
Bill C-33, introduced in November 2016, was meant to be the first of two bills to deliver on those promises, reversing what Liberals saw as the most egregious of changes wrought by the previous Conservative government’s Fair Elections Act, which critics had warned would disenfranchise thousands of voters.
The bill would make it easier to vote, restoring the use of the voter information card as a valid piece of identification and reviving the practice of vouching for a voter without ID. It would restore the chief electoral officer’s authority to conduct voter education and outreach and move the commissioner of elections, who enforces election laws, back under the roof of Elections Canada.
It would also repeal the prohibition on voting by expat Canadians who’ve been out of the country for more than five years.
But C-33 has gone nowhere since its introduction, “sitting awaiting second reading, unmoved, unloved, completely stalled,” as Conservative MP John Nater put it recently. And even those who applauded the bill have begun to wonder if the government has lost interest.
The Canadian Federation of Students and the Council of Canadians, which launched a constitutional challenge to the Fair Elections Act, had been delighted by C-33. But now with the bill stalled, the case remains before the court and the government must file its responding evidence by March 30.
“Students are troubled to see the government’s failure to repeal voter suppression elements of the so-called Fair Elections Act passed under the Conservatives government,” said Justine De Jaegher of the students’ group. “This Liberal government made a promise to repeal these elements and, despite introducing Bill C-33 to do just this, the legislation has been languishing for nearly a year and a half.”
Andrea Furlong of the Council of Canadians said the bill, once passed, would enhance the integrity of the entire electoral system.
Theirs isn’t the only voting issue before the courts.
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Last week, the Supreme Court began hearing the case of two expats who are challenging the loss of their right to vote because they’ve been out of the country for more than five years. The top court had initially agreed to the Trudeau government’s request for an adjournment on the basis that C-33 made the matter moot but, more than a year later, the bill is no closer to becoming law so the case is proceeding.
However, the government insists it’s now gearing up to push the bill through.
“We remain firmly committed to the legislation and we intend to see it debated in the House soon,” said Mark Kennedy, a spokesman for government House leader Bardish Chagger.
“This is a priority for the government.”
As well, the government is expected to introduce next month a second bill that will encompass the other democratic reform promises Trudeau made in 2015: limiting spending by political parties in the run-up to the official campaign period, possibly stricter spending limits during campaigns and creating an independent commission to organize televised leaders debates.
The government has signalled that the bill will also include spending limits on third party advocacy groups and measures to ensure they are not funded by foreign money.
And the government may yet introduce another bill to regulate social media giants like Facebook, which is at the centre of the international scandal over the unauthorized use of users’ personal information to manipulate voters. Trudeau has reportedly given them six months – ending this summer – to prove they can police themselves or face government action.
While the Liberals have been dragging their feet on the bills aimed at delivering on Trudeau’s democratic reform promises, they’ve acted much more swiftly on legislation prompted by a furor last year over so-called cash-for-access fundraisers featuring the prime minister and cabinet ministers.
Bill C-50, which would require parties to publicly advertise fundraising events attended by ministers, party leaders or leadership candidates, was introduced last May. It has already been passed by the House of Commons and is now in second reading in the Senate.