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Can electoral system withstand threats?

Editorial Obiter

A week may be a lifetime in politics, but 19 months can elapse in a hurry, especially when it comes to election preparation.

That’s why the collective attention of the federal political parties is increasingly turning to setting the stage for the October 2019 campaign — including talk of updating Canada’s election laws.

Though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reneged on his promise to change the country’s voting system before 2019, his government didn’t totally walk away from electoral reform. The new, more current worry for Trudeau’s Liberals, in fact, isn’t the fairness of the existing system — it’s whether the system can withstand threats to its integrity.

Lawyers might be tempted to see this through the civil-versus-criminal frame. Only a couple of years ago, election reform in Canada was a discussion about civics. But, in 2018, amid talk of Russian election meddling and other types of hacking in cyberspace, elections are increasingly a law-and-order concern.

One of the more comprehensive proposals for better Canadian election laws came earlier this month from the Public Policy Forum think-tank.

The suggestions didn’t receive as much attention as they should have when they were released — blame bigger distractions, such as Doug Ford’s election as Ontario Progressive Conservative leader. But these reform proposals are such good ideas so you can probably bet we haven’t heard the last of them.

“Follow the money” is an old adage in investigative reporting and it’s a driving principle behind the PPF recommendations, too. Canadians like to believe that election financing was all cleaned up with the banning of corporate and union donations more than a decade ago at the federal level. But the PPF proposals demonstrate that the job hasn’t yet been done.

If Canada really wants to tighten up the rules around money’s influence in Canadian elections, the report says, lawmakers should focus their attention on possible foreign influence and the role of third parties. These are defined as “individuals and groups that aim to influence voting while not registered candidates or parties.” Here are some of the recommendations in the PPF report:

  • • Make sure that third parties are subject to the same donation limits as political parties and candidates, as well as increased transparency around their activities. Right now, the annual limit is $1,575 for each person.
  • • Allow only eligible voters (meaning Canadians) to contribute to political parties.
  • • Stretch campaign spending limits to begin six months before the fixed election date.

The report argues that the current lack of rules around third parties creates a huge loophole in financing limits — essentially, anyone who wants to spend a  ton of money to influence an election can simply channel it away from parties, corporations and unions and instead pour it into an interest group.

The digital universe — and its ease in getting around national boundaries — also makes it more difficult to keep the political playing field level in Canada and safe from foreign influence. The PPF report acknowledges those difficulties, but it still urges that the government put some measures in place to regulate that political Wild West. For instance, why not require political entities to record and register the ads they’re putting out in the digital world, just as they do with broadcast ads?

In the wake of the PPF report, Liberal government sources were telling some reporters in Ottawa that election-law changes are on the way, quite likely in line with what’s suggested in this latest report. And, yes, those proposed changes are intended to be in place before the October 2019 election. If that’s the case, the lawmakers best get cracking.

While it may feel like a lifetime or two since the last federal election, when Trudeau was promising a very different kind of democratic reform, 19 months isn’t a long time to get Canada’s electoral system protected from 2019-style threats to its fairness and integrity.

Susan Delacourt is an Ottawa-based political author and columnist who has been working on Parliament Hill for nearly 30 years. She is a frequent political panelist on national television and author of four books. She can be reached at sdelacourt@bell.net.


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