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Canada's attack on democracy sets tone for Australia

Date

Sally Young

Proposed electoral changes in Canada are an attack on democracy and may set a precedent for changes in Australia.

Australians who value democracy should turn their eyes to Canada to catch a glimpse of what might be heading our way.

Two weeks ago, international academics added their names to a call by 160 Canadian experts to stop a piece of legislation being rushed through parliament that aims to radically change electoral processes in Canada.

There has also been a concerted campaign by some politicians to discredit the AEC.  

Introduced by the Conservative Party government in Canada, and with a name that would do George Orwell proud, the ‘'Fair Elections Act’' seeks to insert partisanship and inequality into Canadian electoral procedures in a manner reminiscent of 19th century processes. The proposed act will reduce voting rights, foster partisan bias in election administration and weaken campaign finance laws.

Along with Australia, Canada has a reputation for being a world leader in electoral processes, which makes the proposals all the more shocking and internationally significant.

Elections Canada - the equivalent of our Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) - is considered a strong and fiercely independent electoral administrator. But, if passed, the proposed act will move the enforcement arm of the agency into the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, a government department. This will diminish the independence of the agency but also, crucially, it means the activities of the commissioner would no longer be reported to parliament.

Elections Canada will also be prevented from publishing its research reports on the electoral process and, in a bizarre world-first, it will even be prohibited from promoting democratic participation and voting through ‘'get out the vote'’ campaigns.

But one of the most worrying aspects of the proposals is the attempt to wind back to the political patronage of yesteryear and, geographically, sideways to American-style partisanship in electoral administration.

At the moment, Election Canada employs poll supervisors who work at polling stations to make sure the processes of voting go smoothly. The act will instead require Elections Canada to appoint poll supervisors from lists of names provided by the candidate or party that came first in the last election. This blatantly favours the incumbent. It also means poll supervisors get their job because of party loyalty and, if they want to be picked again or have other ambitions in that party, will need to do a ‘'good'’ job by their party’s standards. Presumably, top of their criteria will be looking out for party interests rather than running a clean election.

In order to vote, Canadians have to prove their identity and address. But they also have a system of ‘'vouching'’, where a person without identification can still vote so long as a registered voter vouches for their identity. The proposed act will prohibit vouching and the use of voter information cards. This will make it harder for Canadians to vote, but especially seniors, young people, the economically disadvantaged, and Indigenous Canadians. Canada’s chief electoral officer has estimated that this could disenfranchise more than 100,000 people.

In Canada, the prohibition against vouching is ostensibly to reduce voter fraud, yet there is no evidence that vouching results in voter fraud. We are seeing a similar sleight of hand happening in Australia.

There is a long-standing preoccupation on the part of some Coalition members to introduce voter ID requirements in Australia. This is a solution in search of a problem. As political scientist Professor Brian Costar has noted, no investigation of our system has ever found widespread fraud or misrepresentation due to an absence of ID. It has been demonstrated repeatedly that the vast majority of suspected multiple voting incidents in Australian elections are the result of clerical errors made during the marking of the roll at polling stations, while the rest are usually due to voter confusion often associated with age, illness and English language ability.

Taking it a big step further toward American-style low turnout, several Coalition MPs have said they would like to see voluntary voting introduced - including Eric Abetz, Julie Bishop and Jamie Briggs.

In terms of partisanship, some Australian political scientists suspect there may be an attempt to re-introduce a parliamentary veto for electoral boundary redistributions - something that was done away with in 1983 to reduce partisan interference in independent electoral processes.

There has also been a concerted campaign by some politicians to discredit the AEC. The debacle of the lost ballots in Western Australia couldn’t have come at a better time for critics who would use that incident as a pretext to make Canadian-style changes that reduce the independence of electoral administration.

In Canada, the process of the changes has been as worrying as the content. The government is bypassing the usual forms of consultation and full parliamentary and public debate that normally occur with any major changes to electoral administration.

If all of this can happen in Canada, it can potentially happen anywhere, and there are hints that aspects of these reforms might be on the agenda here.

It is bizarre to have to worry that a government in 2014 would even consider unpicking some of the most basic principles of Australian democracy and wind back the clock to a more partisan era. But at a time when imperial honours are being brought back after 30 years, when the past 20 years of racial discrimination protection are being wound back, and when there are already claims of unprecedented partisan bias in the conduct of the Speaker, anything seems possible.

Sally Young is an Age columnist and associate professor of politics at the University of Melbourne.

44 comments

  • Sally, your last paragraph says it all. That is why this LNP must be held accountable.
    The media MUST continue to question and scrutinise its every decision (thought bubbles or not).

    Commenter
    Jump
    Date and time
    April 02, 2014, 2:48PM
    • Every political party must be held accountable not just the LNP.
      The only thing I have heard anyone going on about is showing ID when you vote which is fair enough and stopping the way preference votes work so someone with less than 5%
      of the vote doesn't get in due to preference deals.
      It could potentially happen here, there are hints, could be, maybe,
      my mate told me, last night I dreamt... More unsubstantiated Liberal bashing.

      Commenter
      J Walker
      Date and time
      April 02, 2014, 5:37PM
    • Then you'd better take more interest in what's really going on. There is far more going on than what the main media outlets report. Although, this article is a big step in the right direction.

      Commenter
      Jump
      Date and time
      April 02, 2014, 6:12PM
    • Canada's government is lousy on environmental protection too, just like the LNP.

      The underlying issue in both countries is the corporations are becoming ever more powerful, and democracy is an inconvenient annoyance for them.

      Commenter
      Chainmail speedoes
      Date and time
      April 02, 2014, 8:16PM
  • I declare Shenanigans take to the streets with brooms

    Commenter
    Simon from Whyalla
    Date and time
    April 02, 2014, 3:11PM
    • These "reforms" in Canada are closely in line with the Conservative agenda around the Western world. They have always been suspicious of what they have referred to as "the bewildered herd" whose participation in democracy must be limited to being spectators, rather than participants.

      Commenter
      Lesm
      Location
      Balmain
      Date and time
      April 02, 2014, 3:23PM
      • That's why the right wing media do not allow open forums such as this one.

        Commenter
        Good Logic
        Date and time
        April 02, 2014, 4:02PM
    • This is the kind of thing that worries me the most about politics. The health of our political system is ALWAYS more important than the economy, refugees, immigration or whatever else could be the flavour of the month.
      Once you lose laws that limit the power of the incumbent you will almost never get them back. Why would any modern politician make laws to potentially put themselves out of a job one term early?
      The health of our Democracy should rise above petty partisan politics and should be something that we all can agree on. I just don't think people care enough about this stuff.

      Commenter
      Scott
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      April 02, 2014, 3:26PM
      • I fully agree - I don't think people realise how important a diversified media is, to give a range of opinions and keep people properly informed.

        When it comes to voting, accurate information is vital - and is under threat in Australia due concentration of media ownership, and threats to the ABC which is free of the need to cater to any advertising.

        Commenter
        Consideredview
        Location
        WA
        Date and time
        April 02, 2014, 7:54PM
    • During a recent visit to Canada I heard a lot of concern about the Canadian Government's blocking of progress. They were grateful to be living in British Columbia which is a progressive Province. The Provinces have greater autonomy there than the Australia,n states do. It is quite concerning that conservative governments can be so dissect full of democracy and the disenfranchisement of the most vulnerable so that they can maintain power hopefully our current system will survive the efforts to undermine it here in Australia

      Commenter
      Kris
      Location
      Kanahooka
      Date and time
      April 02, 2014, 3:35PM

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