National Affairs column
If opposition politicians were having trouble buying into sweeping election reforms introduced Tuesday by Pierre Poilievre on behalf of Stephen Harper, it was rooted in recent history.
Specifically, it was the recent history of the democratic reform minister, Poilievre, and the prime minister, Harper.
The minister has long been the attack dog when it came to charges of Conservative voting irregularity, but now he was taking on the guise of statesman. The prime minister has long been battling with Elections Canada on behalf of his Conservative party and the bill would appear to emasculate the chief election officer, Marc Mayrand.
The Conservatives, in one fell swoop, are putting democracy back into the hands of the people, according to their talking points.
On the surface, there are some common sense moves here - they will invest power and independence in the elections commissioner under the guidance of the public prosecutions office, eliminate the antiquated ban on transmitting election results until West Coast polls closed, add a day of advanced polling, end the practice of vouching for voters without proper identification, and require mandatory public registry of all elections robocalls.
Penalties will be toughened for anyone impersonating elections officials or deceiving voters and the limit of individual political contributions will go to $1,500 from $1,200.
Beyond that, everything was clouded in opposition suspicion, with NDP Leader Tom Mulcair bluntly stating the Conservatives have "a consistent record of cheating.”
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said it was "disconcerting" that a party with such a long-standing feud with Elections Canada would take power from Mayrand.
This is the atmosphere of acrimony that has enveloped this place since voters last went to the polls, May 2, 2011.
A large part of this is the recent role-playing of today's democratic reformer.
If Poilievre were a hockey player, he'd be the chirper, the guy showering the goalie with snow and providing face washes in the corner before skating away.
Now, he has been given the stripes and a whistle and is making the rules.
Now, he is introducing a bill to keep "everyday citizens in charge of democracy."
But it was only months ago that he was the Conservative most often deflecting charges over election irregularities in his own nest, accusing the NDP of "subverting the electoral law" by accepting $340,000 in illegal union donations "forcefully taken out of the pocket of honest, hard-working Canadians.''
The Liberals were the home to leadership candidates who had, at the time, four leadership candidates with unpaid illegal loans that had become illegal donations, according to Poilievre.
Former Conservative cabinet minister Peter Penashue, who resigned over his acceptance of illegal 2011 campaign contributions, was dubbed "one of the greatest Labradorians” by Poilievre.
One of Poilievre's greatest hits was his comic treatment of alleged robocalls voting irregularities when pressed in the Commons in 2012 by New Democrat MP
Alexander Boulerice: "He is referring to robocalls, he is making roboallegations. If he has evidence, he should press one. If not he should press two to apologize. If he has the wrong number, he should hang up and try again.”
Tuesday in the Commons, Poilievre rose to promote a bill that he says will "uphold the great principles of democracy that built this country. It will keep this country strong."
But the fact remains that Elections Canada and the Conservatives have been at loggerheads since, well, before they were the Conservatives, when Harper, as president of the National Citizens Coalition, famously declared, "the jackasses at Elections Canada are out of control."
Since that time, Conservatives have battled Elections Canada over the infamous In-and-Out scandal and lost Penashue over contribution irregularities.
Harper's former parliamentary secretary, Dean Del Mastro left the Conservative caucus after Elections Canada charged him with intentionally overspending in
his 2008 campaign, then trying to cover it up, and Mayrand called for the MP privileges of Heritage Minister Shelly Glover and Conservative MP James Bezan to be removed for their failure to correct campaign expense records from the 2011 election.
That power of the chief electoral office is gone under this bill.
Poilievre said he met with Mayrand for about an hour on Aug. 22, sat with him until discussion had been exhausted, told him to call anytime and accepted 38 of his recommendations.
Mayrand was not speaking Tuesday. That a history of bad blood between the Conservatives and Elections Canada ends with power flowing to the independent elections commissioner and away from the chief electoral officer can only engender suspicion regardless of the merits of the bill.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column is distributed by Torstar Syndication Services. firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter:@nutgraf1