Aside from the very public ruling not to charge Conservative senators, Elections Canada continues to withhold information on more than 2,284 other rulings.
Fair elections are a cornerstone of democracy. But here we are, 144 years after Canada became a democratic country, and no one can tell whether Elections Canada is enforcing the federal election law fairly and properly.
Democracy Watch recently analyzed Elections Canada’s enforcement of the Canada Elections Act since 2004. Our analysis reveals that, during this time, Elections Canada has received 2,284 complaints over violations of the act (during, and in between, elections), which it has failed to report on. It has not released details of how it has investigated and ruled on these issues.
In fact, of the more than 2,300 complaints that Elections Canada has received since 2004, it has disclosed the details of the resolution of only 53. Furthermore, it has not disclosed the number of complaints it has received each year in between elections, and there are an additional 1,874 complaints about which only a vague summary has ever been disclosed.
Last week, Crown prosecutors (acting on behalf of Elections Canada) cut a deal with the federal Conservatives to end the court case against Conservative senators, party officials, and the Conservative party over the party’s advertising-spending scheme in the 2006
election. That case is public because charges were filed. The party pleaded guilty in the deal and paid the maximum fine, while the charges against the senators and officials were dropped. Prosecutors should have pursued the case against the senators and officials: Given the evidence that the government officials knew what they were doing, and knew there were serious questions about whether it could be done legally, there was a likelihood of conviction.
In this case, at least the public can form its own opinion about the situation, since the actions that Elections Canada has taken in investigating and pursuing the case has been made public. With the 2,284 other complaints, no one knows what Elections Canada has done.
Unfortunately, this lack of transparency is not unusual. For instance, former federal integrity commissioner Christiane Ouimet was able to hide her negligently weak enforcement record from 2007 to 2010, and former federal commissioner of lobbying Karen Shepherd did the same from 2007 to spring 2011. (Shepherd’s predecessor, Michael Nelson, was no exception). Furthermore, federal Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson continues to hide details about her dangerously weak enforcement record. All of this has been made possible by the fact that MPs fail to ask key questions, and by the failures of the heads of various federal “good government” watchdog agencies.
In a letter (dated February 16, 2011) sent to the chairs of six House committees and other key Senate, Privy Council, and Cabinet officials, seven Officers of Parliament (including Elections Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand, but not including Ethics Commissioner Dawson) urged House and Senate committees to watch the Chief Electoral Officer, Ethics Commissioner, and Commissioner of Lobbying more closely to ensure they are doing their jobs properly. Unfortunately, they did not seem to get the message, as they are still failing to ask key questions at House committee meetings.
Elections Canada claims that it has resolved many of the 2,284 election complaints cited. This may be true, but the public has a right to know the details of when, how, and why each complaint was resolved. These details may reveal that Elections Canada is investigating and ruling on every complaint fairly and effectively, and in a timely way – or it may reveal that Elections Canada is acting in biased, unfair ways that negatively affect the outcome of elections and/or the reputations of certain politicians and party officials.
What is important is that the public should have access to this information. The same is true with the other key democratic, “good government” watchdog agencies – if we don’t know the details about how they are ruling on each complaint, we can’t know if they are acting fairly.
MPs should demand that Elections Canada’s actual enforcement record over the past seven years be made available for public scrutiny, and should begin holding regular hearings to ensure government watchdog agencies are working effectively.
A more ambitious – but no less needed – solution is to change the laws that regulate “good government” watchdog agencies, so that they are required to disclose this type of information – information that the public has a right to know.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.