10 November 2011

A step in the right democratic direction #nlpoli

One New Democrat is fighting the re-count in Burin-Placentia West on grounds that the special ballot provisions of the provincial Elections Act are unconstitutional.

Let this be the first measure to turn back the anti-democratic current of the past eight years.

Now fighting against the anti-democratic tide is familiar stuff to SRBP readers. 

September 11, 2007.

Note the date.

That’s when your humble e-scribbler first raised questions about the changes the House of Assembly made to the Elections Act the previous spring.  The amendments sailed through the legislature in of its typical speedy sessions with no debate beyond the bare minimum needed to make the amendment bill into law.

Others  - notably Mark Watton – saw the same thing around the same time, bit into the issue with their considerable knowledge and gusto.As Mark wrote in 2008:

In the lead-up to a by-election, when there are no candidates in the running, these provisions are just plain silly. But in the weeks preceding a general election, they afford a tremendous advantage to incumbents. It is hard to imagine a greater democratic injustice than rules permitting incumbent candidates to campaign (and do so free from electoral-spending scrutiny) and collect votes while their potential opponents cannot even register. It's no wonder the amendments passed through the House of Assembly with no opposition.

Over a decade ago, a unanimous Supreme Court of Canada stated: "Elections are fair and equitable only if all citizens are reasonably informed of all the possible choices and if parties and candidates are given a reasonable opportunity to present their positions. ... "

More recently, this court ruled the provisions of Canada's Elections Act, which effectively ensured "that voters are better informed of the political platform of some candidates than they are of others," violated Section 3 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and struck them down.

In the words of the Supreme Court of Canada, our rights under the charter go beyond the "bare right to place a ballot in a box"; they "grant every citizen a meaningful role in the selection of elected candidates."

In the three years since Mark published those words, nothing has changed.  The special ballot provisions still smell to the high heavens and generally the people who ought to be raising concerns about this have been silent.  One call-in radio host today left the impression he’d never heard of this issue before. Let’s hope he misspoke in the rush of the moment.

Well, nothing until one candidate and her lawyer decided to take a simple judicial re-count and strike a blow to restore fair elections to the province. The New Democrats did include changes to the House of Assembly as one section of their election platform last month but special balloting and the other changes the NDP supported in 2007 got not so much as a whispered mention.

Fair elections are a basic democratic right.

It is such a basic right in our society that we often take for granted what it means.  But we need look no farther back than 2007 to see just exactly how fragile our most basic democratic principles are. 

They are so fragile that the very group  - the members of the House of Assembly  - we expect to protect our democratic rights are the ones who happily and blindly violated them.

Of course, no one is surprised by this given the sustained assault on our fundamental democratic principles the past eight years have brought.

Just to give you a sense of what we are talking about here, let’s look at those democratic principles as laid out in the Bill of Rights (1689) and the examples of the attack on those principles.

And make note of that date:  1689.

  • “That election of members of Parliament ought to be free;”   - the special ballot provisions as well as the other changes made to the Elections Act since 2003.
  • “That the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament;: – Danny Williams’ public statements in 2007 that he favoured ending free speech in the provincial legislature and his efforts to chill free speech through personal, verbal attacks and threats of law suits.
  • “… that for redress of all grievances, and for the amending, strengthening and preserving of the laws, Parliaments ought to be held frequently.”  The House of Assembly last sat in the spring and will not sit again until next spring.  Under the Conservatives since 2003, the House of Assembly sits the least number of days of any legislature in the country.

To be sure, the fundamental contempt displayed by the government for the legislature continues unabated with the the change in Premier.

What is encouraging, what is different is that for the first time in eight years, more people are starting to argue against the Conservatives’ contempt for democracy.

This court case over a simple re-count could prove to be one of the most important legal decisions in the province’s history.

- srbp -