JOURNEY TO JUSTICE
May 12, 2014
It is a real conundrum. When should faith community leaders speak out on social issues of concern?
Surely, nobody wants religious leaders to opine on every issue. And, honestly, don't we bristle if faith leaders express an opinion somewhat opposed to our own? So how does Church leadership decide which issues are most crucial, and then when and how to speak?
In their 2008 Federal Election Guide, the Canadian bishops wrote, "As Canadian citizens, Catholics have an obligation to be interested in politics. They should exercise this civic responsibility by becoming involved in the electoral process and especially by voting."
In their March 2011 Federal Election Guide, the bishops stated, "It is a sign of a healthy community when informed and responsible citizens engage in an ongoing dialogue on major social issues with their political leaders. This is precisely the kind of community we should strive to support and develop."
If free and fair votes are the basis of any truly democratic system, why have faith communities in Canada been silent on details such as campaign financing, advertising and even the increasing use of electronic campaign tools? Don't these electoral issues have moral implications, worthy of a public voice of ethical reflection?
During the last federal election in 2011, there were far too many controversies and court challenges around spending limit infractions, robocalls and even charges against political staff. Although 70 to 80 per cent of Canadians voted until 1993, in the 2011 election, only 61 per cent of voters cast their ballots.
So Canada's minister of state for democratic reform, Pierre Poilievre, presented Bill C-23, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act to the House of Commons in February. The Fair Elections Act, had some positive proposals: adding more advance polling days and modernizing the online voter registration system.
Unfortunately, the government did not see fit to share the legislation with Canada's chief electoral officer before it was tabled and then resorted to the use of time allocation to limit debate in the House of Commons.
Editorial comment was massively opposed, and hundreds of academics signed various open letters calling for major re-writes of the legislation. Even the Conservative-controlled Senate proposed massive changes.
Finally, on a Friday afternoon in late April, Minister Poilievre agreed to substantial amendments to his legislation. At this time of writing, the government will only allow four days of debate on hundreds of pages of amendments, and while opposition parties are not satisfied, the somewhat improved legislation seems likely to pass.
In an article in The Huffington Post, I suggested at least three areas where commonly held moral principles could have improved the content of the Fair Elections Act. Eliminating "vouching" for prospective voters without valid voter ID would have effectively disenfranchised about 120,000 voters – among them young people, transients, aboriginal people and seniors.
Since only about a third of eligible voters aged 21 to 24 exercise their right to vote, public justice demands we promote greater participation for all, especially those already underrepresented in voting patterns.
The act would have diminished the chief electoral officer's powers, especially the ability to investigate parties and compel testimony in cases of suspected wrong doing, and cancel his role in encouraging Canadians to vote, enforce the Elections Act, and publish reports on the electoral process.
The government preferred political parties be tasked with encouraging people to vote. But public justice suggests it is the role of a publicly-funded non-partisan body (Elections Canada) to play these roles.
TILT TO THE WEALTHY
The proposed bill would have increased the limit an individual can donate to a political campaign by 30 per cent, tilting the public playing field towards the wealthy. A public justice approach would promote the voices of economically marginalized groups instead.
Parliamentary debate, but more importantly, public consultation and consensus, should be a prominent feature of any major reform process to Canada's electoral system. Unfortunately, this has been missing.
'GET OUT AND VOTE'
Faith communities which often urge their constituents to vote during election time, should also concern themselves with the process and structure of the democratic system.
Beyond telling us it is our duty to vote, moral suasion can best come from groups whose own internal structure and practice exemplifies healthy inclusion and democratic participation.
(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)
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