The federal parties are on the verge of war. They fill their coffers, choose their candidates, reserve space, prepare their posters and don virtual conventions, like the Liberals and the NDP do on the weekend. Meanwhile, an important bill languishes on the order paper, Bill C-19, which aims to adapt the Elections Act to the context of a pandemic.
The Chief Electoral Officer (CEO), Stéphane Perrault, was clear last October. In a special report submitted to Parliament, he acknowledged that the Election Law gave him a good margin of maneuver to make the electoral process safe in the event of an election being held during the health crisis. However, he lacked some powers to make certain changes that he considered important, powers that only amendments to the law could grant him.
He mentioned, among other things, the organization of voting in long-term care centers, the holding of advance polls, but also the timing of the poll. He proposed to hold it on Saturdays and Sundays and to exclude Mondays in order to facilitate compliance with physical distancing and the recruitment of staff. A challenge when we know that in 2019, nearly half of election workers were over 60 years old. Holding the poll on a Monday made it more difficult to find suitable premises. Many establishments, in particular schools, do not wish to lend their premises this time around. Mr. Perrault therefore asked Parliament “to act quickly to help Elections Canada prepare for a general election in a pandemic situation”. It is calculated that it would take three to four months to implement the requested measures.
The Trudeau government took note and presented Bill C-19 on December 10. However, ignoring some of the CEO’s recommendations, it should be noted, including that of holding the ballot on Saturday and Sunday. Citing a question of accessibility, the government added a third day, Monday, leaving almost complete the puzzle of recruiting and renting premises.
Four months after its presentation, C-19 only had a few hours of debate at second reading. On March 26, the government had only set aside a short hour, to then devote its time to another bill. It is not known when C-19 will be debated again, given to a committee to study it, discussed at third reading and then follow a similar route in the Senate. There are 11 weeks of sessions left until the end of June. If Royal Assent does not take place before the summer, everything will be postponed until the fall, including the preparation of the CEO.
The elections could take place in a safe manner, even if C-19 is not adopted, the CEO insisted. The credit goes to him. For the past year, his team has been taking advantage of all the administrative latitude granted to it by the existing law to adapt to the pandemic. She was able to successfully test her first measures during two by-elections held last fall, notes spokesperson Natasha Gauthier. A general election, across 338 constituencies, on the other hand, is a whole different story with health rules and contamination rates that vary from one province, if not from one city to another.
On the side of the Trudeau government, one denies dragging one’s feet. In the office of the bill’s sponsor, Minister Dominic LeBlanc, it is recalled that on four occasions, the bill has been put on the agenda without being able to be debated. They invoke cascading votes that have monopolized the time available or accuse the Conservatives of using dilatory tactics.
“I do not take it,” protested the Conservative parliamentary leader, Gérard Deltell. These accusations are baseless, he said. According to him, it was the Liberals who mismanaged parliamentary business, a criticism shared by the Bloc. “We want to take the time to debate Bill C-19 to improve it, but in order to do so, the Liberals would have to put it on the legislative menu. What they are slow to do, ”reacted the parliamentary leader of the Bloc Québécois, Alain Therrien.
New Democrats agree, although they also share Liberal annoyance with Conservative tactics. Since prorogation, notes NDP House leader Peter Julian, collegiality has disappeared and the government’s agenda in the House does not reflect its so-called priorities. “And anyway, we don’t want elections in the midst of a pandemic. It would be irresponsible, ”he said.
He is right, but the government is in the minority. If the appetite for a spring poll has seriously diminished with the arrival of the third wave of COVID-19, there is nothing to say that the excitement will not resume after the summer vacation. This bill must therefore not die on the order paper, because if there were to be elections before the end of this health crisis, citizens would have to be able to exercise their democratic right in the best possible conditions for their health and safety.