Elections, spending by politicians, and the Senate: all three fall under the banner of democratic reform, which is expected to be part of the government’s agenda this fall. Here are the main issues Prime Minister Stephen Harper must tackle:
In April, a government bill that would have made sweeping changes to election laws, including perhaps giving more power to Elections Canada investigators and cracking down on the use of automated “robocalls” in campaigns, was delayed. The government said the decision was due to last-minute technical issues; Postmedia News and the Ottawa Citizen reported the bill was delayed after Conservatives raised concerns about it during a caucus meeting.
On Oct. 1, the Elections Canada official who enforces elections laws outlined his concerns about the lack of powers his investigators have to properly probe allegations of electoral wrongdoing. That report came days after Elections Canada laid four charges against Dean Del Mastro, a Peterborough Conservative MP.
Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre hasn’t publicly said when a new bill will be introduced. But in order to be in place for the 2015 federal election, it would have to be introduced and fast-tracked through Parliament in 2014.
A bill that would create stricter rules about political loans died – again – on the floor of the Commons when Parliament prorogued. Four previous versions of the bill died before they too could become law, twice because of prorogation, and twice because elections were called.
The reforms would prohibit unions and companies from providing loans to candidates or parties, a loophole that allowed those groups to loan money with few strings attached, including a long repayment period or little interest. It would also limit personal loans, only allowing an individual to give $1,100 per year in contributions, loans or a combination of both.
Elections Canada believes this loophole creates wiggle room for groups to gain undue influence over politicians.
The Senate spending affair has prompted calls for MPs and senators to disclose more detailed information on how they’re using taxpayers’ money. The Liberals will start disclosing some details in November; the Tories and NDP have balked at doing the same so quickly. The debate isn’t about whether more data should be made public, but MPs are wrestling with how much information they’ll disclose, and how they’ll track and present details. A similar debate will take place in the Senate this fall.
The secretive board of internal economy in the Commons, which oversees MPs’ spending rules, opened its doors to the public over the summer. The rare move to hold an open meeting is an indication of the level of interest among MPs about looking transparent with their spending, and distancing themselves from the sort of misspending identified in the Senate.
Over the summer, government officials consulted with Conservative senators on new spending rules the upper chamber is to implement that will be part of a larger theme of accountability in the throne speech.
The prime minister must also appease concerns from within the red chamber that the government no longer values the work of senators and has cast it adrift. For instance, the Conservative House leader in the Senate no longer sits at the cabinet table. Harper could face increased grumbling from some of his senators.
As for reforming the upper chamber, that has been put on hold until after the Supreme Court rules on how the Senate can be reformed through elections of Senate nominees and term limits, or how to abolish it. The court will hear arguments in November, but a ruling isn’t expected until next year at the earliest.