Thursday, September 13, 2007

A dumb and sleazy controversy on veiled voting

I can't remember a weirder, dumber and potentially more sinister political controversy than the great debate over veiled voting.
To read the papers, you would have thought Canadian democracy was making a desperate last stand. All the way over in Australia, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was outraged that Elections Canada said women who chose to wear a veil wouldn't have to show their faces before voting.
Imagine. Women in burkas, voting, in Canada.
Harper sounded angry. He "profoundly disapproved" of the decision. Chief Electoral Officer Mark Mayrand was subverting the will of Parliament. Conservative MPs leaped to the attack.
And so did Liberal leader Stephane Dion and NDP leader Jack Layton, in less overwrought fashion. Both said women should have to show their faces if they want to vote.
Except it's utter baloney. Unless the leaders pay no attention to what's going on in Parliament, they know that the Commons passed amendments to the Elections Act earlier this year.
They know that the legislation does not require voters to show photo identification at the polls.
And if voters don't have to show ID, what's the point of demanding to see their faces? Is it so election workers can see if there is dishonesty in their eyes? Or is it just unCanadian to wear a veil, and grounds for barring someone from voting?
Here's what the Election Act says, after the changes the Harper government introduced and the Commons and Senate passed this year.
Voters can establish their identity in two ways. They can show "one piece of identification issued by a Canadian government, whether federal, provincial or local, or an agency of that government, that contains a photograph of the elector and his or her name and address."
Those people would logically have to show their faces, so election workers can be sure that they match the photo.
But Parliament also decided voters could show "two pieces of identification authorized by the Chief Electoral Officer each of which establish the elector's name and at least one of which establishes the elector's address."
There's no point in demanding that women who aren't required to show photo ID lift their veils.
You can understand the public getting wound up. The politicians made it sound like Mayrand had gone rogue, creating special rules just for the most extreme - or devout - Muslim women.
But Layton, Dion and Harper, they know better. They know the law allows people to vote without providing photo ID. They know that about 80,000 people voted by mail in the last election, without showing their faces.
So, why are they pretending to be so outraged, when they made the rules?
Maybe they did a bad job, and photo ID should be mandatory to prevent voting fraud. But that's not the law the Conservatives introduced and Parliament passed. (And really, having a bunch of burka-clad women voting under fake names doesn't seem like an efficient way to rig an election.)
It's tough not to smell particularly stinky political opportunism. There are three by-elections in Quebec on Monday. They're being held as the provincial government holds hearings on "reasonable accommodations" for minorities - that is to say, Muslims. A little tough talk might win a few votes.
Even if it is based on a completely bogus issue.
There is a real issue here. Canadian society has accepted the equality of women, sometimes grudgingly.
The burka, or hijab, covering women from head to toe, undermines equality. Their husbands aren't bundled up; just the women. Their work options are limited, lives proscribed. Is it a choice - like wearing a nun's traditional habit - or coerced? That's a big difference, worth discussing. What accommodation is reasonable, for employers, schools and others. When should we care about someone else's choice of dress?
But that's not what the current controversy is about. Instead, the politicians are beating up Elections Canada and a long-time government worker for following their directions.
Unless they're wildly incompetent, they know that's true. And that's sordid.
Footnote: So, what if a burke-clad voter shows up at the polls in B.C. when we vote again in 2009? No worries. The province doesn't require photo ID, so Elections BC says it has no need to see voters' faces.


wstander said...

A++ for this column

off-the-radar said...

excellent column Paul. This is all about the Quebec by-elections and political opportunism. I am disappointed with Stephan Dion and Jack Layton, I thought they had more integrity.

Parliament does not require photo i.d. to vote and 80,000 Canadians voted by mail-in ballots.

The really sensitive issue here is the question of cultural diversity within Quebec. This seems to be the elephant in the room that doesn't get discussed.

I am often very surprised in conversations with Quebecois that the same protection for French culture and language isn't extended to aboriginal people who, after all, are the original founding people . . .

Gazetteer said...

I echo the comments above re: the importance of the points made in this column

There is, however, another possible motivation that should be considered

And it is not necessarily mutually exclusive with those that Mr. Willcocks has suggested.

Specifically, I'm talking about the 'deflector spin' factor.

Put another way....can't help but notice that I haven't read many stories about Conservative campaign finance irregularities lately.