Conservatives should remember Borden on electoral reform

Op ed in Ottawa Citizen April 18 2014 

By Alan Bowker

In May 1920, Sir Robert Borden was on the verge of retirement, exhausted after leading Canada through the Great War, which had cost the lives of 66,000 Canadians and shaken Canadian society to its very foundations. His last act before walking into the sunset would be the passage of the Dominion Franchise Act, which would fundamentally reform Canada’s electoral system.

Not least of the stresses of the war had been its impact on Canada’s democratic traditions. The War Measures Act had given the government virtually unlimited power to govern through Orders-in-Council, and the government had become increasingly accustomed to using it. And in 1917 when Borden concluded that only conscription — adamantly opposed by French Canadians — would provide the manpower needed to win the war, he drew some English-speaking Liberals into a coalition government and then loaded the dice to ensure that it won the election of that year. Female relatives of soldiers were given the vote, the soldiers themselves were also allowed to vote, but even longtime immigrants from enemy countries were disenfranchised. The coalition won, but Canadians were deeply divided, French Canada was isolated, and democratic norms had been trampled.

With the challenges of reconstruction and social unrest in the charged atmosphere of the postwar, and to ensure its own survival, Borden’s government might well have wished to retain these wartime powers. But to Borden and his ministers, a crucial element of postwar reconstruction was the restoration of democracy for which so many had given their lives, and the removal of abuses that had blighted Canadian elections since Confederation.

The War Measures Act was allowed to lapse at the end of 1919 and amnesty was given those who had resisted conscription. In March 1920 the government introduced a Dominion Franchise bill which gave the vote to almost all Canadians, created a Chief Electoral Officer responsible to parliament, provided for standardized voters’ lists, advance polls, and time off to vote, and laid down detailed procedures for all aspects of the conduct of elections. These measures were considered in detail by a parliamentary committee and the government accepted most of the changes requested by the Opposition. Of course there remained disagreements within and between parties, and Aboriginal people continued to be excluded, as well as those disenfranchised by provinces “for reasons of race.” But the Dominion Elections Act which came into force on July 1, 1920 was nonetheless the product of consultation, debate, and broad political agreement.

The proof of the pudding was the federal election of 1921, a watershed in Canadian history. Mackenzie King and his revived Liberals won a minority government and French Canadians returned to the mainstream of Canadian politics. The Conservatives were decimated but would recover in the 1925 election. The Progressives and a small Labour contingent began a third party tradition that continues to this day. As important as the result, however, was the way the election was run. With women voting for the first time, the federal electorate was the largest in history. Under Chief Electoral Officer Oliver Mowat Biggar and 75,000 quickly trained election officials, it was the best-managed election Canada had yet seen. It was not perfect and many improvements would be made over the years. But the foundation had been laid for the electoral system we take for granted today.

It is astonishing that less than a century later, a Conservative government has introduced a so-called Fair Elections Act that appears to favour the governing party; that diminishes the powers of the Chief Electoral Officer and proposes to return, at least in part, to the party-dominated system the 1920 Act replaced; that is being forced through Parliament by a fiercely partisan minister who shows disdain for opposing views, endlessly repeats talking points, contemptuously attacks expert opinion (not to mention the experts themselves), and offers only the most grudging possibility that any amendments might even be considered. There may be many good things in the Act. But the way it is being handled is an affront to our democratic traditions.

I regard Sir Robert Borden, not John Diefenbaker, as the greatest Conservative prime minister of the last century. But both men regarded the spirit of democracy as a sacred trust hallowed by sacrifice. The Harper government is behaving more like the Borden of 1917, without the national crisis that motivated his actions, than the Borden of 1920 whose government restored and revitalized Canadian democracy. Conservatives of today need to ask themselves which Borden they want to be, which legacy they wish to preserve.