Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Limiting debate contrary to the democratic process

The North Coast’s representative to the legislative assembly is expressing his concerns about the rush to legislation that the liberal government has embarked on when it comes to changes to the Election Act.

MLA Gary Coons raised the alarm this week about the plans to push through changes to the elections act in a truncated legislature session designed to move things along before the session breaks for the summer.

With no new session scheduled until the fall when our MLA's will set to work for 24 days in the final three months of the year, perhaps one of the most important changes to the way our electoral process proceeds may be determined more by back room wrangling in the Premier’s office, than by honest debate in the legislature itself.

The change in the election act will require potential voters to have an address of record, a move that some suggest marginalizes the voting rights of the homeless, dispossessed and lower income working class who may be between jobs and addresses . Cynics will note that those are categories of the voting public that probably aren't inclined to vote for the current government of the day.

The election act changes are among eight controversial bills to be rushed to the finish line without a full examination in the legislature, a move that’s really not very transparent or accountable in the long run.

Two other high profile bills are getting the fast lane in this Legislative rush hour process as well, the TILMA initiative which has proven to be a controversial project that would reset the Investment and Labour mobility legislation between Alberta and BC and is considered to be a template for other agreements and the Premier’s Carbon Neutral Tax plan which is getting a lukewarm reaction outside of the Metropolitan Vancouver and Greater Victoria areas.

The Daily News featured the MLA’s concerns in a front page story in Monday’s paper.

Gary Coons says province is stifling discussion, forcing through changes
By Kris Schumacher
The Daily News
May 12, 2008
Pages one and three

Whether it is a result of poor planning, or strategic political manipulation, North Coast MLA Gary Coons says the government of British Columbia’s move to limit debate on eight crucial and controversial bills will undermine the democratic process.

“One of these bills actually has to do with changes to the Election Act,” said Coons. “It is unheard of for a government to force through changes to the laws that govern elections without submitting the Bill to proper scrutiny and consideration.”

Coons said some of the changes to the Elections Act that the bill outlines will make it more difficult for low income people to vote, possibly even preventing homeless people from voting. Vancouver-Mount Pleasant MLA Jenny Kwan and countless other New Democrat MLAs echoed Coons’ concern about the addition of a new rule requiring voters to have an address, saying it disenfranchises those who are already marginalized in the province in addition to its being anti-democratic.

“When we have legislation that would actually make the process of voting more restrictive in a way that might limit the ability of some people to practice their democratic rights, we must tread carefully. That is legislation that shouldn’t be shuffled into law by the premier’s stroke of a pen,” said Coons.

“I think that if the government wants to make these changes, we should either continue this legislative session into the summer break, or reintroduce this legislation in the fall session.”

With only 12 days left in the spring session, Premier Gordon Campbell introduced 10 new bills on the table, meaning there were a total of 27 bills needing to be debated in 12 days.

“The public expects Members of the Legislature on both sides of the House to spend time and effort scrutinizing those bills that will, eventually, pass into law,” said Coons.

“This is not an optional part of the process.

“Without scrutiny, there is a real threat of these laws resulting in unintended consequences,”

Other bills that the New Democrats allege are being ‘rammed through the legislature’ deal with the TILMA (the controversial Trade Investment Labour Mobility Agreement that has been opposed by many British Columbian municipalities) and the Liberal’s new fuel tax, a subject that remains controversial since the throne speech, especially in the Northern portion of the province where some municipalities have claimed it is unfairly impacting them.

“I’m disappointed that the government would rather ram through these bills through the legislature than to take the time to look them over carefully,” said Coons.

“I believe British Columbians expect more from their elected officials than fast-tracking legislation without due process.”

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