Opinion-Policy Nexus

Suppose you think there is a public goods rationale for government doing more than simply telling citizens where and when to vote. Suppose you accept -- in principle, at least -- that government has an interest in ensuring a fair political playing field. To be sure, you might disagree about the specific 'goods' in question and how they are best provided (as Chris and I do), but still think there is an important regulatory role for government here.

If you think this, then Chris quite reasonably asks: why Elections Canada? I may muse darkly about needing a strong and independent federal agency to stop a slide toward U.S.-style electoral theatrics, but at the end of the day Canada simply isn't the United States: there are a range of social forces and public actors here that mitigate against the kind of free-spending, vitriolic, evidence-free acrimony that I fear.

So, even if my characterization of the U.S. system is accurate, why turn to Elections Canada, of all things, to do the work that could be done better by other agencies and non-government actors? That's the essence of Chris's challenge to me here.

To be clear, I am not against serious reform to Elections Canada. Indeed, I think a genuinely fair elections act would do just that: reform and empower the agency. I'm also not wed to the centralized solution I've been lobbying for (although I do think there's a good case for going that route). I might even share some of what I take to be Chris's more generic suspicion about rushing to centralization of regulatory power as the solution whenever we find something that might vaguely resemble a public good.

I do think there is a public goods rationale for (i) non-partisan voter mobilization; (ii) maintaining the 'information commons' around elections in ways that require more than simply telling voters where and when to vote; and (iii) ensuring a fair political playing field. Chris rejects (i), but accepts (ii) and (iii). I'll readily grant his scepticism about a strong centralized solution for (ii) and (iii). Indeed, if it can be shown that there is an effective and efficient way to provide the goods in question without an agency like Elections Canada, then I'm fine with that. It's a technical question.

I am tempted, however, to respond to that scepticism by asserting a subsidiarity principle, and if you accept subsidiarity, then it seems as though federal elections invite a federal regulator, with the necessary powers at the federal level. An obvious analogy is policing and intelligence: there's a reason the OPP doesn't do CSIS and RCMP work, and vice versa.

Having said that, a contrasting analogy is securities regulation, and it's interesting that here Canada does go a very different route than most big industrial economies: we don't have an equivalent to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, for example.

I suppose one could make the case that we do just fine in Canada without an SEC-styled federal agency. People make that case, certainly. Others have concerns. Still others note that, in the U.S., the SEC isn't powerful, independent, and effective enough to actually do it's job, and so the solution is not to go the Canadian route, but to make a better regulatory agency.

It probably won't surprise any readers of this exchange to learn that I sympathise with the latter complaint, although here as in elections, I'm not wedded in principle to a centralized solution. Again, it's a technical question.

So, I guess I'm agnostic on the question of whether or not there might be a (uniquely Canadian?) approach to providing the public goods required for fair elections---one that doesn't need a federal agency like Elections Canada. Of course, if you already have such an agency in place then there may an efficiency rationale for simply going that route, by reforming and empowering that agency, rather than gutting it.

Again, however, that's an empirical question, and I'll happily concede that there might be a plausible case for trashing Elections Canada and instead trying a decentralized approach that manages elections through a bunch of different offices and agencies.

I'll note, though, that the Poilievre and the PMO have not made anything like that case, and are instead pushing for less regulation on campaign spending and content, higher costs of entry to the political game, and more diffuse enforcement and investigatory powers. These are all initiatives that seem to mitigate against Chris's optimism that we do things differently up here, and that we can rely on the status quo arrangement to maintain the informational commons around elections.

In short, then, I think I share some of Chris's reservations in principle. I simply don't trust this government not to screw things up.