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Left-right split over democracy: Broadbent

OTTAWA - Left and right-wing politicians have traditionally clashed over economic, social and environmental policy.

Now Ed Broadbent is adding democracy to the list of issues that differentiate so-called progressives from conservatives — at least in Canada.

The former NDP leader says the Harper government's proposed overhaul of national election laws has turned what used to be a shared value among all federal parties into another ideological battlefield.

"Whereas 10 years ago progressives had little or no need to defend our basic democratic values and institutions, today it is essential," Broadbent says in a speech prepared for the inaugural summit of the progressive think-tank founded in his name.

"The mis-named Fair Elections Act is nothing more than U.S. Republican-style voter suppression."

The speech is to be delivered Saturday morning to welcome participants at the Broadbent Institute's sold-out "progress summit."

Text of the speech was made available to The Canadian Press on Friday.

During his 24 years in Parliament, Broadbent says no prime minister ever attempted to rig election laws and undermine voter participation in the way he accused the Harper government of currently trying to do.

"Before Stephen Harper, changes in electoral institutions — the rules of the game — were always made on the basis of an all-party consensus ... He has acted unilaterally and undemocratically."

Broadbent, who worked in developing countries around the world as head of a non-partisan democratic and human rights advocacy group created by Parliament in the 1990s, says Canada used to be seen "as a model democracy."

"Now, as the prime minister promotes democracy in Ukraine, we have 19 serious scholars from half a dozen countries publicly denouncing him for repressing democracy at home."

Experts on democracy and elections, both at home and abroad, have been scathing in their criticism of the proposed overhaul of election laws. They fear it will disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters, muzzle the chief electoral officer and give a big advantage to the political party with the most money and biggest database — which happens to be Harper's Conservative party.

It would boost, both directly and indirectly, the amount of money parties can spend during campaigns. It would end the practice of vouching for voters without adequate identification. And it would forbid the elections watchdog from communicating with the public about anything other than mechanics of how, where and when to vote.

Thus far, the government has been undeterred by any of the criticism.

In addition to their fight to defend and strengthen Elections Canada, Broadbent says progressives are characterized by their belief that "prosperity needs to be broadly shared," that the gap between the very rich and everyone else must be closed.

They are also characterized by their belief that economic growth must go hand in hand with environmental sustainability.

"Progressives, indeed most Canadians, understand that environmental and economic priorities need to be reconciled and made mutually reinforcing," Broadbent says.

"And at some basic level the federal government has rejected this ever since Mr. Harper came to power eight years ago."