Tories move to cut short debate on new elections act
By Stephen Maher / Glen McGregor
Postmedia News: February 5, 2014
OTTAWA – The governing Conservatives moved Wednesday to cut short debate on a new election bill that critics say helps the Tories and weakens oversight by Elections Canada.
House Leader Peter Van Loan gave notice Wednesday afternoon, a day after the 242-page bill was tabled, that the government will vote to send the bill to committee on Thursday, a move that seemed to signal the government plans to push the bill through the legislative process without changes.
Earlier Wednesday, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair predicted the government would cut short debate, denounced the Conservatives as “serial cheaters” and accused them of rigging the rules in their favour.
Opposition MPs began raising pointed questions about clauses of the act that they say will give a ballot-box boost to the Conservatives while reining in the watchdogs at Elections Canada.
While the bill has received endorsement from some observers, such as former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley, opposition parties are expected to challenge provisions that could weaken Elections Canada’s enforcement clout or give the Conservatives any ballot-box advantage.
The most dramatic change in the act is moving the office of the Commissioner of Canada Elections, home of the investigators in charge of enforcing elections law, from Elections Canada to the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).
Pierre Poilievre, minister of state for democratic reform, says the move is designed to enhance the independence of investigators. Critics worry that the change may increase the chances of political interference in investigations, since the DPP answers to the government, not Parliament.
“The chief electoral officer is appointed to and is responsible to Parliament, but the DPP is appointed by the attorney general,” said NDP critic Craig Scott in question period. “Why is the government removing parliamentary oversight from the elections commissioner?”
Poilievre replied that only Parliament can fire the DPP: “The government cannot fire him by itself.”
Other provisions expected to draw resistance:
– The new bill would also restrict the ability of Elections Canada to communicate with voters, narrowing the legal authority of the chief electoral officer, eliminating provisions that allow Elections Canada to promote voting to “persons and groups most likely to experience difficulties in exercising their democratic rights.”
– In the House on Wednesday, Poilievre suggested it’s best for the agency to leave the job of promoting voting to political parties. Critics have suggested that the groups Elections Canada has targeted with advertising campaigns – such as aboriginals – are less likely to vote for the Conservatives than for opposition parties.
– The provision that stops Elections Canada from promoting voting also limits the ability of the chief electoral officer to communicate with the public “only” to inform voters about who and where to vote, raising questions about whether he could answer questions about the conduct of elections.
– The bill would prevent voters from casting ballots without government identification if they are vouched for by another elector. The Conservatives say “vouching” has a much higher level of irregularity than other voting methods and shouldn’t be allowed. Vouched voters account for only an estimated one per cent of all ballots cast and the New Democrats say banning the practice can disenfranchise people without fixed addresses, such as students, the poor and aboriginals – people more likely to vote NDP. Removing voter cards sent out by Elections Canada from the list of valid forms of ID will have a similar effect, the NDP says.
– Increasing the allowable political contribution from $1,200 to $1,500 annually would appear to give the Conservatives a fundraising advantage. In the past, the Tories have won the fundraising wars by taking smaller amounts from a larger number of donors than other parties. That has changed over the past two years. In 2013, a full 20 per cent of donations to the Conservatives were of the maximum allowable amount of $1,200, compared to 16 per cent of a smaller pool of Liberal donors. Increasing the limit should reap more cash for the Conservatives than the Liberals or NDP if this trend continues.
– The law will require the Commissioner of Canada Elections to notify the subject of an investigation when it begins. When the Ottawa Citizen and Postmedia News reported in 2012 that then-Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro was under investigation for alleged campaign overspending, he went on television to complain he had been blindsided by the news and never knew about the probe.
– New provisions allowing donors to make contributions to a leadership campaign every year, instead of just once per leadership race, might have helped Liberal leadership contenders from 2006 and 2013 pay down their campaign debts. The change to the law would be too late for them, but candidates in future races will benefit. And, quite possibly, the Conservative Party will be the next to choose a new leader, should Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided to step down before or after the coming election.
– The bill would allow parties to fundraise from past donors during an election campaign without counting the telemarketing costs as election expenses. The Conservatives have excelled at using sophisticated databases and phone bank companies to raise money and get out their vote. Under the new law, the costs of these call campaigns – thought to figure in the millions of dollars for the central campaign – would not count against their spending cap.
– MPs who are found to have violated elections rules can continue to sit as MPs while they appeal a ruling against them in court. This clause is apparently in response to the cases of two Manitoba Conservative MPs, who, the chief electoral officer said, were no longer eligible to sit in Parliament because of incomplete campaign finance reports. Court challenges can take many years and critics say some MPs could break the rules getting elected and then drag out lawsuits to hold their seats.
(article continues at Postmedia News)
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