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Updated: Tue, 04 Feb 2014 05:00:00 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Elections Canada chief in dark about election reform bill



Chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand arrives at the Commons house affairs committee in Ottawa on Tuesday May 28, 2013. Adrain Wyld/Canadian Press

Chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand arrives at the Commons house affairs committee in Ottawa on Tuesday May 28, 2013. Adrain Wyld/Canadian Press

The Minister of State for Democratic Reform Pierre Poilievre told the House of Commons Monday he met with the head of Elections Canada in August about a long-awaited election reform bill to be tabled today.

But Marc Mayrand's office maintains he has no idea of the contents of the proposed fair elections act.

Poilievre has said little about the new bill, but has hinted, both in his Twitter feed and in statements he made in the House Monday, that it will give law enforcement "sharper teeth," a "longer reach" and "a freer hand."

Poilievre also said the bill will make it easier to vote, and harder to break the law. Finally, it will "close loopholes to big money."

In question period Monday, the NDP's democratic reform critic Craig Scott asked Poilievre why he failed "to speak to the country's top elections expert, the chief electoral officer, or explain how he thinks he consulted with that person?"

Poilievre shot back that the question was false. "I did meet with the CEO of Elections Canada some time ago, and we had a terrific and a very long meeting, at which I listened carefully to all of his ideas."

But a spokesperson for Elections Canada said Mayrand won't learn any details until he is briefed at 1:30 p.m. ET, after the bill is tabled.

The bill replaces one that was to be tabled last April, but was abruptly withdrawn after Conservative MPs were briefed about its contents.

Expert panel not consulted

Not only was Mayrand not consulted about the contents of the current draft, but neither was the blue-ribbon panel of experts he appointed to advise him about electoral reform.

The panel members, who include luminaries such as former Liberal leader Bob Rae, former Liberal cabinet minister John Manley, former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister Michael Wilson, former auditor general Sheila Fraser as well as former Supreme Court judge Ian Binnie, are equally in the dark about the bill.

One panel member, reached Monday, who did not want to be quoted, speculated one change could be the splitting off of the position of commissioner of elections from Elections Canada.

The commissioner's office is the investigative arm of Elections Canada and, though it operates independently, Mayrand appoints the commissioner, who is accountable to him. The arrangement puts Mayrand in the position of both facilitating political candidates and also policing them.

The panel member also suggested voters might be permitted to cast ballots anywhere in their electoral districts, rather than having to vote in their assigned polling divisions. This could be what Poilievre referred to when he said it will be "easier" for people to vote.

Mayrand has asked for change

In a report to Parliament in March, Mayrand recommended several changes in penalties for election infractions, in light of the robocall investigation into thousands of misleading calls to voters during the last election.

The calls, both automated and live, purporting to be from Elections Canada, directed voters to the wrong polling divisions. In the almost three-year-old Elections Canada investigation, only one person, Michael Sona, a former Conservative staffer, has been charged

Mayrand urged that penalties for impersonating an election officer or agency be strengthened to provide for fines up to $250,000 and sentences of up to five years in prison.

If Poilievre adopts any of these suggestions, it would amount to giving law enforcement "stronger teeth."

Closing money 'loopholes'

As far as closing "loopholes to big money," Poilievre might mean the practice of members of a family or employees of a firm all giving the maximum donation of $1,200 to a political candidate.

Former Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro, who now sits as an Independent, has been charged by Elections Canada over multiple contributions to his campaign in the 2008 election from a firm owned by his cousin.

Or, Poilievre might be giving new life to the government's proposed political loans act, which would ban candidates from lending money to themselves in leadership contests, and allow loans only from financial institutions.

The political loans bill was introduced three years ago and still hasn't made it into law.

Liberal leadership candidates from as far back as the 2006 Liberal leadership convention that elected Michael Ignatieff still haven't paid back campaign money.  

Poilievre has also complained about recent Liberal debts left over from the campaign that elected Justin Trudeau and unpaid debts from the contest that saw Tom Mulcair become leader of the NDP.

Elections Canada does not currently have the power to force candidates to pay back money to their only creditor — themselves.

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