Thursday, March 6, 2014

Elections watchdog Marc Mayrand fears there would no longer be a level playing field for all parties during an election under the Harper government's proposed overhaul of election laws.

  Elections watchdog Marc Mayrand fears there would no longer be a level playing field for all parties during an election under the Harper government's proposed overhaul of election laws.

The chief electoral officer told a House of Commons committee Thursday he's particularly concerned about provisions in Bill C-23 that would allow political parties to spend untold millions more during election campaigns.

"In Canada, electoral fairness has traditionally been understood to mean maintaining a level playing field among parties and candidates by the imposition of strict spending limits," Mayrand told the committee.

"By increasing those spending limits and, most significantly, creating an exception for certain fundraising expenses, Bill C-23 may well compromise that level playing field."

Mayrand did not specifically say which party would benefit most from the changes but New Democrats and Liberals have charged that the bill is designed to favour the ruling Conservatives, the party with by far the deepest pockets.

C-23 would hike the campaign spending limit for political parties by five per cent, to $22 million for each party that runs a full slate of candidates.

And parties would not have to count as a campaign expense any money they spend to solicit donations from supporters who've contributed at least $20 over the previous five years.

That exemption is a "particular concern" to Mayrand.

"For anybody who has ever seen one, there is no practical way of distinguishing a fundraiser mail-out from advertising and it takes little imagination to understand that other partisan communications can be dressed up as fundraisers," he told the committee.

Moreover, Mayrand said it would be "difficult, if not impossible" to enforce given that parties would be under no obligation to report details of who they contact for donations. And he noted that the bill does not adopt one of his long-standing recommendations, that parties be required to turn over invoices and receipts to Elections Canada.

"We remain the only jurisdiction in Canada where political parties are not required to produce supporting documentation for their reported expenses."

Mayrand also expressed concern that thousands of voters -- primarily youth, seniors and aboriginals, who often have no identification that includes their address -- would be disenfranchised by the bill.

The bill would prohibit the use of voter information cards as one of the documents voters can use to prove their identity at polling stations and it would eliminate the practice of allowing people to vouch for the identity of voters without proper documentation.

An estimated 120,000 voters relied on vouching in the 2011 election and Mayrand said "we can expect that a significant proportion of them would not be able to vote" under C-23.

In justifying the elimination of vouching, Pierre Poilievre, the minister responsible for democratic reform, has pointed to numerous procedural irregularities found in the vouching process in 2011.

But Mayrand countered that "the vast majority of these were strictly record-keeping errors by poll workers" who filled out the vouching paperwork.

Mayrand doubted that doing away with vouching and voter information cards as proof of address would do anything to improve the integrity of the voting process.

"However, we will have taken away the ability of many qualified electors to vote."

He suggested the government has its electoral reform priorities all wrong.

"It is essential to understand that the main challenge for our electoral democracy is not voter fraud but voter participation."

The bill would also separate the commissioner of elections, who investigates violations and enforces the Canada Elections Act, from Elections Canada and place him under the authority of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Mayrand said he is less concerned about where the commissioner is housed than whether he has the proper tools to do the job. He noted that the bill would not give the commissioner the power to compel witnesses to testify -- a hole that has impeded his ability to investigate complaints about misleading robocalls during the 2011 campaign.

He also expressed concern that both he and the commissioner would be muzzled by the bill, which would limit what they can say publicly. The commissioner, for instance, couldn't explain to Canadians why charges could not be laid in a particular case or reassure them when an investigation finds no evidence of voter fraud.

Mayrand is the first witness to testify about the bill. His appearance had been delayed for more than a week because of a filibuster at committee by the NDP, which had been trying to force cross-country hearings.

And it was delayed again Thursday when the Conservatives scheduled a vote in the House of Commons at the same time as Mayrand's presentation was to begin. He was left cooling his heels for more than 30 minutes.

New Democrats accused the Tories of deliberately trying to cut short Mayrand's testimony. However, the committee eventually gave the watchdog the full 90 minutes that had been scheduled for his appearance.

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