A contentious one-hour committee appearance by Pierre Poilievre, minister of state for democratic reform, seemed to do little to address the concerns of opposition MPs about proposed changes to the Canada Elections Act.
Poilievre and the opposition MPs got into several verbal disputes during the minister's appearance at the procedure and House affairs committee Thursday morning, including one that saw the meeting end with a question left hanging.
Committee chair Joe Preston ended the first part of the meeting in the middle of a response by Poilievre, as the NDP protested how Poilievre went about answering.
The proposed changes have been contentious because they would drastically change the chief electoral officer's ability to run educational programs and speak to the public. The bill would also make major changes to political parties' ability to spend during an election and would end vouching, a process by which people without the required identification are able to cast a ballot.
Earlier this week, the Conservative majority in the House voted to limit debate on the bill. The Conservative majority on the procedure and House affairs committee has also said it will vote against taking the committee on the road to hear from more Canadians, leading the New Democrats to block any travel by all other committees.
New Democrat MP David Christopherson said Poilievre's bill is already in a "democratic deficit."
Christopherson referred to Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand's concern that he wasn't consulted before the bill was drafted, and asked why there was no consultation with Canadians before the bill was tabled. He also noted concern about the government cutting off debate in the House.
"On process, you’ve already got a democratic deficit," Christopherson said.
Poilievre said he listened to Mayrand's suggestions for about half an hour, until Mayrand "ran out of things to say."
He said he also read Mayrand's past reports and committee testimony, calling it "a very comprehensive consultation."
Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski asked Poilievre about a report that Mayrand spoke strongly against the bill to a general meeting of Elections Canada staff, calling it a campaign-style speech and political activism.
Opposition MPs bristled at the attack on Mayrand.
NDP democratic reform critic Craig Scott said he's never seen Mayrand or any other chief electoral officer be anything other than "impeccable" in their neutrality.
"The problem is the Conservatives have done things over the years that justify the attention of Elections Canada," Scott said, calling the party's attitude toward Mayrand, whom they appointed, "a kind of a vendetta."
"This is an attack on Elections Canada and the chief electoral officer," Scott said.
ID an issue
New Democrat MP Alexandrine Latendresse questioned Poilievre about the end to vouching and the use of voter information cards to vote. Conservative MPs complained about vouching and cards being abused, although a report often cited by Poilievre as the reason for many of the changes actually recommended increasing use of the voter information cards.
Opposition MPs say 120,000 people were vouched for before casting ballots in 2011.
"A lot of those folks were aboriginal folks, a lot of those folks were people living transient lives," Scott said, adding that many people in long-term care and many students use the voter information cards to cast ballots.
That part of the bill also triggered a debate over how many people don't have drivers' licences, with Lukiwski saying it's only two per cent of the population. Latendresse said it varies wildly by location, with 25 per cent of Torontonians going without a driver's licence.
Poilievre says there are 39 forms of ID accepted when voters to go cast a ballot.
"A lot of very informed people wrongly think that you require photo ID," he said. "It is an option, but not an obligation."
Latendresse said she was worried about youth turnout, which was 38 per cent in 2011 compared to 61 per cent overall.
Outside the committee room, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said the 39 forms of ID aren't listed in the bill, so it's no guarantee the list will be that extensive once the bill passes.
"How do we know that every single voter who wants to vote is going to have the right to vote?" she said.
No decision on travel
Scott also questioned a provision that would require government approval through the Treasury Board before retaining consultants with technical or specialized knowledge.
Right now, Elections Canada can bring in RCMP officers or hire retired police officers to conduct investigations. They also hire consultants to do research on voter turnout and other democracy issues.
Matthew Lynch, an official from the Privy Council Office, called it a "very administrative support" that's already standard with other agents of Parliament.
"The role of the Treasury Board is to approve the person’s remuneration and expenses, not the contract itself," Lynch said.
Despite that, Scott said that could still affect the ability to hire consultants, since the president of Treasury Board, a cabinet minister, would be able to set how much and for how many hours consultants would be paid.
As soon as the question and answer session with the minister wrapped up, the standoff over Christopherson's proposal to hold cross-country hearings on the bill continued.
Earlier this week, Lukiwski confirmed that the government would oppose the motion, which prompted the opposition party to retaliate by denying consent for all scheduled committee travel.
During his hour-long intervention, Christopherson repeatedly questioned why the Conservatives seemed so unenthusiastic about taking the debate over their proposed legislation to the people, musing, at one point, that "this is a G7 country whose government is afraid of its own citizens."
After successfully running down the clock today, Christopherson will have the floor when the committee returns in two weeks.