Former auditor general Sheila Fraser is warning that provisions in the proposed Fair Elections Act are an affront to democracy and that the government's approach toward officers of Parliament is damaging to the democratic system.
On CBC Radio's The House, Fraser said the questions being raised about the independence and objectivity of officers of Parliament such as the chief electoral officer can create the impression parliamentary watchdogs are biased.
"I just fear that all of this is creating somehow the impression … that these people are not impartial. And I think that is really damaging not only to officers of Parliament but to our whole democratic system," she said.
Reforms appear to be an attack on Elections Canada, Fraser says
Fraser tore into the government's proposed fair elections act, saying restrictions on how Elections Canada and the chief electoral officer can communicate and who the office can hire will make the office less independent.
Fraser called the decision to move the commissioner over to the director of public prosecutions and cutting the chief electoral officer out of the process to select a new commissioner an attack on Elections Canada.
The act would also prohibit Elections Canada employees from applying to the position.
"It would certainly appear to be an attack on Elections Canada. These are the people who have the expertise … why would you exclude them from applying for this position?" she said.
Fraser raised questions about vouching and questioned the logistics around abolishing it.
"Our whole system is based on fairness. It should be based on, everyone should have the right to vote. And instead of making that easier, this bill would appear to be making it more difficult," Fraser said.
Fraser also said the changes to campaign spending limits outlined in the act would create a "huge loophole" for campaign financing.
'I think it will be very troubling if we see a lot people being turned away at the polls because they don't have the proper identification. And I think it will start to call into question the credibility of that election.' — Sheila Fraser, former auditor general of Canada
The act would allow parties to exempt money spent to raise funds from people who have already donated at least $20 from their spending limits. But Fraser warns this will be almost impossible to track and will give current political parties an advantage.
If the act is passed with only a few amendments, Fraser warns, it could put the 2015 election results at risk.
"I will certainly hope that the election will be run efficiently, fairly. But … I am concerned that there will be operational difficulties for the chief electoral officer. I think it will be very troubling if we see a lot people being turned away at the polls because they don't have the proper identification. And I think it will start to call into question the credibility of that election."
Fraser is the co-chair of an Elections Canada advisory panel that was created last fall by Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand.
The panel is made up of partisans and non-partisans alike, including former Supreme Court justice Ian Binnie, Reform Party founder Preston Manning, former Liberal MPs Bob Rae and John Manley, former Conservative finance minister Michael Wilson, the former NDP premier of Saskatchewan Roy Romanow, and sitting Conservative Senator Hugh Segal.
The panel was formed to advise Elections Canada on a variety of issues including the conduct of elections, voter participation and electoral reform.
Fraser told The House that since the panel's creation in October it has had only one face-to-face meeting and one phone call. So far Fraser has been paid $2,450 for her work with the panel, and she made clear that her comments on the fair elections act were hers alone.
Government stands firm on elections bill
Minister of State for Democratic Reform Pierre Poilievre rebuffed all of Fraser's criticisms.
He told The House, "We just disagree with Elections Canada on these points."
On vouching, Poilievre maintained that it is common sense that people bring ID when they vote.
On the changes to campaign donations, he said the change is not a new concept, and that a similar model was already being used by political parties.
Poilievre dismissed the allegation that moving the commissioner to the director of public prosecutions was an attack on Elections Canada.
He called Fraser's comments "inaccurate" and said the elections commissioner is supposed to be independent.
"It's not surprising to me that Elections Canada and the CEO [chief electoral officer] in particular, who is the major opponent of this, is against it. He wants to have this control and this power for himself. We don't think it's appropriate for him to be in charge of the investigator."
Poilievre also disagrees that the reforms affecting Elections Canada and the chief electoral officer cause harm to the credibility or independence of officers of Parliament.
"The House of Commons is elected. The government of Canada through the House of Commons has direct democratic legitimacy to the population.… Should we listen to the input of the officers of Parliament? Absolutely. But at the end of the day these are the servants of Parliament and not the other way around," he said.