The Conservative government will present a bill to reform Canadian election laws on Thursday, more than a year after the House passed a unanimous motion calling for changes in the wake of the robocalls scandal.
But it's not clear how far the reforms will go, with federal Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand last month telling reporters that he hadn't been consulted on the bill.
Tim Uppal, the minister of state for democratic reform, made the announcement in question period Tuesday.
"Our government is pleased to announce that it will introduce comprehensive legislation on Thursday to improve the integrity, accountability and administration of Canada's election laws," Uppal said.
"The new legislation will respond to the motion passed by the House of Commons last year and a recommendation made by the chief electoral officer, the procedure and House affairs committee and others."
MPs voted unanimously in March, 2012 to approve a non-binding NDP motion calling for changes to election laws, following the news that anonymous automated robocalls had been used to direct voters to the wrong polling station in Guelph, Ont., in 2011. The motion gave the government six months to table its reforms, but because it was a non-binding motion, there is no penalty for being seven months late.
Elections Canada has since expanded its investigation to cover harassing calls and live calls, and is looking at complaints in 234 ridings. A related case saw a group of voters challenge six MPs in Federal Court, alleging they had benefited from vote suppression tactics and should lose their seats. A decision has not yet been released in the case.
Michael Sona, the director of communications for former Conservative candidate Marty Burke, faces one charge in the Guelph case. His first court appearance is set for May 3. He denies having anything to do with the calls.
Election agency not consulted
Mayrand, the head of Elections Canada, said that any changes to the current laws would need to in force by the end of 2014, ahead of the election set for October 2015.
The changes he called for include tough penalties for impersonating election officials, wider investigative powers and more voter privacy.
Up to March 28, Mayrand said he hadn't been consulted on the legislation the government was preparing.
"It is not entirely new, I would suggest," Mayrand said at a briefing with reporters about his agency's recommendations for reform to prevent malicious robocalls.
"Governments, from time to time, have tended to put forward their proposed legislative changes and then I become aware of them when they're tabled in Parliament.
"I'm always available if they want to get my views or advice on any legislative matters regarding the electoral process."
Stronger powers urged for Elections Canada
Uppal had refused until today to say when Canadians could expect to see the government's proposed changes. The question came up yesterday in question period, but Uppal would only say the bill would come in the "near future."
Uppal finally answered the question Tuesday on a planted query from another Conservative MP, after responding to two opposition questions about the bill without giving the date.
Mayrand last month urged the Tories to adopt the report's recommendations.
"My fear is that we see a reoccurrence of issues that we saw in the last general election, that further undermined electors' confidence and breeds disengagement and cynicism among electors," he said.
The motion by New Democrat MP David Christopherson asked the government to make three changes to the Elections Canada Act by Sept. 12, 2012:
- Give Elections Canada stronger investigative powers, including the ability to force political parties to provide supporting documents for their expenses.
- Require all telecommunication companies that provide voter contact services during a general election to register with Elections Canada.
- Make telecommunication companies identify and verify the identity of election clients.