Preston Manning, Sheila Fraser to testify on elections bill

Former auditor general Sheila Fraser, Reform Party founder Preston Manning and former Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj appear tonight at the committee reviewing the government's proposal to revamp Canada's electoral system. Kady O'Malley has a preview of what to expect.

Committee slated to wrap up hearings on Bill C-23 by the end of the week

Former auditor general Sheila Fraser has previously warned that the proposed changes to the election law could constitute an 'attack on our democracy.' (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Former auditor general Sheila Fraser will get to put her thoughts on the government's proposal to rewrite Canada's election laws on the official record at an all-star extended-hours committee meeting Tuesday night.

Fraser's already much-anticipated appearance will also put committee chair Joe Preston in the potentially awkward position of asking both Fraser and Preston Manning, who is to testify by video conference, to detail any payments they have — or may in future — receive from Elections Canada as a result of their participation in the blue-ribbon advisory panel set up by Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand last fall.

In a letter sent to the chair last Friday, senior Conservative committee member Tom Lukiwksi requested that, "in the interests of transparency," all future witnesses be surveyed over any past, present or possible future financial ties to the independent electoral agency.

Fraser, for her part, has already revealed that she has been paid just over $2,400 since agreeing to sit on the panel.

In any case, once those ostensibly voluntary disclosures are out of the way, what can committee watchers expect the witnesses to say?

Manning to back continued voter education programs

According to a briefing note provided by Manning's office, the former Reform Party leader will outline the same recommendations that he first put forward at the Manning Centre Networking Centre conference in March: specifically, "strengthening rather than reducing the role of Elections Canada and the Chief Electoral Officer with respect to promotional and educational activities designed to increase voter participation in Canada’s elections."
Reform Party founder Preston Manning will address MPs via videoconference. (CBC)

But it appears he may also be one of the few witnesses thus far to explicitly endorse the government’s bid to separate the independent commissioner of elections from Elections Canada and have the position report to the director of public prosecutions.

This, Manning argues, "should allow the chief electoral officer to focus solely on the fair and effective administration of elections without also having to play the role of a law-enforcement officer."

Not surprisingly, he’ll also use the opportunity to push for one of his long-standing pet initiatives — namely, hands-on training for future political candidates, organizers and operatives, including, presumably, the courses offered by the Manning School for Practical Politics.

"At present," he notes in the briefing document, "I believe there is some confusion among the parties, electoral district associations, and candidates as to whether such investments in training might be considered an election expense or contribution-in-kind."

Changes could undermine independence

Fraser, meanwhile, hasn't released a teaser for Tuesday's appearance, but will likely raise the same concerns she voiced during her interview with CBC Radio's The House over the weekend, including her reservations over the proposal to hive off the commissioner’s office, which she warned Evan Solomon could actually reduce its independence.

"As an officer of Parliament, it's very important that the chief electoral officer have the independence and be seen to have the independence from the government of the day," she noted.

“There are provisions in that bill which would restrict his ability to communicate and would also require him to go to the Treasury Board, the Cabinet of Ministers, in order to hire experts. I think that's inappropriate with an officer of Parliament and, secondly on a more operational level, it's going to make, I think, his life quite difficult, considering the number of people that he has to hire to run an election … It's making it less independent.”

She also took issue with a provision that would prohibit former Elections Canada staff from applying for the commissioner position in future.

“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 told Evan Solomon.

Before going under the prime-time spotlight at procedure and House affairs, Fraser will spend an hour taking questions at the Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee, which is set to kick off its own pre-study of the election bill on Tuesday afternoon. The Senate committee will also hear Tuesday from Mayrand and former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley, who have already testified at the Commons committee.

The committee is also expected to hear from former Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj, who mounted an ultimately failed legal challenge against Conservative MP and committee member Ted Opitz over the results of the 2011 vote in Etobicoke Centre.

Chief among his recommendations will be ensuring that Elections Canada has the resources to investigate within a one-year time frame.

Former MP Wrzesnewskyj to appear as well

"After that point, documents get destroyed," he told CBC News, and when the next election rolls around in four years or less, it becomes a moot point.

"You're past the best-before date."

Under the current system, Elections Canada is "never within the relevant timeline."

"It's untenable in a democracy if you don't know if a member of Parliament is there because of the expression of will of the electorate," he said.

"When people don't have confidence that this is the individual member — or government — elected by the will of the people, at a certain point, you have a situation where you have the equivalent of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine."

Even given his still simmering suspicions over what went on at certain polling stations in the last election, however, Wrzesnewskyj doesn't support eliminating vouching for voters without the necessary ID.

"We had problems with vouching, but you want people to have the right to vote," he said. "But that requires safeguards, and properly resourcing Elections Canada so they train and compensate workers."

Before Manning, Fraser and Wrzesnewskyj take centre stage, the committee will spend an hour quizzing senior officials from the Competition Bureau on the pros and cons of authorizing commissioners to compel testimony from recalcitrant witnesses, a power that both the commissioner and chief electoral officer have repeatedly recommended be added to the Elections Act.

The committee is expected to wrap up witness testimony by the end of the week, when MPs head back to their ridings for a two-week constituency break.

When the House returns later this month, they'll have just a few days to finish clause-by-clause review before sending the bill back to the Commons for third reading.

About the Author

Kady O'Malley

Kady O'Malley covered Parliament Hill for CBC News until June, 2015.


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