Debate gets ugly as Conservatives push forward with elections bill

After long hours of clause-by-clause scrutiny, the Conservative bill to tighten up election laws is in the final stages of review at a House of Commons committee - and things are getting ugly.
MPs Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre's bill to change Canada's election laws has been undergoing a clause-by-clause review at a Commons committee this week. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The Conservative bill to tighten up election laws has made it through the final stages of review at a House of Commons committee, and things are getting ugly.

After long hours of scrutiny of the Fair Elections Act's many clauses, only two technical amendments by the opposition had been approved by Thursday afternoon, and those Liberal measures only tweaked some wording.

The only substantive amendments allowed to pass came from the government.

Changes to the legislation have been fuelled from within the Conservative caucus.

New Democrat MP David Christopherson's frustration boiled over when the committee rejected a proposal to ensure voter information cards are marked prominently to indicate they are not considered valid ID.

'Trying to get the fix in'

The proposed Act has eliminated the cards as a fall-back ID for voters who discover they don't have the right documents when they show up to cast a ballot.

"If they won't even vote for this, then the last bit of the fig leaf, as ugly as that image is, is gone. And we know, and Canadians know, that this is all about trying to get the fix in for the Conservatives in every way they can, and that voter suppression is alive and well in the government of Canada," said Christopherson.

The Conservatives countered that the chief electoral officer already has authority over the markings placed on voter identification cards, and so the NDP amendment was not needed.

The opposition has argued that hundreds of thousands of voters, including First Nations, the homeless and students, will be disenfranchised by eliminating the use of the voter cards, as well as by new limitations on citizens vouching for the identity of others.

Elimination of 'vouching' sparks debate

Conservative MP Scott Reid responded by saying he was offended by the accusation that the government is trying to deny the vote to certain Canadians.

"That assertion, if it were true, would mean that literally every member of the government would be unfit to be in the public square and sit in public office," said Reid.

"But of course this is a complete fiction. If there was one iota of truth to this, in a country that's as sensitive as Canada is and as Canadians are to this kind of grotesquerie, this kind of attitude, there would be a revolution out there. But there is no revolution out there."

One of the government's key amendments to the bill will now allow a voter who does not have proper proof of residency to co-sign an attestation with another voter who does have ID.

The opposition parties supported the change, but Liberal democratic reform critic Scott Simms said eliminating vouching was never necessary in the first place.

'Problem that never existed'

A widely cited report on voting irregularities in the 2011 election, for example, said that while there were problems with how cases of vouching were recorded, there was no evidence it was used to commit fraud.

"In many respects, so many clauses and so much angst you see coming from this side of the House goes to an expression that has been brought up time and time again: A lot of the measures in this bill was a solution to a problem that never existed," said Simms.

The Conservatives, with little indication in the polls or at constituency offices that there is a public backlash or awareness of the bill, say it's only common sense to require ID at the polling station.

"So far, (the opposition's) big idea is that people should be allowed to vote without any ID at all. They put forward an amendment saying that someone should be able to walk in without producing a single shred of identification and have their ID vouched for by someone else," said Pierre Poilievre, Conservative minister of state for democratic reform.

"We think that is unreasonable, that is extreme, and Canadians overwhelmingly agree with us on that point. That is why the Fair Elections Act will require every voter to present ID when he or she casts a ballot."

After spending just over 12 hours on clause-by-clause review, the debate wrapped up on Thursday afternoon.

The amended bill will likely be back on the House agenda next week. 

with files from CBC News


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