Election reform bill gets an 'A minus' from ex-election chief

Jean-Pierre Kingsley, the former head of Elections Canada, calls the government's proposed fair elections act "overall, a good bill" and gives it a solid grade of "A minus," but still finds points to criticize.

Jean-Pierre Kingsley would like tougher fines, but most critics approve of proposed election reforms

Former Elections Canada chief Jean-Pierre Kingsley has some praise for the government's proposed election reforms, and some criticism. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

Jean-Pierre Kingsley, the former head of Elections Canada, calls the government's proposed fair elections act "overall, a good bill" and gives it a solid grade of "A–."

But Kingsley, who ran the federal election agency for 17 years, thinks the bill could have gone further in its new penalties for serious election infractions. The proposed bill suggests fines as high as $100,000 for intentional financial irregularities, but Kingsley told CBC New Network's Power & Politics he thinks even a cap of $500,000 would not be high enough.

"If a political party, running in a federal election, exceeds the ceiling by which it can run its campaign, I think the fine should be double the difference by which they exceeded it," he said, adding the fine should rise to up to a million dollars or more.

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"When people commit a crime based on the money that is allowed, I think we really ought to slap them, because this is the level playing field which is so important as a system," he said.

Separation of powers

Kingsley does not think another provision of the new bill — the separation of the position of commissioner of elections from Elections Canada — will make much difference to the way electoral offences are pursued.

The commissioner of elections, the agency's investigator, would be appointed by the federal director of public prosecutions in future, and completely severed from Elections Canada.

Kingsley said, "It will separate the CEO [the chief electoral officer] from the perception that some people had —  particularly one party — that there was something untoward."

When Marc Mayrand, the current Elections Canada CEO, appeared before a parliamentary committee in December, Conservative MP Scott Reid accused him of acting in "an overly aggressive manner which was frankly inappropriate."

Reid was critical of Mayrand informing the Speaker of the House of problems he had reaching an agreement with two Conservative MPs over their expenses.

Fixed term for elections investigator

Paul Thomas, professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba, pointed out the new bill mandates a fixed non-renewable seven-year term for the commissioner of elections so that he or she can operate without the worry of being fired.

"My study of election law suggests that the people who are really well-informed think you need to go through two election cycles to really master this complex legal field, which is in a highly political environment," he said in a phone interview.

The government's commitment to fixed-date elections every four years means any future commissioner will work though only one election cycle, he said.

Thomas also questioned the new bill's elimination of the practice of voter-vouching, in which a friend or neighbour swears to the identity of someone who doesn't have proper voter ID.

"On the one hand they [the government] are preaching a philosophy of customer service, that they want to make it easier and a more pleasant experience to vote, and on the other hand they are saying you better show up with some formal ID," he said.

Pierre Poilievre, the minister responsible for the bill, told reporters at a news conference Tuesday that an Elections Canada study found voting irregularities in one of every four vouching incidents.

Vouching errors subject of court case

Vouching errors were a major part of a case former Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj mounted to have the results of a close election thrown out. Wrzesnewskyj lost the riding of Etobicoke Centre by 26 votes in 2011. His application to overturn the result and force a byelection went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. The top court rejected his arguments.

Wrzesnewskyj's lawyer, Stephen Thiele, reached Tuesday in Toronto, said the new bill is a step in the right direction in restoring the integrity of the system, and a vindication of  Wrzesnewskyj. 

"In Borys's case there were a number of polls where vouching was the sole issue, and those were the votes that were being challenged. "

Increased fines

The 247-page bill also increases the maximum donation for political candidates from $1,200 to $1,500 annually. The advocacy group Democracy Watch pointed out in an email to CBC News on Tuesday that the province of Quebec recently reduced its annual donation limit to $100.

This is "an amount an average voter can actually afford," Democracy Watch wrote.

Democracy Watch decried the bill's increase in the amount election candidates would be able donate to their own campaign (to $5,000 from $1,200), and the amount party leadership candidates would be able to donate to their own race (to $25,000 from $1,200).

"Both of these hikes are huge, and hugely undemocratic, as they help only wealthy candidates," the group said.

However, Democracy Watch described the bill as "good in that it contains almost all of Democracy Watch's proposals to stop fraud robocalls."

MPs will begin debate on the bill Wednesday.


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