Elections bill changes to come within 3 days, Conservatives say

The Conservative majority on a Commons committee studying a major elections overhaul has set a three-day deadline for redrafting the legislation. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair says he is waiting to see the details of the government's propesed changes.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair says pressure from his party forced the Conservatives to back down on their changes to the Elections Act - and now he wants to see the details of amendments to the bill, C-23. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The Conservative majority on a Commons committee studying a major elections overhaul has set a three-day deadline for redrafting the legislation — a tight time frame the Opposition NDP is calling a farce.

Joe Preston, the Conservative committee chairman, says almost 300 amendments to Bill C-23 have been submitted, comprising hundreds of pages, to be voted on in committee by 5 p.m. Thursday.

That includes a number of changes proposed by the government itself late last week to address some of the most contentious elements in a bill dubbed the Fair Elections Act.

The committee wrapped up witness testimony Monday by hearing from Brian Saunders, the director of public prosecutions, who said he was not consulted on changes that will hive off Elections Canada's investigative arm and place it within the public prosecutor's office.

Unlike earlier witnesses, who paraded before the House and Senate committees before the Easter recess, Saunders took a distinctly dispassionate approach in outlining his concerns, noting that the only aspect of the bill that would have any effect on his office is the proposal to put the commissioner of elections under the auspices of his office.

In a brief opening statement, Saunders pointed out that as currently written the changes "might create the perception that the Director of Public Prosecutions is too close to the investigative function to conduct the prosecution function independently," as he would have the power to hire and fire the commissioner. That, he warned MPs, "could be seen as giving the DPP a measure of control."

He also raised a red flag over a provision that would require investigative expenses to be certified before being paid out of the consolidated revenue fund.

"This may also give rise to the perception that the DPP has a degree of control over investigations," he told the committee.

Under questioning, Saunders demurred when asked to comment on the bill as policy.

On several occasions, he had to remind MPs on both sides of the table that he was there to discuss the impact of the bill, and not its merits or drawbacks.

"It's a policy decision," he said. "I'll live with whatever powers Parliament decides to give me."

Saunders also confirmed that, like the chief electoral officer and elections commissioner, he wasn’t consulted on the bill.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, he acknowledged that the move to transfer the commissioner to his office came as a surprise.

"It was unexpected," he said.

Mulcair takes credit

In a speech to his caucus earlier Monday, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair took credit for forcing the Tories to make changes to their electoral reform package, while adding he still needs to see the details of the amendments.

On Friday, after weeks of insisting there was nothing wrong with the bill, Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre announced that portions of the legislation would be deleted or amended.

The bill had been criticized by everyone from the current and former chief electoral officers to elections experts from across the country.

The government says it will remove a requirement for all voters to show residency identification in the next election.

Voters will now be allowed to sign an oath attesting to their residence, but must still provide at least some form of personal identification.

The government is also removing a provision that would have allowed parties to contact former donors during election periods without incurring an election expense under their campaign cap.

Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand had characterized that as a huge spending loophole that would be unenforceable.

Waiting for the 'fine print'

Mulcair says it was his party's push for changes to the legislation, threats of legal action and a massive petition against the bill that forced Poilievre to blink.

"We said we'd join democrats of every stripe to fight this bill in the courts, if we had to," Mulcair told New Democrat MPs.

"And thanks to our hard work, Conservatives are now saying they'll back down. We'll wait to see the fine print."

Among the other changes to the legislation is a recasting of a restriction on how the chief electoral officer can communicate with people.

While Elections Canada will still have to focus its advertising on how, when and where to cast a ballot, the chief electoral officer will be able to speak publicly about "anything he wants," Poilievre said Friday.

With files from CBC News