Elections head feels benched by electoral reform bill

"The referee is no longer on the ice," the head of Elections Canada says, referring to the government's election reform bill that radically alters the structure and mandate of his office.

Others complain the bill is politicizing the election process, and is being pushed through too hastily

Elections chief hits back

9 years ago
Duration 2:34
Marc Mayrand says the government's electoral reform bill means "the referee is no longer on the ice"

"The referee is no longer on the ice," the head of Elections Canada said Thursday, referring to the government's election reform bill that radically alters the structure and mandate of his office.

Marc Mayrand was responding to a reporter's question about a remark Pierre Poilievre made when he introduced the Fair Elections Act in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

"The referee should not be wearing the team jersey," the minister for democratic reform said at a news conference.

The new bill makes clear the only role of the chief electoral officer is to inform the public when, where and how to vote, and then count the ballots.

Mayrand said his office will no longer be able to make unsolicited phone calls to the public. It means, he said, Elections Canada would not be able to conduct surveys about its service.

The terms of the proposed bill may also mean the end of Elections Canada's outreach program in schools. The agency has regularly sponsored programs and provided resources such as voter kits to teach students the value of voting.

Mayrand says he has no problem the most significant portion of the new bill — that the position of the commissioner of elections, the investigator of electoral fraud — is being separated from his office.

But he worries the commissioner won't have the "toolbox" to thoroughly conduct probes of possibly illegal practices. There is no tool to allow the commissioner to compel witnesses to answer questions or provide documents, Mayrand pointed out, a change he had asked for in an earlier report.

A long-promised bill

The Fair Elections Act has been a long time coming. An earlier version was to be tabled last April by then Democratic Reform Minister Tim Uppal, but was abruptly pulled when Conservative MPs objected to its contents.

Former Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber was present at that caucus briefing. He says most of his colleagues feared that too much authority would be given to a commissioner of elections in a stand-alone office.

"There was some concern about this commissioner, who would be enforcing the act, would lack accountability and be another Kevin Page."

The former parliamentary budget officer's reports on the projected costs of some federal programs, or budget projections, often clashed with the government's figures. Page was accused of being overly zealous and exceeding his mandate.

"I liked Kevin Page, but most of my colleagues didn't," said Rathgeber, who now sits as an Independent MP. "I wasn't there in 2006 but I know when they created the Parliamentary Budget Office, it became the Frankenstein that they couldn't control."

In the current bill, the commissioner of elections will report to the director of public prosecutions.

Rathgeber says he likes the new bill's toughened laws on robocalls, its increased fines for infractions and its raised contribution limits for political donors.

A larger role for political parties

But he thinks the bill shouldn't be "downloading" powers from Elections Canada and giving a larger role to political parties. He points out Poilievre said the job of increasing voter turnout is better done by the political parties than the elections agency.

Stephen Thiele, a lawyer familiar with election law, agrees. Thiele represented former Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj's ultimately unsuccessful application to have the election results in the Toronto riding of Etobicoke Centre overturned due to numerous voting irregularities.

A little-noticed clause in the Fair Elections Act allows political parties and riding associations to recommend names of people who can work on election day as deputy returning officers, poll clerks and registration officers.

Previously, only political candidates had the right to nominate partisans to work the polls, a system that many election experts have said should be eliminated.

"You could have an entire poll filled with biased people from one party only... For a bill that is intent on restoring integrity to our democracy, it should have gone the other way," Thiele said in a phone interview.

Rathgeber worries about the speed at which the government is moving on its long-awaited electoral reform package. 

"It was going to be tabled last April and another nine or 10 months has gone by. But now everything's in a big hurry," he said.

"The perception of the public is going to be coloured by the high-handedness of it, and now, the absolute haste by which it's going to be pushed through."