Trudeau government proposes major changes to elections law
Bill limits length of campaigns and spending, reverses changes made by Harper government in 2014
The Trudeau government is proposing to limit the length of federal election campaigns, restrict the amount of spending allowed in the period immediately before a campaign and introduce new rules to regulate third-party political activity — all part of a new set of reforms to Canada's elections laws.
Political parties also would be required to disclose how and what information they collect from voters.
"The changes we are proposing in this legislation will update the Canada Elections Act to better address the realities facing our democratic institutions in the 21st century," Scott Brison, acting democratic institutions minister, said Monday afternoon after tabling legislation in the House of Commons.
"It will make real, tangible improvements to make elections more efficient, inclusive and effective for all Canadians."
In broad strokes, Bill C-76 touches on a series of concerns that have been raised about Canada's electoral and political systems, including changes made by the previous Conservative government, the activity of third-party organizations and the collection of data by political parties.
Whether the bills responds sufficiently or appropriately to those concerns will be debated over the days ahead, but the government is also facing a constrained timeline to pass the bill in time for next year's federal election.
Reversing Conservative changes
Under Bill C-76, the official campaign period could be no longer than 50 days. In 2015, the writ period was 78 days long — a modern record that raised concerns about the government's ability to dictate the election calendar.
The Liberals had promised to regulate party spending between campaigns. They now propose that, in years when a fixed election date is to be honoured in October, a "pre-writ period" would commence on June 30, running until the start of the official writ period. During that pre-writ period, political parties would be able to spend only $1.5 million on partisan advertising.
Reversing changes made by the previous Conservative government in 2014, the Liberals would make the voter identification card a valid piece of identification for use at polling stations, allow registered voters to "vouch" for the identity or residence of another voter and empower the chief electoral officer to conduct public education campaigns.
The elections commissioner would be moved back under Elections Canada's authority and newly empowered. And the Liberals also would repeal statutes that make Canadian citizens ineligible to vote if they reside outside the country for five consecutive years.
Brison said that change would "restore voting rights to more than one million Canadian citizens living abroad."
Repeating concerns about voter identification that the Conservatives raised in 2014, Conservative critic Blake Richards warned on Monday that "we would be naïve to assume that people would not take advantage of our electoral system, and undermine the value of someone else's vote."
New rules for third parties and foreign entities
To address "foreign interference" and "online disruption" in Canadian elections, the Liberals propose (among other measures) that organizations selling advertising space be barred from "knowingly" accepting election ads from "foreign entities."
Third-party organizations, like advocacy groups, would be able to spend $500,000 each during the official campaign period, but would face new spending and reporting requirements. Foreign entities would be prohibited from spending any money and third parties would be prohibited from working with other organizations to circumvent the rules against foreign spending.
"With the passage of this bill, foreign entities will no longer be able to spend money to influence federal elections," Brison said
Under the new legislation, parties would also be required to post a public statement detailing how and what information they collect on voters, how personal information is protected and whether that information could be sold. Parties would be required to submit their privacy policies to Elections Canada as part of the registration process.
Appearing on CBC's Power & Politics, NDP critic Nathan Cullen noted that the proposals stop short of putting political parties under the federal Privacy Act or the jurisdiction of the privacy commissioner.
Time running short to change election law
Stephane Perreault, the acting chief electoral officer, warned MPs last week that the government would need to move quickly if it wants its changes to be in place for the next federal election in 2019.
"Of course, our mandate is to implement the changes Parliament decides to enact and we will find ways to do that, if and when legislation is introduced and passed," Perreault said at a meeting of the procedure and House affairs committee. "However, it is also my responsibility to inform you that time is quickly running out."
Commenting before the new Liberal bill was tabled, Cullen said his party fears the government hasn't moved fast enough to bring forward changes in time for the next election.
"The concern for us is that the 2019 election will be a difficult election to run," he said. "With the new threats we see, from the Facebook scandal to the Russians' interference in the American elections ... we need all of the tools that we can possibly have at hand to make sure the next election is run fairly, so that Canadians can vote properly and have confidence in our electoral system.
"Because of Liberal inaction ... we've seen very little to nothing that will give Canadians that confidence and give Elections Canada the tools that they need."
Cullen also expressed concern over the fact that the government has not yet appointed a new chief electoral officer. Marc Mayrand, the previous officer, departed in December 2016.