11/07/2012 06:18 EST | Updated 01/07/2013 05:12 EST

MPs debate tougher fines for breaking election laws

MPs are debating a private member's bill that would impose fines up to $50,000 for breaking election laws and give the chief electoral officer the power to go to a judge to contest the election result.

Liberal MP Dominc LeBlanc says the changes he's proposing would make the law stronger. Bill C-424 is being debated Wednesday night for the second hour, with a vote coming in two weeks on whether to send it to committee.

The bill would provide for a maximum fine of $20,000 and a year in jail for less serious summary offences and up to $50,000 for the more serious indictable offences. It would also give the chief electoral officer, the person in charge of Elections Canada, the ability to go to court to ask for an election result to be thrown out.

"We don't think that the current legislation is structured in a way that a widespread, centrally organized electoral fraud can properly be investigated and prosecuted before the courts," LeBlanc said, adding that the way it's set up requires individual voters or candidates in a series of ridings across the country to go to court. That can cost tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.

Elections Canada is currently investigating complaints in 234 ridings across the country about misleading live or automated robocalls that directed people to the wrong polling stations. There are also reports of harassing or annoying calls.

"I'm not sure the [current] $5,000 fine isn't the cost of doing business for somebody trying to tamper with an election," LeBlanc said.

Conservatives won't support the changes

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae pointed to allegations that Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Peter Penashue may have gone more than $17,000 over his 2011 campaign spending limit and said the current fines need to be updated.

"In the Penashue case, for example, we have a clear example where the size of the fine will not even equal the extent of how much he's [allegedly] overspent on the campaign. So it's like, you know, you're going to get a slap on the wrist for spending $20,000 or $30,000 more than your limit, what kind of a result is that?"

The Conservatives have said they won't support the bill, LeBlanc pointed out.

During the first hour of debate on Oct. 3, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre said there were too many problems with the bill.

"We believe that changes to the Canada Elections Act should be considered in a broader context than that presented in the bill. Piecemeal amendments such as these do not encompass the broader context of the act," Poilievre said.

He also pointed to a concern that giving the chief electoral officer the ability to contest election results would change the position too much.

"The problem is that the bill would completely undermine the neutrality and impartiality of the chief electoral officer. The bill must be defeated on these grounds alone, even if there were no others," Poilievre said.

A spokeswoman for Tim Uppal, minister of state for democratic reform, says the government is planning its own "comprehensive proposal." The government has repeatedly refused to say when to expect the proposal.

MPs voted unanimously last March in favour of a non-binding NDP motion to bring in legislation to increase the power of the chief electoral officer. The motion gave the government a six-month deadline, which expired two months ago. Uppal's office will only say to expect the proposal "in due course."

Motion called for more power for Elections Canada

The motion called for legislation to:

- Give Elections Canada stronger investigative powers, including the ability to force political parties to provide supporting documents for their expenses.

- Require all telecommunication companies that provide voter contact services during a general election to register with Elections Canada.

- Make telecommunication companies identify and verify the identity of election clients.

Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand has asked for more power to investigate spending by political parties and says new technology means Canada needs new laws to cover possible abuse.

LeBlanc said that if there aren't serious penalties for breaking election laws, people may be tempted to do so.

"I think that when the full story is known on the 2011 election, it will have been one of the most disrupted and potentially fraudulent elections ever conducted in Canada," he said.

"I don't know why they [the Conservatives] would resist trying to get tough on this type of crime."