OTTAWA - The Harper government is under fire for cutting Elections Canada's budget even as the agency struggles to address rampant procedural errors and widespread allegations of cheating during the last federal vote.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair charged Wednesday that the eight per cent cut to the election watchdog's annual budget is symptomatic of a government that has no respect for democratic institutions.
"The Conservatives should be doing anything but cutting Elections Canada," Mulcair said.
"We're not coming to defence of our democratic institutions. The vote is the essential part and, if we can't even guarantee that the people who are voting are entitled to vote and that could throw off the results of the election, then all is being lost."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper countered that "the suggestions for savings at Elections Canada were produced by Elections Canada itself" after the last federal election in 2011.
However, the cut — amounting to a loss of $7.5 million annually — was not exactly voluntary.
"Elections Canada was asked to follow the spirit and intent of the government's strategic and operational review," agency spokesperson Diane Benson said, referring to across-the-board spending reductions imposed by the government last year.
The agency did, however, make its own choices about which programs to cut back.
In any event, both the agency and the government pointed out that Elections Canada is entitled to draw unlimited amounts of additional money from general federal revenues for the administration of elections or for the conduct of investigations.
Controversy over the watchdog's budget was triggered by a report, commissioned by Elections Canada, which concluded that the integrity of Canada's electoral process is at "serious risk" due to rampant procedural errors made by polling officials.
The report, released Tuesday, blamed overly complex rules and poorly trained polling officers for the fact that errors were made in the majority of the paperwork filled out during the 2011 federal election for electors who needed to prove their eligibility to vote.
An audit of the paperwork found officials made "systemic" errors in 165,000 cases — 500 per riding, on average. The errors were serious, of the kind that have led courts to overturn election results in the past, the report said.
While chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand has accepted the findings, Elections Canada said Wednesday they were not quite as bleak as a cursory reading of the report would suggest.
The reference to errors in the majority of the paperwork included minor clerical mistakes like forgetting to fill in the date, Benson said. More serious errors were found in only 15 per cent of the documentation.
In the Commons, Harper noted the report made recommendations to deal with the "quality control issues" exposed by the audit. The government will consider those recommendations as it prepares to introduce legislation to reform the Canada Elections Act, he added.
The legislation is meant to deal primarily with ways to prevent a repeat of the abuses that plagued the 2011 election, in which thousands of misleading, automated phone calls directed voters to the wrong polling stations.
It was to have been introduced last month but was delayed at the last minute. Harper said Wednesday it will be introduced "in the not too distant future."
Mulcair said the Conservatives have "shown consistently that they're willing to cheat" to win and cutting the budget of the agency that polices elections is in keeping with that. He cited the robocall affair and the so-called in-and-out scandal, which allowed the party to spend beyond its legal limit during the 2006 campaign.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau echoed that sentiment, arguing that the budget cut is part of a worrying pattern by Conservatives to discourage Canadians from taking part in the democratic process.
"For me it's an indication that the Conservatives have understood that the less people turn out to vote, the better it is for them."