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."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper gets behind the bar at the Victoria pub in Montreal Friday, March 16, 2012 where he stopped in to meet some supporters and have a drink for St. Patricks Day.
Stephen Harper and wife Laureen in 2011. Source: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmharper/8472663517/in/photostream" target="_blank">Flickr</a>
You Eat Half, And I'll Eat Half
Conservative leader Stephen Harper and Laureen Harper stand next to a tray of hot cross buns at a bakery in Mississauga, on April 23, 2011.
Stephen Harper with wife Laureen and their chinchilla Charlie. Source: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmharper/8425819048/in/photostream" target="_blank">Flickr</a>
Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves after going for an ATV ride as he visits a farm for a campaign event in Wainfleet Ont., on Monday, April 4, 2011.
Nom Nom Nom
Prime Minister Stephen Harper eats maple taffy as he visits a sugar shack in Norbertville, Quebec on Tuesday, April 5, 2011.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper gives his wife Laureen a kiss following a day of G-20 meetings in Toronto. June 27, 2010. Source: <a href="http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media_gallery.asp?media_category_id=938&media_category_typ_id=6#cont" target="_blank">Pm.gc.ca</a>
Can I Keep Them?
Prime Minister Stephen Harper plays with foster kittens at 24 Sussex. May 1, 2010. Source: <a href="http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media_gallery.asp?media_category_id=900&media_category_typ_id=6&media_id=5512" target="_blank">Pm.gc.ca</a>
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper throws a small snowball at photographers after talking with reporters at a campaign stop in Guelph, Ontario Saturday, Jan. 21, 2006.
Thank God You're Not Wearing Overalls
Prime Minister Stephen Harper gives Taylor Swift the book "Maple Leaf Forever" before her concert at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa. May 20, 2010. Source: <a href="http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media_gallery.asp?media_category_id=900&media_category_typ_id=6&media_id=5512" target="_blank">Pm.gc.ca</a>
Stephen Harper <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/10/23/harper-wedding-photos-ottawa_n_2006374.html" target="_blank">surprises an Ottawa couple on their wedding day</a> in 2012.
Yep, Definitely A Cat Person
Laureen Harper laughs as she holds a husky dog with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper as they tour Caribou Crossing, Yukon, south of Whitehorse Monday August 20, 2012.
Stephen Harper, his children Ben and Rachel, and wife Laureen cross Abbey Road in 2009. Source: <a href="http://on.fb.me/12OfGXN" target="_blank">Facebook</a>
Prime Minister Stephen Harper hams it up with Bonhomme Carnaval in the Prime Minister's Centre Block Office. November 25, 2010. Source: <a href="http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media_gallery.asp?media_category_id=1238&media_category_typ_id=6#cont" target="_blank">Pm.gc.ca</a>
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, far left, watches a third round match between Agnieszka Radwanska, of Poland, and Serbia's Jelena Jankovic with his children Rachel, center, and Benjamin, right, at the 2012 US Open tennis tournament, Saturday, Sept. 1, 2012, in New York.
Psst! I Like Your Hat
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, speaks with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper during Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on July 1, 2011.
Whoops, How Did This Get In Here...
Part of a painting of Prime Minister Stephen Harper fully nude, by Kingston artist Maggie Sutherland, is shown at the Central Kingston public library in Kingston, Ont. on May 18, 2012.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his son Ben watch a bloopers show while attending the Calgary Flames NHL hockey game against the Edmonton Oilers in Calgary, Saturday, April 11, 2009.
In The Key Of C Major
Prime Minister Stephen Harper practices a few chords after arriving at home from work. February 19, 2011. Source: <a href="http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media_gallery.asp?media_category_id=1457&media_category_typ_id=6#cont" target="_blank">Pm.gc.ca</a>
Love You, Mom
Conservative leader Stephen Harper gets a hug from his mother Margaret during a visit to his campaign office in Calgary, Saturday May 29, 2004.
We Can't All Grow A Pirate 'Stache Like Trudeau
Prime Minister Stephen Harper holds up a moustache scarf to kick off the start of ‘Movember’, November 1, 2012 Source: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmharper/8146161138/in/photostream" target="_blank">Flickr</a>
The Sweet Side Of Politics
Senior Legislative Assistant, Katherine Locke, left, and Government House Leader Special Assistant, Zoe Lawson, show off their House of Commons gingerbread house to Prime Minister Stephen Harper in his office on Dec. 16, 2010. The gingerbread house was filled with rows of gummi bears as members of Parliament. Source: <a href="http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media_gallery.asp?media_category_id=1355&media_category_typ_id=6#cont" target="_blank">Pm.gc.ca</a>
Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves to tourists as he walks on the beach after the closing of the VI Summit of the Americas on April 15, 2012 in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper plays a game of table tennis with Team Canada's Mo Zhang at Canada House in London on Tuesday, June 5, 2012.
Whaddya Mean It Doesn't Fit?
Prime Minister Stephen Harper tries on an old hockey helmet at he tours the Yukon's Hockey History exhibit at the McBride Museum in Whitehorse, Yukon on Thursday, August 25, 2011.
Stephen Harper, his son Ben, and Wayne Gretzky watch the men's ice hockey team's gold medal game at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Source: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmharper/8457917081/in/photostream" target="_blank">Flickr</a>
Who Said Politics Can't Be Fun?
Stephen Harper and his son Ben hit balloons into the crowd after his speech at the party's three-day policy convention in Montreal on Friday March 18, 2005.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Jamie Robinson (guitar) play along with Blue Rodeo's front man Jim Cuddy, and recording artist Jimmy Rankin as they belt out a tune during a Juno Awards reception at 24, Sussex March 31, 2012. Source: <a href="http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media_gallery.asp?media_category_id=2099&media_category_typ_id=6#cont" target="_blank">Pm.gc.ca</a>
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, looks up from dishing out pancakes at Stampede breakfast in Calgary, Alta., Sunday, July 10, 2011.
I Spy Something Cute
Stephen Harper welcomes two Chinese pandas at Toronto's Pearson Airport on March 25, 2013. Source: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmharper/8588948719/in/photostream" target="_blank">Flickr</a>
A young Stephen Harper.
Just Smile And Back Away Slowly
Clowns ham it up with Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Moncton, New Brunswick. July 19, 2010. Source: <a href="http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media_gallery.asp?media_category_id=1037&media_category_typ_id=6#cont" target="_blank">Pm.gc.ca</a>
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left, throws Senator Gerry St. Germain's cowboy hat into the crowd after presenting him with a new one as his wife Margaret St. Germain, right, laughs during a barbecue at St. Germain's ranch in Surrey, B.C., on Monday August 6, 2012.
Thumbs Up, Up And Away
Prime Minister Stephen Harper gives the thumbs up from the cockpit of his campaign plane as he arrives in Ottawa,Tuesday May 3, 2011.
He's A Belieber
Stephen Harper presents Justin Bieber with a Diamond Jubilee Medal on Nov. 23, 2012. Source: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmharper/8212520594/in/photostream" target="_blank">Flickr</a>
I'm With Him
Stephen Harper and Wayne Gretzky, joined by students on an outdoor ice rink in Saskatoon on Feb. 5, 2010. Source: <a href="http://on.fb.me/ZTlKy6" target="_blank"> Facebook</a>
Shhh... This Is The Best Part
Stephen Harper, wife Laureen and Suraksha, Grade 10, visit an IMAX theatre in Bangalore, India on Nov. 8, 2012.
Umm... This Is My Costume
Prime Minister Stephen Harper poses for a photograph with Halloween trick-or-treaters at his official residence in Ottawa, Wednesday, October 31, 2012.
Is It Cold, Or Is It Just Me?
Prime Minister Stephen Harper bundles up in a parka as he tours Frobisher Bay in Iqaluit, Nunavut on Thursday, February 23, 2012.
One Of Harper's Many Hats
Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper adjusts his hat prior to the arrival of Britain's Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, for the official start of the Calgary Stampede parade in Calgary, Alberta, July 8, 2011.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen play with some furry friends at the official opening of the new Ottawa Humane Society facility on July 6, 2011. Source: <a href="http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media_gallery.asp?media_category_id=1724&media_category_typ_id=6#cont" target="_blank">Pm.gc.ca</a>
Omigod, So Cute
Met Batisse X, official mascot of the Royal 22nd Regiment, prior to welcoming French PM Jean-Marc Ayrault to Ottawa. Source: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmharper/8554783327/in/photostream" target="_blank">Flickr</a>
I Can Totally Take You
Prime Minister Stephen Harper receives a cricket lesson from Ankur Biswas, cricket team captain, at the Bishop Cotton Boys School. Source: <a href="http://on.fb.me/12OffwT" target="_blank">Facebook</a>
Prime Minister Stephen Harper drives a dog sled after meeting mushing teams at the Arctic Winter Games in Yellowknife, N.W.T., Monday, March 10, 2008.
A Very Harper Holiday
Hanging With The Golden Girls
Stephen Harper meets Canada's women's hockey team, gold medal winners at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Source: <a href="http://on.fb.me/17v6qKa" target="_blank">Facebook</a>
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen, left, make cookies with 10-year-old brain cancer survivor Baxton Wacholtz, right, and his mom Michelle, of Telkwa, B.C., during a photo opportunity at Ronald McDonald House in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday August 7, 2012.
Does This Mean I'm In The Band?
Canadian musician Jens Lindemann visits Stephen Harper before a concert. "His blue trumpet reminded me of Sgt. Pepper," according to Harper. Source: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmharper/8519328992/in/photostream" target="_blank">Flickr</a>
Stanley's Not Going To Be Happy About This
Met with Constable Dan Allen of the Child at Risk Response Team (and Cagney the dog) while in Calgary. Source: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmharper/8640427193/in/photostream" target="_blank">Flickr</a>
Say, 'Happy Halloween!'
Prime Minister Stephen Harper points out the camera to baby Grayson, dressed up as a giraffe, during his first time trick-or-treating at 24 Sussex. Source: <a href="http://on.fb.me/10ppG5w" target="_blank">Facebook</a>
Stephen Harper hugs his daughter Rachel Hugging Rachel as results come in after the 2011 election. Source: <a href="http://on.fb.me/15WI2TY" target="_blank">Facebook</a>