OTTAWA - New Democrats hope to spark broad Canadian interest in a proposed Conservative rewrite of the elections rule book after the Winter Olympics wrap up this weekend.
The NDP will debate a votable motion in Parliament on Monday seeking approval of cross-country committee hearings on the sweeping Elections Act overhaul.
The Harper government rushed the legislation, dubbed the Fair Elections Act, through second reading in the House of Commons by using its majority to limit debate.
The government has already ridiculed the idea of travelling public hearings as a "circus" and a "gong show" — although Commons committees routinely travel to conduct hearings on a variety of subjects.
David Christopherson, the NDP deputy leader, said Thursday that never before have significant electoral reforms been made in Canada without input from the opposition parties and the advice of the chief electoral officer, among others.
"Think about it: Did one country get to set the rules for the Olympics? No," Christopherson fumed.
"Everybody participated so that it was agreed ahead of time what the rules would be. That's what we're talking about. We're talking about the rules of our election and are they fair."
A spokeswoman for Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative minister for democratic reform, did not directly respond to a question about why the government opposes public hearings on the legislation.
Gabrielle Renaud-Mattey instead pointed to the NDP's initial opposition to the reforms, which were introduced 16 days ago without any advance briefing for MPs or the chief electoral officer.
"The NDP declared its opposition to the Fair Elections Act before reading a single word of it," Renaud-Mattey said in an email, parroting one of Poilievre's favourite lines from question period.
"Now they are afraid to debate it, so they are debating process instead."
The NDP says it welcomes debate, but not when it's held behind closed doors in a committee room in Ottawa. The committee should take its deliberations out to Canadians where they live and vote, said Christopherson.
"We believe if Canadians know what's going on, they're going to be very angry and they're going to demand changes," he said.
"In a healthy modern democracy, even though a majority government has 100 per cent of the power, the court of public opinion trumps all."
The legislation runs well over 200 pages and effectively divides Elections Canada, the watchdog that oversees election fairness, by putting its investigative powers in a separate office.
It creates a new registry for automated party phone calls, but gives the commissioner of elections no new powers to quickly get to the bottom of concerns, such as the as-yet unresolved fraudulent robocalls from the 2011 election.
The bill also constrains the chief electoral officer from communicating with Canadians, effectively increases the amount parties will be able to spend during campaigns, raises donation limits and ends the practice of allowing one identified voter to vouch for another who lacks proper ID.
Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand has publicly questioned the bill, saying it may disenfranchise certain groups of voters and will hurt Elections Canada's efforts to encourage all Canadians to cast a ballot.
Craig Scott, the NDP critic for democratic reform, said the legislation creates a "huge loophole that allows virtually unlimited campaign spending for purposes of contacting previous donors by phone, by mail or by email."
Scott said the bill prohibits Elections Canada pilot projects on electronic voting without the approval of both the Commons and the unelected Senate, and gives the president of the Treasury Board, currently Tony Clement, approval power over any hiring of expert advice by Elections Canada.
Both Scott and Christopherson said they recognize the Conservative majority will vote down their motion Monday on taking the Fair Elections Act out on the road.
The procedural battles, said Scott, are designed to give the public more time to become aware that a "completely wretched piece of legislation" is being pushed through Parliament.
"That's a win if people do realize that's what's happening."
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"The Fair Elections Act will ensure everyday citizens are in charge of democracy, by putting special interests on the sidelines and rule-breakers out of business," says Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre. Read more about the Fair Elections Act <a href="http://www.democraticreform.gc.ca/eng/content/harper-government-introduces-fair-elections-act" target="_blank">here.</a>
Crackdown On Illegal Robocalls
The legislation proposes a <a href="http://www.democraticreform.gc.ca/eng/content/backgrounder-protecting-voters-rogue-callers" target="_blank">mandatory public registry</a> for mass automated election calls, jail time for those convicted of impersonating an elections official, and "increased penalties for deceiving people out of their votes."
No More 'Vouching' For Your Buddy
In the interest of cracking down on voter fraud, the bill would prohibit the practice whereby one Canadian vouches for another's identity at a polling station. In fact, voter information cards will no longer be accepted as proof of identity. <a href="http://www.democraticreform.gc.ca/eng/content/backgrounder-fair-elections-act-cracking-down-voter-fraud" target="_blank">But the government says voters will still have 39 forms of authorized ID to choose from in order to prove their identity and residence.</a>
Independence For The Elections Commissioner
The Commissioner of Canada Elections office, responsible for enforcing the elections law, will be moved under the mantle of the public prosecutor's office, not Elections Canada. Conservatives believe this will give the commissioner <a href="http://www.democraticreform.gc.ca/eng/content/backgrounder-independent-commissioner-sharper-teeth-longer-reach-and-freer-hand" target="_blank">more independence</a> as the Chief Electoral Officer will no longer be able to direct him to carry out investigations. In future, the commissioner would be appointed by the director of public prosecutions to a non-renewable, seven-year term. The legislation <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/02/04/fair-elections-act-poilievre-robocalls_n_4723565.html" target="_blank">also bars</a> former political candidates, political party employees, ministerial or MP staffers or employees of Elections Canada from being named commissioner. <a href="http://www.democraticreform.gc.ca/eng/content/backgrounder-independent-commissioner-sharper-teeth-longer-reach-and-freer-hand" target="_blank">Tories believe the legislation will give the commissioner "sharper teeth" and a "longer reach" to seek out stronger penalties for offences.</a>
More Donations Welcome
The ceiling for individual political donations would be raised to $1,500 from $1,200 and party spending limits would be increased by five per cent. Union and corporate donations are still banned, though.
The West Won't Have To Wait
A long-standing ban on the <a href="http://www.democraticreform.gc.ca/eng/content/backgrounder-fair-elections-act-respecting-democratic-elections-defending-freedom-speech" target="_blank">premature transmission of election results</a> will be lifted, meaning voters in Western Canada will get to know how things are shaping up out East before heading to the polls. Broadcasters can share results from Eastern Canada on election night, even if the polls aren't closed in the West. The government believes this change will uphold free speech.
New Rules On Political Loans
The legislation would raise the amount candidates can <a href="http://news.nationalpost.com/2014/02/04/conservatives-unveil-fair-elections-act-which-they-say-will-crack-down-on-illegal-robocalls/" target="_blank">contribute to their own campaigns to $5,000.</a> Leadership contestants will be allowed to give their own campaign up to $25,000.
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