OTTAWA - Pierre Poilievre insisted Wednesday that his controversial overhaul of federal election laws is "terrific" just the way it is, despite almost universal condemnation by electoral experts in Canada and abroad.
The democratic reform minister stood by his heavily criticized bill even as some Conservative senators said they got the impression during a private meeting with Poilievre on Tuesday that he's open to amendments.
The senators hastened to add that they personally don't think amendments are necessary. And they, along with Conservative MPs, dismissed critics as being ill-informed, hysterical or resistant to change.
Among those who've denounced various elements of the sweeping bill are Marc Mayrand, the country's chief electoral officer, and Yves Cote, the elections commissioner who enforces election laws and investigates possible breaches.
On Tuesday, Cote told the Commons committee studying the bill that separating his office from Elections Canada will make investigations less efficient and effective. And, by failing to give him the power to compel testimony, he said it will result in some investigations being aborted altogether.
But Poilievre brushed off Cote's broadside, sticking to his assertion that the bill will make the commissioner more independent and give him "sharper teeth and a longer reach."
As for his openness to amendments, Poilievre said: "I'll let you know in a month when the committee actually reviews its amendments. And I think the bill's terrific the way it is. The Fair Elections Act is common sense."
Among the many controversial provisions is one that would eliminate the practice of voters vouching for the identity of others who lack proper ID. Mayrand and other experts have said this, combined with banning the use of voter information cards to prove residency, could disenfranchise up to 250,000 voters — primarily students, elderly voters in seniors' homes and aboriginals who often lack identification that includes their address.
During their meeting with Poilievre, Sen. Marjory LeBreton said some Conservative senators suggested the bill could be amended to provide an alternative to vouching, such as allowing those without ID to sign declarations that would have to be verified before their ballots could be counted — as is done in Australia and Manitoba.
"He came in there with an open mind, listened to the suggestions," LeBreton said.
That said, she offered her own view that the bill is fine, as is, and that objections over the elimination of vouching is "a lot of hysteria."
"I don't think a lot of people who have this knee-jerk reaction have actually read the bill," LeBreton said.
As a senior herself, she added: "I'm insulted when people say, 'Oh, the poor seniors won't be able to vote.' Like you tell me one senior in this country that can't come up with one of 39 pieces of identification to prove who they are. I mean, it's an insult."
Sen. Nicole Eaton said she would go even further than the bill, requiring voters to show proof of citizenship before being allowed to cast ballots.
"I'm not sure I understand what the hysteria is about," she said of the ban on vouching.
As to Poilievre's openness to amendments, Eaton said she got the impression he's "very keen on this bill, he's worked very hard on it."
Conservative MP Erin O'Toole, who has played a lead role for the government on the committee studying the bill, suggested the widespread criticism has been orchestrated by opposition parties. As for the objections of Mayrand, Cote and other electoral experts, O'Toole suggested that was just resistance to change.
Although there was little evidence Wednesday that the government is willing to accept substantial amendments to the bill, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair predicted the overwhelming backlash will force Prime Minister Stephen Harper to "back off on a lot of this stuff."
"He's pushed it too far by sending in someone of the ilk of Pierre Poilievre to handle this," Mulcair said, accusing the minister of "smarmy arrogance."
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said the bill needs to be "completely amended or withdrawn," but was skeptical the government would do either.
"I wouldn't know what this government looks like when it's ready to consider amendments because it never has considered serious amendments to any of its legislation over the past eight years."
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Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre rises in the House of Commons to apologize for making an obscene gesture yesterday, in Ottawa Wednesday June 14, 2006. (CP PHOTO/Tom Hanson)
Ottawa-area Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre smiles as he talks with reporters on Parliament Hill in Ottawa Tuesday Feb. 27, 2007. Poilievre referred to "extremist elements" in the Liberal party that want to ease anti-terror laws and shut down the Air India inquiry last week.(CP PHOTO/Tom Hanson) Canada
Democratic Reform Minister Peter Van Loan (right), with Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre looking on, makes an announcement on the introduction of the Accountability with Respect to Loans legislation at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec across the river from Ottawa, Tuesday May 8, 2007.(CP PHOTO/Fred Chartrand) CANADA ,
Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre rises in the House of Commons to apologize for saying in a radio interview Wednesday that native people need to learn the value of hard work more than they need residential schools compensation, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Thursday June 12, 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tom Hanson
With copies of the Conservative accountabilty booklets, Conservative M.P. Pierre Poilievre waits for the start of the Commons House affairs committee looking into allegations of Tory election spending misconduct during the last election, on Monday Sept. 10, 2007 in Ottawa. (CP PHOTO/Fred Chartrand)
Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre speaks in the House of Commons during question period on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday June 16, 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Pierre Poilievre, parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, leaves a news conference after speaking with the media about the gun registry in the Foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday September 14, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre listens to a question during a news conference in Ottawa, Friday October 15, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Adrian Wyld
Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre poses with a bust of Sir John A. Macdonald after announcing the former Bank of Montreal building would be renamed in honour of Canada's first prime minister during a ceremony in Ottawa, Ont., Wednesday January 11, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday February 28, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre holds up copies of legislation as he responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Friday October 19, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Pierre Poilievre is sworn in as the minister of state for democratic reform during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Monday, July 15, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
The Honourable Pierre Poilievre, Minister of State (Democratic Reform), poses for a group photo after the swearing in of the federal cabinet at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Monday, July 15, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle
Minister of State Pierre Poilievre stands in the House of Commons during Question Period, in Ottawa Friday, February 7, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
Minister of State (Democratic Reform) Pierre Poilievre responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, February 27, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
UP NEXT: The Fair Election Act
"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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John Patrick Stanley