OTTAWA - "Let us consider some examples of the new power the CEO seeks for himself. First, he believes, and I quote from his recommendation, that upon a request from the CEO, political parties be required to produce all documents necessary to ensure compliance with the Canada Elections Act. Let's examine this: it is difficult to imagine what power the CEO seeks here that he does not already have."
— Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre to Senate committee, April 8.
It is a major reform of the country's election law that could shape how Canadians choose their leaders. But Bill C-23, which the Conservative government has dubbed the Fair Elections Act, has been steeped in controversy since its inception.
Elections Canada has proposed a number of amendments to the legislation. One of those proposals is to give the chief electoral officer the power to compel political parties to produce documents — and demand invoices and receipts — to show they followed the letter of the law.
"The CEO still does not have any power to require a party to produce documents evidencing its compliance with the Act, including its claimed expenses," Elections Canada wrote in a submission to the government.
Parties must also have their financial returns approved by an auditor of their choosing.
But Marc Mayrand recently told CBC that Elections Canada only gets an "overall report" showing a party's campaign spending, but not documents to support those expenses.
Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre counters that Mayrand actually does have the ability to compel the handing over of documents — by starving a party of cash.
Elections Canada pays back some of the election expenses of parties that meet certain conditions. After the last election, the Conservatives and Liberals were each reimbursed about $9.7 million, while the NDP got back a little more than $10 million, the Bloc Quebecois received nearly $2.7 million and the Green party got close to $1 million.
Poilievre points out that Mayrand, under section 435 (a) of the Canada Elections Act, has the power to withhold reimbursement of a party's election expenses until he is satisfied everything is in order.
"In other words, if he wants more information, he can simply ask for it," Poilievre said Tuesday. "If he does not get that information, he can refuse to authorize the party's reimbursement."
If a problem is found after the money has been repaid, Poilievre says the chief electoral officer can inform the commissioner of Canada Elections, who is in charge of investigating offences under Canada's elections laws, of the allegation.
It would then fall to the commissioner to get a court order to obtain any documents in question.
The rules are different for candidates in elections. Unlike parties, candidates must provide supporting documents — including bank statements, deposit slips and cancelled cheques — with their campaign returns, according to section 451 (2.1) of the Act. The chief electoral officer may ask for more documentation if he is not satisfied, under section 451 (2.2).
"No similar provision exists for political parties," Elections Canada spokeswoman Diane Benson wrote in an email.
Pauline Beange, a professor at the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus who will be testifying Wednesday at a hearing on C-23, says there's some degree of truth to what both Poilievre and Mayrand are saying.
"In terms of the actual 'do they have power to compel?' Yes and no," she said.
"Put it this way: they might not have the power to do it themselves, but they have the power and ability to get it done."
Errol Mendes, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, says withholding the reimbursement or seeking a court order aren't quite the same as actually being able to force a party to provide documents.
"It's a brilliant diversionary tactic," he said.
The verdict? While the chief electoral officer can hold back a party's reimbursement, and the commissioner can seek a court order, neither actually has the power to directly compel a party to hand over documents.
For that reason, there's some baloney to Poilievre's claim.