OTTAWA - Pierre Poilievre says he's open to considering nine recommendations from a Senate committee for changing his controversial overhaul of election laws.
But critics of the democratic reform minister's Fair Elections Act said Tuesday the proposed changes, while welcome, don't go anywhere near far enough.
Even with the changes, they said the bill will still politicize polling stations, disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters and give an unfair financial advantage to rich parties.
Moreover, they contended the bill fails to give elections officials the power needed to ensure political parties abide by the law and to investigate malfeasance like the misleading robocalls that plagued the 2011 election.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said it says something about what an affront the bill is to democracy that even Conservative senators think it needs some fundamental changes.
"We were quite surprised to see that even Mr. (Prime Minister Stephen) Harper's appointed senators, people who have never been elected to anything, have a deeper understanding of the importance of fair elections than Mr. Harper does," Mulcair said during an event in Toronto.
He called the Senate committee's interim report on the bill "salutary" but added: "It doesn't go far enough."
For his part, Poilievre commended senators on the legal and constitutional affairs committee for "their good work."
"The committee's report has just been released and I look forward to studying it carefully and with an open mind. I have always been open to ways we can make a great bill even better," he said in a statement issued by his office.
Chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand and elections commissioner Yves Cote, two of the strongest critics of the bill, declined to comment on the Senate committee's report.
Other electoral experts, who have universally panned the bill, said they're withholding comment until they see what, if any, actual amendments are proposed by the House of Commons committee that has not yet completed its study of the bill.
The Senate committee began a rare "pre-study" of the bill last week, before the Commons committee even begins considering possible amendments. Tuesday's interim report appeared aimed at signalling to MPs the minimum changes necessary to win approval from senators.
The Conservative-dominated committee wants to drop a provision to exempt fundraising pitches to existing donors from campaign expenses - a provision critics say amounts to a loophole that would allow rich, well-established parties, particularly the Conservatives, to spend untold millions more during campaigns.
Senators have not, however, recommended any change to the proposed increases in donation and campaign spending limits.
Nor have they recommended any changes to two provisions — a ban on vouching and the use of voter information cards as proof of address — which experts say could disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters who don't have adequate ID.
Instead, senators make two suggestions for helping those voters most likely to have trouble producing documentation that proves their address —students, seniors in longterm care facilities, transients and aboriginals.
They suggest First Nations bands, homeless shelters and seniors' residences be legally required to provide documents attesting to residents' names and addresses. They also recommend that verified copies of electronic correspondence — not just the original paper documents — be considered an acceptable form of ID.
"We're incredibly disappointed," said Jonathon Champagne, executive director of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations.
"Not one of the proposed amendments resolves the problems that students have with the Fair Elections Act."
The three Liberal senators on the committee agreed with the nine recommendations but also issued a minority report arguing that more needs to be done.
If the proposed ban on vouching and the use of voter information cards is not reversed, the Liberals argued the bill will be unconstitutional because it fails to provide sufficient safeguards to ensure voters aren't disenfranchised.
They also want the commissioner of elections, who investigates breaches and enforces elections laws, to have the power to compel witness testimony. And they want the chief electoral officer's broad mandate to communicate with Canadians restored.
Conservative senators recommend that the proposed muzzle on the chief electoral officer be loosened somewhat, enabling him to continue involvement in education programs for young people. And they say both the commissioner and chief electoral officer should be able to speak out about any problems in the electoral system.
Neither the Conservative nor Liberal senators take issue with the bill's proposal to hive the commissioner off Elections Canada and move him in with the director of public prosecutions. Mayrand and Cote have both said the move is unnecessary and could cut off the commissioner from the expertise at Elections Canada.
To rectify the latter concern, the Senate report recommends that the bill explicitly specify that communications are to continue between the commissioner and chief electoral officer.
The Senate committee isn't the only group calling on Poilievre to consider changes to his legislation.
Alberta Conservative MP James Rajotte has written Poilievre "to convery concerns expressed about the Fair Elections Act by a number of constituents."
"These constituents are requesting substantial amendments to this legislation," Rajotte wrote, noting that he supported the bill and believes it contains "many good measures."
Rajotte, who represents Edmonton-Leduc, says vouching, fundraising and the role of the elections commissioner are among the issues raised by his constituents.
— With files from Diana Mehta in Toronto
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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.
UP NEXT: Funniest Robocall Movie Titles
John Patrick Stanley