03/01/2014 03:15 EST | Updated 05/01/2014 05:59 EDT

Preston Manning: Elections Canada Powers Should Be Boosted, Not Diminished

OTTAWA - Preston Manning, the former Reform Party leader who's become an elder statesman of the Canadian conservative movement, has chided the Harper government for its electoral reform efforts.

In a speech to his namesake convention on Saturday, Manning said the Conservatives should be strengthening, not weakening, the powers of Elections Canada.

Manning said the government should amend its Fair Elections Act currently before the House of Commons to address the "greatest challenge" to Canada's electoral system — declining voter turnout across the country.

Conservative governments, conservative opposition parties and the conservative movement need to constantly affirm and re-affirm their commitment to extending, rather than limiting, democratic expression, Manning said.

The Harper government recently introduced a sweeping overhaul of Canada's election laws that it says will crack down on fraudulent robocalls, improve election financing and stop voter cheating.

But while increasing penalties for election fraud, the long-awaited legislation does not provide Elections Canada with the new powers it had been seeking to compel party operatives to provide evidence.

Instead, the proposed legislation would effectively split Elections Canada in two, separating the chief electoral officer who administers the rules from the commissioner who investigates and enforces those rules.

Also on Saturday, Manning said conservatives are seen as "defensive and weak" on the environment, a phenomenon he called "exasperating."

The perceived weakness needs to be more seriously addressed if conservative support is to be broadened, especially among young Canadians, Manning said.

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