04/02/2014 01:22 EDT | Updated 06/02/2014 05:59 EDT

Pierre Poilievre Says Fair Elections Act Is 'Terrific' As Is

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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