04/25/2014 01:15 EDT | Updated 04/26/2014 06:59 EDT

Fair Elections Act: Pierre Poilievre Backtracks On Contentious Issues

OTTAWA — The Conservative government is flip-flopping on some of the most contentious issues of its electoral reform bill, the Fair Elections Act.

Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre announced Friday that the government will compromise on the issue of vouching by allowing individuals who have ID but no proof of address to be vouched for by another individual.

It is also backing away from a plan that would have allowed a riding's incumbent MP to appoint the central poll supervisor at election time. The poll supervisor oversees the poll and decides critical issues on election day. The position is currently non-partisan.

In a letter to Poilievre earlier this month, Conservative MP James Rajotte said some constituents had told him "political parties should not appoint election officers."

The federal government will also eliminate a contentious provision in the bill that would have given political parties a loophole to spend more than the allowable limit during elections to contact past party donors. Many experts said the loophole benefited political parties with large databases and could be easily abused as a way to advertise the party's platform or attack its opponents. Critics also pointed out the provision was impossible to police.

"This proposal is not particularly important, it can go," Poilievre said Friday.

The government will also broaden the chief electoral officer's ability to speak with the public "on anything he wants" and engage in projects such as Student Vote, an electoral education program for young voters. The current bill muzzles the head of Elections Canada by preventing him from speaking on anything other than how to vote, where to vote and how to become a candidate. Now, the minister said this provision will focus only on what the chief electoral officer can advertise.

The government's amendments would also specifically authorize the commissioner of the investigative arm of Elections Canada to communicate with the Chief Electoral Officer, who administers the elections.

Poilievre said companies who perform automated calls or run live phone banks for political parties would now be forced to keep records of the scripts they use and a copy of each automated audio message for a period of three years. The Conservative government originally intended to keep records for just one year, not long enough for most investigations into campaign practices to even begin.

The minister refused to say why the Conservative government would not force those same companies to keep records of all the telephone numbers they call. Elections Canada investigators probing the robocalls that misdirected voters to the wrong polling station during the last election said in a report Thursday that they would have benefited from calling records in order to track down the paper trail.

Poilievre told reporters some critics would not be satisfied with his new proposals.

"Some will oppose the bill no matter what is in it, for their own reasons. And I am at peace with that," Poilievre said.

Poilievre's announcement came the same day the Supreme Court ruled against his government's Senate reform plans. The court ruled that the prime minister needs the consent of at least seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the population to agree with him if he wants to impose term limits or consultative Senate elections.

If the government wants to abolish the red chamber, it will need the unanimous approval of the provinces.

Many of the amendments Poilievre said the government would make to the bill were suggested by a Senate committee, composed of a majority of Conservative senators. Tory Senator Linda Frum told HuffPost that Poilievre did not give them instructions but, sources say, the government was consulted on the changes the senators proposed.

The Conservatives have been facing increasing pressure from their own base to change the controversial electoral bill which is almost universally opposed by academics, elections experts, opposition parties and even former auditor general Sheila Fraser. The NDP had also been targeting individual Conservative MPs to urge them to vote against the government's bill.

Rajotte's letter is just one example of constituents speaking out against the many partisan changes in the proposed Fair Elections Act. Several voters wrote to their MPs to express concerns they could be disenfranchised from voting during the next election. One woman from Spruce Grove, Alta., wrote an emotional letter to a senior's group describing how she feared her 97-year-old mother, a former missionary and Tory voter, would be denied her right to vote.

"It is a shame that this government is stealing from those who cannot fight for themselves whether disabled or elderly or simply guilty of poverty and homelessness," she wrote.

"He is betraying her and other elderly Christian Conservatives."

Just 24 hours before today's announcement, Poilievre was describing the opposition against the Fair Elections Act as "quibbles."

"The major disagreements of the bill are very small in number," he told a business audience in Ottawa.

"A lot of Canadians are really asking what the fuss is about. What it really comes down to is a disagreement over ID," he said.

"The opposition believes that we should allow people to vote without even showing a shred of identification. Canadians disagree," the minister added, referencing several public opinion surveys.

"The Fair Elections Act in its final form will require every single voter to produce ID showing who they are before they vote," Poilievre declared.

"Away from the noise in political Ottawa, everyone understands that this is common sense."

Letter from Conservative MP James Rajotte to Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre:

Letter from MP James Rajotte to Pierre Poilievre on the Fair Elections Act

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