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Senator George Baker is seen in this file photo. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Senator George Baker is seen in this file photo. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Senate panel sets up confrontation with Harper on Elections Act Add to ...

In a rare exercise of power, a Senate committee is pushing back against Stephen Harper’s Conservative government by unanimously recommending changes to the Fair Elections Act, an overhaul of electoral law that is fiercely opposed by other parties.

The Senate report, which will be made public this week, amounts to a warning shot from the embattled Senate. The move is not binding, but it raises the threat of the Senate changing the bill itself if the House of Commons ignores its recommendations before passing Bill C-23.

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(What is the Fair Elections Act? Read The Globe and Mail’s easy explanation)

The Senate committee, two-thirds of whose members are Conservatives appointed by Mr. Harper, heard from a broad range of experts last week, the vast majority of whom called for substantial changes to the deeply divisive bill.

Now the senators are set to recommend, unanimously, specific amendments.

“I think it’s a recognition by all senators that there is something seriously wrong with this bill, according to every single witness that has appeared before both committees in the House of Commons and the Senate,” said George Baker, a Liberal-appointed senator who serves as deputy chair of the committee. “It’s really an expression of the impartiality of members of the Senate.”

It’s the latest development in a bill that has largely pitted the Conservative cabinet against a broad range of non-partisan experts, domestic and international, as well as the other parties. The NDP firmly oppose it and have filibustered its progress, while Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau announced last week he’ll repeal the entire bill if he becomes prime minister. Various key stakeholders – including the Chief Electoral Officer, the Commissioner of Canada Elections and the author of a key Elections Canada report last year – say they weren’t consulted on the bill.

Many, however, testified to the Senate committee, which was in the rare position of “prestudying” the bill before the House of Commons was done with it – “in other words, sober second thought now becomes sober first thought,” Mr. Baker said.

Senators appear to have listened to the testimony.

According to one source familiar with the report, it will include:

A call not to limit certain powers of the Chief Electoral Officer (who has been criticized harshly by the minister responsible for the bill, Pierre Poilievre);

A recommendation to continue the use of the voter information card, which Conservative MPs want to phase out;

A recommendation to require that robocalling firms keep their records for a longer period of time, in case they come under investigation.

“Minister Poilievre has repeatedly expressed a sincere interest in any recommendations the Senate may have to improve the bill. Our recommendations, which are the result of our prestudy, will be released soon,” Conservative Senator Linda Frum said in an e-mail Sunday. The committee’s chair, Conservative Senator Bob Runciman, confirmed the report is done and will be filed this week.

The table is now set for a compromise or a standoff. The House of Commons committee will resume consideration of the bill in two weeks, and soon after it will consider amendments. If they do not make the Senate’s changes, they risk the Conservative majority in the Senate amending it anyhow and sending it back to the House, an exceptionally rare occurrence. Doing so would all but guarantee the government won’t meet its previously set target of June for passing the Fair Elections Act.

The committee’s report comes as the Senate faces unprecedented scrutiny – Mr. Harper has asked the Supreme Court to outline his powers to reform it, while the Official Opposition NDP favour straight abolition, though haven’t said how they’d pull that off. And it comes in the aftermath of the explosive Senate expenses scandal, which led to the suspension of Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, the retirement of Mac Harb, the exit of Mr. Harper’s chief of staff, an RCMP investigation and a review by the Auditor-General of all senators’ expenses.

In particular, the unanimous recommendations include a specific call that the Chief Electoral Officer be permitted to encourage voter turnout, according to one source familiar with the changes– a particularly direct rebuke of Mr. Poilievre, who has said the Chief Electoral Officer, who opposes much of the bill, simply wants more power. The Senate recommendations also include raising the required time that robocall firms must keep certain records for investigators, from one to as many as five years, the source said.

The report also recommends the government allow the use of the voter information card to corroborate a voter’s address, as the stricter ID requirements would, experts have said, leave many people able to prove their ID but not necessarily their current address.

The Senate committee is also said to have produced a minority report that calls for, among other things, the government to back off the bill’s proposal to eliminate vouching, whereby one elector can cast a ballot if another swears to his or her identity. Conservative senators did not support that motion.

The committee’s senators aren’t the only Tories relaying concerns about the bill. In a letter sent to constituents and obtained by The Globe and Mail, Alberta MP James Rajotte wrote to Mr. Poilievre saying people in his riding have problems with the bill, including the suggested reining in of the Chief Electoral Officer.

In his letter, Mr. Rajotte noted he supported the bill at second reading but urged Mr. Poilievre to consider changes. “I encourage you to continue to engage in a dialogue on this bill, listen to concerns about certain parts of it and seriously consider amendments to address these concerns,” Mr. Rajotte wrote.

(What is the Fair Elections Act? Read The Globe and Mail’s easy explanation)

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

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