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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, April 3, 2014. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
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, April 3, 2014. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Conservative senators pull brakes on Harper’s elections bill Add to ...

Conservative senators are recommending the government abandon plans to exempt certain fundraising calls from election spending limits, one of nine changes to the controversial Fair Elections Act recommended unanimously by a Senate committee.

The bill, if passed in its current form, would allow candidates to solicit funds from anyone who has donated $20 over the past five years without recording the fundraising as a campaign expense. Various non-partisan observers warned it would make it hard to track which calls qualified and would allow parties to make limitless campaign calls to previous supporters so long as they asked for a donation.

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

The Senate is pushing back against the proposed bill in a Senate committee report set to be tabled this week, The Globe and Mail has learned. The Conservatives control the committee that made the nine recommendations. Another seven changes were proposed by three independent Liberal senators as a minority report.

Among the unanimous recommendations are loosening limits on the Chief Electoral Officer’s ability to speak publicly, beefing up robocall rules and requiring voting ballots to have a photo of each candidate.

The changes are being recommended while the Fair Elections Act, Bill C-23, is still under consideration by a committee in the House of Commons and amount to a warning shot from the Senate. If the changes are not made by the House, it could lead to a tug-of-war between the institutions.

The minister spearheading the bill, Pierre Poilievre, declined an interview on the changes, as did Conservative senators on the committee.

In a written statement sent by a spokesperson for the minister, the government signalled it will consider the changes backed by its party’s senators.

“The committee is made up of smart people whose ideas I value. I will read their report carefully when it is actually published in the hopes of finding ways to make a great bill even better,” the statement said.

The nine unanimous proposed changes include:

  • Ensuring the Chief Electoral Officer and the Commissioner of Canada Elections “expressly be able” to warn the public of problems they find in the electoral system. Both would face severe limitations in what they can say publicly under the current wording of the bill.
  • Requiring certain institutions, such as retirement homes and homeless shelters, to issue letters to their clients and residents that can be used as ID at a voting booth.
  • Requiring robocall firms to keep certain records for three years, rather than the bill’s proposed one year, which observers have warned is too short.
  • Rewriting restrictions on what Elections Canada can do to spur voter turnout, including guaranteeing the continuation of Student Vote program.
  • Guaranteeing the Chief Electoral Officer and the Commissioner of Canada Elections can share information. Under changes proposed in the bill, both have warned they may not be able to.
  • Urging Elections Canada to allow certain electronic correspondence to be used by voters to corroborate ID, in addition to hard-copy mail.
  • Placing candidate photographs on ballots, to aid voters with difficulty reading.
  • Expanding the information given by Elections Canada to visually impaired voters, after testimony from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.
  • Abandoning plans to exempt certain fundraising calls during an election campaign from the expense limits, which critics say is unenforceable.

Among seven other recommendations, the minority report warns the bill’s proposals would disenfranchise some voters and therefore violate the Charter. It also recommends extending the use of voter information cards, not getting rid of vouching and calling for government to abandon plans to force the Chief Electoral Officer to seek Treasury Board approval to hire outside help in investigations.

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

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