The Conservative government is backtracking on some of the most controversial aspects of its elections bill, trashing or amending certain aspects that for months drew fierce criticism and parliamentary debate, even within the Tory camp.
The opposition is hailing the changes, announced Friday, as a “climbdown.”
(What is the Fair Elections Act? Read The Globe and Mail’s easy explanation.)
The government walked away from a provision allowing a riding’s incumbent party to choose poll supervisors, a restriction on what the chief electoral officer can say in public, a ban on Elections Canada participating in school programs and an expense exemption that critics said was a blatant attempt to stack the deck in the Conservatives’ favour.
The changes also include a compromise on vouching and on retaining robocall and call-centre records.
“What we’ve heard from the minister today is a very welcome set of concessions,” said NDP democratic reform critic Craig Scott. “It is a climbdown, but that’s what we were hoping for.”
When it comes to one of the key tenets of the proposed Fair Elections Act – requiring all voters to produce identification proving who they are before voting – Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre said the government absolutely will not budge. But if voters have ID saying who they are but not where they live, the changed act will require them to sign a written oath of residence.
Mr. Poilievre also stuck to the Conservatives’ decision not to equip the commissioner of elections with the power to compel witness testimony when investigating electoral fraud. He also maintained that parties – and not Elections Canada – should be allowed to appoint deputy returning officers and poll clerks.
Speaking to reporters in Ottawa, Mr. Poilievre defended the Fair Elections Act as “terrific the way it is,” saying the changes will only further improve the proposed legislation. “Some individuals are going to be against the bill, regardless of the amendments,” he said. “That’s life.”
The NDP called Friday’s announcement a “partial and provisional victory,” though it promised to continue fighting for more substantial changes. The Liberals said the government only tweaked a bill it should have wholly revamped. The Assembly of First Nations expressed tentative optimism on the residency oaths, but pledged to look at the amendments closely. The Council of Canadians, meanwhile, said the bill should still be withdrawn completely.
The proposed changes include:
- Allowing a voter whose ID doesn’t list an address, or lists an outdated address, to sign an oath of residence (another voter, with fully proven ID, would then have to co-sign the oath);
- Abolishing a provision that would have exempted the cost of mail and phone calls to past donors from the election spending cap;
- Amendments to ensure the chief electoral officer knows he has the freedom to speak or report on any matter (he can say “anything he wants,” Mr. Poilievre said);
- Maintaining Elections Canada’s discretion in appointing central poll supervisors;
- Requiring robocall firms and call-centre companies to retain their audio recordings and scripts for three years, rather than one;
- Allowing Elections Canada to support programs that explain voting to primary and secondary school students.
Assembly of First Nations chief executive officer Peter Dinsdale said residency vouching is better than no vouching at all, since it would mean, for example, that an aboriginal with a status Indian card, which doesn’t list an address, could present that ID and then sign an oath.
Mr. Poilievre said the amendments have been submitted to the parliamentary committee studying the Fair Elections Act.