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NDP leader Tom Mulcair speaks with the media following party caucus Wednesday January 29, 2014 on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
NDP leader Tom Mulcair speaks with the media following party caucus Wednesday January 29, 2014 on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

MPs need more time to study major overhaul to elections laws, NDP says Add to ...

The Conservative government is facing a battle from the NDP Thursday over its efforts to end the first round of debate on legislation that would dramatically rewrite federal election law.

Government House Leader Peter Van Loan has signalled he will table a motion to force an end to initial debate over C-23, the Fair Elections Act. The next stage of deliberation would see the legislation head to a committee for scrutiny.

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Thomas Mulcair’s New Democrats are trying to delay this, saying MPs deserve more time to speak on the legislation.

Starting Thursday morning, the NDP began introducing motions designed to impede the Conservatives.

The first NDP effort, a motion to adjourn the Commons, was voted down by the Conservative majority just after 11 a.m. ET Thursday.

"The Conservatives’ use of closure and time allocation is without precedent. It's an affront to democracy, and we will fight them every step of the way. The sad irony is that they're shutting down democratic debate on a bill that further erodes the democratic rights of Canadians, especially for the most vulnerable,” Mr. Mulcair said in a statement.

The electoral reform bill would make a raft of changes to the rules governing how Canadians vote and run for office – many of them applauded by critics – but also proposes a radical shakeup and downsizing of the role of the Chief Electoral Officer.

C-23 would significantly diminish Elections Canada – transferring its investigative powers to another organization – and substantially restrict what the Chief Electoral Officer could talk to Canadians about.

In his first comments on the legislation, Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand said he hopes there is extensive public consultation and debate over the proposed changes.

He said his first reaction is concern that the legislation appears to limit the voting access of certain groups of citizens, including aboriginals, the poor and the elderly.

He also said the commissioner of elections, who investigates wrongdoing under the Elections Act, has not been given the tools to properly pursue fraudulent activities, and that political parties remain shrouded in secrecy under the bill.

The legislation strips Elections Canada of its authority to encourage Canadians to vote in federal ballots under changes to the agency’s mandate.

It sets out restrictions on what information the Chief Electoral Officer can provide the public, limiting it to five matter-of-fact topics related to how to vote or become a candidate.

The Conservative bill will remove parts of Section 18 of the Elections Act that give the Chief Electoral Officer the authority to provide the public with information on “the democratic right to vote” and to “make the electoral process better known to the public, particularly to those persons and groups most likely to experience difficulties in exercising their democratic rights.”

Voter turnout in the 2011 federal election – slightly more than 61 per cent of eligible voters – was among the lowest in this country’s history.

Elections Canada has put increasing effort into encouraging voting – running ad campaigns that reminded Canadians of their democratic rights. Its annual budget for “electoral engagement” is about $8.5-million.

Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative minister for democratic reform, on Wednesday said the government doesn’t believe Elections Canada has a role to play in boosting voting. “Political candidates who are aspiring for office are far better at inspiring voters to get out and cast their ballot than our government bureaucracies,” he told the Commons.

Gabrielle Renaud-Mattey, director of communications for Mr. Poilievre, said Wednesday that declining turnout in recent years is an indication that Elections Canada wasn’t having much success anyway.

“The facts show Elections Canada’s campaigns are not working. Elections Canada needs to get back to basics,” Ms. Renaud-Mattey said.

“Elections Canada will focus on its administrative role. This means running elections and letting electors know when, where and what ID to bring to vote.”

Ms. Renaud-Mattey said it’s up to political parties to motivate voters.

“Aspiring candidates and parties – and not government officials – have a duty to reach out to voters, inspire them and give them something worth voting for.”

The government announced Tuesday it would overhaul the rules that govern how Canadians vote and run for office – cracking down on rogue robocalls that have embarrassed the Conservatives and increasing by 25 per cent the maximum allowable contributions to parties.

The government unveiled legislation that will also break up Elections Canada by stripping the agency of its role in investigating and prosecuting electoral wrongdoing. This function will be moved to the lower-profile office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, leaving Elections Canada with only one task: administering federal ballots.

The Conservative government also came under fire for another election-law change that would exempt fundraising costs from campaign expenses – as long as parties are calling people who have donated within the last five years. “There are firm limits on what parties can spend during a campaign. They should not have to use up that limit just to raise that money in the first place,” Ms. Renaud-Mattey said.

Legislation unveiled by Mr. Poilievre would also levy prison time for impersonating election officials and increased penalties for trying to deceive voters.

The Conservatives are smarting from the Guelph, Ont., robocalls scandal on May 2, 2011, the last federal election day, where someone arranged for thousands of automated calls to ostensibly non-Tory voters that misled them into thinking their polling station had changed. A former Conservative staffer has already been charged in connection with the incident.

The Fair Elections Act would also end the practice of “vouching,” where voters without insufficient identification are allowed to cast a ballot if another voter with proper ID vouches for their identity. “Elections Canada commissioned a study last year that found irregularities in one in four cases where vouching was used,” Mr. Poilievre said. “Having a 25-per-cent rate of irregularities constitutes an unacceptable risk of fraud.”

The Tories plan to create a mandatory public registry for those engaging in mass dialling of voters – also known as robocalls – and require callers to verify their identity with Canada’s telecom regulator.

With files from The Canadian Press

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