The debate over the proposed overhaul of Canada’s elections laws will be confined to Parliament Hill, as the governing Conservatives and opposition New Democrats continue to spar over the changes.
The Conservatives used their majority to vote down an NDP motion Tuesday evening that would have forced the committee considering the Fair Elections Act to embark on a cross-Canada tour to hear feedback. The NDP have filibustered committee proceedings and suspended all other committee travel to pressure the Conservatives to agree to a tour, in hopes of slowing passage of a bill the government is rushing through the House.
But the government does not support hearings. It voted down the NDP proposal 145 to 131 on Tuesday evening, a unanimous Conservative vote led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself. The government has said witnesses can be called to Ottawa, or heard from by video conference, if needed.
The NDP say their options in the House of commons have run out.
“It means the resistance is now entirely in the committee” considering the bill, said Craig Scott, the NDP democratic and parliamentary reform critic, speaking after the vote. Local visits would provide context to how the proposed changes would affect voters, he said. “When you make the law, you shouldn’t be divorcing it from context,” Mr. Scott said, adding that with a tour, “at least you’re creating a bit more of an opportunity for people to come out and find out what’s going on.”
Parliamentary committees travel regularly when considering bills, though the NDP have blocked all committee travel as part of the sparring over the Fair Elections Act. Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre had said the hearings would be a “costly circus,” and the Conservative whip said the party would make do without committee travel, adding a ban on it would ultimately save money.
Earlier in the day, NDP Deputy Leader David Christopherson filibustered the two-hour meeting of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, which is considering the bill, and pledged to continue to do so.
“I will have the floor. Unless something changes between now and [the next meeting], sorry – two more hours of pain,” he said, adding: “Giving Canadians their say on their elections laws is important, and until that’s resolved, this thing’s going nowhere.”
The NDP had called for cross-country hearings in March and April, followed by a detailed review of the bill beginning in May.
Tuesday's vote split along party lines - government opposing the NDP motion, while the opposition parties backed it.
Among those to vote against the motion was Conservative backbencher Michael Chong, the MP behind the proposed Reform Act, another democratic reform bill aimed at boosting backbenchers’ rights and loosening the power of party leaders. Ex-conservative Brent Rathgeber, who left the party caucus last year after his own private member’s bill was overhauled against his wishes, voted with the opposition in supporting the NDP motion.
The Fair Elections Act would change campaign finance rules, place limits on what Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer can say publicly – a bid to focus efforts on core issues such as voter turnout, Mr. Poilievre says – and eliminate the “vouching” option on Election Day, whereby a person can cast a ballot without identification if another elector in the riding swears to the voter’s identity. Conservatives say the program is too vulnerable to abuse, while the NDP say the move will make it harder for Canadians to vote.