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Canada's minister of state for democratic reform, Pierre Poilievre, speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on April 3, 2014. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Canada's minister of state for democratic reform, Pierre Poilievre, speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on April 3, 2014. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Tories on the attack as Fair Elections Act faces critics Add to ...

The Conservative government is ratcheting up attacks on Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand and others among the growing number of critics speaking out against the Fair Elections Act – a move former auditor-general Sheila Fraser called “totally inappropriate.”

Conservative MPs and senators questioned the credibility or motive of Mr. Mayrand, Ms. Fraser and others during their testimony Tuesday as Bill C-23 is pushed through the House of Commons and the Senate. The NDP said the line of questioning of several witnesses, nearly all of which say the bill has serious shortfalls, smacked of McCarthyism.

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

Unfazed, however, Prime Minister Stephen Harper defended C-23 in Question Period, dodging a question about Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre’s lengthy Mayrand attack and failing to identify, when asked, any expert who supports the bill. In his own committee appearance Tuesday, Mr. Poilievre pointedly argued Mr. Mayrand has been criticizing the bill out of his own interests.

But experts have overwhelmingly called for changes, warning the Fair Elections Act could disenfranchise tens of thousands of voters, muzzle Elections Canada, favour the Conservative Party, fail to sufficiently beef up investigative powers and open a loophole for campaign spending.

The list of the bill’s critics so far includes Mr. Mayrand; Commissioner of Canada Elections Yves Côté; two of their predecessors; Ms. Fraser; former Reform Party leader Preston Manning; provincial chief electoral officers; Harry Neufeld, the author of an authoritative Elections Canada report; a law school dean; and various other experts and researchers.

The calls for change continued Tuesday. Pierre Lortie, who chaired a royal commission on electoral reform and party financing two decades ago, said the bill “undoubtedly” violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by eliminating vouching, a method used to cast a ballot by voters without sufficient ID. Mr. Poilievre disagreed, while former Conservative Party president Don Plett, now a senator, later said only people without “proper arguments” argue the bill is unconstitutional, an apparent rebuke of Mr. Lortie.

Ms. Fraser said the attack on Mr. Mayrand “disturbed [her] greatly,” was “totally inappropriate” and that such comments “undermine the credibility of these institutions.” She also warned the bill would unduly limit the Chief Electoral Officer, threaten Elections Canada’s independence and block people, including her own daughter, from voting with tightened ID requirements.

The Conservatives have dug in their heels and largely rejected the testimony – 20 witnesses had been scheduled to speak on Tuesday alone.

Mr. Poilievre slammed what he called the “astounding” claims of Mr. Mayrand, who he says simply opposes the bill to get “more power, a bigger budget and less accountability.” He accused Mr. Mayrand of “grasping” for arguments and making “incredible claims and inventing some novel legal principles” in his critique of the bill. “The [Chief Electoral Officer] of Elections Canada has indicated his opposition to it, and let me just say I am at peace with that,” Mr. Poilievre said.

The opposition parties called for an apology in Question Period. “I stand by my testimony,” Mr. Poilievre replied.

Conservative Senator Linda Frum also questioned Mr. Mayrand’s credibility, suggesting it was a conflict of interest for him to run a fair election while also running campaigns to boost voter turnout – campaigns that the bill would eliminate. “You don’t see the conflict there?” she asked.

Ms. Fraser was later asked whether she was an expert on elections law, or repeating what other experts have said, and was grilled about her work for Elections Canada.

Another witness, a voter- phoning firm executive named Simon Rowland, testified the bill doesn’t go far enough to stop robocalling – but Tory MP Blake Richards, who was fined last year for robocalls, responded only by asking Mr. Rowland to confirm he’d done work for NDP campaigns, suggested that was a conflict of interest and asked no further questions about his testimony.

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

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