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Pierre Poilievre, Minister of State for Democratic Reform, stands in the House of Commons during Question Period on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa Friday, March 28, 2014. Poilievre says he's listening to the growing tide of outrage about the Harper government's controversial new electoral reform bill, but he would not commit to making changes.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand (FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Pierre Poilievre, Minister of State for Democratic Reform, stands in the House of Commons during Question Period on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa Friday, March 28, 2014. Poilievre says he's listening to the growing tide of outrage about the Harper government's controversial new electoral reform bill, but he would not commit to making changes.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand (FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

U.K. expert warns of ‘groundless’ attacks in Fair Elections Act debate Add to ...

The Conservative government’s bitter tone in debate over its Fair Elections Act has caught attention overseas – as a U.K. elections expert urged Canadian parliamentarians to stick to facts, avoid “groundless” personal attacks and consider revisions to the bill.

The testimony from Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, who spoke to a Senate committee Wednesday morning from Oxford, came after Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre gave the same committee a scathing critique of Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand the day before, and after fellow Conservatives similarly questioned the credibility or motive of experts testifying about the bill.

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

Mr. Pinto-Duschinsky was more supportive than others who have testified, saying for instance he supports Conservative efforts to prevent voter fraud, but called for some revisions to be considered to ensure voters aren’t denied the right to cast a ballot. On several occasions, however, he commented on the tone of the debate rather than the bill itself.

“What I would stress, though, is that the debate about the appropriate role of Elections Canada should revolve around matters of institutional structure rather than personalities,” the veteran researcher and elections expert said, later adding: “I do think it’s important we don’t make groundless accusations against senior electoral administrators.”

Testimony has continued at a frenzied pace this week on the Fair Elections Act, or Bill C-23, which would substantially overhaul electoral law in Canada. The government wants it passed by June. Critics warn some of its proposals would disenfranchise voters, limit what Elections Canada can say publicly and tilt the electoral playing field in favour of the governing Conservative party. In testimony, experts have overwhelmingly called for substantial changes to the bill.

The NDP and Liberals both firmly oppose the bill, with the former filibustering its progress and the latter pledging to repeal the bill when given the chance.

Government has said it would consider amendments, ‎ but has rejected much of the testimony – instead moving to discredit witnesses such as Mr. Mayrand, former auditor-general Sheila Fraser and others. They’ve also questioned the statements of Harry Neufeld, the author of an Elections Canada report that he says Mr. Poilievre has been selectively quoting.

“I certainly wouldn’t ignore what such a senior election administrator as Mr. Neufeld has said,” Mr. Pinto-Duschinsky, a senior consultant with Policy Exchange, said to the Senate committee Wednesday morning.

Official Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair said Wednesday Mr. Poilievre has gone too far in his remarks.

“It is a fundamental breakdown of a parliamentary institution to see a sitting Minister of the Crown attack independent officers, present and past, of parliament. It’s ad hominem, it’s personal, it’s unprovoked and it’s certainly undes‎erved‎,” Mr. Mulcair said, later arguing Prime Minister Stephen Harper is pushing the bill through to “front-load his cheating for the next election.” (Many of the bill’s provisions are expected by some observers to favour the Conservatives, such as expanding partisan appointments at polling stations, hiking donation limits, creating campaign spending loopholes and stopping short of full rules to limit robocalls.)

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau called the bill a "terrible piece of legislation" on Wednesday, one he also said is designed to favour the Tories. He pledged to repeal it if his party wins the next election and he becomes prime minister. "The Conservatives' election bill is bad for democracy. It is bad for Canada," Mr. Trudeau said Wednesday. 

‎Outside the Conservative caucus meeting Wednesday, Finance Minister Joe Oliver played down questions about Mr. Poilievre. “This is not an issue of personalities,” he said.

In his Senate committee testimony Wednesday, Mr. Pinto-Duschinsky said election officials are often blind to fraud before it’s too late, and backed the government’s efforts to crack down – efforts led in large part by the bill’s proposal to eliminate vouching, where one elector can attest to another’s identity if the latter doesn’t have sufficient ID. The government has said it’s too vulnerable to fraud.

However, Mr. Pinto-Duschinsky stressed a fraud crackdown doesn’t have to limit voter access, as observers say the elimination of vouching will do. “We surely must do both,” he said, of avoiding fraud but ensuring voter access.

He called on officials to seek more consensus – a notion the Tories have avoided, including by rejecting calls for cross-country hearings on the bill. In particular, he said there are enough questions about whether the government accepts enough forms of ID to vote that other forms should be considered, and that further study is needed to see whether the 120,000 people who used vouching to vote in 2011 will be disenfranchised.

Further study of detail “is the answer, rather than going into more and more... rhetoric and one side attacking the other,” he said.

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