The latest version of the government's widely criticized overhaul of its election law loosens the muzzle on the chief electoral officer but presses forward on limits on what Elections Canada can do to boost voter turnout.
Bill C-23, the government's Fair Elections Act, is in the final hours of committee debate as 344 pages of amendments are considered at breakneck pace leading up to a Thursday deadline to finish.
The initial bill would have severely limited what information the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) can "provide to the public" – critics said it amounted to a muzzle. Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre partly backed off that provision last week, saying the CEO is free to speak, and the change is one of 45 government amendments being made this week.
(What is the Fair Elections Act? Read The Globe and Mail's easy explanation.)
Even the revised bill, however, places limits on the CEO by putting restrictions on Elections Canada.
The CEO and his agency will still be prohibited from running ads publicly encouraging people to vote. Instead, Elections Canada can simply tell Canadians when, where and how to vote. Elections Canada has run advertisements encouraging Canadians to exercise their civic duty in a bid to stem declining voter turnout. Such ads will now be illegal if the bill passes.
The revised legislation places no limits on the CEO personally. Mr. Poilievre said this means he or she would have no limits, and is free to give interviews, release reports and speak within Canada (although the bill requires cabinet approval for collaborative work with elections agencies abroad.) "This bill does not – in any way, shape or form – attempt to muzzle the CEO," Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski, who led government in debate on the bill, said on Tuesday evening.
Opposition motions that attempted to put that into the wording of the law were shot down, raising accusations that a muzzle remains in place, despite Mr. Poilievre's claims. "Everybody is going to wonder what the minister meant, and what the minister's word is worth," NDP critic Craig Scott said.
One clause of the Fair Elections Act that the committee has approved plainly limits the information the CEO can "provide the public" to five things: how to become a candidate; how to get on the elector list; how, where and when to vote; how to prove their identity at a polling station; and services available for voters with disabilities.
Opposition proposals to delete this clause – or add wording that would allow the CEO to do voter outreach by encouraging people to cast a ballot – were defeated by the Tories on the committee.
A Conservative amendment that did pass says the CEO is not prevented from "transmitting or causing to be transmitted advertising messages for any other purpose relating to his or her mandate." Government lawyers on hand to answer committee questions said the mandate is focusing on the basics of voting, not encouraging people to vote. "I'm really concerned that we're only going this far," Mr. Scott said, later adding the bill "still has major limitations we've been setting out. It's deeply disappointing and disturbing."
Mr. Lukiwski, the Tory, said focusing on the basics of voting may actually have "a greater impact" on boosting voter turnout. The changes are meant to "push [the CEO] in the direction of doing this kind of advertising," Conservative MP Scott Reid added.
The committee is rushing to finish consideration of all the amendments by Thursday. It has about 280 pages of amendments yet to consider and just 10 hours scheduled. The bill will then be sent, in its amended form, back to the House and eventually to the Senate, both of which are expected to pass it. The government has said it hopes to make the bill law by June.