The Conservative government is overhauling the rules that govern how Canadians vote and run for office – cracking down on rogue robocalls that have embarrassed the Tories 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 policing 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.
Opposition parties accused the Conservatives of taking revenge on Elections Canada's chief electoral officer by reducing the authority of his agency. Mr. Harper's party has more than once locked horns with the head of Elections Canada over breaches of election law and Tories have privately said they felt the organization had too much power concentrated in one office.
"The referee should not be wearing the team jersey," Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre said Tuesday in defence of the move. "Independence is 'Governance 101.' It is normal to separate administration from investigations."
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 past 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.
"This bill … makes it harder to break elections law," Mr. Poilievre said. "It closes loopholes to big money, imposes new penalties on political imposters who make rogue calls and empowers law enforcement with sharper teeth, a longer reach and a freer hand."
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 and require callers to verify their identity with Canada's telecom regulator.
The Conservatives are also set to end election day prohibitions against transmitting election results before all the polls have closed, a rule that previously restricted media reporting. The minister said the Tories believe the ban infringed on free expression.
NDP critic Craig Scott called the removal of Commissioner for Canada Elections – the watchdog role – from Elections Canada a blow to the agency.
"This is more of an attack on [chief electoral officer] Marc Mayrand than anything else," Mr. Scott said. "The fact of the matter is there has been nothing but animosity from the Conservatives towards the chief electoral officer because they feel victimized."
The Conservatives say nothing will change in how election wrongdoing is investigated or prosecuted. The staffing levels and budget for investigations will remain unchanged and it will still be up to the Commissioner of Canada Elections to decide whether to investigate a matter. One change however is that the Director of Public Prosecutions will appoint the next commissioner rather than the chief electoral officer.
The Fair Elections Act would increase the individual donation limit to $1,500 from $1,200 and boost allowable campaign spending limits by 5 per cent.