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Politics Elections Canada chief to testify on proposed electoral changes

Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand, shown March 29, 2012.

SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canada's Chief Electoral Officer is expected to testify this week about the Conservative government's proposed electoral changes, after an NDP committee filibuster ended.

The Procedure and House Affairs committee standoff, led by NDP Deputy Leader David Christopherson, had chewed up hours of time for the committee reviewing the "Fair Elections Act" but ended Tuesday evening. The NDP had been trying to force cross-country hearings on the bill, which the Conservatives have been rushing through the House of Commons, to no avail. The NDP will now instead hold its own cross-country hearings.

With the filibuster over, the committee is also expected to begin hearing witnesses. Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand has already offered himself up, telling the committee's clerk earlier on Tuesday that he'd be available Thursday, Elections Canada spokesman John Enright said.

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A notice on the committee website, posted Wednesday, confirmed Mr. Mayrand had been added to the schedule for Thursday's meeting.

The bill would substantially change Mr. Mayrand's role, and would place limits on what he and his successors can say in public.

The Conservatives, who have sparred often with Mr. Mayrand's office, appear set to welcome him to committee.

"A deal was reached tonight and the opposition will finally stop filibustering and preventing witnesses from appearing on the bill. We certainly feel that Mr. Mayrand should appear as soon as possible," Laura Smith, a senior advisor to Conservative Government Whip John Duncan, said in an e-mail Tuesday evening.

With the filibuster over, the Conservatives agreed to a 90-minute meeting with Mr. Mayrand and for more flexibility to accommodate witness hearings on the bill, the NDP said.

The filibuster had carried on in meetings since mid-February, with Mr. Christopherson holding the floor in the speaking order and essentially running out the clock at each meeting. On Tuesday, The Conservatives responded by extending the meeting hours until Mr. Christopherson was finished. During the meeting, Tom Lukiwski, the Conservatives' parliamentary secretary to the Government House Leader, called the demonstration a "charade."

The NDP found themselves in a precarious position – filibustering to draw attention to the bill, but delaying the Conservative-dominated committee's chance to study it in the process.

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The filibuster over the Fair Elections Act came as the House of Commons debated a motion about further studying whether a Conservative MP, Brad Butt, misled the House of commons after statements Mr. Butt made in support of the Fair Elections Act. Mr. Butt said he personally witnessed electoral fraud and then said he had not witnessed it. The Conservatives voted against further study of that issue, saying Mr. Butt already admitted his initial statements were not true.

The NDP had argued cross-country hearings on the "Fair Elections Act," which they deride as the "Unfair Elections Act," were needed on a bill that would substantially change electoral law – including eliminating the vouching process, whereby a person can vote without ID. The NDP say that could disenfranchise thousands of voters, while the Conservatives say it was too vulnerable to fraud.

"Conservative refusal to allow citizens outside of Ottawa to have their voices heard is a slap in the face to Canadians and the democratic process," Mr. Christopherson said.

Committees regularly travel but the government had said doing so in this case would be a "costly circus." The NDP will now hold their own cross-country hearings, details of which have not been announced.

Mr. Mayrand also testified last week to a committee about another bill, tabled by backbencher Mark Adler but supported by the Prime Minister, that would force parliamentary watchdogs and their staff to abstain from any partisan activity. Mr. Mayrand and other watchdogs warned the bill's wording could be too vague and would overlap with existing rules.

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