It's billed as elections reform, but it's a hodgepodge that doesn't give investigators the stronger powers they need to police abuses. The Conservatives have even slipped in a little raise for themselves.
When Pierre Poilievre, the Democratic Reform Minister, unveiled a revamp of elections laws on Tuesday, he mixed a few good changes with a big omission – the new investigatory power elections officials wanted – and some self-serving items.
Because they are the heart of the democratic system, there's usually some consensus-building around elections laws. There have been recommendations made by the chief electoral officer, Marc Mayrand, and by a parliamentary committee. Then there were things the Conservative government decided to do without anyone asking.
One was raising the limits on political donations by 25 per cent. That will give the Conservatives an edge.
The increase, from $1,200 to $1,500, isn't a big deal in itself – the Canadian limit will still be relatively low.
But who benefits most? The party that finds itself bumping up against the current limit in its fundraising, and that just happens to be the Tories.
The Conservatives have long held a money advantage, outdoing the other parties in fundraising. But the Liberals, since the choice of Justin Trudeau as leader, have been catching up. In the fourth quarter of 2013, the Conservatives recorded $5.4-million in donations, and the Liberals $4.7-million. The NDP raised $3.7-million.
Raising the limits is likely to give the Conservatives the edge: they have more big donors who give the maximum. With a higher limit, they can turn more of those $1,200 donors into $1,500 donors.
By The Globe and Mail's rough count, there were 2,489 donors in 2013 who gave the Tories the maximum donation – a big chunk more than the 1,536 who gave the Liberals $1,200, and more than five times as many as the NDPs 417 maximum donors. (Many donors gave the maximum through two or more smaller donations within the year.)
It's not a huge edge – perhaps a few hundred thousand dollars a year. But it's worth noting that it was the Conservatives who dramatically cut the donation limit from $5,000 to $1,000 when they took power – at a time when they had a dramatic edge in small donations, while the Liberals relied on bigger donors.
The new bill also includes a 5-per-cent increase to election-spending limits for each party, which was about $21-million in the 2011 election. That means all parties can spend more – and the three main parties usually do spend close to the maximum. But that also means the party that raises the most has less to spend between elections – an advantage the Conservatives have used since 2006 to run advertising campaigns between elections.
There are good changes in this bill – extending advance polling days, and creating a registry for automated calls, to help track the kind of demon diallers used in the robocalls scandal, and making it illegal to impersonate an Elections Canada official. Many of those were suggested by Mr. Mayrand.
One measure that purports to reduce fraud, requiring authorized photo IDs for a voter to prove not only their identity but their address, will play havoc on voting day, especially among groups that tend to move around, like university students.
But a major problem with the bill is that it does little, other than stiffening some penalties and creating a call registry, to help investigate the most serious infractions of the law. Mr. Mayrand's top request was for the elections officials to be able to compel testimony and demand to see parties' financial records. That was ignored.
Instead, the Conservatives – who have a history of battles with Mr. Mayrand's office – took the small investigations wing, the Commissioner of Elections, out of Elections Canada and moved it to the office of a federal prosecutor, the Director of Public Prosecutions. It came out of the blue.
What would Canadians want in elections law? Certainly stronger investigations to the get to the bottom of allegations of abuse. But there's no increase in investigators' powers, or budgets.
There is a special soft-touch provision for politicians: The new law requires the commissioner to inform people right away, in writing, if he starts to investigate them – unless he has reason to believe it will impede the investigation. Who else, apart from politicians, gets a statutory heads-up when an investigation into penal-law offences is started? It's "not common," an official admitted.
Campbell Clark is The Globe's chief political writer.