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federal politics

Canada's Minister of State for Democratic Reform Pierre Poilievre speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa February 5, 2014.Chris Wattie/Reuters

Canada's Official Opposition is using stalling tactics in a bid to force a cross-country tour for the committee reviewing the "Fair Elections Act," a bill Conservatives have been trying to rush through the House of Commons.

The delays continued Thursday after a committee appearance by Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre, the government's point-man on the proposed changes to the elections law. He has given little sign the government is open to any amendments on a bill that overhauls some campaign rules and weakens Elections Canada, with which the Conservatives have regularly sparred.

Instead, the Conservatives are trying to push the lengthy, complex bill through the House as quickly as possible and the NDP is stalling any way it can. After Mr. Poilievre spoke Thursday, New Democrat MP David Christopherson ran out the clock on a committee meeting to prevent the NDP's motion for the multi-city tour from being defeated by a Conservative majority.

After the bill was tabled last week, the NDP put forward a motion for the committee to tour several cities to hear voter feedback about the bill.

Earlier this week, the NDP blocked all travel funding for every other committee to protest the handling of the bill to push for the tour, which the NDP hopes would put public pressure on the government to change the bill.

Mr. Poilievre said Thursday a tour would be a "costly circus."

"Whatever tools we have, we're going to use to try to bring about and exert as much pressure on the government to change," Mr. Christopherson said after Thursday's meeting of the standing committee on procedure and House affairs, where he decried a "democratic deficit" in the proposed act. "... Really the only thing that's going to change the course of a majority government is if those government backbenchers are hearing from their constituents that this is unacceptable, that it's un-Canadian."

The lengthy act was tabled Feb. 4. While many observers have applauded parts of the bill, others have raised concerns the changes might disenfranchise some voters and go too far in muzzling Elections Canada.

The bill would require Canada's chief electoral officer, currently Marc Mayrand, to seek approval of the Treasury Board, or government, to hire outside help in investigations. "It raises alarm bells, because it's a clear mediating variable in the CEO being able to get outside assistance," NDP democratic reform critic Craig Scott says. Elections Canada says the Treasury Board currently approves only remuneration, not hiring decisions.

The act would also restrict what Mr. Mayrand can discuss in public. Mr. Mayrand had denounced the bill in a private meeting with Elections Canada staff Wednesday, according to the Ottawa Citizen newspaper – and one Tory MP criticized Mr. Mayrand for that on Thursday.

"It was almost like a campaign-style speech to rally them up to get them angry at the government. I can only interpret that in my mind at least to be political activism," Tom Lukiwski (Regina-Lumsden-Lake Centre)said.

Among the act's proposed changes is the elimination of vouching, whereby a person can cast a ballot after someone swears to his or her identity. Roughly 120,000 people used the process during the last election. The Conservatives say it's too vulnerable to fraud, while the NDP warns that an ID requirement would adversely affect students and other groups.

"We have serious concerns that there may be around 120,000 Canadians that could lose their right to vote as a result of these changes," Mr. Christopherson said.

Mr. Poilievre cited a "startling lack of knowledge" among voters about where, when and how they can vote. "This lack of knowledge is important, and it's something we tried to fix through the Fair Elections Act," he said.

Parliament is on break next week, and the committee meets again Feb. 25. With travel suspended, MPs and committees are coping by "continuing to meet in Ottawa and by using available technology," Conservative Whip John Duncan's office said.