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<strong>Preston</strong> <strong>Manning</strong> arrives at the funeral for former Calgary Flames owner Harley Hotchkiss in Calgary, Alberta, June 29, 2011Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government should back off a proposal to muzzle Canada's Chief Electoral Officer that would "weaken" Elections Canada, and instead expand the agency's power to boost voter turnout, Preston Manning says.

The former Reform Party leader spoke out against a provision of the government's proposed "Fair Elections Act" in a speech Saturday, hours after the bill's sponsor, Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre, appeared at the same conference.

It was one of a handful of rule changes Mr. Manning recommended to improve the state of Canadian politics. Conservatives are increasingly not viewed as the party that most champions democratic values, Mr. Manning said, a development that is "most worrisome for me personally and calls for, I think, immediate and serious attention."

On Mr. Poilievre's bill, Mr. Manning called for a pair of amendments. The bill substantially rolls back what the Chief Electoral Officer can say publicly, particularly around voter turnout initiatives. Mr. Poilievre has said political parties, not Elections Canada, are best suited to motivate voters, but it's a change Mr. Manning opposes.

The bill should be amended to "strengthen and expand rather than weaken the role of Elections Canada with respect to addressing the greatest challenge in the electoral system - which is not its unfairness... the greatest challenge to our electoral system is the steady decline in voter turnout in our elections. Let's strengthen the capacity to address that," he said.

Conservative parties must "constantly affirm and reaffirm our commitment to extending, rather than limiting, the democratic expression," he added.

He also called for "serious consideration" of the Reform Act, a private member's bill tabled by Conservative MP Michael Chong, that would rein in the powers of party leaders. "I think its intents and its principles are good. You can argue about the details," Mr. Manning said, adding he hopes Mr. Chong's bill is passed at second reading and considered carefully in committee. Mr. Harper's cabinet has given the bill a cool reception.

Mr. Manning also urged government to set aside money to train parliamentarians and staff, while changing the law - his second proposed amendment to the Fair Elections Act - to make it clear that training of political candidates, staff and campaigners should not be counted as an election expense. It's a suggestion he acknowledged would, if adopted, boost the bottom line of his eponymous Manning Centre, which runs training programs. Mr. Manning, however, argued that parliamentary literacy is too low among parliamentarians of all stripes.

Mr. Manning spoke at his think-tank's networking conference in Ottawa. He echoed a call by other speakers at the event - former federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall - for conservatives to put a greater focus on environmental issues. Mr. Manning lamented that Conservatives "continue to be seen as defensive and weak on the environment" by voters. However, he applauded Mr. Harper's decision last year to appoint the Nunavut MP, Leona Aglukkaq, as Environment Minister.

"She represents the arctic, she comes from the arctic," he said, adding later to reporters: "I do think there's a chance in relation to the arctic to get one fresh start in balancing environment and resource development, so I'm hopeful in that direction....but the problem is environmental conservation got characterized [by Mr. Harper's government] as a shield [defensive] issue, not a sword issue, and that mitigates doing anything substantial."

The conference ends Saturday.

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