Viewed one way, the report is a rebuke of the government – a Conservative-dominated Senate committee unanimously calling for certain revisions to the proposed Fair Elections Act. But Linda Frum and Donald Plett see it differently.
The two Conservative senators said their committee's nine proposed changes, tabled Tuesday in response to the divisive bill, don't amount to any revolt, or rejection of the minister advancing it, Pierre Poilievre. Rather, they say, it's just advice.
(What is the Fair Elections Act? Read The Globe and Mail's easy explanation)
"One of the misunderstandings that's going on here is the sense that the minister isn't interested in suggestions to how to improve the bill. I believe that he is," Ms. Frum said. "This was not a rebuke in any way."
If Tory senators have gone rogue, it's news to Mr. Plett and Ms. Frum. Both praised Mr. Poilievre in interviews Tuesday. Instead, their unanimous Senate report is as much endorsement as critique – it steers clear of many of the more contentious parts of the lengthy Fair Elections Act, widely panned by non-partisan experts.
For instance, the Tory senators were silent on the bill's proposed elimination of vouching and the voter information card as ways to prove ID at a voting station, and on the proposed expansion of the power to appoint partisans to work as poll officials. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair dismissed the Senate report as "window dressing compared to what actually has to be done to fix the thing."
The Senate's most significant recommendation, Mr. Plett says, is that the House abandon plans to exempt certain fundraising calls – those to people who have given the party at least $20 within five years – from campaign spending limits. Critics have warned doing so would open up a loophole and would favour the Conservatives, a notion Mr. Plett rejects. "The fact of the matter is this was a clause that probably helped, equally, all three of the major parties, not just the Conservatives," he said in an interview.
In its "pre-study" of the bill, the Senate also recommended guaranteeing the chief electoral officer's power to warn the public about foul play, and the continuation of certain programs partly funded by Elections Canada. On both matters, Mr. Plett and Ms. Frum say the government never intended to restrict those anyhow – they're offering clarifications, not changes, they said.
Among the nine proposals, they suggest extending the amount of time robocall firms must keep records, from one year to three, and urge Elections Canada to explore how electronic statements, such as an e-bill, could be used at a voting booth to prove ID.
The recommendations now sit before Mr. Poilievre and a House of Commons committee that must consider amendments before sending the bill formally to the Senate. "I expect he will accept at least some of them. And if he doesn't, well, then we will deal with that when the time comes," Mr. Plett said. Mr. Poilievre on Tuesday wouldn't commit to any of the proposals.
The opposition parties, meanwhile, hope the bill doesn't reach the Senate. The NDP on Tuesday announced it would specifically appeal to certain Tory backbenchers to vote against the bill.
The senators also remained silent on the bill's requirement that the chief electoral officer seek Treasury Board approval on certain hires; its failure to address a long-standing request by electoral officials for the power to compel witness testimony; and its failure to require parties to submit receipts with expenses. The NDP compiled a list of 10 contentious aspects of the bill omitted from the Senate report.
Mr. Plett, a former Conservative party president, said he was frustrated by the reaction to the Senate report.
"Everybody – the public, the media – is hollering about the Senate becoming irrelevant. Then when we do something that is absolutely in keeping with [what] the intent of the Senate is, then we get accused of either going rogue … or we're being accused on the other end of kowtowing to the Prime Minister. Well, which way is it?"
With a report from Gloria Galloway