The Conservative government is signalling it will amend its proposed Fair Elections Act to ensure the Chief Electoral Officer can continue to speak publicly – a key complaint against a bill under fire.
Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre said the bill's proposed limits on what Marc Mayrand can say – "severe" limits, Mr. Mayrand has said – are meant to rein in only Elections Canada's advertising provisions.
"I've said, if the CEO is unclear about the purpose of our amendments, the committee will insert a for-greater-certainty clause, as is the regular practice," Mr. Poilievre told The Globe and Mail Friday. "He can speak, write op-eds, issue press releases, write reports, testify before committee – none of that is going to be affected."
His comments come after a long week for Mr. Poilevre and the bill, which has prompted multiple objections from Mr. Mayrand.
On March 1, former Reform Party leader Preston Manning spoke out against some of the bill's proposed changes, including muzzling Mr. Mayrand. Two days later, the Speaker found an apparent case of a Conservative MP, Brad Butt, misleading the House while arguing in favour of Mr. Poilievre's bill. In explosive committee testimony Thursday, Mr. Mayrand warned the bill could disenfranchise thousands of voters and tilt the balance of power between political parties. The NDP has launched a website, SaveYourVote.ca, saying "the so-called 'Fair Elections Act' is anything but fair."
The bill overhauls Canada's elections laws, doing away with vouching and voter information cards as ways voters can prove their identity. It also makes several changes to political financing rules that opposition parties say favour the Conservatives.
The Conservatives have blocked cross-country hearings on the bill and are brushing aside nearly all the complaints. In an interview at an Ottawa cafe Friday, Mr. Poilievre offered guarantees against muzzling, but appeared otherwise undaunted. "The reaction actually hasn't been very strong. It's been very limited to the Opposition and Mr. Mayrand and a few others," he said.
Vouching is among the most controversial proposed changes. An estimated 120,000 Canadians voted by vouching in 2011, and Mr. Mayrand said many of those will not be able to vote without it. Mr. Poilievre said they shouldn't be able to unless they present the accepted ID.
"I just think, on the principle, to suggest that someone should be able to come in without any form of identification and proof of residence to cast a ballot is unreasonable," he said.
The bill will allow each party to access a comprehensive list of "bingo cards," or poll-by-poll checklist of who has voted and who hasn't. Parties can currently only gather those one at a time, in person, on election day. Mr. Mayrand expressed privacy concerns about the change, again rejected by Mr. Poilievre.
"It's not like one's presence in the voting station is anonymous," he said. "… What is secret is who people vote for, and this obviously won't change that." He said the Conservatives have the best on-the-ground organization, so "we're the party least in need of this information."
The bill would not, however, allow the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to review who parties call under "voter contact" outreach, a change Mr. Mayrand proposed. Mr. Poilievre said the CRTC has no right to know that because party supporters "are not choosing to reveal it to a government agency."
He defended the bill's provision that fundraising calls, to certain previous donors, should not be an election expense, saying it couldn't be abused if candidates masked other calls as fundraising. "They're already donors, they're unlikely to need any advertising to encourage them to vote or support your party – after all, they give money to it," he said.
Mr. Poilievre has no regrets about the rollout of a bill that has become a lightning rod. "I'm very pleased with the bill. I'm very pleased with the response it's receiving," he said.