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Politics Democratic Institutions Minister rejects call to subject political parties to privacy laws

The federal government is rejecting opposition calls for its electoral reform bill to be amended to subject political parties to federal privacy laws.

Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould appeared Monday as the last scheduled witness before the Procedure and House Affairs Committee dives into a marathon effort this week to review and vote on more than 300 amendments to Bill C-76, which makes changes to the Canada Elections Act.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May both urged the minister to accept amendments to the bill that would address concerns that political parties are exempt from federal laws ensuring the personal information of Canadians is kept safe and is not used in unauthorized ways.

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While Ms. Gould did not state categorically that she opposes such a change to the bill, it was strongly implied in her comments.

“I would like to see a broader study of privacy and political parties. I think that it’s something that is really important,” she said. “I think it does require a deeper dive.”

Mr. Cullen said he was told that the Liberal MPs on the committee will vote this week to defeat all of the NDP’s amendments.

“It’s so disappointing and dangerous for the Liberals to be dogmatic about this,” he said.

Both the federal Privacy Commissioner and the head of Elections Canada have called for privacy laws to apply to political parties. The Commons access to information, privacy and ethics committee – which has been studying allegations that a Canadian company was used during the 2016 Brexit referendum as a way of getting around Britain’s domestic election financing laws – made an all-party recommendation in June that extending privacy laws to political parties was “urgently” required.

Ms. Gould also informed MPs that she would soon be announcing an independent commission that would set the rules for leaders’ debates during election campaigns. However, she said this would be done without legislation, for which she was promptly criticized by the Conservatives and NDP.

“When you’re looking at an election campaign, you need to have all parties on board to have the legitimacy of a process such as this," Tory MP John Nater said.

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Bill C-76 and several government amendments promise to address the potential for foreign actors or mysterious third parties to influence voters with targeted ads in traditional media or online platforms.

Any third party that spends more than $500 on partisan advertising during a campaign or in a new “pre-election” period will be required to register with Elections Canada and open a dedicated Canadian bank account. All ads will have to identify the source of the message.

“These measures will ensure greater transparency and provide Canadians with more information with respect to who is trying to influence their decision,” Ms. Gould told MPs. The sudden urgency to pass the bill comes after lengthy government delays, despite repeated calls from Elections Canada to do so in time for the 2019 federal election.

The Liberal government introduced many of Bill C-76’s proposals in November, 2016, as Bill C-33. That bill promised to deliver on a campaign pledge to overturn the controversial Fair Elections Act, which Parliament approved in 2014 under a Conservative government. The Liberal legislation would end the previous government’s restrictions on the ability of Elections Canada to promote voter turnout and would reinstate the voter identification card as a valid source of ID, reversing a key element of the 2014 act.

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