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Politics Federal Liberals to limit debate on new elections bill

Conservative MP Blake Richards is pictured in the House of Commons on May 10, 2018. Mr. Richards said the move to shut down debate shows the Liberals are not interested in working with the opposition when it comes to important changes to election laws.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The Liberal government is preparing to limit debate on its new elections bill as it rushes to have the legislation in place for the 2019 campaign.

But opposition MPs are decrying the formal notice of reduced debate time for Bill C-76, noting the Liberals have only themselves to blame for waiting so late in the government’s mandate to introduce the bill.

The government has given notice of a process called time allocation and it could invoke the procedure as soon as Tuesday, when MPs return to Ottawa. The motion would set a time limit for second reading of the bill in the House of Commons, forcing a vote to send the bill to committee for further study.

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Conservative MP Blake Richards, who is the official opposition critic for democratic institutions, said the move to shut down debate shows the Liberals are not interested in working with the opposition when it comes to important changes to election laws.

“There’s only been a couple of hours of debate on this and I think that’s completely unreasonable,” he said in an interview.

The Conservatives have expressed strong opposition to the legislation and are running Facebook ads warning that the bill does not address concerns that “foreign cash” is being used to influence Canadian elections.

The party has also warned that proposed measures to create a “pre-writ” period with spending limits is aimed at reducing the impact of the fundraising advantage Conservatives currently have over the Liberals.

“We have a governing party here that has moved forward with a piece of elections law that [has] elements in it that are very clearly designed to try to benefit themselves,” said Mr. Richards. “I think all Canadians would have concerns with that.”

Bill C-76 is an omnibus bill that includes items from a previous Liberal government bill as well as new measures that respond to recommendations from Canada’s chief electoral officer.

The legislation would reverse many measures introduced by the previous Conservative government through a Fair Elections Act that critics said would benefit the Conservatives and contribute to reducing voter turnout.

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An example of a reversal is a clause that would bring back Elections Canada’s ability to run public-education campaigns to promote voter participation.

Some of the new measures are aimed at addressing growing concerns that fake news on social media or deliberate hacking of computers could be used to sabotage elections or diminish public trust in the results.

During the first hour of debate on the bill on May 10, NDP MP Nathan Cullen urged the government not to limit debate on the bill.

Scott Brison, the acting minister of democratic institutions, gave no such assurance.

Mr. Brison argued that many of the issues in the bill have already been debated for hours by MPs on the House of Commons procedure and House affairs committee, when MPs conducted a study of issues learned from the 2015 campaign.

“Given that there has been a lot of study – I believe 30 hours at [committee] – around this issue, at some point we are sawing sawdust,” said Mr. Brison, who is also President of the Treasury Board. The bill received one more hour of debate the next day.

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Mr. Cullen said in an interview that the Liberals are “panicked” because they should have acted much sooner on these issues.

“They are in a crisis of their own making,” he said, adding that the Liberals are being hypocritical in light of their past criticism of the Conservatives for shutting down debate on elections legislation.

“We want this thing to succeed,” said Mr. Cullen. “We also want to understand what’s in it too, which is not an unrealistic expectation.”

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