Chief electoral officer strikes back at government's claim he wears 'team jersey'
Chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand arrives at the Commons house affairs committee in Ottawa on Tuesday May 28, 2013. (Adrian Wyld / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Bruce Cheadle, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, February 6, 2014 2:00PM EST
Last Updated Thursday, February 6, 2014 3:14PM EST
OTTAWA -- Canada's chief electoral officer says the only team sweater he wears is the striped "white and black," and that a Conservative overhaul of the Elections Act will take the referee off the ice.
In his first comments on sweeping new elections legislation by the Harper government, Marc Mayrand says he hopes there is extensive public consultation and debate over the proposed changes.
Mayrand was responding to comments by Conservative minister Pierre Poilievre, who introduced the bill Tuesday by saying Canada's elections "referee should not be wearing a team jersey."
"Listen, the only team jersey that I think I'm wearing -- if we have to carry the analogy -- I believe is the one with the stripes, white and black," a shaking Mayrand said following a committee hearing on Parliament Hill.
"What I note from this bill is that no longer will the referee be on the ice."
Mayrand's reaction comes as the government moves to shut down debate in the House of Commons and speed the legislation to committee.
Among other things, the bill would end the practice of allowing people to vouch for other voters who lack identification. It would also allow political parties to spend more during campaigns, set rules for using robocalls and impose stiffer penalties on those who abuse automated telephone messaging.
Poilievre's opening shot at the impartiality of Elections Canada came after years of investigations of alleged Conservative wrongdoing that began with the in-and-out financing scheme in the 2006 campaign that brought Prime Minister Stephen Harper to power.
The party eventually pleaded guilty in 2011 and paid the maximum fine in return for charges being dropped against two Conservative party officials.
But it was Elections Canada's continuing investigation into fraudulent automated phone calls following the 2011 election that pushed electoral reform to the forefront.
The long-delayed Conservative legislation introduced this week is supposed to address some of the investigative shortfalls revealed by the lingering "robocalls" affair.
The bill will move the commissioner of elections, who conducts investigations, into a separate office from Elections Canada and under the authority of the director of public prosecutions.
Mayrand said splitting up his office is not his concern, but the failure to give the commissioner more powers should be addressed.
"What worries me, I must say, is whether the commissioner will get the toolbox he needs to do his job. And I'm afraid that I don't see it in the act as it's currently written."
Mayrand said the lack of transparency of political parties is not addressed in the bill. The commissioner is not being given the power to compel testimony from witnesses, he added.
The chief electoral officer says he hopes he'll have time to analyze the 242-page bill, given that the government took years to write it.
Election reforms in Canada have typically come about through all-party consensus "and after extensive public consultation," said Mayrand.
"It's fundamental as to the legitimacy of those who govern us. So I think it's absolutely essential that the public pay attention and get involved in expressing their view."
"The Elections Act is all about democracy and the democracy we want in this country," he said.
As Mayrand spoke, New Democrat MPs were tying the House of Commons in procedural knots to protest the government's plan to curtail debate on the legislation.
Eventually the government won a vote on a motion to limit debate to three days before sending the bill on to committee.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said the motion to shut down debate demonstrates the Conservatives are trying to push through legislation that is designed to load the dice in their favour.
"It's an affront to democracy, and we will fight them every step of the way," said Mulcair.
"The sad irony is that they're shutting down democratic debate on a bill that further erodes the democratic rights of Canadians, especially for the most vulnerable."
Mayrand also said his earlier analysis of the bill also relates to the way it "seems to be limiting access for certain categories of voters."
Former elections watchdog Jean-Pierre Kingsley also bemoaned the lack of multi-party consensus in the approach to electoral reforms.
In an interview, the former chief electoral officer said at one time reforms used to pass through Parliament relatively smoothly because the government consulted in advance with opposition parties and Elections Canada to ensure legislation was perceived as non-partisan.
Kingsley said that process has been gradually breaking down for years but it's "entirely of another order" today.
"It's so hyper-partisan that even the good that's in the bill, people are just not willing to accept that there could be some good, they're just saying, 'There must be something that we don't understand. What is it that they're trying to do'?"