OTTAWA – The federal government has introduced a new piece of legislation making wide-spanning changes to Canada's elections laws, including new limits on spending and foreign participation, while also aiming to boost accessibility and participation in democracy.

Scott Brison, who is acting as Democratic Institutions Minister while Karina Gould is on maternity leave, tabled the bill to amend the Canada Elections Act, Bill C-76, titled: Elections Modernization Act.

The over 300-page bill includes implementing spending limits for third parties and political parties for a prescribed time period before an election call, adds new reporting measures for third parties conducting partisan work, enhanced privacy requirements, and wraps in several changes already introduced but not advanced by the government in a previous piece of legislation.

Bill C-76 creates a pre-writ period beginning on June 30 of the year of a scheduled general election, and limits the length of campaign period to a maximum 50 days.

Generally, the government is framing this bill as an effort to modernize Canadian elections and respond to 21st century challenges.

"By educating and mobilizing and engaging with Canadians, political parties play a unique role in our democracy. Campaigns have long gone door-to-door, sent mail, and made phone calls to talk directly with Canadians about the issues that are important to them…Political parties go to where their constituents are, which is now increasingly online," Brison told reporters Monday.

Changes to spending limits

The bill makes several changes around spending limits, reporting pre-writ spending, including:

  • Introducing a $1.5 million spending limit for pre-writ political parties’ partisan advertising
  • Introducing a $10,000 per electoral district, up to $1 million limit for third parties’ pre-writ spending on partisan activities
  • Requiring third parties spending $500 or more on partisan activities or advertising during the pre-writ period to register with Elections Canada
  • Making it so third parties have to use a Canadian bank account for paying any election-related expenses
  • Forcing partisan ads conducted by political parties or third-parties to have an identifying tagline during the pre-writ period

Foreign involvement and privacy

The legislation also proposes multiple changes aimed at eliminating foreign interference and enhancing privacy obligations of political parties, such as:

  • Banning any foreign entities from spending money to influence elections
  • Prohibiting organizations selling advertising to knowingly accept elections ads from foreign actors
  • Proposing new measures to crack down on the "unauthorized use of computers" to interfere with computer data during elections
  • Additional enforcement for publishing or distributing false statements and misleading material.
  • Requiring political parties to have publicly available policies on the protection of personal information that details how and what information the party collects, how the information is used, and under what circumstances it may be sold

"There are foreign entities who don’t believe in democracy and don’t believe in Canadian democracy and there’s some evidence that they’re trying to interfere with elections in established democracy, so the rules here make it easier to catch wrongdoers: they clean up some of the loopholes where foreign entities could try to influence Canadian elections through third party interest groups and their political spending," said University of Ottawa law professor Michael Pal on CTV’s Power Play.

Changes around accessibility

Bill C-76 makes several changes around accommodation for people with disabilities or caretaking responsibilities, as well as expanding parameters for participation including:

  • Efforts to reduce wait times at advance and regular polling stations
  • Increasing the window of time advance polling stations are open to 12 hours a day
  • Offering reimbursement for political party or candidate expenses related to accessibility measures, such as sign language interpretation at an event.
  • New flexibility for candidates using campaign funds to pay for things like child-care and health-care expenses.
  • Giving members of the Canadian Armed Forces more options for casting a ballot

The re-tabled changes include repealing Harper-era amendments to Canadian elections law, including restoring the option of using voter information cards as a valid form of identification and reinstating vouching. It also creates a “Register of Future Electors” of Canadians aged 14 to 17 and re-authorizes voting rights for Canadians who have lived outside of Canada for more than five years.

Compressing these changes into one bill could have the effect of advancing the government’s desired electoral changes through Parliament quicker, as the next federal election is set for 18 months from now.

However, in doing so, the government has tabled another omnibus bill -- a bill that makes multiple, unrelated changes -- which is likely to be a source of contention with the opposition parties.

The government says Bill C-76 was informed by recommendations from the Chief Electoral Officer and the Commissioner of Canada Elections. In early 2016 former chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand issued his report on the 42nd general election which highlighted issues at the polls and accessibility efforts.

The coming election will be conducted using the first-past-the-post system, despite a now-reneged Liberal pledge for electoral reform ahead of 2019.

Concern over rushing changes ahead of next election

The opposition critics are both raising the issue that these changes may not be implemented in time for the next campaign. Elections Canada has previously said it would require a year to properly implement any coming electoral changes.

"The 2019 election will be a difficult election to run… with the new threats we see, from the Facebook scandal, to the Russians’ interference in the American elections. We need all of the tools that we can possibly have at hand to make sure that the next election is run fairly, so that Canadians can vote properly and have confidence in our electoral system," NDP democratic reform critic Nathan Cullen told reporters ahead of the bill being tabled.

"Always a great idea to fast-track, rush a bill through Parliament that has to deal with our fundamental, democratic rights. What a scenario for making mistakes, important mistakes," he said.

Also speaking to the government’s legislation ahead of it being introduced, Conservative democratic reform critic Blake Richards agreed with Cullen’s critique, saying he is interested in having Elections Canada weigh in on whether it is too late to have these changes implemented in time.

Though, Brison said because what Bill C-76 covers was informed in part by Elections Canada recommendations, he believes there is time to have the proposed democratic reforms implemented before 2019.

"We will have an opportunity to gauge the effectiveness of some of these changes leading up to and during the next election," Brison said.

Other elections changes in the works

The Liberals have also said they would create an independent commission to organize federal leaders’ debates. The government has been consulting on this, and after studying the issue for months, a House committee recently issued a report recommending follow-through on the promise ahead of the 2019 campaign.

The government is also advancing a separate piece of legislation, Bill C-50, which makes political financing changes and is currently before the Senate.

It will create new rules around political parties' fundraising. It builds in a requirement for fundraisers to be advertised publicly in advance if they cost $200 or more per ticket and feature the prime minister, cabinet ministers, party leaders, or party leadership candidates. It also requires these events be reported on in some detail to Elections Canada.