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Hill Dispatches

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Karl Nerenberg has been reporting on federal politics from Parliament Hill for rabble.ca since September, 2011. In his long career, he has won numerous awards as a broadcaster and documentary filmmaker.

Harper government appears uninterested in Chief Electoral Officer's recommendations

| March 28, 2013
Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand

The Conservative government has not consulted Chief Electoral Officer, Marc Mayrand, on possible changes to Canada's elections act.

Nor has the government acted on recommendations the Chief Electoral officer made before the last election, in 2010.

Had some of those recommendations been implemented before the 2011 election, the Chief Electoral Officer would have had more effective tools to investigate the many abuses that have been reported since then.

All of this came out in a briefing Mayrand held for journalists following the release of his newest report: "Preventing Deceptive Communications with Electors -- Recommendations from the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada Following the 41st General Election."

The report summarizes the pattern of voter suppression activity, almost all of it linked to the Conservative Party, which has emerged since the 2011 election.

It describes how public awareness all started with stories about a fictitious person named Pierre Poutine.

M. Poutine, who had a fictional address on "Separatist Street" in Joliette Quebec, managed to use a non-traceable "burner" cell phone and a non-identifiable IP address to order thousands of deceptive calls from an automated call firm that has done much work for the Conservatives.

These calls told lies in two ways.

Lie number 1: they said, falsely, that they were calling from Elections Canada.

Lie number 2: they said, falsely, that polling stations had been changed at the last minute.

Revelations about the Pierre Poutine scam led to thousands of other complaints about similar abuse to Elections Canada.

Conservatives promised action 'within six months' more than a year ago

Wednesday's report says Elections Canada "has received complaints from more than 1,400 electors in 247 electoral districts, who report having received calls misdirecting or misinforming them with respect to their correct polling station, or calls they described as rude, harassing or annoying..."

Those calls prompted seven citizens from seven different ridings to launch a Federal Court case seeking to have the results of the last election overturned. One of the seven dropped out, and the remaining six are still awaiting the decision of Justice Richard Mosley.

The government has been slow to act on all this.

About one year ago Conservative MPs voted for an NDP motion that called on the government to introduce legislation, within six months, to counter false and misleading phone calls during elections.

After more than six months had passed, with no government action, the NDP's Craig Scott decided to fill the vacuum with a private member's bill. The stated aim of the bill is "preventing and prosecuting fraudulent voice messages during election periods."

A number of the provisions of Scott's bill are very similar to what the Chief Electoral Officer proposed on Wednesday.

Scott's bill would "make it an offence, during an election period, to knowingly transmit false information, to falsely represent oneself to be an election officer in voice messages related to an election or to assist such fraudulent transmissions."

In addition, it would oblige political parties and companies contracted to do voice-messaging to "provide certain information related to voice messaging to the Chief Electoral Officer or the Commissioner of Canada Elections upon request."

The bill also provides for penalties of up to $500,000 for failing to abide by its various provisions.

A thorough report from the Chief Electoral Officer

The Chief Electoral Officer's report includes a great many recommendations.

One of the most important -- and which echoes Craig Scott's private member's bill -- is that Parliament should make it a crime to impersonate an Elections Canada official.

The report also suggests sanctions for this new offence: a fine up to a maximum of $250,000 or imprisonment for a maximum of five years, or both.

In addition, the Chief Electoral Officer seeks the necessary, minimal powers to effectively investigate abuses.

The report proposes that the Officer have the power to "apply to a judge for an order to compel any person to provide information that is relevant to an investigation."

As it stands now, investigators are being stonewalled by potential witnesses, and that is significantly impeding their work.

The report also makes concrete recommendations about record keeping.

It proposes a new rule that would require "companies that provide telemarketing services ... to keep records of all communications made in Canada during the election (including client information, payment information, scripts, incoming and outgoing calls, as well as phone numbers displayed)."

Mayrand's report contains much more, including a suggestion that there be a code of ethics for political parties and a commitment that, in the future, Elections Canada itself will be much more vigilant in providing information (and, when necessary warnings) to voters.

We need legislative changes to allow Elections Canada 'to promptly and effectively investigate potential abuses'

When asked how he responds to the argument of some that the abuses during the last campaign were just the futile pranks of a few amateurs, Mayrand said: "It is significant whenever anyone tries to deprive Canadians of their right to vote."

Wednesday's report concludes:

"The recommendations made in this report are aimed at better addressing the risks posed by deceptive tactics to Canada’s electoral democracy. While Elections Canada can take some administrative measures to prevent the kind of conduct discussed in the report from occurring again, Parliament’s intervention is required to make legislative changes that will allow the agency to promptly and effectively investigate potential abuses of the electoral process."

And so, what is Parliament going to do now?

It is a year since all members of Parliament agreed to act within six months, after all.

After receiving the Chief Electoral Officer's report on Wednesday, the Director of Communications for the Minister for Democratic Reform, Tim Uppal, issued the following terse and laconic statement:

"As previously indicated, we are looking at reforms to Canada’s election laws. We will consider these suggestions as we prepare to put forward a comprehensive elections reform proposal."

Mayrand told reporters that if there is to be new legislation in time for the next federal election, now scheduled for the fall of 2015, it must receive Royal Assent before the end of 2014.

There are lots of suggestions in the air that the Prime Minister might advance that election by as much as six or seven months, to early 2015, and the process for getting new laws through both houses of Parliament -- and on to the Governor General's desk for final assent -- can be slow and arduous.

If the government wanted to bury the Chief Electoral Officer's report, it could stall as long as possible before introducing any sort of reforms, and then see them die on the order paper when an election was called -- or Parliament was prorogued.

Given the Conservatives' passive-aggressive approach to this whole business, we should not be too surprised if there is no election reform before Canadians next go to the polls, whenever that happens.

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