Jean-Pierre Kingsley was Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer for 17 years.

He earned respect during his long tenure for his spirit of public service and his non-partisan commitment to electoral democracy.

And he continues to be a strong believer in the Canadian model of non-partisan management of the electoral process.

Canada originated that model, more than 90 years ago, and many others have followed suit, Kingsely will happily remind anyone willing to listen.

Does this evaluation of C-23 look like an A minus?

When the Harper government first unveiled its Fair Elections Act Kingsley gave it an A minus, a grade Democratic Reform Minister, Pierre Poilievre, has been touting ever since.

On Tuesday Kingsley was not giving out grades. He was  testifying before the Commons Committee considering the Fair Elections Act, Bill C-23. He carefully and precisely detailed many of the glaring errors in the proposed legislation, and suggested how to fix them.

In the case of the provision limiting Elections Canada’s right to communicate with Canadians, Kingsley’s fix was perfectly simple: scrap it altogether.

The Chief Electoral officer, Kingsley said, “must maintain the authority to reach out to Canadians in a non-partisan way.”

As we have pointed out in this space, that “reaching out” is not limited to educational activities. It also includes warning Canadians about possible fraud, of which the Pierre Poutine “robocall” case is only one egregious example.

If the government insists on maintaining the provisions that gag Elections Canada, the former Chief Electoral Officer told the Committee, it would seriously undermine Canadians’ confidence in the electoral system.

Kingsley also told the Committee not to scrap the practice of vouching which is the failsafe guarantee for tens of thousands of Canadians of their constitutional right to vote.

And he said that although C-23’s provision to retain records of political parties’ automated calls for one year is a useful first step, those records should be kept for ten years not merely one.

In addition, Kingsley proposed, Elections Canada should have access to the phone numbers political parties call, which would be the only way to verify what actually happened. That provision is not in the current legislation.

The former Chief Electoral Officer also agrees with the current incumbent, and many others, who have noted that there is no reasonable justification whatsoever for the loophole Poilievre is proposing that would allow parties to contact donors of $20 or more, during election campaigns, without reporting that activity as an election expense.

Fundraising contacts are a form of campaigning, Kingsley said, bluntly, and should be treated as such.  He also agreed with the current Chief Electoral Officer’s argument that Elections Canada would have no way of supervising or controlling this activity. It would, in effect, allow for massive additional, unaccountable spending by political parties, to the tune of millions of dollars.

Will give final grade when process is more advanced, holding out hope for amendments

Having said all he did, Kingsley was nonetheless reluctant to publicly and officially revise that A minus grade.

Poilievre, the former head of Elections Canada noted, has said he wants to earn an A plus, rather than an A minus. Well, Kingsely said, if wants a higher grade, he has the road map to the necessary changes.

It is up to him, the former Chief Electoral Officer declared, while promising to give Poilievre and the Harper government their final grade when the process is complete.

There is still plenty of time to amend the bill, Kingsley insists, and make of it legislation that supports rather than inhibits electoral democracy in Canada.

The key to getting this highly flawed and in many ways dangerous piece of legislation changed, Kingsely argues, is public awareness and public pressure. 

Even at this relatively early stage, the former boss of Elections Canada notes that the rumblings of public opposition to C-23 appear to have engendered some willingness on the part of some Conservative MPs to bend.

A case in point is Conservative Committee member, Scott Reid, who engaged Kingsley in a discussion of the possibilities of alternative forms of ID for groups who would be particularly affected by the elimination of vouching, such as First nations people and seniors in closed facilities.

Reid showed a small degree of flexibility that we have not yet seen from the government side.

And the Conservative MP opened that little crack of light a bit more in another back-and-forth with Kingsley.

The two had an exchange about C-23’s provision that gives the task of naming riding-level election staffers to political parties, not Elections Canada.

A number of years ago, the job of naming the Chief Returning Officer for each riding was transfered from the political parties to Elections Canada.

Poilievre has complained that, when that happened, Elections Canada simply named most of the folks who had previously been appointed by the Liberals.

Kingsely, who was Chief Electoral Officer at that time, took great umbrage at the Minister’s suggestion that he had ever favoured one party over the others.

In his calm and quiet way, he adamantly told the Committee that he gave the political party leaders an absolute veto on each and every Chief Returning Officer he named.

If any party leader objected, Kingsley insisted, he did not name that person.

Reid supported Kingsley on that issue. He pointed out that the former Liberal appointee whom Kinsgley had named Chief Returning Officer in his own riding has done a very good job, indeed. She was a good appointment, the Ottawa Valley Conservative MP said.

In hyper-partisan Ottawa we may be too quick to grasp at any signs that politicians might want to do what is best for Canada and not merely for their own party.

But we could all be forgiven if we were to draw even a morsel of comfort from Scott Reid’s relatively conciliatory tone.

Of course, if the public does not become much better informed about Bill C-23, and get actively involved, there is little hope the Harper government will be moved to make any significant changes.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...