Thursday, Canada’s chief electoral officer, Marc Mayrand, gave his analysis of legislation to change Canada’s election rules.
The changes could make elections more prone to abuse, make abuse harder to spot and generally make it easier for money to sway voters. You can read all of his comments at http://bit.ly/MTHGpv.
Here are some of his concerns.
“In Canada, electoral fairness has traditionally been understood to mean maintaining a level playing field among parties and candidates by the imposition of strict spending limits. By increasing those spending limits and, most significantly, creating an exception for certain fundraising expenses, Bill C-23 may well compromise the level playing field.
“The fundraising exception is of particular concern in this regard. For anybody who has ever seen one, there is no practical way of distinguishing a fundraiser mail-out from advertising, and it takes little imagination to understand that other partisan communications can be dressed up as fundraisers. Just as importantly, it will be difficult if not impossible to enforce in the absence of any obligation to report, or even keep, phone records of the persons contacted.
“In terms of compliance, Bill C-23 would subject political parties to an external compliance audit for the verification of their financial returns. External audits are not a bad thing — they may reassure the chief agents of the parties and improve compliance in some instances, as long as proper records are kept to allow for a truly rigorous compliance audit. However, external auditors should be bound by guidelines issued by Elections Canada to maintain the coherence of the system.
“Even so, it is striking when looking at provincial regimes that we remain the only jurisdiction in Canada where political parties are not required to produce supporting documentation for their reported expenses. At every election, parties receive $33 million in reimbursements without showing a single invoice to support their claims. This anomaly should be corrected, as I have indicated in the past (and as was recognized by a motion in the House of Commons).
“Finally, Bill C-23 would make several changes to the enforcement regime. It would:
• create a number of new offences and increase fines;
• introduce registration and data retention measures for voter contact services; and
• place the Commissioner of Canada Elections within the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
“It is not clear to me how this last structural change can improve the commissioner's work or the confidence of Canadians. It is important for parliamentarians as well as for Canadians to understand that, under the current regime, the commissioner enjoys complete independence from the chief electoral officer in deciding whether and how to conduct his investigations. The committee may want to hear from the current as well as the former commissioner in this regard.
“I note that, in the future, the commissioner would not be able to issue reports except through the director of public prosecutions, and that he, like myself, would be severely limited by the terms of Bill C-23 as to what he could say publicly. As a result, it would be difficult for him to explain publicly why charges could not be laid in a particular case because of problems with how a provision of the act is drafted. The bill would also restrict his ability to issue a press release or report reassuring Canadians that, having looked into allegations of voter fraud, he found no evidence of improper conduct.
“I also note that Bill C-23, as currently drafted, does not provide any clear authority for the commissioner to obtain information from Elections Canada, either at his request or at the agency's initiative. Such exchanges are, of course, absolutely essential for the enforcement of the Canada Elections Act. …
“Most importantly, under Bill C-23, the commissioner still will not have the ability to seek a court order compelling witnesses to testify regarding the commission of offences, such as deceptive calls or other forms of election fraud. The response of Canadians in the face of the robocalls affair has been overwhelming. Canadians rightfully expect that such conduct, which threatens the very legitimacy of our democratic institutions, be dealt with swiftly and effectively. Without a power to compel testimony, as exists in many provincial regimes, the commissioner's ability to carry out his investigations will remain limited.”
Important words indeed.