By CHRIS PLECASH
The Fair Elections Act will continue to be the focus of heated debate when Parliament returns, starting with a three-day clause-by-clause review of the bill this week. Government House Leader Peter Van Loan says the government will also move forward with the budget implementation bill, as well as First Nations education and online crime legislation.
Bill C-23, the federal government’s overhaul of the Canada Elections Act, will continue to be the most contentious piece of legislation when Parliament resumes for a three-week sitting before it breaks again for one week in May. The Procedure and House Affairs Committee (PROC) will hear from two witnesses—Quebec chief electoral officer Jacques Drouin and Director of Public Prosecutions Brian Saunders—on April 28 before launching into three days of reviewing Bill C-23 and voting on potentially more than 100 opposition amendments.
The government’s Fair Elections Act has faced vociferous opposition in the House of Commons, but also from Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand, former senior bureaucrats, civil society groups, and hundreds of academics. Critics of the bill say it could disenfranchise hundred of thousands of voters by eliminating vouching and voter identification cards.
Minister of State for Democratic Reform Pierre Poilievre (Nepean-Carleton, Ont.) announced several amendments to the bill last week, including allowing vouching for proof of address provided a voter can produce photo ID, requiring telemarketers to retain campaign call records for three years, re-authorizing communications between the commissioner of Canada elections and the chief electoral officer, and dropping a provision that would have allowed incumbent parties to appoint central polling supervisors.
But Government House Leader Peter Van Loan (York-Simcoe, Ont.) told The Hill Times that he’s heard few concerns from his constituents.
“For ordinary Canadians, this looks like common sense changes,” Mr. Van Loan said in an interview. “With my constituents, this issue doesn’t even come up. If it does, they say they think people should have ID to vote.”
Mr. Poilievre also appealed to the everyman when he spoke at an Economic Club of Canada luncheon at Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier last week, dismissing opposition to Bill C-23 as mere “quibbles about the details of those provisions.”
“A lot of Canadians are asking what the fuss is about,” Mr. Poilievre told the crowd. “In a 21st century democracy, where people are required to produce ID to drive a car, buy a beer, or exercise their Charter right to cross the border, it is common sense to expect people to show ID to demonstrate who they are when they vote.”
PROC will conduct a clause-by-clause review of Bill C-23 on Tuesday and Wednesday, with a deadline of 5 p.m., Thursday, May 1. The bill will go to third reading following the committee’s report. The Senate will likely get the bill before Parliament adjourns for the third week in May, leaving the Upper Chamber with four weeks to debate and review the bill. The government wants the bill in place before the summer recess.
NDP MP and deputy leader David Christopherson (Hamilton Centre, Ont.) told The Hill Times that his party would be tabling in the range of 100 amendments to the legislation before the committee’s noon deadline on Friday, April 25, but the party’s first motion is to have Bill C-23 withdrawn.
“We have around 100 amendments, and that’s assuming our motion to kill the bill loses. We have a notice of motion in to basically kill the bill. If one assumes the government stays united and that [motion] loses, then we will start moving our amendments,” said Mr. Christopherson. “We’re going to continue using every tool we have recognizing that a majority government, at the end of the day, does get their way.”
Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux (Winnipeg North, Man.), PROC’s lone Grit, will also be tabling amendments. He said that it’s “absolutely critical” for the government to amend the bill to allow the commissioner of Canada elections to compel witness testimony when investigating violations of the Canada Elections Act.
“Elections Canada, the commissioner and other stakeholders have said they have to have the ability to compel witnesses. Other provincial election authorities already have that ability — why not Elections Canada? That is the most important amendment, I believe we’ll be proposing later [this] week,” said Mr. Lamoureux. “I’m not overly optimistic in terms of them actually being passed. Hopefully they’ll be debated for a bit before they’re discarded. A lot of thought went into these amendments.”
In his speech to the Economic Club last week, Mr. Poilievre said that he is open to amending the bill, but the government wasn’t going to budge on its plans to eliminate vouching and voter ID cards.
“We’re open to improvements to this bill, and very soon the government will make clear which amendments it will support, but let me be clear on this point—the Fair Elections Act in its final form, will require every single voter to produce ID showing who they are before they vote,” he said.
Although the Senate will likely have only four weeks to review Bill C-23, the Upper Chamber’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee has already conducted a pre-study of the bill and issued nine recommended changes, including authorizing communication between the commissioner of Canada elections and the chief electoral officer, closing the loophole on fundraising expenses, and requiring telemarketing firms to retain campaign call records for three years. The Senate committee also recommended changes that would make it easier for people to establish proof of residence through attestation letters or the use of “verified electronic correspondence.”
Many of the recommendations were included in the amendments announced by Mr. Poilievre last week.
Liberal and Conservative Senators on the committee unanimously supported the recommendations, but opposition MPs in the House say the changes don’t go far enough. Mr. Lamoureux suggested that the recommendations were made under the influence of the Prime Minister’s Office.
“If those are the only types of amendments that the government acts on, it will reinforce the fact that a number of these Conservative Senators, at least the leadership among the Conservative Senators, already had a good sense of what they were able to do,” he said. “The Conservative caucus as a whole would have been talking about this legislation. I’d be shocked to find out that the Conservative Senators had nothing to do with the dialogue that’s taken place in the Conservative caucus.”
Budget Implementation Bill, First Nations Education top priorities for feds
While the Fair Elections Act will domi nate Parliamentary debate in the weeks ahead, there’s plenty of other legislation that the government plans to move through the House. Mr. Van Loan said that the budget implementation bill, the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, and cybercrime legislation will all move towards the Upper Chamber.
Mr. Van Loan called Bill C-31, the budget implementation bill, “the cornerstone piece” of the government’s legislative agenda.
“Processing that at committee would represent our highest priority. [Our] focus is on job creation, but we’re also turning a corner towards a balanced budget, and the budget bill helps set the groundwork for that,” he said.
The 362-page bill was tabled on March 28 and referred to the House Finance Committee on April 8, while the Senate National Finance Committee will undertake a concurrent pre-study of the bill, which changes dozens of taxes and tax credits, and amends more than 50 pieces of legislation, including copyright and food safety laws, and collective bargaining rules for the federal public service.
Mr. Van Loan said that passing Bill C-33, the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, would also be a priority in the coming weeks.
“We’d like to move quickly on the First Nations Control of First Nations Education bill. … [I]t’s been part of a lengthy process that’s been underway with the Assembly of First Nations going back to the Crown-First Nations Gathering. It’s been the priority of Shawn Atleo, the Grand Chief. He’s very supportive of it and it’s an important part of fulfilling that agenda,” he said.
AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo has appealed to First Nations to support the bill, which gives First Nations control over linguistic and cultural curriculum, but also requires that on-reserve schools meet the same educational standards as the province that they’re located in. The bill would appropriate $1.25-billion in funding for First Nations education over three years beginning in 2016, with a 4.5 per cent annual escalator beginning in 2019-2020.
Some First Nations groups, including the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs oppose the legislation on the grounds that it was drafted with inadequate consultation.
The government tabled the bill on April 11 and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt (Madawaska-Restigouche, N.B.) has said that he wants the bill in place in time for the start of the fall school semester. The bill is currently at first reading in the House, but the Senate’s Aboriginal Peoples Committee is already slated to conduct a pre-study of the legislation.
Bill C-13, the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act, will also be on the government’s agenda, Mr. Van Loan confirmed. The bill, which has been framed by the government as anti-cyberbullying legislation, will draw opposition criticism for provisions that would make it easier for law enforcement to obtain metadata and conduct surveillance of online communications. The bill is currently at second reading in the House, and hasn’t been debated since Nov. 29 of last year.
While the government plans to expedite its legislative agenda in the final weeks before summer recess, both the Liberals and NDP are preparing to raise issues that the government isn’t discussing.
NDP House Leader Peter Julian (Burnaby-New Westminster, B.C.) said that he’s heard a lot of concerns about employers abusing the Temporary Foreign Worker Program over the last two weeks away from Parliament. The party may use its upcoming opposition day to debate a motion calling for a moratorium on using the program for low-skilled labour, as well as an “urgent audit” of the program by the auditor general.
“As a direct result of poor government policy, a government incapable of administering the Temporary Foreign Worker Program effectively, we’re seeing an increase in unemployment rates,” said Mr. Julian, citing last week’s C.D. Howe Institute report that says the program has driven up unemployment in British Columbia and Alberta. “There’s no doubt that’s front and centre in the public mind right now and it will be front and centre in Parliament in the coming weeks.”
Employment and Social Development Minister Jason Kenney (Calgary Southeast, Alta.) announced a moratorium on the use of the program by the food sector on April 24.
Mr. Lamoureux said that his party will focus on middle class issues and opposing the government’s use of time allocation in the weeks ahead.
“Anything that reinforces the importance of working for the middle class is critically important to our leader and to our party. Along with that, we want to talk about reform of the House,” he said. “Whether it’s budget legislation, election laws, trade agreements—everything that you can think of is [receiving] time allocation. On the surface it seems as if we’re dealing with a lot of legislation, but in reality the manner in which it’s being done is very undemocratic. This will continue to be an issue going back into the May sitting.”
With the government planning to pass several pieces of legislation in the final seven sitting weeks before summer recess, the opposition can expect to see more time allocation from the government. Mr. Van Loan defended the government’s use of the procedure, however.
“We’ve used [time allocation] to ensure certainty in debate and ensure there is adequate debate so questions can be voted on,” Mr. Van Loan said. “[W]e try to use it as a scheduling device to create certainty and allow decisions to get made. If the NDP or Liberals were in charge, the country would face political gridlock and nothing would get done.”