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Chief electoral watchdog fears Conservative bill will muzzle his office

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OTTAWA - The massive overhaul of the Elections Act proposed by the Conservative government may effectively muzzle and sideline Canada's electoral referee-in-chief, says Marc Mayrand.

In his first public comments on the proposed legislation, the chief electoral officer said Thursday he will need weeks to fully understand the details of the 242-page bill — which alters everything from the rules on voting eligibility to how election fraud is investigated.

But 48 hours after Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative minister for democratic reform, introduced the legislation while questioning Elections Canada's impartiality, Mayrand said he's already concerned by what he sees.

"My understanding is that I will be able to speak only on three aspects ... how, where and when to vote. That's basically it," he said following a committee meeting on Parliament Hill.

"My reading, given how restrictive the provision reads, suggests that not only will I not be able to speak, I understand I cannot call Canadians unsolicited. That certainly ends any survey of Canadians about our services."

That suggests Mayrand, and his successors, could be prevented from revealing election complaints — such as misleading robocalls, ballot-box stuffing or other misdeeds — until such time as individuals had been charged for the crime.

"Telling people there's an investigation underway, I'm not sure what public service that actually performs," said Tom Lukiwski, Poilievre's parliamentary secretary.

The government has explicitly stated it doesn't want Elections Canada encouraging Canadians to get out and vote, saying that's the job of political parties.

"Since Elections Canada began its promotional campaigns, voter turnout has plummeted from 75 per cent to 61 per cent," Poilievre told the Commons.

He said the new bill will "require Elections Canada to inform Canadians of how they can have their names added to the (voters) list, how they can vote, which ID they need to take to the polling stations, and the information that is necessary for disabled voters to employ the special tools available to help them vote."

The bill also splits Elections Canada in two, separating the chief electoral officer — who administers the rules — from the commissioner, who investigates and enforces those rules.

"The referee should not be wearing a team jersey," Poilievre said earlier this week in explaining the decision.

Mayrand paused and clenched his jaw when asked Thursday about Poilievre's characterization of Elections Canada.

"Listen, the only team jersey that I think I'm wearing — if we have to carry the analogy — I believe is the one with the stripes, white and black," a shaking Mayrand finally responded.

"What I note from this bill is that no longer will the referee be on the ice."

Mayrand's reaction came as the Conservatives used their voting majority to curtail debate in the House of Commons and speed the legislation to committee.

The move left New Democrats howling.

Leader Tom Mulcair said Prime Minister Stephen Harper is "actually trying to shut down debate on a law that will fundamentally change the rules for elections in Canada."

Such tactics on an electoral reform bill are unprecedented in Canada, said Mulcair.

"They're completely stacking the deck in their own favour and they don't even want it discussed thoroughly and properly."

Lukiwski said hearing a bunch of pre-scripted speeches in the Commons does nothing to advance understanding of the legislation.

"The opposition seems to suggest that by limiting debate, you're actually going to be destroying democracy and not allowing this bill to be fully examined. Hogwash," said the Conservative MP.

"It gets examined at committee. That's when you actually get to see what the bill is all about."

To that end, NDP MP David Christopherson attempted to move a motion Thursday at the Procedure and House Affairs committee to hold cross-Canada hearings on the legislation that would wrap up by no later than May 1.

The NDP motion was put off to another day.

Canada's chief electoral officer was not consulted by the government about the contents of the election reform bill, although some of his previous recommendations for reform were included in the act.

Election reforms in Canada have typically come about through all-party consensus "and after extensive public consultation," Mayrand noted.

"It's fundamental as to the legitimacy of those who govern us."

Former elections watchdog Jean-Pierre Kingsley also bemoaned the lack of multi-party consensus in the approach to electoral reforms.

In an interview, the former chief electoral officer said at one time, reforms used to pass through Parliament relatively smoothly because the government consulted in advance with opposition parties and Elections Canada to ensure legislation was perceived as non-partisan.

Kingsley said that process has been gradually breaking down for years, but today it is "entirely of another order."

"It's so hyper-partisan that even the good that's in the bill, people are just not willing to accept that there could be some good," he said. "They're just saying, 'There must be something that we don't understand. What is it that they're trying to do?'"

Mayrand said he hopes Canadians actively take part in the debate.

"I think it's absolutely essential that the public pay attention and get involved in expressing their view."

— With files from Joan Bryden

Follow @bcheadle on Twitter

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