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NDP wants all MPs to vote on whether to hold travelling Elections Act hearings

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OTTAWA - New Democrats hope to spark broad Canadian interest in a proposed Conservative rewrite of the elections rule book after the Winter Olympics wrap up this weekend.

The NDP will debate a votable motion in Parliament on Monday seeking approval of cross-country committee hearings on the sweeping Elections Act overhaul.

The Harper government rushed the legislation, dubbed the Fair Elections Act, through second reading in the House of Commons by using its majority to limit debate.

The government has already ridiculed the idea of travelling public hearings as a "circus" and a "gong show" — although Commons committees routinely travel to conduct hearings on a variety of subjects.

David Christopherson, the NDP deputy leader, said Thursday that never before have significant electoral reforms been made in Canada without input from the opposition parties and the advice of the chief electoral officer, among others.

"Think about it: Did one country get to set the rules for the Olympics? No," Christopherson fumed.

"Everybody participated so that it was agreed ahead of time what the rules would be. That's what we're talking about. We're talking about the rules of our election and are they fair."

A spokeswoman for Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative minister for democratic reform, did not directly respond to a question about why the government opposes public hearings on the legislation.

Gabrielle Renaud-Mattey instead pointed to the NDP's initial opposition to the reforms, which were introduced 16 days ago without any advance briefing for MPs or the chief electoral officer.

"The NDP declared its opposition to the Fair Elections Act before reading a single word of it," Renaud-Mattey said in an email, parroting one of Poilievre's favourite lines from question period.

"Now they are afraid to debate it, so they are debating process instead."

The NDP says it welcomes debate, but not when it's held behind closed doors in a committee room in Ottawa. The committee should take its deliberations out to Canadians where they live and vote, said Christopherson.

"We believe if Canadians know what's going on, they're going to be very angry and they're going to demand changes," he said.

"In a healthy modern democracy, even though a majority government has 100 per cent of the power, the court of public opinion trumps all."

The legislation runs well over 200 pages and effectively divides Elections Canada, the watchdog that oversees election fairness, by putting its investigative powers in a separate office.

It creates a new registry for automated party phone calls, but gives the commissioner of elections no new powers to quickly get to the bottom of concerns, such as the as-yet unresolved fraudulent robocalls from the 2011 election.

The bill also constrains the chief electoral officer from communicating with Canadians, effectively increases the amount parties will be able to spend during campaigns, raises donation limits and ends the practice of allowing one identified voter to vouch for another who lacks proper ID.

Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand has publicly questioned the bill, saying it may disenfranchise certain groups of voters and will hurt Elections Canada's efforts to encourage all Canadians to cast a ballot.

Craig Scott, the NDP critic for democratic reform, said the legislation creates a "huge loophole that allows virtually unlimited campaign spending for purposes of contacting previous donors by phone, by mail or by email."

Scott said the bill prohibits Elections Canada pilot projects on electronic voting without the approval of both the Commons and the unelected Senate, and gives the president of the Treasury Board, currently Tony Clement, approval power over any hiring of expert advice by Elections Canada.

Both Scott and Christopherson said they recognize the Conservative majority will vote down their motion Monday on taking the Fair Elections Act out on the road.

The procedural battles, said Scott, are designed to give the public more time to become aware that a "completely wretched piece of legislation" is being pushed through Parliament.

"That's a win if people do realize that's what's happening."

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