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Harper government agrees to major changes to Elections Act overhaul

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OTTAWA - The majority Conservative government is making a rare legislative climbdown by deleting or amending some of the most contentious aspects of its controversial elections overhaul.

After two months of intransigent chest-beating on the merits of Bill C-23, dubbed the Fair Elections Act, Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre sprung the changes in a surprise announcement Friday afternoon.

"I think it's an excellent bill," the irrepressibly partisan Poilievre told a news conference that was ostensibly called to respond to a Supreme Court reference on Senate reform.

"It's a terrific bill just the way it is, and the amendments will improve it further."

That was Poilievre's way of saying he's stripping several major elements from a sweeping piece of legislation that's been critically dissected by everyone from the current and former chief electoral officers to elections experts from across Canada and abroad.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair called the legislation "a monumental error" that still needs a great deal of work, likening Poilievre's announcement to "dropping a little bit of ballast."

Craig Scott, a former law professor who's been leading the NDP charge, said he's still waiting to see the actual wording of the government amendments, which have been submitted to a Commons committee studying Bill C-23.

"We should not be getting all kumbaya-ish about this," said Scott, citing the sheer volume of problems in the legislation and the breadth of the expert opposition.

"But at the moment this is amongst the most important victories for parliamentary democracy in a majority government situation that we're likely to find. It really shows that absolute marshalled opposition — all hands on deck, linking up with the democratic engagement of Canadians — can produce a difference."

Even Conservative MPs have been chafing at Poilievre's hard sell, quietly grumbling over the young minister's "tone deaf" performance, in the words of one who did not wish to publicly chastise his caucus mate.

And so with Parliament set to resume Monday after a two-week Easter recess, Poilievre used the cover of Friday's historic Supreme Court reference to announce changes.

The government is prepared to remove the requirement for all voters to show residency identification in the next election, he said, responding to widespread criticism of his plan to kill the "failsafe" of vouching for voters lacking full documentation.

"While the Fair Elections Act will require people show ID proving who they are before they vote, we will support an amendment to help people whose address is not on their ID," said Poilievre.

Voters will now be able to sign an oath attesting to their local residence, but must still provide at least some proof of personal identification.

The government is removing a provision that would have allowed parties to contact former donors during election periods without incurring an election expense under their campaign cap — a huge spending loophole that Marc Mayrand, the chief electoral officer, has testified would be unenforceable. It would also favour the Conservative party, which has the largest former donor base.

"To be frank, this proposal is not particularly important," said Poilievre. "It can go."

A restriction on how the chief electoral officer can communicate with Canadians is also being rewritten, although Elections Canada still will be barred from advertising the general importance of voting. Instead, it must focus its ads on how, when and where to cast a ballot.

"We will support amendments to ensure that the CEO of Elections Canada knows he has all the freedom to speak or report on any matter," said Poilievre.

Elections Canada school outreach programs will once again be permitted, he said.

In response to criticism that a proposed new robocall registry doesn't go far enough, Poilievre said calling companies employed by political parties will be required to retain their scripts for three years, instead of the one year in the original legislation.

And while the bill will be amended to "maintain Elections Canada's discretion to appoint central poll supervisors," Poilievre said a controversial expansion of partisan appointments into polling station oversight remains the Conservative government's preferred option.

Still, the amendments should help take the sting out of the most vocal criticisms of legislation that some — including Mayrand himself — said appeared designed to tilt the elections field in the governing party's favour.

In response to a question about pursuing Senate reform with the provinces, Poilievre said the government wants to stick to its knitting.

"Listen our priority is the economy, jobs, and low taxes," he said.

"That's where we're putting our focus. We do not want to distract from that agenda with a focus on constitutional squabbling."

It was response that might well apply to an arcane rewrite of elections law as well.

Follow @bcheadle on Twitter

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