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Tories accuse elections watchdog of political activism against reform bill

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OTTAWA - The Harper government has opened up a new front in its war with the chief elections watchdog, accusing him of engaging in political activism against its controversial overhaul of the country's election laws.

Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski said Thursday it was inappropriate for chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand to criticize the government's proposed electoral reform bill during a private meeting with his own staff.

Lukiwski is parliamentary secretary to the government House leader and the Conservatives' lead hitter on the Commons committee charged with studying the bill.

Mayrand's private remarks to Elections Canada staff — as reported in the Ottawa Citizen based on the account of an anonymous source — were inappropriate for a watchdog who is supposed to be scrupulously impartial, Lukiwski told the procedure and House affairs committee.

The Citizen described Mayrand's speech as leaving the impression he believes the government is using the bill to retaliate against Elections Canada, which the Conservatives have repeatedly accused of bias in its pursuit of electoral wrongdoing.

Lukiwski said it appears from the Citizen story that Mayrand was "railing against the government ... (in) almost a campaign-style speech to rally (staff) up, to get them angry at the government.

"I can only interpret that, in my mind at least, as political activism."

Pierre Poilievre, the minister responsible for democratic reform who was at committee to defend the bill, declined Lukiwski's invitation to comment on the appropriateness of Mayrand's alleged remarks. But he too implied that Mayrand, who has publicly criticized elements of the bill, has strayed into the realm of politics.

"Listen, I don't take these things personally. In politics, emotions can run high from time to time," Poilievre told the committee.

Mayrand has been particularly critical of a provision in the bill which would prohibit him from communicating with Canadians about anything other than the mechanics of how to vote.

The government has denied its aim is to muzzle Mayrand.

Nevertheless, Lukiwski suggested Mayrand should hold his tongue until he has a "private audience" with the minister or is invited by the committee to give his views on the bill.

"We're going to bring him to committee. That's where he'll have a chance to give us exactly what he feels about each and every one of the provisions in the bill," Lukiwski said outside the committee room.

"He has a perfect right to make comment on that in committee ... I would like to see him, if he's going to be critical, do so at committee."

Elections Canada spokesman John Enright declined to comment on Lukiwski's criticism.

However, he did summarize the speech Mayrand gave Wednesday at the annual Elections Canada staff meeting, which was primarily aimed at recognizing the achievements of various individuals. Mayrand spoke on a variety of subjects, including giving an update on the electoral reform bill, "focusing on both its positive aspects and those that cause him concern," Enright said.

"He indicated the way in which the bill was presented to him was of concern. He then moved on to various aspects of the bill that touch upon integrity, accessibility and trust."

Mayrand reminded staff that the bill is about Canadian voters, not about him or Elections Canada, and he expressed hope Parliament will take time to consult Canadians and ensure the reforms reflect a "broad consensus," Enright added.

The Conservatives have a long history of clashes with Elections Canada, dating back to Prime Minister Stephen Harper calling election officials "jackasses" during his time as head of the National Citizens Coalition.

After a long, bitter battle with Elections Canada, the Conservative party pleaded guilty and was fined for orchestrating a scheme to circumvent the national campaign spending limit in 2006. A Conservative campaign worker from Guelph, Ont., has been charged and others are still under investigation in the robocall affair, in which automated phone messages were used to misdirect thousands of voters to the wrong polling stations in 2011.

Among other things, the reform bill would increase penalties for electoral fraud, hike the donation limit for individuals and allow parties to spend millions more during election campaigns. It would also do away with the practice of allowing people to vouch for voters who don't have proper identification — a move Mayrand fears will disenfranchise thousands of students and aboriginal people.

After Poilievre's testimony Thursday, New Democrat MP David Christopherson filibustered the committee meeting to prevent a vote on his motion calling for cross-country hearings on the bill. The Conservative majority had signalled its intention to defeat the motion.

Christopherson noted that the foreign affairs committee "went all the way to Ukraine to study their democracy" in 2012.

"It's equally important here in Canada that we take the time and the money to study our own democracy."

But Lukiwski predicted cross-country hearings would be "a gong show," with the NDP orchestrating protests at every stop. He insisted technology can be used to ensure the committee hears from anyone who wants to be heard.

At committee, Poilievre maintained the decision to reject travel had nothing to do with him, that the committee is "master of its own destiny." However, later in the House of Commons, he derided the idea of cross-country hearings as a "costly circus."

The NDP has blocked a motion to approve travel for other committees until it wins approval for hearings outside the capital on the electoral reform bill.

New Democrats know they can't hold up study of the bill indefinitely. But they're hoping public pressure will build enough over next week, when Parliament is not sitting, to force the government to reconsider its refusal to hold cross-country hearings.

Follow @jmbryden on Twitter

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