The Harper government's proposed elections act goes a long way to beefing up the rules on elections abuses, and imposing meaningful fines when misdeeds occur. And, three cheers for a past-due modernization -- the Tories have scrapped the rule forbidding the publication of election results prior to the closing of polls in Western Canada.
There's lots to commend in the bill presented this week by Pierre Poilievre, minister for democratic reform. But while the changes bring Canada up to speed with the new realities of electioneering -- there will be a registry of robocall contracts and rules on record-keeping so investigators can retrieve evidence in the event of complaint -- a core weakness in Elections Canada's ability to investigate that has been purposely ignored in the new act.
It has been repeatedly pointed out to Parliament that the fundamental gap in enforcement is the inability of the investigation commissioner to compel people to answer questions. This power is held by elections staff in seven jurisdictions in Canada, including Manitoba.
The absence of that power was described as central to the difficulty Elections Canada had investigating the robocall scandal of the 2011 federal election, in which allegations were made that the Tory party's voter databank was used for automated phone calls intended to keep voters from getting to their polls. In a robocall court case last year, a judge castigated the federal party because it was made clear officials, while not part of the fraud, went to lengths to obstruct the investigation.
There is no love lost between the Harper government and Elections Canada, which aggressively sought action against the federal Tories in repeat instances of election wrongdoing.
And so Prime Minister Stephen Harper's remark about shoring up the independence of the office, even as the bill proposes to move the Commissioner of Canada Elections out of the chief electoral officer's realm and into a federal department, looks cynical. Under the director of prosecutions, the commissioner of investigations will be appointed by an individual appointed by the justice minister.
The expanded reach of the elections act with new offences, tighter rules and harsher penalties is all good, but ultimately it depends on vigorous, efficient enforcement. Without the power to compel people to answer questions, Canadians cannot expect misdeeds to be caught and prosecuted in a more timely way. Mr. Poilievre's bill is flawed. It should be amended before it is passed.