Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Robocall case shows law is toothless

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Elections Canada says it is being thwarted in its investigation of the 2011 election's robocall scandal because Tory campaign workers won't co-operate. This is looking increasingly bad for the federal Conservative government, which has yet to introduce long-promised legislation to beef up the investigative powers of the independent agency tasked with protecting the integrity of federal elections.

Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand revealed to Parliament this week his officials are being obstructed in their work on allegations the Conservative party's voter databank was used fraudulently to keep opposition supporters from getting to the polls. Three campaign workers have refused to speak with Elections Canada investigators, he said.

Last week, a federal court rapped the party for similar obstructionism, although Justice Richard Mosley found no evidence Tory officials were part of the fraud, under which automated robocalls were made in an attempt to steer voters to bogus polling stations.

Canadians are left to wonder who committed the fraud, and how the Conservative voter database came into their hands. This underscores the urgency for boosting the powers of the federal elections office.

Mr. Mayrand wants better reporting of election expenses and details about the use of companies parties hire to make automated calls to voters. Further, robocall firms should be made to retain records of their activities after elections in case they are needed for subsequent investigations. That will help Elections Canada and voters to track who is contacting electors, when and why.

Elections Canada, however, also wants to be able to compel witnesses to speak to its investigators when accusation of wrongdoing occur. At present, it can only apply for a court order for search and seizure, or to force an individual to produce records that are believed to hold key evidence. Mr. Mayrand says he needs help earlier in his investigations and could get it by compelling answers from people who can help point to where to find evidence.

Manitoba's elections commissioner was given that power after the 1998 Monnin inquiry into vote-rigging in the 1995 provincial election. Elections Manitoba was warned early that Conservatives had enticed independent native candidates to run in the Interlake in order to siphon off some of the NDP's support. Elections Manitoba said its inquiries came to nought because no one would speak up. Six other jurisdictions in Canada also give commissioners the power to compel testimony.

Manitoba's investigators cannot compel anyone to give evidence that might be incriminating to themselves. Mr. Mayrand's suggested amendment would require his office to get a judge's approval to compel a witness, and none of the information could be used against that person.

The power to compel a witness to speak to a state agent is controversial because it is coercive and tramples on a constitutional right that protects Canadians against self-incrimination. Manitoba, and now federal officials, have found a way to preserve that protection.

The Federal Court's core finding cannot be left unaddressed. The obvious fix is to strengthen Elections Canada's powers. But last year the Tories pulled, one day before tabling it in the House of Commons, a bill that would have amended the Elections Act. It seems to have since fallen off the government's to-do list, fuelling speculation about whose interests are in play.

Parliament has been shown ample evidence it needs to protect the integrity of the federal electoral process. Elections Canada needs beefier investigatory powers and the Harper government must demonstrate it is serious about rooting out the fraud identified.

Mr. Mayrand says his office needs the new powers to be put in place quickly so as to prepare for the 2015 election. It is time for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to ensure that can be done.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 1, 2013 A12

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