Elections Canada sets up all-party advisory panel after spending controversies

OTTAWA – The head of Elections Canada has set up a new advisory panel that cuts across political lines to advise him on the conduct of elections.

The new advisory group, with its cross-party membership, has all the hallmarks of an attempt to insulate Canada’s election watchdog against the recriminations of those whose campaign spending is under scrutiny.

The 13-member panel includes a number of high profile ex-politicians whose resumes span the political spectrum.

It includes Reform Party founder Preston Manning, former Liberal MPs Bob Rae and John Manley, former Conservative finance minister Michael Wilson, the former NDP premier of Saskatchewan Roy Romanow, and sitting Conservative Sen. Hugh Segal.

It also includes Sheila Fraser, a retired auditor general, and Ian Binnie, a former Supreme Court justice.

Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand said beginning this fall, the panel will meet twice a year, advising on the conduct of elections, electoral participation by voters and political figures, regulatory compliance and electoral reform.

The move comes after a string of federal election controversies involving MPs, including the so-called “robocalls” affair and a decision last month by the Commissioner of Canada Elections to lay four charges under the Canada Elections Act against Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro.

“The electoral process is in a period of change and needs to adapt to the expectations of Canadians in the 21st century,” Mayrand said in a statement.

“I believe that our electoral system will benefit from the informed perspective and advice garnered from such a diverse range of Canadians, with valuable backgrounds and experiences.”

Elections Canada has clashed, at times bitterly, with some Conservative MPs over election spending issues, something the new panel appears designed to blunt.

In the case of Del Mastro, he has vociferously rejected any allegations of wrongdoing, while lashing out at Elections Canada.

Earlier this year, he accused Elections Canada of conducting their investigation with “malice and contempt,” alleging that it never discussed the allegations against him before they appeared in the media.

Del Mastro has left the Conservative caucus pending the outcome of the legal proceedings.

He joined four others who have left the Conservative caucus since March.

They include senators Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau and Pamela Wallin, who stepped aside over improper housing and travel claims, and former cabinet minister Peter Penashue, who stepped down over ineligible campaign expenses.

Three other Conservative MPs —Shelly Glover, James Bezan and Jeff Watson — are also embroiled in disputes with Elections Canada over their 2011 campaign expense returns.

The broader issue of democratic reform is expected to a be a major issue during the fall session of Parliament that opens Wednesday with the government’s throne speech.

The Tories have already suffered from political fallout in Penashue’s case.

He was forced to leave his cabinet post and run in a byelection in 2013 after it was revealed his campaign had received ineligible expenses that were subsequently repaid.

He subsequently lost his seat to a Liberal, Yvonne Jones.

In May, Mayrand confirmed to a House of Commons committee that Conservative party workers have failed to co-operate with an investigation into fraudulent robocalls.

Elections Canada has been seeking more investigative tools since 2010, but there has been no government movement.

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