Two issues to watch as the election reform argument heats up

Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand proposes two amendments

Anyone trying to follow the escalating war of words between Marc Mayrand, Canada’s chief electoral officer, and the Conservative government, over Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre’s Fair Elections Act, could be forgiven for getting lost in the clashing accounts of details.

Fortunately for those craving clarity and brevity, Mayrand signaled today, as he appeared before the MPs on the House standing committee on procedure and House affairs, just two shortcomings of Poilievre’s Bill C-23 that he sees as most serious.

Mayrand brought with him a handy 12-page document, itemizing in table form his proposals for fixing some 25 parts of the Poilievre’s Bill C-23 (don’t hold your breath). But for those trying to hone in on only what matters most, he allowed, during questioning from MPs, which omissions stand out for him.

The first is about being able to verify, on a routine basis, what political parties claim about their election spending; the second has to do with the ability of investigators to swiftly get to the bottom of possible election cheating.

In his opening statement to the committee, Mayrand noted that Poilievre’s bill would subject political parties to a so-called “compliance audit” of the campaign financial returns to submit to Elections Canada. He said that’s “not a bad thing.”

The problem, he said, is that parties still wouldn’t be required, under Poilievre’s reforms, to provide any supporting documents—not a single invoice!—to show that their reported election expenses are accurate. This is no small matter for the Canadian taxpayer: Parties collect about $33 million from the government in reimbursements for expenses after elections.

Mayrand added that “it is striking when looking at provincial regimes that we remain the only jurisdiction in Canada where political parties are not required to produce supporting documentation for their reported expenses.”

On his second top concern, Mayrand highlighted his recommendation to allow Elections Canada’s investigative branch, the elections commissioner, to go to court to get a judge’s order to compel witnesses to cooperate—a point Mayrand has often emphasized before (including in this interview with Maclean’s last fall).

Today, he called giving the commissioner this new power “absolutely essential for the enforcement of the Canada Elections Act.” He pointed out, not for the first time, that several provincial elections regimes already have this tool for getting reluctant witnesses to cough up information, and so do federal agencies like the Competition Bureau, which investigates abuses of power, such as price-fixing, by companies the marketplace.

We’ll hear a lot of argument around Mayrand’s other points in the next few days, and presumably from Poilievre defending his act from various angles. But it probably makes sense to filter out some of the other noise, and listen for what’s said on these two key issues—documenting election expenses and compelling evidence.

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