Electoral watchdog fears bill will muzzle his office

The massive overhaul of the Elections Act proposed by the Conservative government may effectively muzzle and sideline Canada’s electoral referee-in-chief, says Marc Mayrand.

OTTAWA — The massive overhaul of the Elections Act proposed by the Conservative government may effectively muzzle and sideline Canada’s electoral referee-in-chief, says Marc Mayrand.

In his first public comments on the proposed legislation, the chief electoral officer said Thursday he will need weeks to fully understand the details of the 242-page bill — which alters everything from the rules on voting eligibility to how election fraud is investigated.

But 48 hours after Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative minister for democratic reform, introduced the legislation while questioning Elections Canada’s impartiality, Mayrand said he’s already concerned by what he sees.

“My understanding is that I will be able to speak only on three aspects . . . how, where and when to vote. That’s basically it,” he said following a committee meeting on Parliament Hill.

“My reading, given how restrictive the provision reads, suggests that not only will I not be able to speak, I understand I cannot call Canadians unsolicited. That certainly ends any survey of Canadians about our services.”

That suggests Mayrand, and his successors, could be prevented from revealing election complaints — such as misleading robocalls, ballot-box stuffing or other misdeeds — until such time as individuals had been charged for the crime.

“Telling people there’s an investigation underway, I’m not sure what public service that actually performs,” said Tom Lukiwski, Poilievre’s parliamentary secretary.

The government has explicitly stated it doesn’t want Elections Canada encouraging Canadians to get out and vote, saying that’s the job of political parties.

“Since Elections Canada began its promotional campaigns, voter turnout has plummeted from 75 per cent to 61 per cent,” Poilievre told the Commons.

He said the new bill will “require Elections Canada to inform Canadians of how they can have their names added to the (voters) list, how they can vote, which ID they need to take to the polling stations, and the information that is necessary for disabled voters to employ the special tools available to help them vote.”

The bill also splits Elections Canada in two, separating the chief electoral officer — who administers the rules — from the commissioner, who investigates and enforces those rules.

“The referee should not be wearing a team jersey,” Poilievre said earlier this week in explaining the decision.

Mayrand paused and clenched his jaw when asked Thursday about Poilievre’s characterization of Elections Canada.

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