OTTAWA – New election rules sparked by widespread reports of fraudulent robocalls in the 2011 federal campaign do not go as far as they could to catch fraudsters, says a former chief electoral officer.
Jean-Pierre Kingsley, one of the few electoral law experts to give high marks to the Harper government’s proposed Fair Elections Act, offered a more qualified assessment Tuesday in testimony to MPs.
He strongly recommended dropping new provisions that would muzzle Elections Canada and that would end the practice of “vouching” for voters without proper residency identification.
Still, the man who ran Elections Canada from 1990 to 2007 made a number of positive recommendations that could help burnish a bill that’s been roundly panned by electoral experts in both Canada and abroad.
Conservative MPs on a Commons committee studying Bill C-23 were eager Tuesday to draw out Kingsley’s compliments.
Hours after the 242-page bill was introduced by Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre on Feb. 4, Kingsley went on TV news channels to give the legislation a mark of A-minus. Conservatives have been quoting his comment ever since to defend the bill from its many detractors.
At committee, Tom Lukiwski, Poilievre’s parliamentary secretary, noted measures in the bill “try and prevent the problem we saw with robocalling and the ‘Pierre Poutine’ example in the last election.”
Pierre Poutine is a false name provided by an unknown individual who ordered thousands of misleading automated phone calls be placed to voters in Guelph, Ont., directing them to non-existent polling stations.
Lukiwski asked Kingsley to explain how the bill would “help prevent those kinds of situations from occurring again in future.”
Bill C-23 requires that firms making campaign calls for political parties must register with the federal broadcast regulator, the CRTC.
Those who hire such services will also be kept on file, along with scripts of the automated messages delivered, for a period of one year.
“I’ve recommended that it should be something akin to 10 (years), which is the length of time that an actual investigation and prosecution can take place,” Kingsley responded.
“I’m also recommending that the (phone) numbers that are called be kept, so that a trail can be followed right to the people who received the calls so that they can tell investigators what it is they remember about that call.”
Lukiwski then asked Kingsley whether measures in the bill “would help ultimately prevent the same ‘Pierre Poutine’ situation we saw in the last election?”
“Yes, they would,” Kingsley responded.
Craig Scott, the NDP democratic reform critic, asked Kingsley to explain why holding records for a year wouldn’t suffice.
Political parties take six months to file their post-election reports and Elections Canada must then audit those reports, which can take several months, said Kingsley. An investigation follows, after which a recommendation to lay charges can be made.
“One year doesn’t do it,” he said.
Scott called the robocall registry a good start, but said it doesn’t address the prospect of “truly rogue operators doing automated calls using proxy servers and burner phones — not even using the services of legitimate voter contact companies.”
Elections Canada has been seeking the power to compel witnesses to testify and to require parties to provide documentation supporting their expense claims. Neither measure was included in Bill C-23.
“I would submit to you that even with those two (investigative) powers, it will be very difficult” to prosecute rogue operators, Kingsley responded.
“There are people who want to cheat. It’s a simple as that. They are few and far between, but they’re there.
“But obviously it would help if those two powers were included, and that’s what the gist of my remarks were in my recommendations to this committee — to consider them seriously before not including them,” he said.
It took Poilievre less than three hours to shoot down Kingsley’s recommendation.
During question period Tuesday, Poilievre said he believes the bill strikes the “right balance” and that he’s not prepared to have political parties and automated phone dialers hold records for more than a year.
Poilievre was previously co-owner of 3D Contact Inc., an Alberta firm that did polling, political research and automated phone calls for political candidates.
“The preservation of the script for one year, I think, is reasonable because it is mostly volunteers who will be retaining that information and to expect longer periods of time,” he said.
“It might be unreasonable for a volunteer campaign worker who does not have financial resources and is not a sophisticated political consultant.”