OTTAWA – Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre launched an all-out and highly personal attack Tuesday on Canada’s chief elections watchdog.
He accused chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand of opposing the controversial, proposed overhaul of elections laws because he wants more power for himself, more money and less accountability.
Moreover, Poilievre said Mayrand is making “astounding,” “amazing” and untrue allegations as he grasps at straws to defeat Bill C-23, the so-called Fair Elections Act.
And he predicted that Mayrand will never support the bill, no matter what amendments or improvements may be made to it, because the government will not give him what he wants.
“His recommendations really boil down to three broad requirements for him,” Poilievre told the Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee as it launched a “pre-study” of the bill before the House of Commons considers amendments or passes it.
“He wants more power, a bigger budget and less accountability.”
The broadside drew sharp condemnation in the Commons during the daily question period.
“Will the prime minister stand in this House and apologize to parliamentarians, and apologize to Marc Mayrand, for that cowardly, baseless attack on Canada’s chief electoral officer?” NDP Leader Tom Mulcair demanded.
Stephen Harper responded by congratulating Philippe Couillard, the Quebec Liberal party leader, for his victory Monday night in the provincial election.
Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux, who sits on the committee studying the bill, said it was “shameful” that Poilievre would “verbally assault” the chief electoral officer.
“I stand by my testimony from this morning at the Senate committee,” Poilievre cooly responded.
Poilievre told senators he is “at peace with” Mayrand’s objections to the bill but disagrees with his recommendations.
And he reminded the committee that the chief electoral officer is supposed to serve Parliament, “not the other way around.”
Among the “new powers (Mayrand) seeks for himself,” Poilievre cited the recommendation that Elections Canada be empowered to audit the books of political parties and demand invoices and receipts — a long-standing request by Mayrand and his predecessor, Jean-Pierre Kingsley.
He argued it’s sufficient that parties must hire an external auditor to verify their election expense returns and, if the chief electoral officer suspects a problem, he can turn it over to the commissioner of elections to investigate. The commissioner, Poilievre said, can seek a court order to demand access to all documents.
He dismissed another long-standing request that the elections commissioner, who investigates breaches and enforces election laws, be empowered to seek a court order to compel witness testimony. Poilievre said not even the police have such powers.
“(Police) are able to secure convictions even with complex evidence and unco-operative witnesses, without compelling testimony. If Elections Canada can not do the same, perhaps that says something about the cases being investigated, rather than the powers of the investigator.”
Elections commissioner Yves Cote has said the inability to compel witnesses has frustrated his ability to investigate the robocall scandal, in which thousands of primarily non-Conservative voters in 2011 received misleading calls directing them to the wrong polling stations. A Federal Court judge has concluded the calls were made using the Conservative party’s massive voter identification data base.
Poilievre reserved his most scathing criticism for Mayrand’s opposition to the proposal to move the elections commissioner out of Elections Canada and put it under the auspices of the director of public prosecution.
“He is fighting to retain this power, making some incredible claims and inventing some novel legal principles to do it,” he asserted.
The claim that the commissioner is already independent “is demonstrably untrue in law and in practice,” he said, noting the chief electoral officer hires and can fire the commissioner and that the Canada Elections Act specifies that the CEO “shall direct” the commissioner to make any inquiry that seems necessary.
Both Cote and his predecessor, William Corbett, have testified that the chief electoral officer has never interfered in their investigations.
Moreover, Poilievre accused Elections Canada of questioning the independence of the director of public prosecutions (the DPP), something he branded an “an astounding suggestion.” He noted that the DPP has been responsible for prosecuting election law offences since 2007 and Elections Canada has, until now, hailed his independence.
“The agency has reversed itself on this point only now that its CEO is fighting to retain his personal control over the investigative function. He is doing this by having spokespeople cast doubt on the independence of that office,” he said.
Poilievre didn’t say to whom he was referring regarding spokespeople.
Mayrand himself has been relatively muted on the issue. At a Commons committee last week, Cote said he has every confidence that the DPP would not interfere in his investigations.
Nevertheless, Cote said the fact that the DPP would report to the attorney general on the commissioner’s activities “does, it seems to me, present challenges, at least in terms of perception.”
Former auditor general Sheila Fraser, who co-chairs an Elections Canada advisory board, has raised similar concerns.
Both Cote and Corbett last week argued that housing the investigative and prosecutorial functions in the DPP’s office departs from the long-standing principle of keeping the two functions separate — “a separation that was deemed sufficiently important in 2006 to remove prosecutions from the commissioner,” Cote noted.
Poilievre said it’s “astounding” to claim there’s some “ancient principle” of separation between the investigative and prosecutorial functions when it comes to election laws. Prior to the creation of the DPP seven years ago, he noted that the elections commissioner was responsible for both investigating and prosecuting breaches of the law from within Elections Canada.
“With these arguments, one is left with the perception that the CEO is grasping to find some justification to remain in charge of the investigator.”
Mayrand was to testify at the Senate committee later Tuesday.
A Commons committee is simultaneously conducting hearings on the bill and has yet to consider any possible amendments.