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Segal disagrees with Fraser on election bill

OTTAWA - Sheila Fraser's damning assessment of the Harper government's proposed overhaul of election rules is not shared by all members of the Elections Canada advisory board she co-chairs.

Conservative Sen. Hugh Segal, one of 13 members of the board, said Friday that the highly respected former auditor general was not speaking for him when she called the sweeping reforms an attack on democracy.

"She's entitled to her views and I have a high regard for her and I'm sure her concern is both sincere and awash in integrity, as is always the case," Segal told The Canadian Press.

"But I did not agree with her and she was not certainly speaking for me or, to the best of my knowledge, for anybody else who is on that advisory committee. We all have our own views."

But while Segal respectfully begged to differ, other Conservatives directly questioned Fraser's integrity. Party supporters on Twitter suggested she's nothing but a paid shill for Elections Canada, which pays her a per diem of $1,750, up to a maximum of $65,000 over three years, for co-chairing the advisory board.

Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski, who plays the governing party's lead role on the Commons committee that is studying the proposed bill, picked up that theme Friday in a letter to the committee chairman. He asked that all witnesses be required to reveal any "competing interests that weigh upon them."

"The chief electoral officer has made a practice of hiring academics, former politicians and public servants through discretionary contracts," Lukiwski wrote.

"Some of the recipients of these contracts have appeared before our committee during its hearings on the Fair Elections Act. In the interests of transparency the public should know the terms of this remuneration."

Fraser has been invited to testify at the committee next week. She tweeted Friday that she has so far earned $2,450 for her work on the blue-ribbon board, which was created by chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand last fall to give him "non-partisan advice on matters related to Canada's electoral system."

In the Commons, Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre continued implying that Fraser is simply parroting the views of Elections Canada. He did not utter her name, parrying all opposition questions about Fraser's criticisms by saying the government already knew Elections Canada's position on the reforms and disagrees with the watchdog agency.

NDP democratic reform critic Craig Scott accused Poilievre of engaging in a "soft smear by saying that everything (Fraser) says is somehow from Elections Canada and not her own voice." And he said that's "just one more piece of delusional spin from somebody who can do nothing but spin."

The advisory board is chaired by Fraser and former Supreme Court justice Ian Binnie, who was hired by the Conservative government to provide a legal opinion on the eligibility of Marc Nadon to sit on the top court — an appointment subsequently overturned by the court itself.

Other members of the committee include former Reform party leader Preston Manning, former Saskatchewan NDP premier Roy Romanow and former interim Liberal leader Bob Rae.

"As a member of the Elections Canada Advisory Committee, strongly endorse Sheila Fraser's views and her integrity," Rae tweeted Friday.

Last month, Manning urged the government to back off its proposal to prohibit the chief electoral officer from communicating with Canadians about anything other than the mechanics of how, when and where to vote. Manning said the bill should "strengthen and expand, rather than weaken the role of Elections Canada" to combat the steady decline in voter turnout.

However, it was the scathing critique by Fraser, who became a virtual folk hero for uncovering the sponsorship scandal, that rocked the government this week.

Fraser told The Canadian Press she believes Bill C-23 would disenfranchise thousands of voters, undermine the independence of the chief electoral officer, impede investigations into wrongdoing, give an unfair financial advantage to rich, established parties and erode Canadians' faith in the electoral system.

"Elections are the base of our democracy and if we do not have truly a fair election process and one that can be managed well by a truly independent body, it really is an attack on our democracy and we should all be concerned about that," Fraser said.

At no point did Fraser claim to be speaking for other advisory board members.

The bill has been almost universally panned by federal and provincial chief electoral officers, academics and electoral experts at home and abroad.

Segal believes the criticism has been over the top.

"No bill is perfect. But I think the opposition to the bill is far more intense than the content of the bill justifies," he said.

"I don't think it's a bad bill. Quite the contrary."

Critics have zeroed in particularly on proposals to eliminate the use of voter information cards to prove residency and the practice of allowing voters to vouch for the identity of those who do not have proper identification. Mayrand and others have said as many as 250,000 voters could be disenfranchised as a result.

But Segal said, "the anxiety over vouching is completely misplaced when there are over 40 (other) ways somebody without formal identification can identify themselves for the purposes of voting."

That said, he suggested the government should "be prepared to put a little water in their wine."

"I think the extent to which this is a more multi-partisan, as opposed to uni-partisan initiative will give it greater credibility."

Segal urged all sides to calm down and discuss possible amendments rationally.

"I think everybody should take a Valium here and work through the bill."

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