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Poilievre open to Senate recommendations

OTTAWA - Pierre Poilievre says he's open to considering nine recommendations from a Senate committee for changing his controversial overhaul of election laws.

But critics of the democratic reform minister's Fair Elections Act said Tuesday the proposed changes, while welcome, don't go anywhere near far enough.

Even with the changes, they said the bill will still politicize polling stations, disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters and give an unfair financial advantage to rich parties.

Moreover, they contended the bill fails to give elections officials the power needed to ensure political parties abide by the law and to investigate malfeasance like the misleading robocalls that plagued the 2011 election.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said it says something about what an affront the bill is to democracy that even Conservative senators think it needs some fundamental changes.

"We were quite surprised to see that even Mr. (Prime Minister Stephen) Harper's appointed senators, people who have never been elected to anything, have a deeper understanding of the importance of fair elections than Mr. Harper does," Mulcair said during an event in Toronto.

He called the Senate committee's interim report on the bill "salutary" but added: "It doesn't go far enough."

For his part, Poilievre commended senators on the legal and constitutional affairs committee for "their good work."

"The committee's report has just been released and I look forward to studying it carefully and with an open mind. I have always been open to ways we can make a great bill even better," he said in a statement issued by his office.

Chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand and elections commissioner Yves Cote, two of the strongest critics of the bill, declined to comment on the Senate committee's report.

Other electoral experts, who have universally panned the bill, said they're withholding comment until they see what, if any, actual amendments are proposed by the House of Commons committee that has not yet completed its study of the bill.

The Senate committee began a rare "pre-study" of the bill last week, before the Commons committee even begins considering possible amendments. Tuesday's interim report appeared aimed at signalling to MPs the minimum changes necessary to win approval from senators.

The Conservative-dominated committee wants to drop a provision to exempt fundraising pitches to existing donors from campaign expenses - a provision critics say amounts to a loophole that would allow rich, well-established parties, particularly the Conservatives, to spend untold millions more during campaigns.

Senators have not, however, recommended any change to the proposed increases in donation and campaign spending limits.

Nor have they recommended any changes to two provisions — a ban on vouching and the use of voter information cards as proof of address — which experts say could disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters who don't have adequate ID.

Instead, senators make two suggestions for helping those voters most likely to have trouble producing documentation that proves their address —students, seniors in longterm care facilities, transients and aboriginals.

They suggest First Nations bands, homeless shelters and seniors' residences be legally required to provide documents attesting to residents' names and addresses. They also recommend that verified copies of electronic correspondence — not just the original paper documents — be considered an acceptable form of ID.

"We're incredibly disappointed," said Jonathon Champagne, executive director of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations.

"Not one of the proposed amendments resolves the problems that students have with the Fair Elections Act."

The three Liberal senators on the committee agreed with the nine recommendations but also issued a minority report arguing that more needs to be done.

If the proposed ban on vouching and the use of voter information cards is not reversed, the Liberals argued the bill will be unconstitutional because it fails to provide sufficient safeguards to ensure voters aren't disenfranchised.

They also want the commissioner of elections, who investigates breaches and enforces elections laws, to have the power to compel witness testimony. And they want the chief electoral officer's broad mandate to communicate with Canadians restored.

Conservative senators recommend that the proposed muzzle on the chief electoral officer be loosened somewhat, enabling him to continue involvement in education programs for young people. And they say both the commissioner and chief electoral officer should be able to speak out about any problems in the electoral system.

Neither the Conservative nor Liberal senators take issue with the bill's proposal to hive the commissioner off Elections Canada and move him in with the director of public prosecutions. Mayrand and Cote have both said the move is unnecessary and could cut off the commissioner from the expertise at Elections Canada.

To rectify the latter concern, the Senate report recommends that the bill explicitly specify that communications are to continue between the commissioner and chief electoral officer.

The Senate committee isn't the only group calling on Poilievre to consider changes to his legislation.

Alberta Conservative MP James Rajotte has written Poilievre "to convery concerns expressed about the Fair Elections Act by a number of constituents."

"These constituents are requesting substantial amendments to this legislation," Rajotte wrote, noting that he supported the bill and believes it contains "many good measures."

Rajotte, who represents Edmonton-Leduc, says vouching, fundraising and the role of the elections commissioner are among the issues raised by his constituents.

— With files from Diana Mehta in Toronto

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