Ottawa cuts short election reform debate to rush bill through before 2019 vote

Ballot box.
The City of Calgary is proposing to upgrade voter accessibility and services to get more bodies to the ballot box for the October civic election. File Photo

The Trudeau government shut down debate Wednesday on a massive bill to overhaul federal election laws, rushing in a bid to ensure the reforms can be implemented in time for the 2019 election.

After four days of preliminary debate on Bill C-76, the government invoked time allocation to cut off further discussion, and force a second reading vote and send the legislation off to committee where it can be examined in depth and amendments can be proposed.

READ MORE: Justin Trudeau to welcome amendments from opposition to proposed voting reforms

The bill received approval in principle by a vote of 196-85, with support from New Democrats despite their outrage over what they called heavy-handed tactics on legislation dealing with Canada’s most fundamental democratic process.

“This is the height of hypocrisy from the Liberals,” said NDP democratic reform critic Nathan Cullen, noting that Liberals railed against the previous Conservative government when it unilaterally rammed through widely denounced changes to election laws.

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“This is a crisis of their own making,” he added, recounting how the government sat on an election law reform bill for 18 months without lifting a finger to move it along, the contents of which have now been rolled into C-76.

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Cullen predicted the government will also cut short a committee study and final debate on the bill. Government House leader Bardish Chagger said it would be “ideal” if the bill could be approved by both the House of Commons and the Senate by the time Parliament breaks for the summer at the end of June – an incredibly tight timeline that would likely necessitate further time limits on study and debate.

“It would be ideal to have royal assent, so hopefully all parliamentarians can work together to strengthen our democratic institutions so that it can be fully in force for the next election,” she said in an interview.

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Chagger suggested lengthy debate is not necessary since 85 per cent of the measures are recommendations from Elections Canada and
many have already been studied by the committee.

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It’s not just C-76 that the government is determined to see passed by the summer. Chagger said she will soon introduce a motion to allow for evening sittings of the Commons for the next four weeks in a bid to ensure a raft of other bills are wrapped up, including legislation dealing with firearms, budget implementation, national security and environmental assessment.

“There’s so many good pieces of legislation that need time to have meaningful debate, as well as to go through the process, and if we don’t endeavour or at least attempt to get them as far as possible, then it will be unfortunate,” she said.

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“So it seems it’s necessary to extend the hours so that we can get more work done for Canadians.” On C-76, Chagger echoed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s insistence that the government looks forward to “robust discussions” at committee and is open to opposition amendments to improve the legislation.

READ MORE: Liberals keen to push through voting reforms ahead of 2019 federal election

“This is about our democratic institutions. It belongs to all Canadians and we want all Canadians to be represented and heard,” she said.

The NDP has proposed that the committee hold cross-country hearings on the bill. Chagger said it’s up to the committee, which is dominated by Liberals, to decide how it wants to proceed.

Among other things, the bill would reverse some the most controversial changes made by the previous Conservative government, including restoring the voter information card as a valid piece of identification, reviving the practice of vouching for a voter without ID and restoring the chief electoral officer’s authority to conduct voter education and outreach.

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It would also repeal the prohibition on voting by expat Canadians who have been out of the country for more than five years; limit the amount of money political parties and advocacy groups can spend in the three months prior to the official election call; cap the maximum length of a campaign at 50 days; attempt to limit the use of foreign money by third parties and require parties to publish their policies for protecting the privacy of personal information they amass on voters.

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Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer signalled Wednesday that his party will certainly propose amendments. He kept up his criticism of the bill, arguing that it would allow two special interest groups to outspend a political party during the pre-writ period.

“Leadnow, Unifor, the Dogwood Initiative, all together could massively outspend … an opposition party and that opposition party would be hamstrung in terms of responding to that,” he said, naming groups that in the past have campaigned against the Conservatives.

“We want the government to take into account the effect these changes are having, which is hamstringing political parties who raise their money freely from donors while at the same time empowering third party special interest groups who have access to foreign funding to quickly outspend those political parties.”

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