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Elections commissioner not consulted on Fair Elections Act

Canada's commissioner of elections says his office was never consulted on the Fair Elections Act, and that some of the controversial bill's provisions could hamper the investigations he conducts.

Commissioner of Canada Elections Yves Cote, the official at Elections Canada who investigates electoral fraud, appeared before the procedure and house affairs committee Tuesday night and told MPs that neither he nor anyone from his office had been approached by the minister for democratic reform about the Fair Elections Act.

"I was not consulted by the minister on the bill," he said.

He also told MPs that separating the commissioner's office from agency and moving it into the Department of Public Prosecutions, as required by the act, is a step in the wrong direction.

"With the separation of the commissioner from Elections Canada, there is, in my view, a danger in the long term of a disconnect between the administration of the rules and their enforcement," Cote said.

Tory MP Tom Lukiwski suggested that since the chief electoral officer, who presides over Elections Canada, appoints the commissioner, Cote and the work he does isn't fully independent, and added that moving over to the DPP might fix this.

Cote said that in his two years on the job, however, there have been no attempts to interfere in his work by the chief electoral officer.

The CEO can refer an investigation to the commissioner, but it would be completely up to the investigators to decide on how to proceed, Cote added. His presumption would be, he said, that if the CEO refers a file, as an officer of Parliament, there's good reason for it.

Instead, Cote wants his office to remain within Elections Canada. He said that separating the two would have a negative impact on information sharing and that to avoid this risk, it's critical that the relationship between the two entities "be preserved and nurtured."

Cote noted that one very important amendment he'd like in the bill would be to give the elections commissioner the ability to seek a court order to compel testimony.

In his experience, he said, it's not uncommon for people to refuse to cooperate, which can limit an investigation and cause significant delays. Bill C-23, however, does not include this provision.

With regard to the provision of Bill C-23 that deals with voter contact calling services, Cote said it's important to identify the source of the call immediately, and that telephone numbers used to make these calls -- whether they're automated or done live -- should be available to the commissioner, through the CRTC. This, as well, is not part of Bill C-23.

"Without telephone numbers," he said, "it is difficult to see how the proposed regime can be of much use."

The commissioner added that he has some deep concerns with the limitations imposed by the bill on his ability to inform the public of the results of investigations. Privacy and confidentiality are often important in investigations, and commissioners tend to not comment or disclose information except when necessary, he said.

"There are, however, rare but important exceptions to this," he told the committee.

"Where allegations have been publicly made that cast a doubt on the integrity of an election, and where an investigation shows these allegations to be unfounded, it is important for the commissioner to be able to reassure Canadians by making his findings public, including by providing factual details of what was uncovered."

Laura Beaulne-Stuebing reports for iPolitics, where this article first appeared.

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