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Tories open to hearings, amending controversial electoral reform bill

OTTAWA - The Harper government is signalling a willingness to hold extensive hearings and entertain amendments to its controversial proposals for overhauling Canada's election laws.

However, it is so far drawing the line at conducting cross-country hearings, although it has agreed to at least reconsider the idea.

Tom Lukiwski, parliamentary secretary to the government House leader, took the conciliatory approach Tuesday as the procedure and House affairs committee met to determine the process for studying Bill C-23.

"This is a big bill ... Our suggestion will be to give it probably as much time as needed," Lukiwski said on his way into the meeting, which was held primarily behind closed doors.

He also said Conservative MPs are "going to be open" to some "reasonable" amendments to the bill.

"Clearly, the NDP would like to see almost the bill gutted. That's not going to happen," Lukiwski said. "But I've got no predisposition that we want to either deny or accept amendments."

That openness followed a signal Monday from Pierre Poilievre, the minister responsible for democratic reform, that he's willing to amend at least one provision of the bill, which prohibits Elections Canada from communicating with Canadians about anything other than how, when and where to vote.

Chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand has said his reading of that provision is that Elections Canada could no longer conduct research and issue reports on various matters and that he could "no longer speak about democracy in this country."

Opposition parties contend the provision would forbid Mayrand from informing Canadians about another orchestrated voter suppression campaign, such as the automated phone messages that misdirected thousands of voters to the wrong polling stations in the 2011 election.

However in the House of Commons, Poilievre insisted Tuesday that the provision is not intended to stop Mayrand from talking to Canadians. Rather, he said the aim is simply to focus Elections Canada's advertising on informing Canadians about the facts they need to know in order to cast ballots.

Despite the conciliatory noises from Poilievre and Lukiwski, Prime Minister Stephen Harper did not directly answer when asked by NDP Leader Tom Mulcair if he's willing to amend the bill to remove the proposed muzzle on Mayrand.

Harper merely noted that other provisions of the Elections Act, which would be unchanged by Bill C-23, require the chief electoral officer "to actually speak and make reports on various occasions" — presumably referring to his annual reports to Parliament and appearances at parliamentary committees.

Among other things, the bill would also boost the amount of money individuals can contribute to political parties and the amount parties can spend during elections. And the cost of raising money during campaigns from donors who've given at least $20 to the party over the previous five years would no longer count as a campaign expense — a provision Mayrand has said amounts to a hidden 20 per cent increase in the spending limit.

That provision prompted Mulcair to accuse the government Tuesday of "frontloading their cheating for the next election."

Harper said the exemption is aimed at compensating parties for the fact that union and corporate donations and public per-vote subsidies have been eliminated by his government in previous reforms. He termed fundraising a normal part of doing political business.

Despite the controversy the bill has sparked, Lukiwski said cross-country hearings on the bill aren't necessary. Technology, such as teleconferencing, will allow the committee to hear from anyone who wants to be heard on reforms to the Elections Act, he said.

But New Democrat MP David Christopherson, said that's not good enough — especially not for voters who live in remote areas and don't have access to video conferencing technology.

It's particularly important to hear from those people, he said, since they're the ones who stand to be disenfranchised by the bill, which would end the practice of allowing people to vouch for voters who don't have proper identification.

Aboriginals who live on reserve, in particular, often have no identification that includes a specific address.

After more than an hour behind closed doors, Lukiwski remained unconvinced that committee travel is necessary but he agreed to confer again with his colleagues and get back to the committee, thereby deferring a vote on Christopherson's motion calling for cross-country hearings.

"We notice that the foreign affairs committee in 2012 travelled all the way to Ukraine to study democracy there," Christopherson said outside the meeting room.

"We think if it's that important to study democracy in Ukraine, that we should spend some time and money studying democracy here in Canada."

Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux also insisted that committee travel is necessary. And until he gets that assurance from Lukiwski, he refused to give unanimous consent to allow hearings on the bill to begin on Thursday.

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