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Chief electoral officer: dated referendum law may ‘shock’ Canadians

By Chelsea Nash      

Marc Mayrand says the lack of restrictions on spending by referendum supporters and opponents should be updated.

Marc Mayrand will leave his position as chief electoral officer on Dec. 28, after a long and eventful mandate. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia
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Marc Mayrand, Canada’s chief electoral officer, is wrapping up his mandate by offering his thoughts on hot-button topics like electoral reform, referendums, and his post-election recommendations, which are currently being studied in committee.

His last day in the office will be Dec. 28 of this year. He has submitted his final report to Parliament, and sat before both the House Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and the Special Committee on Electoral Reform to offer his insight into the many ongoing discussions about the state of Canada’s electoral system.

Mr. Mayrand has had a long and exciting, if not controversial, tenure as Canada’s chief electoral officer.

He was first appointed to the position at the beginning of 2007, under former prime minister Stephen Harper. 

In 2014, roughly a year and a half before the election that would see Mr. Harper and his Conservatives undergo a tough defeat to the incoming majority Liberal government, the Fair Elections Act was introduced.

Mr. Mayrand was in good company in his outspoken opposition to the bill, which was officially deemed C-23. However, he was one person who found himself subject to public and personal attacks from Mr. Harper’s team of MPs. Asked if that was one of the greater challenges of his mandate, Mr. Mayrand replied that it was “one piece.”

Election days themselves were his focus, he said, which is perhaps why he appears so committed to improving the process bit-by-bit each round.

Mr. Mayrand sat down with The Hill Times last week to hash out some of the more pressing matters crossing his desk before he leaves his post.

On electoral reform:

First and foremost, electoral reform is the phrase on everyone’s lips when considering Canada’s current electoral framework. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) made a point of promising that the last election would be the last one under the current first-past-the-post system. Since then, he appears to have taken a step back from that promise. He suggested in a French interview with Le Devoir that there seems to be less of an appetite for electoral reform amongst Canadians now that the Liberals are in power.

When asked if he thought government should update the current system, Mr. Mayrand remained objective.

“It certainly needs to be modernized,” he said. But, he stressed that his job as an officer of Parliament is to inform Parliamentarians, “give them the tools they need for their consideration.”

“So far, Elections Canada has not taken an active role. We’ll see with the report, and particularly with legislation, what exactly are the ramifications of proposed reform.”

He said he himself did not prefer one system over another, saying they all had their advantages and disadvantages, first-past-the-post included.

On a referendum:

The head of Elections Canada was a little more open about discussing the challenges and potential flaws if a referendum were to be called on electoral reform, pointing out that the Referendum Act has not been updated since the early ’90s.

“The rules that would govern the Referendum Act could come as somewhat of a shock to Canadians,” he said. For example, political financing rules are very different under the Referendum Act than they are under the Canada Elections Act. The ‘yay’ and ‘nay’ camps of the referendum would have no limit to contributions, meaning corporations would be able to fund one side or another, depending on their interests.

If there were to be a referendum, Mr. Mayrand said his office would need at least six months’ notice to set it all up. He has also said the office would need a minimum of two years’ notice of electoral reform to work out any kinks. According to that timeline, the latest a referendum could be held, and have electoral reform still implemented in time for the next election, would be March 2017.

On the Fair Elections Act:

Mr. Mayrand spoke out about the potential consequences of the Conservatives’ 2014 Fair Elections Act at the time. He was then harshly criticised by the Harper government, and accused by Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre (Carleton, Ont.), then the minister of state for democratic reform, of only criticizing the bill because he wanted a bigger budget for his office.

Mr. Mayrand said he had never gone through anything like the controversy over Bill C-23 “as publicly as I have in this context.”  

“I guess you have to learn to develop a thick skin,” he said. “We have a role to play, and we have a legislation to administer, that sets out our mandate, and our responsibility. Our duty first, is to the rule of law.”

Generally, he avoided getting into how it felt to be publicly bashed by Mr. Poilievre on a personal level. He said he has always tried his “best to inform Parliamentarians of the consequences of some of the proposed legislation, leaving it up to them to decide what was the better course of action.”

But at the end of the day, he said, shrugging his shoulders, “it’s for Parliament to determine the policy. It’s for Elections Canada to administer that policy as voted by Parliament.”


On what he wants his successor to know:

“Canada is a large and diverse country,” he said. “I think conceptually, it’s nice to say that, but it hits home when you start trying to deliver a service in 20,000 points of service across the country. It has a geography that is daunting. Reaching out to each and every elector is a constant challenge, so don’t underestimate that challenge. Don’t take it for granted.”

Mr. Mayrand said at the end of the day, for him, not much else matters except election day. He remembers all three that he oversaw “vividly.”

“All elections have their background stories. [The last election] was a very successful one. It was a historical election, and the longest in modern history. The highest spending cap. Very significantly, it was the first time we had voting on a Sunday at advance polls. Also, probably I believe, the most expensive election, but the most important thing at the end of the day was the turnout,” he said, which increased seven per cent from the previous election.

On trends in the coming years:

Modernizing the electoral process, and bringing it into the 21st century is the next step for Elections Canada, says Mr. Mayrand.

We need to be more attuned to the broader trends in society. Canadians are technologically savvy, our electoral process is not, in their point of view. Canadians are ever-more mobile, and again, we have a process that links individuals to particular geographic points, which is hard to reconcile with the busy life of many Canadians,” he said.

Then, there is Canada’s aging population to consider. “Election after election…we have more seniors who are homebound, who have voted all their life, but [are] now facing some limitations. We need to find ways to continue to service them.”

If he could choose from the broad range of issues outlined in his recommendations, Mr. Mayrand said improving accessibility would top the list.

“I see very little reason in this day and age why a blind person could not vote, independently, and secretly. I think it is something that can be addressed, should be addressed, and hopefully Parliament will support.”

His successor, whomever that may be, will have their work cut out for them. Mr. Mayrand addressed those issues in his last report to Parliament, titled, An Electoral Framework for the 21st Century: Recommendations from the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada Following the 42nd General Election, and while he appeared before the PROC committee on several occasions to discuss his recommendations, he won’t be in office to see the recommendations addressed in a report to Parliament from the committee, and then through legislation after that.

“I’m taking a long holiday,” he said with a smile, when asked what his plans for the new year will be. He wants to go south of the border, at least, and will likely be entering retirement. (If he does anything, it won’t be full time. “I’m not planning another career, my wife would not allow it,” he joked.)

That said, he’ll always keep one eye turned towards the goings-on of Canada’s electoral system. “You can leave Elections Canada, I’m not sure Elections Canada leaves you,” he said. Plus, he’ll be able to participate in the electoral process by voting again, something the CEO is prevented from doing.


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