Thank you for inviting me to discuss the 2014-2015 main estimates for my office.
I am accompanied, on my right, by Mr. Hughes St-Pierre, Chief Financial and Planning Officer, Mr. Belaineh Deguefé, Deputy Chief Electoral Officer, Integrated Services, Policy and Public Affairs and Mr. Michel Roussel, Deputy Chief Electoral Officer, Electoral Events.
Prior to discussing my office's report on plans and priorities, I wish to remind the committee that, at the time of preparing our main estimates, Bill had yet to be introduced. As a consequence, the priorities outlined in the report will need to be reviewed and adjusted. We will also review our operating budget and draw on the statutory authority to deal with additional expenditures that may be required.
I would like to appear before the committee again in the fall to give you more information on our progress in implementing the provisions of the Canada Elections Act; on key changes for the next general election in this new operating context; and on our initial budget estimates for that election. As we continue our preparations, I would like to underline my commitment, and that of my staff, to implementing the provisions of the act in a timely and effective manner.
Today, the committee is studying our annual appropriation, which is $30.5 million. This represents the salaries of approximately 350 full-time-equivalent employees. Combined with our statutory authority, which funds all other expenditures under the Canada Elections Act, our 2014-15 main estimates total $97.1 million. This is a $18.7 million decrease from our 2013-14 main estimates. There are three main reasons for it: the phasing out of quarterly allowances to political parties, a $7.4 million decrease; the completion of the main components of our office consolidation project, a $9.3 million decrease; and the conclusion of the redistribution of electoral districts, a $2.5 million decrease.
The major focus of my office for this fiscal year is completing preparatory work and mobilizing our resources to achieve a state of election readiness for an election called after April 2015. In preparation for a 2015 general election, we are improving the services required for voters. This includes implementing the provisions of Bill . Our overall objectives are to ensure the integrity of the conduct of elections and make it easier for Canadians to register and vote. I would like to explain some of this work in more detail.
As indicated in our management response to the 2013 compliance review report, we are planning additional administrative measures to improve compliance with election day procedures. These include improved recruitment practices, modernized training, and when possible, simplified procedures and clearer instructions for election workers.
Record-keeping errors occur when election officers handle exceptions, such as voters whose names do not appear on the list. To address this issue, we will pursue measures to ensure that we have the most accurate and current voters list possible on election day.
This year, Elections Canada will introduce a new voter registration system. This system will combine a new, online registration service with a new approach to revising the voters list during an election, one that targets polling divisions known for high volumes of polling day registrations, and it will promote voter registration among first-time electors. To make this possible, my office has invested in developing a secure national voter database that can be updated in real time by returning officers and electors themselves during an election.
We are also making improvements to the electoral reminder program, which is our multi-media advertising and information campaign for elections. It delivers information to electors on where, when, and how to register and vote, and how to provide their identity and address.
For the next general election, information will be provided in a wide variety of new formats. There will be frequent reminders to ensure that Canadians know how to register and know their options for voting: on election day, at advance polls, by mail, or at their local Elections Canada office.
One important focus will be on reaching electors before the issue of the writs through targeted promotion of online registration to reduce the registration at the poll.
I have provided members with a handout that summarizes the goal of the program, the channel we will use to connect with electors, and the general timing of its rollout.
Finally, we will offer increased specialty communications for people with varying abilities, such as products in Braille or large print, open- and closed-captioned videos, and specialty audio broadcasts. As well, our website will describe the accessibility of individual polling sites. We will also continue to provide information in numerous aboriginal and heritage languages.
Another priority this fiscal year will be, of course, to implement the new provisions of the act resulting from Bill . I will mention only two aspects today.
First, Bill moves the Commissioner of Canada Elections from our agency to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. My officials have initiated discussion with that office for the transfer of the commissioner and his staff.
Second, Bill requires the Chief Electoral Officer to issue non-binding guidelines and interpretation notes as well as written opinions on the application of the act to registered parties and associations, nomination contestants, candidates, and leadership contestants. We plan to convene the advisory committee of political parties in the fall to determine an approach and forward agenda for addressing these provisions. I intend to use this opportunity to formalize the committee's role as an advisory body to the Chief Electoral Officer.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. My colleagues and I are happy to answer questions that the committee may have.
Yes, at the risk of blowing up all this great kumbaya, the first thing I'd like to do is serve notice of a motion:
That the Committee conduct a study into the provision of services to the House of Commons Liberal Caucus out of resources of the Senate of Canada in contravention of the Members By-Laws of the House of Commons since the 2011 election, and that in preparation for these hearings the Liberal Research Bureau provide to the Committee all organizational charts, all employment records (with personal information redacted), and all the briefing materials which were produced by employees of the Senate of Canada and then distributed to the Liberal House of Commons Caucus.
That now serves as notice, Chair. We'll deal with it at the appropriate time.
Mr. Mayrand, I'd like to deal right off the top with recent media reports regarding investigations that you may or may not be currently conducting. Certainly, if you read some of the media, you would be left with the impression that the NDP is specifically under investigation, and yet when we look at the recent letter that you sent to the Speaker, there isn't the word “investigation” nor “NDP” there.
I would ask you, sir, with respect, as much as you can in light of the confidentiality around your procedures of investigation, can you tell us whether or not it is indeed specifically only the NDP that is under some kind of investigation, or are you looking at the mailing system itself and therefore all the parties, or, indeed, is there nothing going on and everybody should move along as there's nothing here to see?
Perhaps you could help clarify, sir.
I just want to clarify that I do not carry out investigations. That's the sole exclusive responsibility of the Commissioner of Canada Elections. I have been contacted; I have received correspondence twice from the Board of Internal Economy regarding matters of use of parliamentary resources. I have indicated in one letter that, as far as we are concerned, the material that was provided was released prior to the issuance of the writ, and therefore according to our long-standing interpretation, are not election expenses.
I received a second letter asking me to look at the broader issue of use of franking privileges that may have constituted contributions from the point of view.... I'm talking from memory here of the letter.
Both of these letters were copied to the commissioner, as was my response to those letters. I indicated in the first letter, again, that the matter, based on the information provided, did not fall under the purview of the Elections Act. In the second matter I indicated to the Board of Internal Economy that it could raise potentially serious issues as to the interface of the rule of the House and the Canada Elections Act. In that regard, I indicated that we would engage in discussion with House officials on how we could harmonize those rules, if possible, and that I will be issuing at some point in time probably what will be one of the first guidelines that I will be issuing in the new act, hopefully to clarify how parliamentary resources use can interact with the Canada Elections Act.
I think it's particularly important, now that we're moving into a fixed-date regime, that this road should be as clear as possible.
I want to return to the matter of the $340,000 in illegal contributions received by the New Democratic Party. The contributions are illegal under subsection 404(2) of the Elections Act, which reads inter alia:
If a registered party...receives a contribution from an ineligible contributor, the chief agent of the registered party...shall, within 30 days after becoming aware of the ineligibility, return the contribution unused to the contributor or, if that is not possible, pay the amount of it...to the Chief Electoral Officer....
I've looked at how these were received over a period of three conventions, a period of a number of years, and looked at the very limited commercial value associated with the contributions; basically, it's this billboard at a convention centre. It is hard to believe that any person could have received this money and have accepted seriously that this was full value for money. Therefore, I would contend that the relevant officer or officers of the New Democratic Party were in contravention of subsection 404(2) of the Elections Act.
Not only ought these funds to have been returned but it seems to me that a prosecution ought to have occurred for the violation of that section of the act. They did not return those funds, clearly, within 30 days of having received them, not even within several years of having received the initial funds, let alone even the last funds.
I wonder if I could get your response to that.
Let me start now before I use all the minutes up trying to figure out why that is.
Mr. Mayrand, you were before this committee on March 29, 2012. At that time we were looking into the question of robocalls.
As everybody recalls, there were two separate issues at work here. Issue number one was matters going on in Guelph. I'm well aware that these are now before the courts; in fact, I think they are before the courts this very day. I won't ask you to comment on them, but separately, there was an investigation into the accusation, which turned out to be an entirely unfounded accusation, that there had been a widespread nationwide robocalls attempt to mislead voters and guide them to the wrong polling locations.
It turned out after the fact that it was actually a group called Leadnow that was trying to encourage people to phone in. There were thousands of calls, mostly expressions of concern or e-mails, and most of them turned out to be template letters. Nonetheless, this created a media storm over an imaginary scandal.
You came before the committee and gave some testimony at that time on the subject. You said at that time, around 11 a.m., “We have added sufficient resources to deal with the inflow of communications and to contact electors who have specific factual allegations”, in other words, not the ones for addressing concern as a Canadian, but those who had specific allegations. That was subsequently something that was turned over to the commissioner who reported that in fact there were 1,700 actual complainants making 2,448 complaints, a substantial number of which turned out to be on an unrelated phishing scam that was confused in the minds of those electors.
At any rate, what I wanted to find out is, how much in actual resources was devoted to this? How many actual dollars wound up being involved?
Thank you, Monsieur Mayrand, for coming again to the committee.
I hope when you come in the fall, you might be able to address the following questions.
Some of the concerns coming out of Bill were that we might end up with some unexpected bottlenecks and challenges at the polls. Voter information cards will no longer be able to be used. It could be that we end up with even more vouching in 2015 than we had in 2011. Vouching for address has been restored—it's in the new bill—but people will not be able to prove address with the voter information card. It's reasonable to assume that more people might well need to be vouched for than was even the case in 2011. That takes resources,and it takes training, and there could potentially be bottlenecks in areas where that's most likely.
The second thing is that Bill includes the right of scrutineers effectively to challenge, to see but not handle identification, with very unclear rules about what happens when they don't like what they see. There is a practice in certain jurisdictions for that to be aggressively used as a right by scrutineers and it can create lineups.
I'm hoping that Elections Canada can take into consideration these kinds of scenarios in planning their budget. I'd be grateful for any information on that in the fall. If you have any comments now, that's fine. Otherwise, it's just a request for the future.