Good morning. Welcome to the 141st meeting of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.
Our first order of business today is the consideration of the votes under the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer in the supplementary estimates (B), 2018-19, and the interim estimates 2019-20.
We are happy to be joined today by Stéphane Perrault, Canada's Chief Electoral Officer. He is accompanied by officials from Elections Canada: Michel Roussel, deputy chief electoral officer, electoral events and innovation; and Hughes St-Pierre, deputy chief electoral officer, internal services.
Thank you all for being here.
Before you make your opening statement, I just want to explain in layman's English what we're doing.
There are two estimates. The second one is the interim estimates for the first part of next year, up to June 23, so they have money to operate while the budget is being approved. The other estimate is the supplementary estimates for the end of this year. If they're going to spend more, then it has to be approved. They're actually spending less, but because there are the two votes, the one that we have say over and then the statutory one.... In the one we have say over, they're actually spending more in this last period of the year. In the one that's statutory, they're actually spending less. In fact, it's even less, so the total is minus. That's why we're approving this, because we have to approve the part that we have a say over.
I think there's something small here that's maybe a bit misleading in the draft you got from the Library of Parliament. It says, “The Chief Electoral Officer is authorized to enter into commitments not exceeding $39,217,905.” That's for the whole year. They're not authorized for that until we approve the budget, but that would be the projection, roughly, for the year.
I'll now turn it over to you, Monsieur Perrault. It's great to have you back here again.
It's a pleasure for me to be here, especially since we are in the new building. It's the first time I've been in here.
I welcome this opportunity to appear before the committee today to present Elections Canada's supplementary and interim estimates and update you on our preparations for the general elections.
Today, the committee is voting on Elections Canada's 2018-19 Supplementary Estimates “B” as well as its 2019-20 Interim Supply.
The supplementary estimates are related to budget 2018 measures, which rebalance Elections Canada's expenditures between its parliamentary and statutory authorities. This allows Elections Canada to increase the number of its permanent employees, thereby avoiding higher contracting expenditures. While there is an increase of $1.3 million to the appropriation in 2018-19, this results in a net decrease of $26,000 to the fiscal framework over the same period.
In other words, casual, fixed-term or contractual resources that we had and that we paid on an ongoing basis in accordance with the statutory authority will now be indeterminate resources paid under the parliamentary appropriation on which the committee is voting, which is appropriate. So it's simply a transfer of money from one credit to another.
Today, the committee is also voting on Elections Canada's Interim Supply for 2019-20, which totals $9.8 million. This represents the salaries of some 440 indeterminate positions for the first quarter of the fiscal year, beginning April 1, 2019. It does not include other agency expenditures, which are funded from a statutory appropriation.
Elections Canada is now entering the final stretch of its preparations for the next general election. Chief among these is the implementation of the recent legislative changes enacted by Parliament under the . While the act provides for a general implementation period of six months, it allows me to bring provisions into force earlier if the necessary preparations are completed. My intention is to bring provisions of the law into force as soon as that is the case. As of January 19, certain provisions for which little or no preparation was required are already in force through posting in the Canada Gazette.
I am pleased to report that our IT systems have been updated to reflect modifications and will have been rigorously tested by the end of this month.
Changes to the political financing regime will be implemented in consultation with political parties through the established opinions, guidelines and interpretation notes process. Changes will be in place for the pre-writ period beginning June 30.
We are also reaching out to potential third parties—they are not known—and online platforms to inform them of their new obligations under the law.
Our general preparations for the election are progressing as planned and local election administrators are fully mobilized. A key focus for returning officers has been improving the selection of poll sites from the elector's point of view, considering accessibility, travel distance and familiarity.
For this election, we are also increasing the number of educational institutions where electors can vote by a special ballot, from 39 campuses in the last election to 115. This is part of our general efforts to assist voters who are away from home during the election. As in the past, returning officers will also deliver voting services for those who may be hospitalized, living in long-term care facilities or at remote work camps.
Returning officers have also increased the number of advance polls and advance polling locations. One of the benefits will be reduced travel distances in rural areas. Combined with other improvements, electors can also expect faster services when they vote at the next election. With the completion of Bill changes scheduled for this month, our IT infrastructure will be fully ready to be deployed to support a general election, both at headquarters and in the field.
This spring the agency is conducting an election simulation in Gatineau and in five local offices representative of a variety of settings across the country. This exercise is an opportunity to test our business processes and our IT systems in a setting that closely resembles an actual general election. As part of this, election workers will be hired, trained and will participate in simulated voting exercises. This will allow us to evaluate the quality of our training material and manuals and to make any necessary adjustments.
Finally, work continues to improve the coverage and currency of the national register of electors. We have been conducting regular mailings to invite electors who just turned 18 in the past year to register, with more than 50,000 added as a result. This spring, through our pre-writ communications campaign, we will also focus on increasing the number of electors in the register and updating information for those who have recently moved. In addition, the register will continue to benefit from regular updates from provincial jurisdictions and federal and provincial data partners.
In this regard, the provision of Bill that authorizes Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada to share with Elections Canada information on non-citizens is now in force, as of January 19. I am looking forward to finalizing arrangements this spring to access data, which will contribute to improving the integrity of the national register of electors.
A key aspect of our preparation focuses on electoral security. In the current environment, securing the next election requires efforts of many institutions. Protecting the election is a vital challenge for all participants in a democratic process. Political parties, media, digital platforms, civil society groups, and Canadians all must play a role. Over the last few years we have made important improvements to the security of our IT infrastructure and are providing IT security training to all our personnel at headquarters and in the field.
In the spring, and as we get closer to the election, we will be launching a major information campaign to give Canadians accessible information on how to register and vote. We will also be monitoring the environment, including social media, to detect inaccurate information about the voting process and quickly correct it.
Finally, we continue to work with the commissioner of Canada elections and security and intelligence agencies. Together we are conducting exercises using multiple scenarios to ensure that roles and responsibilities are clear, and that proper governance is established to coordinate our actions, should it be required. Overall, these efforts will both reinforce our protections and increase our resilience to possible attempts to disrupt the election.
With only months before the start of the 43rd general election, I believe that Elections Canada is where it needs to be in terms of its preparations. Canadians can continue to count on Elections Canada to ensure the electoral process remains accessible, convenient and secure, and to provide them any information they may require to exercise their right to vote.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. We are here to answer questions that members may have.
Mr. Perrault, Mr. Roussel and Mr. St-Pierre, thank you for being with us today.
You talked a lot about security. Last week, there was a press conference on cybersecurity. In my opinion, one organization wasn't included in the process, and my first question is about that.
Do you believe that Elections Canada should have been included? I do believe that. It has been stated that there was foreign influence in the 2015 election, based on what we have seen not only in Brexit and the United States, but around the world. The CFCA determined there will be an increase in 2019, and electoral processes indicate that.
Do you feel your organization, Elections Canada, should have been included in the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections Task Force initiated by the government last week?
It's a very good question. Because it was a government announcement, and we're not part of that, we didn't have a chance to explain our role, so I welcome this opportunity.
We will not formally be among the five public servants who would be called upon to speak publicly, if necessary. But as I explained, we're doing scenarios with the security establishment, the intelligence community. All the players who will be feeding the information to that group of five will also be working with Elections Canada.
The group of five will be speaking on matters that are not within my mandate. For example, if a party database is hacked and used to distract voters from their polling location, that's my role. I need to step out and speak publicly to that. That is not the role of this group. But the hacking itself may involve foreign actors, so CSIS, Global Affairs and CSE have an interest.
It is not a single entity's responsibility and we will be working together. But in speaking publicly, I will be speaking to the electoral process matter and that group will be speaking to the other aspects.
This actually is meant more for Nathan than it is for our guests.
Voices: Oh, oh!
Mr. Scott Reid: I just want to observe that fake news has been out there ever since the serpent said to Adam and Eve, “If you try eating this apple, it's going to give you all kinds of awesome stuff.” It seems to be what's actually happened in recent times. You can spread information more rapidly, as with this rumour, and that creates a situation in which, if you think of fake news as being mind viruses in a sense, they are more virulent. By the same token, I think the way of disproving them can also be spread more rapidly. I suspect what's needed is some kind of cultural shift to allow us to deal with the fact that something you hear at the last second ought to be treated with some suspicion. I think that, ultimately, is where we're going to find our cure for it. It doesn't mean we shouldn't look for policy solutions, but I think, as a practical matter, that's where we're likely to find our answer to last-minute assertions meant to throw us off our game.
I did have one thing for the CEO. I just wanted to say that I very much appreciate what you're trying to do with regard to rural polls, advance polls in particular, the scenario that I had some frustration with. I recognize that you are under a very difficult mandate, in that you have to make every polling place accessible to disabled persons. I think it's a 15-point test. That rules out a lot of otherwise ideal locations.
I'll just say this: I appreciate the work you're doing. I would be grateful if, in your post-election report, you could come back and indicate, number one, how successful you were, recognizing that you'll be more successful in some parts of the country and less in others for reasons that have to do with the inventory of buildings. I would also be grateful for any suggestions you might come back with as to how we need to deal with this. Maybe the 15-point test is too inflexible and actually only 12 of the 15 points are really key. I kind of threw that out as a.... Anyway, perhaps getting back to us and saying that there is a problem here but not there would help us in making sure that kind of voting is available to all Canadians, everywhere.
I was going to follow up a little bit on what Ms. Sahota touched on. I think I got a pretty good sense of where Elections Canada is at.
You mentioned five million and other things. I'm just going to express a concern. I think vulnerabilities within our systems is a significant concern. I'm glad that CSE is involved. I'm glad that you use outside contractors to identify some of those vulnerabilities, but I just hope that there's enough resources to prevent that. I think that's a major concern.
I just have one other question. You can comment on that perhaps after that.
It has to do with staffing up for the general election. I was recently on the Elections Canada website. In looking at the list of returning officers, I noticed that, in a very small number of cases, an assistant returning officer who was acting on behalf of the returning officer when they were unable to do so.
In those cases, is it the returning officer themselves that appoints their assistant to take over? Who actually appoints the assistant returning officer to that position to begin with? Does the returning officer hire their assistant returning officer? What is the process?
There's a bit of a change in the rules with Bill . Right now, we're at a point in time when it's fairly late in the game to start running competitions for filling returning officer positions. We want people to be in the driver's seat at this point. Where there sometimes is illness and a returning officer has to resign, the assistant returning officer that the RO has appointed will be stepping in as returning officer and we are assisting them.
For each region, there's a cluster of returning officers with field liaison officers. When there's a new player involved, they have the benefit of support from their colleagues in the neighbouring ridings and the field liaison officer.
You're right that the returning officer appoints the assistant returning officer. In Bill , at our request—this is something that this committee, if I remember correctly, had approved unanimously when we did the recommendations—I now have a right of review. I need to be informed of the appointment of the assistant returning officer. If I have a concern with the appointment, if a person is hiring a friend who is not a competent person, for example, then I can have a say.
These are the new rules. I am satisfied that we have in place a very solid team of returning officers. We have a strong support network to assist them, even the new ones because there are some new ones.
Nor are social media agencies required to do anything under Bill , or under this new protocol. This was a question we put to the government. We said that when it came to a whole bunch of the rules that are being established, there were the musts and therefores and shalls, but when it came to social media, the government had a set of expectations and hopes that Facebook, Twitter and others would conduct themselves in a certain way.
Those of us in politics have all experienced a lie spreading around about us, and once it's out, the genie is out of the bottle. Last year, I had a terrible headline about me on a major news network, and it took us four hours of talking to the news network saying, “That's not what happened.” The reporter admitted it, and then the headline was changed, but it didn't matter. They changed it, but it had already made its way around Twitter and social media, so much so that I spent the next five days trying to correct the false headline about what I had or hadn't done.
I'll take it to something that is in your purview: voting polls and voting stations. I remember an incident a number of years ago in which Jewish Canadian voters in a couple of Toronto ridings were contacted on the Sabbath, by people claiming to be with the federal Liberal Party. It didn't originate with the federal Liberal Party. It was somebody else doing it, trying to provoke anger in constituents in some ridings. They had somehow gotten access to the list of Jewish Canadian voters who were likely to vote Liberal.
One could imagine having access to that incredibly rich data, targeting particular Canadians with a particular message on voting stations, which we also saw: “Go here, not there.” You know that when a voter goes to line up at a voting station, gets all the way to the front and Elections Canada says, “I'm sorry, you can't vote here. You are in the wrong place. Drive across town and vote where you are supposed to,” many voters simply won't vote. It is a great tactic, or technique, for voter suppression. Is that fair to say about voters going to the wrong polling station?