The federal government's point-man on election law changes, Pierre Poilievre, is rejecting Preston Manning's call to not "weaken" and "limit" Elections Canada by blocking the agency from advertising to boost voter turnout.
Mr. Manning, the former Reform Party leader and a key figure in Canada's conservative movement, made the comments during a weekend speech at an Ottawa conference hosted by his think-tank, one where Mr. Poilievre also spoke about his proposed "Fair Elections Act."
Mr. Manning recommended a handful of changes he hoped the Conservative government would enact to "strengthen conservatism on the democratic front," warning the party risked being seen by voters as weak on democratic principles. He urged Mr. Poilievre, Canada's Minister of State for Democratic Reform, to amend the Fair Elections Act "to strengthen and expand rather than weaken the role of Elections Canada with respect to addressing the greatest challenge to the Canadian electoral system, which is not its unfairness… the greatest challenge to our electoral system is the steady decline in voter turnout in elections. Let's strengthen our capacity to address that."
Conservative parties "need to constantly affirm and re-affirm our commitment to extending, rather than limiting, democratic expression," Mr. Manning later added.
In essence, he called on the government to beef up the role of the Chief Electoral Officer, rather than scale it back with a bill that would place limits on what the officer can say publicly.
Asked if he'd consider doing that, Mr. Poilievre's spokeswoman sent a written statement Tuesday that re-emphasized the minister's position that Elections Canada has failed to address voter turnout and that political parties should instead be tasked with motivating voters.
The statement did not address Mr. Manning by name. In the House of Commons on Monday, Mr. Poilievre said Mr. Manning had praised the Fair Elections Act.
"We welcome Mr. Manning's comments, also in their entirety, which I will read," Mr. Poilievre said, before continuing: "This legislation, which is a commendable democratic initiative, seeks to eliminate those practices – robo-calling, misuse of the vouching provision, misuse of election contributions, etc. – which discredit elections and parties associated with them. It also seeks to strengthen the enforcement of electoral law by separating that role from Elections Canada and making it the sole jurisdiction of the Independent Commissioner of Elections under the Director for Public Prosecutions."
Mr. Manning, however, did not say those words.
His prepared speech on Saturday included that paragraph, but Mr. Manning skipped over it in delivering the speech. It's unclear why.
He'd previously also urged government to continue to pursue its Senate reform bill, C-7, which Mr. Manning said had been "eloquently championed" by Mr. Poilievre.
In the written statement Tuesday, Mr. Poilievre noted voter turnout has fallen – Elections Canada figures show it was 75 per cent in 1988 and 61 per cent in 2011, up from 58 per cent in 2008, the all-time low for a general election. "Evidence shows that Elections Canada fails to drive turnout up, because it does not address the practical obstacles that prevent many from voting," the written statement from Mr. Poilievre's office said, adding young voters are particularly more likely to not know the basics of when and how they can vote.
"The bill will focus all of Elections Canada's promotional campaigns on two purposes: informing people of the basics of voting: how to register, how to become a candidate, where, when and what ID to bring to vote; and informing disabled people of the extra tools available to help them vote," the statement said. "It will be left to aspiring candidates and parties to give people something for which to vote, and to reach out to citizens where they are."
Mr. Manning also called on the government to make a second amendment to the Fair Elections Act – adding a line making it clear that political training for MPs, staff, candidates and campaigners do not apply to election spending limits. Mr. Poilievre's statement left the door open to such a change, saying: "We encourage the committee to study all these questions." Mr. Manning's eponymous think-tank runs training programs.