Harper’s next fight?

Mark Mayrand has big plans to reform the way we run elections. Will the government listen?

When a judge decided last spring not to order new elections in six federal ridings where voters had received phone calls directing them to false polling locations, the ruling was a victory of sorts for the Conservatives. After all, the case, launched by the left-leaning Council of Canadians, was the first real test of whether the Tories might pay a price for what’s been dubbed the “robocalls” affair, after the automated calls used in the 2011 election to confuse voters. But even though Federal Court Justice Richard Mosley found there wasn’t enough evidence to require any sitting Conservative MPs to face by-elections, he didn’t hold back when it came to describing their tactics. In no uncertain terms, he wrote that they “engaged in trench warfare” in a bid to “block these proceedings by any means,” while their party “made little effort to assist with the investigation.”

It was the sternest official assessment so far of the way Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s party reacts to probes into how it has campaigned. Marc Mayrand, Canada’s chief electoral officer, hasn’t spoken nearly so bluntly; he usually takes pains not to sound confrontational. Still, asked about Mosley’s characterization of Conservative stonewalling, Mayrand didn’t hesitate to endorse it. “The judge was very clear and severe in his comments,” he told Maclean’s. “I think it was a point he made strongly and he should be listened to.” And Mayrand speaks from experience: he’s overseen federal elections since 2007, tried to sort out their often messy aftermaths, and urged major reforms for future campaigns. He often seems locked in a contest of wills with a governing party largely defined by its fierce approach to waging and winning electoral battles.

Mayrand is about to face what might be the biggest test yet of his influence as Canadian democracy’s top watchdog. Next week’s Throne Speech, which will set out the government’s new agenda, is expected to signal how soon Harper plans to table long-delayed election reform legislation, likely later this fall. Mayrand’s reactions, pro and con, are bound to be key to the Prime Minister’s ability to sell the bill’s merits—and use it to repair his Tories’ reputation for dubious campaign tactics. They exceeded spending limits with their so-called “in and out” scheme in the 2006 election. Harper’s former parliamentary secretary, Ontario MP Dean Del Mastro, was recently charged over local campaign-financing irregularities dating back to the 2008 election, leading him to resign from the Conservative caucus while his case goes to court. And, of course, voter complaints about misleading robocalls in the 2011 election are the subject of a prolonged Elections Canada investigation, which isn’t expected to wrap up until next spring.

Through it all, Mayrand has emerged as a formidable figure on the federal political scene, though a reluctant focus of media attention. He didn’t appear cut out for such prominence. Prior to being recruited in 2007 to succeed the less reserved Jean-Pierre Kingsley as chief electoral officer, Mayrand served a decade as the federal superintendent of bankruptcy, not exactly a marquee position. The meticulous former law professor, originally from Trois-Rivières, Que., soon concluded that the rule book he inherited is badly outdated. “We need to bring the legislation into the 21st century,” he says. “We need to rely more on technology. We need to find ways of reducing complexity in the system. We need to improve accountability in the system.”

It’s a long wish list. Mayrand’s specific proposals span everything from enhancing Elections Canada’s clout when it comes to uncovering corruption, to imposing new reporting requirements on political parties, to streamlining the way polling stations are run on election days. How much of his vision the Conservatives accept isn’t clear. Last spring, the government announced that its reform bill was about to be unveiled, only to mysteriously go back to the drawing board, reportedly after Conservative MPs were briefed on the planned changes and balked at some of them. That awkward retreat erased all doubts about the sensitivities surrounding any serious change in how politicians run for office.

The abortive bid to proceed with new legislation was overseen by Alberta MP Tim Uppal, then minister of state for democratic reform. In his cabinet shuffle last July, though, Harper replaced the low-key Uppal with a far more polarizing figure, Ottawa-area MP Pierre Poilievre, among the most hard-hitting ultra-partisans in the Tory ranks. Poilievre called Mayrand to his office soon after taking over the democratic reform portfolio—a notable meeting, since Mayrand hadn’t been consulted previously on the government’s plans. On his sit-down with Poilievre, Mayrand says “it was more about getting acquainted” than hashing out ideas. He adds that Poilievre “didn’t give any indication” about any further meetings. Poilievre’s spokeswoman would not discuss the timing or possible content of electoral reforms in advance of the Oct. 16 Throne Speech.

As for what Mayrand proposes, details have been on the record since 2010, and some were updated in a report last spring. Against the backdrop of a string of protracted investigations, his most important recommendation might be calling for Elections Canada to be given the power to force individuals with information about possible wrongdoing to disclose what they know. The power to compel evidence is already wielded by federal agencies such as the Competition Bureau, when it investigates companies abusing their clout in the marketplace, and the government has recently proposed giving the National Energy Board similar authority when it seeks information from pipeline companies in environmental safety audits.

In the particular case of Elections Canada, Mayrand says the need to compel evidence has grown ever more urgent. “There seems to be a pattern developing where people increasingly refuse to meet with investigators,” he says. “At times, it makes the case more complex. That’s why we end up with investigations that take far too long to come to a conclusion.” While Mayrand is characteristically careful not to point the finger at any particular party, Elections Canada has reportedly been unable to persuade some Conservative operatives to talk in the robocalls investigation. (The echo of Mosley’s comment about Tories engaging in “trench warfare” hangs over the entire case.) Mayrand stresses that suspects wouldn’t be forced to reveal information that could hurt them; their right to remain silent would be respected. His frustration is with party officials who aren’t themselves the targets of investigations, but still won’t talk to Elections Canada about what they know.

He also calls for more stringent rules on information parties would have to provide about their campaign telemarketing activities. Both national parties and local organizations, he says, should have to keep records about the firms they hire to contact voters by phone, and turn that information over to Elections Canada when asked. The firms should be made to keep records of what they are paid, what numbers they called and the scripts heard by voters who picked up the phone. More broadly, Mayrand insists that parties and local riding associations should be required to file much more detailed information after elections about how they spent money on campaigns. He points out that, under the current law, they don’t have to supply invoices or other supporting documentation to prove they stuck to the spending rules.

Although he might seem preoccupied only with catching campaign cheaters, Mayrand says he’s not so single-minded. For instance, he also wants to streamline the way polling stations handle voters who turn up without standard identification, and to make it easier for Canadians to go online to update their voter registrations, especially when they move from one riding to another. To leave enough time to make all these changes for the scheduled fall 2015 election, he says a reform bill should be passed before next summer.

By then, the robocalls investigation should finally be completed, and any resulting charges laid. And who knows what else might turn up in the meantime? Elections Canada hasn’t had a dull stretch in years. “I don’t think we’re looking for wrongdoing, or chasing wrongdoing,” Mayrand says. “I’m sorry, we don’t set any rules; we simply apply rules set out by Parliament. We can’t turn a blind eye when these things happen.”

Maclean's October 21, 2013