Opposition leaders urged to speed up bill to ensure safe election during pandemic

Liberals ask opposition to speed up passage of bill to change election rules, allowing safer voting during pandemic. 

The Canadian Press

OTTAWA — The minority Liberal government is urging opposition parties to speed up passage of a bill aimed at ensuring a federal election could be safely held if need be during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc has written to opposition party leaders, urging them to wrap up second-reading debate on Bill C-19 today so that it can be sent off to a House of Commons committee for greater scrutiny and possible amendments.

While he insists the government remains focused on steering the country through the pandemic, LeBlanc notes that in a minority Parliament, an election could be triggered at any time.

He does not mention the imminent federal budget but its scheduled release on April 19 could lend urgency to his plea to get C-19 moving.

It will be the first budget since the pandemic sent the federal deficit skyrocketing and is expected to include details of billions more in planned spending to set Canada's ravaged economy on the road to recovery.

The budget is bound to be controversial and any vote on it will be considered a confidence matter, meaning the minority Liberal government would fall if all three of the main opposition parties were to vote against it.

"The course of the pandemic remains uncertain, and an election during the pandemic is a possibility for which we must be prepared," LeBlanc says in the letter.

"Canadians expect their parliamentarians to behave responsibly in all aspects of this pandemic. Ensuring their ability to safely exercise their democratic right to vote is no different."

LeBlanc notes that chief electoral officer Stephane Perrault has urged Parliament to give Elections Canada the tools required to conduct a possible election during the pandemic without jeopardizing the health and safety of voters and poll workers.

In response to Perrault, the government introduced Bill C-19 in December but it has not moved beyond the initial stage of debate since then, thanks in part to procedural tactics employed by the Conservatives. It has been debated for just one day, with another scheduled for today.

"The government has sought to call Bill C-19 for debate numerous times, and the opposition has used procedural tricks to delay debate," LeBlanc writes, urging opposition leaders to let the debate wrap up so the bill can move on to the procedure and House affairs committee for further study.

The bill proposes some temporary amendments to the Canada Elections Act to allow for a safe election during the pandemic if necessary.

Among other things, the bill would mandate two additional in-person voting days to allow for physical distancing at polling stations. It would also allow electors to register online to vote by mail and provide for secure drop boxes to be installed to ensure mail-in ballots can be returned in time to be counted.

It would also give Elections Canada flexibility to determine the safest way to conduct voting in long-term care facilities, whose residents are the most vulnerable to the deadly effects of COVID-19.

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