Thank you, Mr. Chair.
I am please to appear before the committee today to discuss the 2009-2010 Main Estimates for my Office. I am accompanied today by Gisèle Côté, Chief Financial Officer, and Hughes St-Pierre, Senior Director, Corporate Services.
As I am sure the committee is aware, the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer is funded by two separate budget authorities.
The first, an annual Parliamentary appropriation, provides for the salaries of permanent, full-time staff. It is this component that the committee is considering today.
The second is the statutory authority that draws directly from the Consolidated Revenue Fund. This authority funds all other Elections Canada expenditures. These include the cost of electoral events; maintenance of the National Register of Electors; political party allowances; and public information and education programs.
For the Main Estimates I am presenting today, our appropriation is $27.4 million—representing the salaries of some 394 full-time employees. To provide some context to these figures, I will briefly describe some of the challenges Elections Canada is facing, and summarize our priorities for this fiscal year and beyond.
The current operating reality presents our agency with three significant challenges.
The first and perhaps most obvious relates to the fact that we have had three general elections in roughly four years, each returning a minority government.
Our mandate requires that we be ready at all times to deploy the substantial resources and carry out the broad range of activities associated with an electoral event—all of which must happen within a period as brief as 36 days.
In the last Parliament, there were no fewer than 25 confidence votes—requiring Elections Canada to maintain a high state of readiness for an extended period.
A second, less visible challenge is the impact of electoral reform, and the uncertain volume of new legislation in this area. The 39th Parliament, for example, included passage of legislation related to fixed date elections; the Federal Accountability Act; and new voter identification requirements. The process of electoral reform continues, as we saw with the tabling last month of BillS-6 dealing with the issue of loans to political entities.
In this same context, I would note recent public discussion regarding a potential referendum on the topic of Senate reform. To ensure we are prepared for such an event, we are in the process of updating the regulation that adapts the provisions of the Canada Elections Act for a referendum. We expect to share those with the committee before the summer recess.
Finally, as I have mentioned to this committee before, Elections Canada has initiated a full review of its existing IT environment, which has reached the limits of its capacity and cannot be augmented further to meet new requirements. This is a major undertaking that we anticipate will take another two years. It impacts all sectors of the organization and most of our business lines.
This change is required so that we are in a better position to respond to the current and future expectations of stakeholders and deliver on the next generation of electoral services.
These significant challenges--successive minority governments, ongoing legislative reform, and a largely exhausted IT environment--along with other emerging and ongoing responsibilities, have placed increasing demands on our personnel and our capacity. We continue to supplement our organizational capacity with term and temporary and contractual resources. While all departments rely on these stopgap measures from time to time, our increased dependence on these vehicles is neither desirable nor sustainable.
Our plan is to conduct a comprehensive A-base review of our programs, as well as a review of the internal allocation of resources. The aim is to establish appropriate and sustainable funding and staffing levels to effectively deliver on our legislative mandate and strategic priorities.
I intend to share the results of this exercise with the committee, as it is likely that additional long-term funding may be required so that the agency can continue to fulfill its responsibilities.
Turning to priorities for the current fiscal year, we will continue to focus on completing all activities related to the 40th general election, as well as preparing for the next one.
With regard to the most recent general election, we expect to complete and share with the committee an integrated evaluation report later this month, in fact in June.
I also intend to provide a recommendation report to Parliament before the end of this calendar year. These, along with the statutory report I discussed with this committee in February, will complete the reporting cycle prescribed by the Canada Elections Act and will point out the specific areas for both administrative and legislative improvements.
In addition, we continue to process parties', candidates', and third parties' financial returns for the 40th general election. Election expenses, returns of all parties, and receipt of quarterly allowances have now been received, audited, and reimbursed.
Regarding candidates' returns, we plan to honour the service standard commitment made by my predecessor. We expect to have final reimbursement by August 13 for all completed returns that were submitted by the February 13 deadline. This would be for returns that present no significant errors or omissions or compliance issues, and provided, of course, that official agents answer inquiries in a timely manner.
As you know, there were 1,602 candidates in the 40th general election. At this time we have identified 680 candidates who will be entitled to a final reimbursement. In fact, 931 received a preliminary reimbursement. As of yesterday, we had completed 101 audits of returns entitling the candidate to a final reimbursement. This compares to 95 such audits completed for the same time span following the 39th general election. Generally, a total of 255 audits have now been completed.
In parallel, we will have to re-establish full readiness for the next general election by September 1, 2009. As we do so, we will be ready to implement some improvements to the electoral process. For example, we will increase the number of advance polling stations in rural areas, with the objective of improving accessibility for electors. Other improvements will include making incremental changes to the list of acceptable pieces of identification; proposing amendments to the tariff of fees to increase the pay of election workers; and improving training and manuals for our field staff.
We will also continue to make progress on long-term priorities, including our strategic plan, namely renewing our information technology infrastructure to offer enhanced electronic services to electors, such as provision of online registration; conducting an A-base review to identify efficiencies and establish appropriate resource levels; and implementing our long-term human resources strategy. As we pursue these, we will seek to advance our strategic objective of trust, accessibility, and engagement.
To conclude, Mr. Chair, I would like to assure the committee that while our capacity is being tested by the current operating reality and successive minority governments, my office will continue to ensure the highest service standards as expected by Canadians.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and I will be happy to answer your questions.