Hon. Peter Van Loan (Leader of the Government in the House of Commons and Minister for Democratic Reform, CPC)
moved that Bill C-31, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Public Service Employment Act, be read the third time and passed.
He said: Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak in favour of Bill C-31. I strongly encourage all hon. members to join me in passing this bill by the House in order that it may come into effect as soon as possible after it is passed by the Senate.
I would hope that senators would not unduly delay passage of this bill, unlike two other bills, Bill S-4 to limit Senate terms, and Bill C-16 to establish fixed dates for elections, both of which have already passed in this House.
I would note that it has now been 258 days since the bill to limit Senate terms to eight years was introduced, 258 days that it has gone without a second reading vote. Every single day it comes up in the Senate, the Liberal-dominated Senate obstructs it by delaying it and voting for adjournment.
An hon. member: How many words is it?
Hon. Peter Van Loan: It is only 66 words long, Mr. Speaker, that is all, but the Liberal-dominated Senate continues to delay and obstruct something that their own leader claims to support. Despite the fact that the leader of the Liberal Party, the hon. member for Saint-Laurent—Cartierville, advocates fixed terms for senators, his Liberal colleagues in the other place just will not listen to him. He just cannot get it done.
I hope this bill will not meet the same fate, because it of course also enjoys the support of the opposition here in the House of Commons. I hope opposition members will be able to persuade their Senate colleagues to support it as well.
Before I turn to the benefits of this bill, I do want to express my thanks and gratitude to the member for Niagara Falls, the Minister of Justice. It is because of his work as the former government House leader and minister for democratic reform that we now are in a position to advance this very important bill.
On January 4, the Prime Minister reaffirmed our government's commitment to make our country's institutions more democratic and more accountable. Bill C-31 is just one of the government's very robust democratic reform agenda items. It is an agenda based on bringing accountability and integrity to the institutions and processes of government.
We have successfully passed the federal Accountability Act. Oddly, it was another bill that was held up for almost a year in the process, but we finally got it through. That bill brought about important changes to political financing to eliminate big money from our electoral system.
As I indicated, we have passed Bill C-16 on fixed election dates through the House of Commons. Never again will the government of the day be able to play around with the date of an election for its own crass political motives.
We also have introduced Bill S-4 to limit senator's terms to eight years. It is a concept endorsed by the Leader of the Opposition. We would like to see it become law. We would even like to debate it in this House. That has not happened yet, but we would like it to come out of the Senate so we can consider it.
I fully encourage the Leader of the Opposition to stand up and use the full force of his leadership. I know how strong that full force of leadership has been. As is evident from indications in the past few weeks, it is not that strong, but I would encourage him to muster all the strength he has to get it through and out of the Senate and to tell his colleagues to follow his lead. We would be happy to deal with it.
We of course have also introduced Bill C-43, which is a bill to consult Canadians on who they would like to see representing them in the Senate. Right now, of course, terms can be as long as 45 years, and those people can be appointed by the Prime Minister without any consultation. They have been in the past, which is perhaps why we have a Liberal-dominated Senate that will not allow the will of the House of Commons and Canadians to prevail.
We would like to have an opportunity to ask Canadians who they would like representing them in the Senate. That is another one of our objectives. That of course would reform our system and Parliament in a more democratic and more accountable way. Everyone knows that our parliamentary institutions are the foundation of our democracy and, as such, they must be democratic. We have a responsibility to ensure they continue to operate well for the benefit of Canadians.
With this in mind, as the current Minister for Democratic Reform I feel privileged to rise to speak on this bill today.
Bill C-31 makes a number of operational improvements to the electoral process and the Canada Elections Act. It is aimed at improving the integrity of our elections. It implements almost all of the recommendations of the 13th report of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, a report which was agreed to unanimously by committee members from all parties. The same committee reported the bill with some amendments to fine-tune it on December 13.
In short, Bill C-31 is about simple solutions that will yield tangible improvements to the integrity of our electoral system.
Most of these amendments to the Elections Act were originally recommended by the Chief Electoral Officer, who has had on the ground experience in administering elections. All of these legislative changes were endorsed by the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, comprised of members of Parliament with real on the ground experience as candidates. A number of the changes may seem small, but collectively they will lead to real results that will improve the integrity of our system.
First, I want to speak about improvements to the national register and list of electors. We have proposed, for instance, amendments that will improve the accuracy of the national register of electors and, by implication, the lists of electors used by each of us during electoral campaigns.
As most will recall, the national register replaced the door-to-door enumeration that used to occur up to 1997. It is from this register that permanent voters' lists, as some of us call it, are generated.
We all know the importance of these lists for engaging our constituents in a campaign and for encouraging them to vote. We have all experienced the challenges that have been faced by Elections Canada in maintaining a database of such a large size in a country growing so rapidly where mobility is so high.
Over the years, Elections Canada has taken strides to improve the quality of the register, but the Chief Electoral Officer has requested more tools to allow for greater improvements and efficiencies. Bill C-31 gives him those tools. For example, we have all seen the box on the front page of the income tax return that allows Canadians to consent to have their name, address and date of birth shared with Elections Canada for inclusion in the register.
Unfortunately, the Chief Electoral Officer has found that a lot of non-citizens who are not entitled to vote are checking the box and making the information less reliable.
Bill C-31 provides the authority to change the question on the income tax form and make it clear that it only applies to Canadian citizens and only they should check it off. This will improve the reliability of the information received, enhance the accuracy of the register and, in turn, improve the quality of the voters' lists. It is a simple change. It will produce real results by ensuring that only eligible voters will have their names placed on the voters' list.
Similarly, Bill C-31 allows income tax returns to be used to inform Elections Canada of deceased electors, so those names can be removed from the register more quickly.
In addition, the bill updates statutory authorities to allow returning officers to update the register and the list of electors, to clarify the ability of the Chief Electoral Officer to exchange information with provincial electoral authorities, and to permit the Chief Electoral Officer to use stable identifiers that will make cross-referencing of information on electors more efficient.
Each of these reforms will contribute to a better, more up-to-date national register and in so doing improve the integrity of the lists.
Another element of this bill would improve the ability to communicate with the electorate, which is of course a fundamental cornerstone of our democratic system. These reforms are designed to allow candidates, parties, election officials and the electorate all to engage in a dialogue. That is what makes democracy work.
Election officials, particularly returning officers, will have access to apartment buildings and gated residential communities to carry out their functions.
It will therefore be easier for them to conduct a targeted revision of the list of electors by going to electors in areas of high mobility and low registration.
It will also be easier for candidates to meet electors because they will have better access to gated communities and areas open to the public, such as malls, to campaign.
Taken together, these reforms will help the electorate become better informed and enable voters to become more familiar with local representatives and the political process.
A third set of reforms in this bill would improve the accessibility of voting by those who are entitled to vote. For instance, many Canadians are using advance polls to cast their votes rather than waiting until polling day. That is critically important if we are to see the turnout increase or at lease reverse the decline in turnout that has been happening until recently.
Bill C-31 will allow greater flexibility to establish more advance polls when circumstances warrant. This is of particular benefit for large ridings and remote areas, where advance polling districts can be very large and hard to access for some residents. This bill will go a long way to improve access for voters and will lead to increased voter turnout across this country.
One of the things that has saddened many of us who care a great deal about democracy is that at the same time as we have seen a decline in community involvement in all kinds of activities, we have seen that decline in the voter rate. That decline in voter participation is a bad thing for our democracy. We want to see Canadians engaged in their process. We think it is important that voter turnout increase.
All of us in the House of Commons have to explore ways in which we can work to improve voter turnout. If allowing more advance polls is one way to do it, as Bill C-31 opens the door to doing, that is something that we should be doing.
I encourage all members of this House to take that step in the right direction to reversing the decline in voter turnout and encouraging more Canadians to vote, encouraging more Canadians to have a real stake in our electoral system and to participate in that way.
On another subject, one of the most significant sets of changes in this bill addresses potential voter fraud. Like all the reforms that I have discussed, these amendments protect the integrity of the electoral process. The fundamental democratic principle of our electoral process is that only those entitled to vote should vote and they must vote only once.
During meetings of the House Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, it was clear that most of the members had heard of times when this principle was violated. Every time that happens, voter confidence in the electoral system and its integrity is shaken and an eligible voter is deprived of the right to vote.
Bill C-31 takes action to reduce the opportunity for voting fraud through a very simple step. It amends the Elections Act requiring Canadians to show identification for voting. Rather than only stating one's name and address, which is all someone has to do right now, a voter will have to provide some kind of proof of their identity and residence before receiving a ballot.
I cannot say how many times voters have come to me and said they could not believe that they were not asked for any identification and that anybody could have voted in their place. I think most of us have probably heard stories of folks who have gone to vote and found out that somebody had already voted claiming to be them. We all hear those stories and they are alarming. This change will put an end to that.
The change applies to people who are already registered to vote and are on the list of electors. I should stress that under the current system those who are not registered to vote must already show identification to register at the polls. We are simply making that requirement a uniform requirement. Simply put, the bill requires individuals to prove who they are and that they are who they say they are before they vote.
The federal voter identification process will be modelled on similar procedures in Canada and in other countries, such as those in Quebec and a growing number of municipalities across the country. It will improve the integrity of the process and reduce opportunities for electoral fraud, which can have an impact on very close election results.
In turn, this reform will, like the other measures I have discussed, enhance the integrity of our system and the confidence of the people in that system. This is what this bill is all about, the integrity of our electoral process, which is something in which we all have a stake.
In closing, as Minister for Democratic Reform, I am excited about this bill because it provides tangible and real results for Canadians. Without a well functioning electoral machinery our democracy will not work. All hon. members will agree that the machinery must be regularly maintained, updated, renewed and modernized, and it is our duty as parliamentarians to do that work.
The progress of Bill C-31 is an ideal example of how that work should be done. The genesis of the bill was a parliamentary committee report that was agreed to by all the members of that committee, including the representatives of the New Democratic Party. The government responded with legislative action. We have worked with the other parties in fine tuning the bill after hearing from a number of witnesses in committee. It is truly a multi-partisan or non-partisan effort designed to improve the integrity from which all of us will benefit.
If our electoral system is held in a higher regard, all of us will be held in a higher regard and to the extent that confidence is lacking, all of us suffer as parliamentarians. That is why I think the spirit in which this has gone forward is a positive one and what this bill does is positive.
I hope that the House will pass this bill quickly so that it can come into force as soon as possible. I urge my colleagues on both sides of the House to join me in supporting Bill C-31.