Hon. Peter Van Loan (Leader of the Government in the House of Commons and Minister for Democratic Reform, CPC)
|| That a message be sent to the Senate to acquaint Their Honours that this House disagrees with the amendment made by the Senate to Bill C-16, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act.
Mr. Speaker, it is with more than a little frustration that I rise today to debate an amendment to Bill C-16. Let me be clear from the outset, the government supports, in fact initiated Bill C-16 for fixed date elections, but the government opposes the amendment made by the Senate to Bill C-16. It is unnecessary and it weakens the original legislation.
For more than a century, people from all over the world have looked to Canada as a model of freedom and responsible government. In fact, members of my own family took refuge here after fleeing repression.
They were seeking freedom, hope and opportunity. They were attracted by a country where they had a say, where political leaders were accountable to them and where government was responsive, effective and stable.
Just as John Diefenbaker said more than six decades ago, for those people, and for all Canadians, “Parliament is more than procedure; it is the custodian of the nation's freedom”.
In Canada our government has its roots in the British parliamentary system. In our short history we have adapted those ancient traditions to make them more relevant to the Canadian experience. We have made reasonable incremental changes that make government better for Canadians.
As Nova Scotia prepares for 250th anniversary celebrations of Canada's first democracy next year, many of us reflect on the impact that responsible government has had on our country. It was a step forward in making government more accountable, fairer and more democratic.
Over the years, our system has been modified to ensure that the government is listening to the people it serves. Bill C-16 represents only the most recent changes. It aims to strengthen our democracy by improving responsibility, transparency and equity.
It establishes fixed dates for elections every four years on the third Monday in October. Fixed dates take the guesswork out of the electoral process and level the playing field for the Chief Electoral Officer, for political parties and, more important, for voters.
Our government does not believe that the governing party should be permitted to time an election to exploit conditions favourable to its re-election. Bill C-16 would put an end to governance according to poll results. It would prevent snap elections such as those called by Jean Chrétien in 1997 and 2000, which predictably resulted in record low turnouts. In both cases the vote was seen to have been called for the sole purpose of capitalizing on political circumstance on a calculation of partisan interest.
Bill C-16 would eliminate situations where decisions on election timing would be based on best interests of a political party rather than the best interests of Canadians. The bill would empower governments and parliamentary committees to set out their agenda well in advance with certainty.
All the parties agree that, above all, elections belong to the people. We believe that by getting more Canadians to participate in the election process, Bill C-16 will make it possible to strengthen our democracy.
Passage of this legislation will allow citizens to plan to participate in their nation's electoral process. That participation is the bedrock upon which our democracy is built.
Bill C-16 was passed in the House of Commons without amendments. It was debated very thoroughly in the House of Commons and also in the committee on procedure and house affairs. It was passed in the House of Commons and was sent to the Senate where it was examined in detail by the Senate's committee on legal and constitutional affairs. After a detailed period of scrutiny and a detailed process, that committee supported the passage of the bill without any amendments.
Various expert witnesses have appeared before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs and the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs. These two committees have extensively examined the bill.
No party in the House of Commons suggested an amendment to this legislation. Neither the House committee nor the Senate committee felt it was necessary to amend Bill C-16. Therefore, it is somewhat surprising that at the very last minute an amendment was passed which has never been subject to any detailed scrutiny.
One has to wonder why the amendment was never presented for debate in committee. Perhaps there, reasoned examination would have pointed out the obvious flaws. The Leader of the Opposition supported Bill C-16 without amendment, yet he was not able to persuade Liberal senators to follow suit. He could not get that job done either.
I will turn my attention to the proposed amendment.
The proposed amendment to Bill C-16 would change the existing provision of the bill that would allow the Chief Electoral Officer to recommend a change to the polling day in the event of a conflict such as a provincial election or a day of cultural or religious significance.
This existing provision would allow the Chief Electoral Officer to recommend to the governor in council that the polling day be either the following day or a week later.
The proposed amendment would alter the bill so that it would explicitly allow the Chief Electoral Officer to recommend a change in the polling day in the event of a federal, provincial or municipal referendum. It is my contention that the proposed amendment weakens the original intent of the bill, the bill that was endorsed by all parties in the House of Commons.
Instead of safeguarding election dates for manipulation, the amendment would make it easier for governing parties to manipulate election dates. If the amendment were to be adopted, it would open the door to a prime minister putting off a scheduled election by calling a referendum on the same day. With the amendment, a national election would be cancelled because of a municipal referendum. I find it difficult to imagine any situation where a municipal referendum would be so important that it would result in a date of a federal election being cancelled, but the statute would provide for exactly that to happen.
We on this side of the House do not believe democracy or accountability in government is strengthened or enhanced in any way when a referendum to build a hockey arena in small town Ontario could cancel the date of a national election. The original legislation was drafted with enough flexibility to avoid conflicts in a limited variety of situations, but that should be as limited as possible. The amendment to which we object expands, not limits, the potential for fixed dates to be altered.
Under Bill C-16, neither the prime minister of the day nor the mayor of a small town could change the fixed election date.
In short, the amendment is unnecessary. The original bill has built in flexibility for the Chief Electoral Officer to adjust an election date in the event of a legitimate conflict.
Second, we believe the Liberal amendment weakens the original legislation by making the date of elections more vulnerable to manipulation, not surprising from a party that engaged in this kind of manipulation so regularly in the past.
Today I urge all members of the legislature to join with the government to oppose this unnecessary amendment and to oppose it in short order. Let us send the Senate a message. Let us tell senators that pointless amendments to important legislation are not acceptable to the House or to the Canadian people.
Had the amendment not been sloppily attached by the Senate at the very last possible moment, fixed dates for elections would be the law right now. Unfortunately, the unelected Liberal Senate and its continuing campaign against democratic reform blocked it. Consider the irony. The elected House of Commons passes a bill to fix dates for elections. Then an unelected Liberal dominated Senate passed an amendment to water down the law, without even committee consideration of that amendment, and, by doing so, prevented the democratic reform bill from becoming law.
The Senate telling members of the House of Commons how elections should work is an irony. Let us urge it to reconsider its amendment quickly so Bill C-16 could be in place in time for the next federal election.
As I said, Bill C-16 was passed in the House of Commons without amendments. The Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs also supported passing this legislation without amendments.
It has undergone heavy scrutiny and has been found to be acceptable, but today we have been asked to consider an amendment that has not been examined in any detail. We are being asked to debate a frivolous amendment that is designed to frustrate the government's agenda of democratic reform. An amendment of this sort feeds public cynicism and erodes the accountability that Bill C-16 seeks to foster in government.
The kind of procedural manoeuvring being employed by the Senate to hold up the passage of Bill C-16 brings to mind the game playing that has left Bill S-4, the bill for Senate term limits, languishing in that place for an unbelievable 328 days so far.
Bill S-4 is legislation that proposes to limit Senate terms to eight years. It was sent to the Senate for consideration on May 30, 2006. That is when it was introduced there.
Last spring, the Special Senate Committee on Senate Reform examined Bill S-4. That committee held extensive hearings on the matter.
In October of last year it reported its findings, which supported the government's incremental approach to Senate reform. Despite that endorsement, Bill S-4 is now the subject of a second round of hearings by a Senate standing committee, a committee that is duplicating the efforts of the earlier special committee.
The Leader of the Opposition said he supports the proposal for Senate term limits. He said he hopes Bill S-4 will pass. Yet, he cannot convince Liberal senators to follow suit.
Once again, the Leader of the Opposition cannot get the job done.
Just as I did last week, I will use this opportunity to once again ask the members of the official opposition to urge their colleagues in the Senate to put an end to this game playing, stop thwarting constructive change and get on with the job Canadians want and expect them to do.
Bill C-16 represents an important step in the modernization of our political process. It is a reasonable step that would make government more accountable and more transparent. For these reasons, it should be passed without amendment.
The government opposes the Senate amendment and urges all members of the House to advise the Senate that Bill C-16 should be restored.
Hon. Stephen Owen (Vancouver Quadra, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, let me say at the outset that the official opposition in the House of Commons supports Bill C-16. When it was before this House earlier, we supported it wholeheartedly and spoke energetically in favour of it.
Repeatedly the House leader of the government speaks of irony. In fact, I think the walls of this extraordinary chamber are dripping with irony after his speech. However, he speaks of irony in the sense of delay, and of course the delay is on the part of the government on this unnecessary challenge of that minor amendment today.
Let me look at the other initiatives around delay. The House leader speaks of Bill C-43 and the delay there, but we started that last week. The government waited four months after tabling Bill C-43, the election through consultation of senators, to bring it forward. Why not four months ago?
He talked about Bill S-4, the bill on fixed terms for senators, and the fact that it has been held up in the Senate for over a year. This has not been held up in the Senate because of Bill S-4, because there is agreement on that. What there is not agreement on is that we should have the election of senators through consultation with the provinces, or whatever, before we redistribute the seats of the Senate fairly across this country.
How can any member of this House, and particularly of the government, support Bill S-4 without first supporting the other Senate motion to redistribute seats so there is less of the imbalance that so thoroughly disfavours Alberta and British Columbia at this time? I have colleagues in the government side from Alberta and British Columbia. It is inconceivable to me that they would think of altering in any way the status, the mandate, the credibility or the validation of the Senate without first sorting out that extremely unfair distribution for western Canada. This is where we are on that.
On Bill C-16, it is doublespeak, it is Orwellian, to hear the government House leader speak today about the Liberal side or Liberal senators delaying it. Good heavens, we could have had this passed before the Easter recess. We offered to rush it right through, get it to the Governor General and make it law before we left, but no, some bogus concept of this minor amendment as somehow frustrating the will of Parliament, the will of this House, was thrown up as a delaying tactic.
My goodness, the Conservatives refer to a referendum, as if a referendum called in some small municipality somewhere in this country would be allowed to dislodge the fixed election date. What we have to remember is that this would be with the discretion of the Chief Electoral Officer, an officer of Parliament, in one of the most respected senior offices in this country and one of the offices most critical to the fair operation of our democratic process. It is nonsense to expect that this person at his or her discretion would knock off a federal date that had been set for four years in advance because of some local referendum. It is just nonsense. It would not happen and it could not happen. Therefore, that is no reason to slow this down.
The government House leader speaks of disrespect or whatever in the other place where they would dare make a minor amendment to a House bill that has gone through this process and was supported by all parties. The Senate, whatever one thinks about elected or non-elected legislative chambers at this stage in our democracy, exists as part of our democratic machinery. We all have some firm minds about that, I think, including in the Senate, in terms of having some election process for senators. However, the Senate exists as part of our democratic machinery. It has a very specific purpose, which of course is to bring second sober thought to what is thoughtfully determined in this House. When it finds some area where it feels a bill can be made better, the Senate has the perfect right and the democratic responsibility to suggest an amendment, which is what has been done in this case.
I can recall the process last fall when Bill C-2, the Federal Accountability Act, passed through the House after several months of debate in committee and in the House. It then went to the Senate and we heard wailing and complaining from the government side that the Senate somehow was wasting everybody's time with this critical piece of legislation by not simply rubber-stamping it.
I think we all know now what happened in the Senate. There were over 100 amendments because it was a sloppy bill. There was no time as it was rushed through the process in the House. The Senate exercised its responsibilities properly by carefully looking at that massive, complex piece of legislation involving dozens of other statutes that needed to be amended as a consequence of it. The Senate came up with sensible, helpful arrangements and amendments that the House then of course accepted. That was not delay. That was the Senate doing its work in our democratic framework of institutions.
I will go back to this issue of electing, through consulting provincial bodies during provincial elections, for the appointment of senators into vacancies that happen in any one of those jurisdictions. I simply will say that this is a good piece. Let us get that moving. Why did we wait four months? Why have we waited a year without some serious consequence and a discussion of redistribution?
Let me just turn, then, to Bill C-16 itself, because this is a completely appropriate piece of legislation. It was supported in this House. Adding a final little fail-safe in case there could be a problem through a referendum process is just good sense. The Senate has suggested that, which is what we are debating here today. We are in favour of that and therefore are opposed to the government's motion.
In regard to Bill C-16 itself and fixed election dates, we know, and the House debates on Bill C-16 I think made it very clear through speeches on behalf of all parties, that this is a sensible further step in the democratic reform of Canada. It was made very clear that the overwhelming number of democracies in the world have fixed election dates and that there is a range of advantages to fixed election dates, including that it gives some predictability to government business.
Therefore, the government can put forward legislation and have the effective administration of legislation, with a timetable, knowing that it will not be dislodged short of a non-confidence vote or a national emergency. Therefore, the business of the government and the people of Canada can be done more efficiently. It can also be done more efficiently in terms of cost. Having an electoral commission and electoral office idling full time to be ready for an election that could come at any day is not an efficient use of resources.
This is also effective in terms of voter turnout, which is perhaps one of the most critical issues of fixed election dates, something with which I think all members and all parties of this House have been in agreement. For people who are first time voters, be they students, new Canadians or seniors, we can have civics classes in schools, universities and communities to ensure that people are fully engaged in the electoral discussion of the various policies being put forward in the election by various parties. That could enhance interest and voter turnout, which of course leads to a healthier democracy.
Of course in a country such as Canada it is also immensely important to have a fixed date that avoids inclement weather. The last election in this country was held in winter. Sadly, we saw a continued reduction in voter turnout and of course, unless one has the very good fortune to live in Vancouver as I do, winter weather can be very disruptive to voter turnout. That is very important. We also want to avoid the summer holiday breaks, which we can by having a fixed election date in the early fall or late spring, in order to increase voter turnout.
For all of these reasons, it is good sound public policy and we all support it, so good heavens, let us get on with it. Let us not delay this any further. The concept of a referendum in a small community is so inconceivable as to be insignificant. It should not slow down the passage of this legislation. With the support of members of the House today, and with the vote tomorrow, I believe, or whenever we are going to vote on this, we could have this as the law of Canada and as real democratic reform and we could have it immediately.
I just suggest that it is a test to the sincerity of every member of the House in terms of the need for this reform, that we not be distracted by a small amendment. It is the result of the Senate doing its job of carefully looking to see if it could possibly be improved, which to the credit of the House, could only be improved by a tiny amendment of really no consequence at all.
I speak in opposition to rejecting this amendment and in full support of moving ahead quickly in the House right now, so that it can go on to the Governor General and become law as soon as possible.
Mr. Michel Guimond (Montmorency—Charlevoix—Haute-Côte-Nord, BQ):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise to speak to the motion before us here today.
First of all, I would like to inform the government that the Bloc Québécois will support this motion that the House reject the amendment proposed by the Senate to Bill C-16, for the simple reason that it appears to be a dilatory amendment.
I would like to talk a little bit about the other chamber. It is made up of non-elected people who are appointed based on political patronage. We still maintain that the value of the Senate remains to be proven and this amendment reflects that.
Indeed, the amendment proposed by the Liberal senators in the other place ensures that a federal, provincial or municipal referendum would change the application of Bill C-16, which calls for fixed date elections. We could understand a federal referendum. We could also understand that there could be a provincial referendum. However, a municipal referendum is a different matter. First, we need only think of the number of municipalities in Quebec and Canada. Second, consider the number of issues that can lead to a municipal referendum.
My colleague the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities was a municipal councillor here, in Gatineau. I do not know if he was in municipal politics when he lived in the Quebec City region, before becoming member for La Peltrie.
I was a municipal councillor in Boischatel, where I live, from 1987 to 1993. In municipal democracy, there are many reasons for holding a referendum. Citizens may sign the register to oppose a zoning change or a bylaw. In Boischatel, we almost had a referendum. There was opposition to replacing the police force vehicles. We could have made the decision to hold a referendum on replacing those vehicles, which had about 385,000 km, which would have cost several thousand dollars.
Imagine how ridiculous the Senate amendment is: a municipal referendum could lead to Canadian elections being postponed and this law becoming inoperative. In my mind this clearly demonstrates that the amendment is frivolous and ridiculous. That is why we agree with the government that this Senate amendment should be defeated.
In the last few minutes allocated to me, I would like to discuss Bill C-16. The Bloc Québécois reaffirmed that it is in favour of the principle of the bill that was studied by the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, of which I am co-chair.
We had some reservations about the date chosen as polling day by the government, the third Monday in October. We would have expected the government to be a little more open-minded for one, simple reason: the members of the Bloc Québécois suggested the second Monday in May, a somewhat more pleasant time of year in terms of temperature. It is possible to have snow on the third Monday of October. That is the reality in a northern country, and in certain regions where the snow arrives earlier than in others. It is possible, although highly unlikely, that there could be a snowstorm in Windsor on the third Monday of October. However, in northern Quebec, Nunavut, Yukon or Labrador it is plausible that there would be a snowstorm on the third Monday of October.
That is why we in the Bloc Québécois proposed the second Monday in May. We introduced an amendment, but it was defeated in committee. That is democracy in action. We also suggested that the third Monday in October not be chosen simply because in Canada and Quebec, the Thanksgiving holiday always falls on the second Monday in October. Because of religious tradition or the Roman calendar, Easter never falls on the same date. Whereas Thanksgiving is always celebrated on the second Monday in October, whether that day is October 9, 10 or 12.
Advance polling will therefore take place on Thanksgiving weekend. This is probably the last long weekend when people can visit family out of town, and it is a time when people may be busier than usual, because they have to close up their vacation homes and cottages, turn off the water and so on. In addition, people travel across the border, as they take advantage of the long weekend to go away. If the third Monday in October were chosen, advance polling would take place on the second Monday in October, on Thanksgiving weekend. We believed that, to a certain extent, this could work against our goal of having the highest possible voter turnout.
Yesterday, the voter turnout in France was 84% or 85%. Clearly, they have a healthy democracy. Furthermore, a review of participation rates in federal elections here since 1960 reveals a downward slope, which is cause for concern. Duly elected representatives of the population are being chosen by fewer and fewer people over the years. People are losing interest in politics. Obviously, this is not good for democracy. That is why we, the Bloc Québécois, have suggested another date.
I would note that Bill C-16 would remove the Prime Minister's prerogative to call a general election at the most propitious and convenient time. Prime Minister Chrétien excelled at that. Our fusty senators' amendment comes as no surprise, because, quite simply, they want to hang on to the old-fashioned approach that enables them to bamboozle the opposition parties.
Prime Minister Chrétien was an expert at this. As soon as an opposition party got a new leader, Prime Minister Chrétien used the opportunity to call a snap election, thereby taking advantage of the newly elected leader's inexperience and the leadership convention, which is, of course, an event that divides the members of Parliament belonging to that party, who have to take sides and support one candidate or the other.
It is clear that the wounds have not yet healed among the Liberals on this side of the House who participated in the last leadership convention, which the current Leader of the Opposition won. A leadership race is a divisive event. Anyone who needs to be convinced of that has only to look at how Prime Minister Chrétien handled himself.
My party leader, the hon. member for Laurier—Sainte-Marie, was elected leader of the Bloc Québécois on March 15, 1997. Then, we had a general election on June 2, 1997.
On July 8, 2000, the Minister of Public Safety was elected leader of the Canadian Alliance. We have nearly forgotten that that party was once called the Reform Party. The party has changed names a number of times. It reminds me of new Coke, classic Coke and Coke zero. We have had a hard time keeping track of this party's name over the past few years. Its current name is the Conservative Party of Canada.
So, on July 8, 2000, the current public safety minister was chosen as party leader following the Canadian Alliance leadership race. Prime Minister Chrétien called an election to be held November 27, 2000, although the previous election had taken place on June 2, 1997, within the normal, usual or standard timeframe of four years. In fact, as we all know, the Constitution states that a term can last for up to five years, but the normal length is four years. Prime Minister Chrétien therefore took advantage of this opportunity to call an election.
On March 20, 2004, the current Prime Minister was elected leader of the Conservative Party of Canada and an election was called for June 28, 2004, once again, within the four-year time frame, on the occasion of a change in party leader.
Thus, I feel that Bill C-16 would remove the Prime Minister's prerogative to call an election when he or she feels the planets are best aligned to take the opposition parties by surprise.
For all these reasons—and I am sure we will have the opportunity to further discuss Bill C-16—I would like to reiterate that the Bloc Québécois will support this motion to reject the Senate's proposed amendment to Bill C-16.
Mr. Paul Dewar (Ottawa Centre, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to speak to Bill C-16.
I want to start my comments by recognizing my predecessor, Mr. Ed Broadbent, who brought forward an ethics package before the last election. The ethics package he proposed was to clean up politics and some of the ways we might do that.
Interestingly enough, one of the proposals Mr. Broadbent put forward in his ethics package was for fixed date elections. The NDP is happy to support Bill C-16 because our party put the initiative on the table. It was an initiative we took to propose ideas rather than just oppose ideas. That is very important. I believe our role as responsible parliamentarians is not just to oppose, which is certainly necessary when in opposition, but also to propose. We felt it was very important to propose fixed date elections. Of course we support Bill C-16 since it was an NDP proposal before the last election. This is not something that we proposed in the midst of an election. It is something we actually presented to the last Parliament because we thought it was very important.
Mr. Broadbent also had in his ethics package, which our party was happy to put front and centre in the last Parliament, his ideas to clean up politics and the need to deal with things like floor crossing. Floor crossing is still rampant in this place and it must be dealt with.
The idea of fixed date elections is very important to the NDP. It is a good idea. There were consultations with people who have fought for fair elections, people in the large community of democratic reform. Fair Vote Canada is non-partisan and many parties are represented in that body. Mr. Segal, Mr. Axworthy and Mr. Broadbent are involved. I am not sure if any of the Bloc members have signed on with Fair Vote Canada, but I encourage them to do so. They may want to look at Fair Vote Canada's ideas and tenets that all votes should be fair votes and that the system be fair. Part of that is fixed date elections.
When the bill was before committee we proposed amendments to it to clarify things like confidence. We put those ideas forward as something to consider.
Bill C-16 is not long. It does not deal with constitutional change. We thought that was reasonable. Mr. Broadbent put forward the same proposals, that we did not need to open the Constitution to make this kind of change, which in effect is a practice in what we are doing. It still gives Parliament the option of removing confidence from the governing party which would then trigger an election.
We believe that this was a pragmatic and reasonable thing to do. We had seen the abuse by governments before that would use the date of an election simply to make sure that it had the upper hand on the other parties. In the end what the government was doing was trying to have the upper hand on Canadians. We saw that as a manipulation of the government's responsibility and power. If the government thought it might be favourable to call an election, it would do the polling. The government would probably do cross-tabulation, where a couple of ideas are taken from different regions and put together to make sure that the government would win a majority. Inevitably, the cash would be distributed throughout the land and would fall off wagons everywhere. Money would be given to areas where the government of the day needed to shore up support.
This is clearly anti-democratic.The fact that a governing party can manipulate the date of an election for its own benefit is anti-democratic. Sadly, that has been the case with previous governments. It happened in the last majority Parliament. The Liberals saw an opportune time and called an election in order to get another majority.
In the bill we should not only address fixed date elections, but also the way in which the votes are counted. It is important to note that in the majority governments of Mr. Chrétien, notwithstanding that he had the most votes, a disproportionate number of seats were allotted to his government.
I say that not just to point to Mr. Chrétien and the Liberal Party. The same thing happened at the provincial level. I can think of the NDP winning a certain percentage of the vote and a disproportionate number of seats. Therefore, it is not about partisanship but it is a reflection of the people's will.
The fact that a fixed date election was something we could do without opening up the Constitution was fair. It is a little different than what we will be debating later today, Bill C-43, which is the idea that we can have plebiscites on who should represent citizens in the Senate and still skirt the Constitution.
I think we have pretty much tested the limits of how far we can skirt or go around the Constitution and practice with Bill C-16. I know that members of all parties agreed that Bill C-16 made sense, that we did not need to open up the Constitution. I would challenge that, though, on Bill C-43 which we will be debating later.
Juxtaposed to Bill C-16, when we look at having plebiscites to have people decide which person they want representing them in the Senate and then go to the Prime Minister, and then the person would be appointed, it skirts the Constitution a little too far. In fact, it says that is about as far as they will go because they do not want to touch the Constitution.
The Constitution is not a suggestion list. It is a fundamental foundation of how our country is to operate. I would suggest that Bill C-16 is a practice in terms of how the government could operate in setting an election date versus the bill we will be debating later, Bill C-43, which actually goes too far in terms of avoiding the Constitution simply because they do not want to get into the muck of a constitutional debate.
If we are serious about real, democratic reform and Senate reform, then we need to address it and not run from it. Bill C-16 gave us the opportunity to take away the potential abuse of governments to use an election date for their own political partisan advance.
When we looked at the act we proposed amendments and the Bloc proposed some amendments. We have heard some dates from Bloc members for the fixed election date. However, I concur with other members who suggested that having it in the spring was not doable and having it at certain times in the fall was not doable.
The timing we came up with is perfectly reasonable to compromise in terms of meeting the needs of all Canadians from coast to coast to coast, be it those who live in rural areas or in the north. I think the timing of having it in the fall makes perfect sense, particularly for our farming communities that need time to bring in the crop and the harvest. Having an election after that is what we have in front of us.
I want to turn my attention now to the amendment that came from the Senate. As my colleague from Winnipeg Centre suggested, we do take issue with the author of this amendment and where it comes from. However, it is important to look at the amendment. It is not a long amendment. It simply brings up a point that, quite frankly, was not debated extensively in committee. It was to take a look at the religious significance of a provincial or municipal election, or a federal, provincial or a municipal referendum, and that the chief electoral officer may change the date of the fixed election.
Therefore, it still ascribes to the chief electoral officer the fact that he or she must follow the actual fixed election date calender generally but if these circumstances occur, there is the option that he or she may, not must, change the date.
Particularly for my friends in the Bloc, I would like to think of a circumstance where there is a referendum at the provincial level. Quebec has had this experience more than any other province in Canada. Would it make sense to actually have a fixed date for a federal election set, and at the same time there is a provincial referendum? As we know, a referendum in Quebec often does not just take the attention of Quebeckers. It often takes the attention of the whole country, as it should. It is about the federation itself.
It is reasonable for the chief electoral officer to look at the election date and, if he or she sees a conflict, he or she may decide that we should not have a federal election on the same date as, for example a referendum in Quebec on something as potent as whether Quebec remains in the federation. That is an example of why we should look at this.
This amendment would not change the spirit of the bill. It is simply a what-if scenario. As I have already mentioned and underlined, it would give the chief electoral officer an option. As an officer of Parliament, the chief electoral officer has certain key responsibilities, one being that he or she is accountable to Parliament and must abide by legislation of Parliament.
Bill C-16 , which is in front of us, has been agreed to and passed. The chief electoral officer would need to abide by it as a responsible officer of Parliament. It would simply provide the chief electoral office with the opportunity, if there is a conflict, to deal with it.
As my colleague from Winnipeg Centre said, notwithstanding that we have some problems with the messenger, although we will not shoot the messenger, in this case the Senate having sent it to us, the message is something that we certainly can live with. For that reason, we will quietly support the amendment. It is common sense but it could probably have been done by giving the authority to the chief electoral officer at another time. However, it is in front of us now and that is why it is important to acknowledge it and take a position on it now.
I want to move now to what the bill will mean, when it is passed, in terms of Canadians' confidence in our electoral system. Many more things need to be done in terms of real democratic reform to ensure every vote counts. I submit that at this point in the history of our country we do not have a system where every vote counts. However, at least this will be an opportunity to let Canadians know that, in this case, the next election will be in 2009.
We only need to look at the past couple of weeks where, sadly, the discussions and discourse in the House and around the country have been all about whether there will be an election, yes or no, and whether the government is in a position to get its elusive majority.
On the weekend, CBC had an interesting comedic overview of that. A skit was conducted as a sports broadcast and people were doing a comedy of what it is like when discussing politics. One asked, “Jim, do you think there is going to be an election?” The other responded no and they decided to discuss it the next day. They would act out the following day and have a commentary on whether there was going to be an election.
It is certainly an interesting conversation for some of us but for most Canadians it is an incredible waste of time, not to mention ink, airwaves and electricity. We should be spending our time talking about what we can do in Parliament, not speculating about when the election will be.
Canadians did not send us here to talk about when the next election will be and it is incumbent upon all of us to keep that in mind. When I go door to door and talk to my constituents about what concerns them, it is not about when the next election will be. When they do ask me whether there will be an election, I respond that 2009 is what is in that legislation and that as far as I am concerned that is when the next election will be.
That is why it is incredibly important that we support this bill and that it goes through as quickly as possible. Therefore, I do not think it is plausible or possible to support the government's motion to send the bill back to the Senate and get into that game of Ping-Pong. We need to pass the bill now so Canadians know there is a bill that has a fixed date for elections and that any manipulations or strategic moves by the government will be seen as just that because its own act will be in front of us saying that the next election is in 2009.
The bill is important because it gives us predictability and the government would not be able to manipulate the calendar. Canadians would know that, notwithstanding all the conversations that people have had in the political chattering classes, the next election will be in 2009. The whole gamesmanship of deciding when the time has come to get a majority would be put aside and we could get on to issues that matter, like the environment, the prosperity gap and ensuring that Canadians' health system will be there for them when they need it.
At the end of the day those are the issues that matter to Canadians, not whether the government can pull the plug, call an election and get a majority to do whatever it plans to do. I have some concerns about what the present government would do if it had a majority but I will not go down that path.
I was on the committee studying Bill C-16 and we looked at other jurisdictions. Ontario now has fixed date elections and it has been the practice in many other countries. Some people had concerns that this would mirror the American political model. I would allay their fears because we have other jurisdictions in Europe and elsewhere with Westminster traditions that have fixed date elections and it works for them.
When we do have fixed date elections we need to ensure there is no manipulation of the public purse. What I mean by that is if we had taken the suggestion of the Bloc to have fixed date elections in the spring, we could have seen the government come out with a budget with all sorts of goodies, which kind of sounds familiar, like the last budget we saw here to possibly manipulate citizens so it could get a favourable return on its investment, in other words, a majority government. Having the fixed date election in the fall makes sense.
Some work should be done on when political parties are allowed to spend money in order that we do not have a largesse of spending that benefits one party or another, whichever has the most cash in the bank so to speak. We also do not want perpetual elections like some people were concerned about with this legislation. That just requires us being responsible as parliamentarians
As my colleague from Winnipeg Centre just mentioned, we need to look at election expenses and the rules around election expenses and we need to tighten that up. My colleague put forward amendments to Bill C-2 to tighten that up so people would not have an advantage of playing around with finances to benefit them. When we get this bill passed, and I hope it is sooner rather than later, we will need to keep our eye on that. As with any legislation, once the legislation is passed, it inevitably changes the way things are done. We will need to look at the effects the bill might have on things like election expenses.
We hope people will not get into the habit spending a lot of money before a writ as well as during a writ because they know an election is coming, or we have candidates who are playing around with loopholes in the Election Expenses Act, like loans from someone with deep pockets and who owns a fairly large multinational corporation. We saw that in certain leadership contests where they did not pay back the loan and it is no problem. We must plug that loophole but there are others, people who own car dealerships, et cetera.
Work still needs to be done to make things fairer but this bill is a good start. Canadians will now know exactly when the next election will be. We need to focus on the bill, on what it sets out to do and on what all Canadians believe it should do, which is to give us a fixed election date. The government would no longer be able to play around and try to orchestrate its own defeat. We have responsible work being done in the House and taking away the government's ability to manipulate the date of an election will bring more fairness to the system.
We will talk at another time about what we can do in terms of reforming our democratic system but this is the first start. The NDP is proud that the government adopted our idea and we support it fully.
Mr. Pierre Paquette (Joliette, BQ):
Mr. Speaker, I have to say at the outset that the Bloc Québécois will be supporting Bill C-16 in principle.
Let me start by saying that, in 1998, at the hon. member for Laurier—Sainte-Marie's initiative, the Bloc Québécois Bloc launched a number of reflection exercises, including one on citizenship and democracy, in which it was agreed that, in a sovereign Quebec, a fixed election date system would be much more suitable than the British system which is currently in place in the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. Indeed, holding elections on a fixed date would allow parliamentarians to plan their work better, giving them a better chance to undertake it.
Personally, I remember very well that, under the previous minority government, the international trade subcommittee never got going because we did not know when an election would be called. That caused very serious harm to industry in Canada and Quebec, given a context where Canada is lagging behind terribly in terms of globalization and free trade.
We also feel that it would promote voter turnout. We know that, in the bill, the third Monday of October is the proposed time to hold elections. It was precisely selected because that is a time of year when people are available to take part in electoral process and elections. People are certainly more available then than they were for the June 28, 2004 election, and probably more available than for the last election. As hon. members will recall, that election was called in November, then came the Christmas period and, in January, we went to the polls.
We therefore believe that having to hold elections on a fixed date would not only allow to better plan parliamentary work, but also foster improved voter participation.
We see many advantages and I do not feel I need to drone on about this for too long. It is a matter of fairness between the parties. Indeed, we all know that, at present, the governments in power and the Prime Minister exploit the calendar and the current situation in order to call an election at any time they like. During Mr. Chrétien's era, for example, we rarely saw terms last longer than three and a half years. He would wait for the right time and call an election only when it was in his best interest and that of the Liberal Party. We believe, however, that all Canadians and all the parties should be aware of the exact framework for the rules of the game. Obviously, we would know when the election date would be. As I mentioned, this would foster much more rational governance and, we believe, promote political participation. Certain months are completely inadvisable, if we really want to increase voter turnout. Thus, by knowing the rules of the game, by knowing the date in advance and choosing a date that appears to be at the most convenient time of year for all Canadians and Quebeckers, as is the case in Bill C-16, we will be in a better position to encourage voter participation.
I cannot ignore the fact that knowing when the election will take place could help with the recruitment of some future candidates. I know very well that, in Quebec, some very valuable people have left their jobs believing that an election was imminent. When they had found other jobs they could not leave when Premier Jean Charest called the election. Others were unable to run because they could not leave their professional responsibilities at the drop of a hat, or the roll of the dice.
Therefore, we believe that we would just be reflecting what is happening in today's modern democracies around the world. You may be familiar with the studies published by Henry Milner of the Institute for Research on Public Policy. Of the 40 democracies he studied, there are only 12 that do not have fixed election dates.
Naturally, if a minority government were to lose the confidence of the House, the Prime Minister would be able to call on the Governor General to ask that an election be called. However, he could not do it based solely on the fact that the polls were favourable, for example following a given decision. Following a temporary increase in support for the government in power, he could not call on the Governor General and have her dissolve Parliament without valid reasons.
Given the current system, as I mentioned earlier, the Bloc Québécois will support the principle underlying the bill. We think that the new system being proposed is much fairer and more modern. It will support voter participation in the campaign and the election, and it will not challenge the government's responsibilities. That is why we support this bill.