The House resumed from February 5 consideration of the motion that Bill C-23, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and other Acts and to make consequential amendments to certain Acts, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Ms. Hélène LeBlanc (LaSalle—Émard, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for Dartmouth—Cole Harbour.
I have the honour of rising in the House to represent the people of LaSalle—Émard in the Parliament of Canada and ensure that their voices and objections concerning certain clauses in Bill C-23 are heard.
The government has been attacking Elections Canada for years, and this bill is the final blow in that fight. The minister of Conservative reform, or rather the Minister of State for Democratic Reform, feels that this agency is prejudiced and biased in its criticism of the Conservatives' non-compliance with election laws. This bill is an obvious attack on Elections Canada, as it aims to limit its powers.
Instead of limiting the Chief Electoral Officer's role in implementing public education programs, the government should be working with Elections Canada to develop a strategy to increase voter participation. Fewer and fewer Canadians are voting. In 2011, only 61% of eligible voters participated in the election, which is one of the lowest percentages in our country's history. The lowest participation rate was in 2008, when only 58% of Canadians went to the polls to elect a Conservative minority government. That shows that Canadian voters are not particularly drawn to that party.
In most modern democracies, the institution responsible for administering the electoral system is also responsible for promoting public awareness of the importance of voting. Bill C-23 limits the role of the Chief Electoral Officer. From now on, this officer will only be able to discuss certain aspects of the voting process, such as where, when and how to vote.
The Chief Electoral Officer is an expert on democracy. He is independent and non-partisan. He and his team develop campaigns to encourage people to vote. The Chief Electoral Officer does an excellent job promoting awareness and educating the public, which is a very important part of a healthy participatory democracy.
This reform will have a significant impact on educational activities, such as Canada's democracy week, which was organized by Elections Canada, and the civic education program, which aimed to help students learn about the electoral process. All of these initiatives will be eliminated.
Canadians need to understand that this measure is a direct attack on the very foundation of our democracy. It will not increase voter participation, particularly among young people and groups who are less likely to vote.
Fortunately, the media and society at large are condemning this attack on our institutions. Allow me to quote an article published in The Globe and Mail that starts with this:
|| The Conservative government is stripping Elections Canada of its authority to encourage Canadians to vote in federal ballots [...]
The Montreal Gazette qualified this measure as “decidedly self-serving” for the Conservative government.
Canada is a world example on democratic participation and strong democratic institutions, but the Conservative government is working hard to change our values for its own electoral benefit.
How can we go to other countries and guide them on strengthening their democracy when we are not protecting our own institutions? How can our democracy be a model when the government is cancelling the programs aimed at teaching our youth and newcomers about the importance of electoral participation?
The amendments proposed in this bill will have negative consequences for all Canadians because the voting process will be more difficult, especially for vulnerable Canadians. These vulnerable people will be affected by another measure in Bill C-23 that appears to be an attempt to suppress votes from certain segments of the population.
The bill would put an end to the practice of vouching, and if it passes, the voter registration cards sent out to voters will no longer be accepted as proof of registration. These voter identification cards are important to people, like some of my constituents, who have moved or are newcomers and have a hard time providing proof of address when they want to vote. This can also be an issue for others, such as students, seniors and aboriginal people. Elections Canada uses these cards to validate the information provided by voters through the Canada Revenue Agency or provincial agencies.
At the polling station, voters must present another piece of ID in addition to their voter identification card. My riding of LaSalle—Émard had 57% voter turnout for the May 2011 election. Only 42,500 of the 74,500 eligible voters turned out. Among those who did not vote are the groups that have the most difficulty participating in the voting process.
More than 40% of my constituents are considered to be low-income earners. Furthermore, 50.4% of those 65 and over have an income of less than $20,000 a year, and 51% of them have no certificates or diplomas. This population is often isolated. I see it when I meet my constituents. They feel isolated, have low incomes and are more likely to move and not to be informed of their obligation to vote. Young people represent 27% of the population, are mobile, and will be affected by this new measure.
In LaSalle—Émard, as well as in other Quebec ridings, many people do not have a driver's licence or another identification card. Quebec's health card does not show the person's address. If Canadians do not receive these voter information cards, and have only a health card as the only valid piece of identification, they may be discouraged from voting because now it will be harder to verify their information.
It is the responsibility of every government to make voting easier for its citizens. They should not be encouraged to refrain from voting. With this measure, the Conservatives are targeting certain demographic groups. Unlike the Conservatives, I represent all the people in LaSalle—Émard. I am not here to defend access to voting only for those who voted for me. I am here to defend all Canadians, no matter their political affiliation. We have been elected to represent all our constituents and not to promote measures that will limit the participation of those opposed to the government, as the Conservatives are doing.
I would like to conclude on this measure by stating what an editorial in the Ottawa Citizen had to say:
|| One might have thought that when the Conservative government finally got around to reforming election law, it would be to try to prevent the kind of voter suppression and electoral fraud Canada saw in the 2011 election. But when they said they would make it harder to break the rules, it seems they were talking about cracking down on homeless voters, not party bagmen.
Here is another quote. This one is from the Toronto Star:
||...[this] government is more inclined to see a higher voter turnout as a threat than as an ideal outcome.
Mr. Robert Chisholm (Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have an opportunity to participate for a few moments in debate on the bill. Like every piece of legislation we have seen from the government since it was elected in 2011, the devil really is in the details. Conservatives introduce legislation, give it a folksy title, and claim it is everything but sliced bread; then, when we start to dig into it and start to pick through it, we see what is really going on.
That is why the move to limit debate is so egregious. It is the question of the government not wanting us to have an opportunity to understand the ramifications of various provisions, to talk with our constituents, or to be able to bring that information back here to the House. However, that is certainly the style of the current government that we have come to know and not like very much. We will do the best we can with it.
The aspect of the bill that I find so troubling, and there are a number of troubling aspects, is that it is going to make it more difficult for Canadians to vote. I have been involved as a politician, an adult educator, and a community activist now for nearly 30 years in working with people in my community and across this country to encourage people to take the opportunity to exercise their right to vote.
I understand that barriers exist. Barriers have existed for different groups for decades, if not hundreds of years. We have had to fight hard to remove the barriers and remove the exclusions so that more Canadians have an opportunity to participate in the electoral process, but it is a tough slog.
Other countries are making it easier. Agencies that are involved in regulating and administering the election process are given more powers and more opportunities to promote opportunities to vote and to make voting easier. Either through polling booths, electronic voting, or other means, they make it easier for people to participate. Voting is an inalienable right in this country and in other democracies around the world. We want to not only protect it but expand it. We want to get it out there to everyone.
It seems what the government values most is someone who owns property, is stable in one location, and receives direct mail from the Conservative Party or, for that matter, from any of the other political parties.
However, only a small fraction of the population is so involved in the political process that they are on mailing lists, contribute to political parties, and receive regular updates about what is going on in the political process and what is going on with elections. There are many people out there who have decided—for reasons I do not necessarily agree with, but reasons they find justifiable—that the electoral process is not for them and that the government does not serve their interests. They are disenchanted and feeling somewhat cynical about the political process. We need to continue to do everything we can to encourage these people.
Whatever it is that I or my colleagues or Elections Canada or anybody else says that motivates Canadians to cast their ballots during an election, we need to make sure that they have an opportunity to do so. We have rules to make sure that all the polling stations are completely accessible for people who have physical barriers. We are trying to bring in all kinds of different measures to make sure that people can vote not just on one specific day, but on many specific days.
In this country we are exploring opportunities for electronic voting. Certainly it has been done at the provincial level. We are doing all kinds of things.
There are groups of Canadians who some would suggest are vulnerable Canadians. I do not know if that is necessarily a good word, but they are Canadians nonetheless, and they are on the move. They may be young Canadians at university or people who are looking for jobs or people who are moving around. They may be other types of Canadians who are in that type of mobile environment and living a kind of mobile lifestyle. They need any opportunity. We need to remove all barriers that may exist for them to have the opportunity to cast a ballot.
The rate of participation is in the 60% range. I speak to students in junior high schools, high schools, and universities and try to impress upon them that they have a responsibility as citizens to participate. If they decide during any given election that they are going to participate, we have a responsibility as parliamentarians to make sure that we make it as easy as we possibly can. Whether it is because they do not get mail or they are not paying attention because they are trying to put food on their tables and make sure they have roofs over their heads or they are trying to stay safe, they are not focused on these particular issues. They are not paying attention. This bill would not make it easier on those people, or on any other Canadians, for that matter; it would make it more difficult.
I have gone through the bill. I have already spoken with some of my constituents about it, and they are very worried about the direction the government is going. It is taking away the ability of the CEO of Elections Canada to expand its reach to make sure that Canadians know what is going on and are encouraged at each and every opportunity to participate. It is taking away the powers of the Chief Electoral Officer instead of increasing them.
The CEO appeared before a standing committee this afternoon. Members may have heard the minister, when he introduced this bill, suggest that both the commissioner and Elections Canada wore team jerseys, suggesting that they are partisans. What the Chief Electoral Officer said was that, in fact, he is wearing a striped jersey. In other words, he is the referee, but as a result of this bill, he is going to be completely taken off the ice.
I am going to have to have more conversations with Canadians in Dartmouth—Cole Harbour because I do not want people to become more cynical about the process, but it seems as though this bill has a couple of different intentions. One is that when Elections Canada tried to clean up some election procedures that have been carried out by some members of Parliament on that side, the Conservatives are taking away the powers of Elections Canada to follow through on those issues. They are increasing their ability to raise money in areas where the Conservative Party has the most reach. When the Conservatives talk about a long reach, that is what they are talking about: the ability of the Conservative Party to get into people's pockets even further.
This bill, erroneously called the fair elections act, would tip the balance to the Conservative Party. It moves away from Canadians being able to participate actively and equally in the political process. I am going to speak to my constituents and come back here to share their concerns with the government.
Hon. Michelle Rempel (Minister of State (Western Economic Diversification), CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I am excited to speak on this topic today because it is an issue we all wrestle with. I want to spend my time today on a few areas of this bill, such as the voter education component, the vouching issue, access to voting facilities, and some of the measures set out for money and corporate donations, as well as some of the robocall issues in here.
I will start with the education component because it has come up in question period and in debate quite a bit. We should all be concerned with this, as parliamentarians, in a good way.
I asked my colleague opposite why young voters in his riding do not vote and why he had a low turnout. Did members notice that he could not answer? I have asked myself this question for the last three years I have been in my first term of Parliament. I have asked myself this in areas where I have seen lower voter turnout as I analyze the election results. How can I get out and encourage people to vote in this area? I see that as my responsibility as an elected official. I am certain that other people and other parties should be asking the same question.
Moreover, it is not just our job as someone running in a campaign; it is our job as parliamentarians. If we are not asking what issues motivate people to vote, we are not doing our job. Therefore, to make the argument that a government institution is responsible for finding out why people vote is an abdication of our responsibilities as parliamentarians. I cannot believe we are having the argument that we should be somehow divesting that voter persuasion, that issue engagement, and that policy engagement to a government entity. It is false logic. It degrades the democracy we are built upon.
Every day we should be talking to our constituents and asking them what issues motivate them, what makes them want to vote, what they care about, and where they want our party to be on an issue if they care about it so much. Not only is that the policy development process, that is what voter engagement is.
We can talk about social media and websites. I love the Apathy is Boring campaign. Members have talked about using art in terms of encouraging people to vote. Those are tools. That is the how people vote. It is not the why. We cannot shift the responsibility for an inquiry into why people vote to Elections Canada. That is our job. Therefore, every time I hear that come up in question period or whatnot, I want people to look inward and ask themselves why the youth in their riding are not voting.
Moreover, when we talk about why people do not vote, there is an issues component, but sometimes it comes down to a traffic jam, a school dance recital, a lack of child care coverage or transportation to the polls, or a big snowstorm.
I have talked to friends in data visualization. When they look at emergency response around an accident, for example, they look at how people move. It is a behavioural choice to make a decision to go somewhere or do something. Voting is going somewhere and doing something. As parliamentarians and candidates, we also have to look at what behavioural choices people make to go out and vote. That is not a static thing. When we are talking about why people vote, the issues change and what motivates someone changes, so we have to be on top of that. However, we also have to look at what behavioural impacts affect a person to vote on that night and at that time, which is why I find this bill so cool. I will get to that in a minute.
In researching and preparing for this speech, I looked at a paper prepared for Elections Canada in January 2011 entitled “Youth Electoral Engagement in Canada”. It is a fairly robust paper. I note that line one of the executive summary of this report states:
|| Youth electoral engagement in Canada is declining. Despite this, we do not know much about the causes of this decline.
It is a fascinating paper. It talks about many different reasons that could potentially have an impact on why people do or do not vote. At the end of the day, it talks about the possibility that we may need more data. To say that why people vote could be somehow impacted by a static snapshot in time is a bit of false logic too.
Therefore, when we are looking at who is best positioned to educate voters, it is not just a government department. Should we be entrusting voter persuasion to a government department? I am not sure. I think that is dangerous territory. What we should be asking is how do each of us here better reach out to different demographics in our riding. Do we understand what those demographics are? Do we understand what they care about and why? How do those issues change over time? How does the policy change over time?
On election day, I have to persuade people to go out to the polls, based on the job that I have done and the stands that my party has taken on these issues. Voter persuasion is not an election campaign issue. Elections Canada cannot just go out and persuade people to go vote. It is a term of office. It is a constant thing. Now, all of a sudden we are making an argument that a government institution should be taking the role of a parliamentarian, an NGO, or an educational institution. No, that is wrong. That is the sort of debate that allows us to considerably reduce the efficacy of our democracy in Canada, and I am strongly opposed to it.
I mentioned tools. What do we need to get people to go vote? How do they go out and vote? Let us educate people on where they vote. Let us look at some of those behavioural issues I talked about, like the snow storm, the traffic jams, the school recital. Let us give them more options on when and where they can vote. No one likes to stand in a long line. I know I do not. As my friends know, I am a very impatient person. As my staff members are watching this, they know that as well.
Therefore, for impatient people, how do we reduce the congestion in voting stations? That is what Bill C-23 does. It offers more advance polling days. It offers solutions around staffing, such as in areas of congestion, we would be able to reduce that. We should be tasking an administrative department with the how, with the tools. I really think that by legislating and enshrining that, in a very focused and specific mandate within the bill, we would be doing a great service to Canadians. However, we are not doing a service if we abdicate our responsibility as parliamentarians for understanding why people vote.
My colleague could not answer that. He could not understand why people do not vote in his riding. That is something we should all be concerned about. I am sure that if we got into a debate about how this group or that group feels about an issue, that would be interesting. I could not answer all of that, but I have some data. I have a good sense, based on the survey mechanisms I use in my riding. I do telephone town halls, town hall meetings, surveys, and social media. I try to communicate as many ways and with as many tools as I can, but at the end of the day, identifying what is going to persuade people to vote is my job. It is not Elections Canada's job.
On the vouching issue, I have been involved in politics for over a decade. I feel old saying that, but I spent much of my teen years and 20s spending vacation time learning how to campaign and doing something called “scrutineering”. That is watching people come to the polls and making sure there are no irregularities. I have seen irregularities happen. One just knows when something is happening. I have to think that the ability to identify someone, to take on the privilege of voting in our country, is something that we should not take lightly. Bill C-23 strikes the right balance.
Bill C-23 is saying that one should have the responsibility to identify oneself, but that let us try to provide as many forms of identification as possible to make that easy to do. For those who have been following this line of question in question period and in the House, I encourage them to go to the Elections Canada website, look at option 2 for what voter pieces of information are eligible, and read the list of eligible pieces of ID.
We talked about transient populations, aboriginal people, students who might be in homes, and seniors. Here are some things they can use as ID: attestation of residence issued by the responsible authority of a first nations band or reserve; one of the following, issued by a responsible authority of a shelter, soup kitchen, student or senior residence, or a long-term care facility; an attestation of residence, letter of stay, admission form, or statement of benefits; correspondence issued by a school, college, or university.
We are adding extra voting days through the advance polling days. We are saying there are a lot of different identification components in here. I see it as my job now to go out and make sure that people know this list exists. I had to do a little bit of Internet searching to find this. It is not front and centre.
I do not necessarily agree with all of her opinions, but I respect the member for Saanich—Gulf Islands, who has been a very active voice on this file. In the press release her party issued on February 4 when we released this bill, she said, “To improve voter turnout, we should repeal all the changes, including the photo ID requirement, that make it harder for young people...to vote.”
Right now people do not actually have to present photo ID. They can have two pieces of ID on the list I just went through, and that was not exhaustive. I did not read it all. I believe there are 30-plus different forms of identification that are still valid. If someone as educated and civically engaged as the member for Saanich—Gulf Islands does not know that we do not just have a photo identification requirement, maybe a lot of Canadians do not know what they can bring to the polls. That is the education component that we need. What the bill would do is to make it crystal clear in Elections Canada's mandate that it has to provide that service. It needs to educate voters on what they need to bring to the polls.
There should also be a component in there to make sure that political parties are educating people on what they need to bring. It is my job as a candidate to tell people what they need to bring to the polls in order to exercise their franchise. I do not see that as disenfranchisement. I see it as a collective responsibility to educate people on what they need to bring to the polls to exercise their right to vote.
I think this can be overcome. The research that my colleague, the Minister of State for Democratic Reform, has cited about irregularities relating to vouching provides a good impetus for us to address the issue in the bill. If the data were showing there were zero irregularities with this, we would be having a different debate, but the fact is that it is not. We would be remiss as parliamentarians if we did not even talk about the issue and that there is perhaps a problem here.
I was reading some of the background research that was provided on the bill and I believe that it has been shown that even with increased training for Elections Canada staff, there was still about the same level of irregularities related to vouching. This is a positive step, but having that education mandate focused on Elections Canada to tell people what identification they need to bring, having it front and centre on its website and in its communications, would be a very good and positive thing for the Canadian democratic process.
One thing in the bill that I think everyone will agree on is repeal of the ban on premature transmission of elections results. I was reading my Twitter feed when the bill came out and someone jokingly said that Canadian democracy has entered the age of the telephone. So it goes without saying that given the way that we now consume information as a country, the repeal of the ban speaks to the fact that we are acknowledging free speech rules and that this is just common sense. I am not sure if that has been talked about in debate, but it really is important and should be highlighted in the coverage of the bill.
The other very positive aspects are the rules to be in place around the public registry for mass calling, the prison time for impersonating elections officials, and the increased penalties for deceiving people out of their vote. Some of the measures we are putting in place are very positive for protecting electors when it comes to the information they are receiving about the election, including the creation of a registry of new voter contact services by telephone, and requiring registration with the CRTC of telephone service providers engaging in voter contact and any person or group engaging in the use of telephone service providers for voter contact purposes.
I encourage people to go to the democratic reform website of the government, as this particular component, as well as all of the other components of the bill, are clearly outlined there. It is very important for voters to know what the bill would do in strengthening the rules around robocalls. As well, the fact that we have to keep scripts and a record of how we have communicated to voters is a very good thing.
Another great thing is the increased disclosure requirements for political parties, candidates, and electoral associations, with a specific disclosure line in the election return for expenses incurred under the voter contact purposes by telephone.
The last component I want to speak on today is the financing component.
I often get asked, as we all do, why I ran for office. We always have issues or personal motivation, but part of why I ran was because I could.
When we compare the Canadian political system with the American system, where I believe there was over $6 billion spent on its last presidential campaign, we have a really good system that limits the amount of influence that corporations, NGOs, and any individual can have on our policy deliberations. Everyone in this room has the ability to spend time on policy without being subject to undue influence, because we are not beholden to people beyond a level of materiality that we have legislated in the House. Some of the things that we have talked about in the bill, including closing the political loans loophole, I think are very good for accessibility.
When we look at barriers to women running for office, the ability to raise funds is often something that comes up. Anything we can do to level the playing field and entry barriers for different demographics, who perhaps do not normally participate in the political process at a candidate level, I think is a very good thing. However, I have not heard anyone talk about that today. I have not heard anyone talk about how it is a very positive thing to make sure that people are on the same playing field as others who have access to a wealthy benefactor or lender. We should celebrate this measure.
I also look at the tougher penalties we are putting in place for people who are not in compliance with some of these rules. My colleague, the Minister of State for Democratic Reform, talks about sharper teeth, which are so important. When people break our democratic rules there should be penalties for that. When we look at the elements in the bill to address that, they are a very positive thing.
Also, the clarification of the rules of interpretation of the Canada Elections Act is a good thing for all of us who stand here. We all believe in a system where one is innocent until proven guilty. Knowing what the procedures would be around an Elections Canada ruling and having the ability to sit in this place while those occur is something we have a responsibility for back to our voters. People put us in this place based on exercising their franchise, which has been talked about so much in other components of this debate. To remove someone without concrete cause, I think, is something that we should be very concerned about. It could happen to any one of us here in any party. We are not condoning bad behaviour; far from it. We are saying that the rules associated with the Canada Elections Act need to be stated in a very clear and public way and applied equally in a non-partisan way. I think that is a very positive thing.
One of my purported constituents said, “Stand up for your constituents...and tell [the Minister of State for Democratic Reform] to think hard about what democratic reform really looks like...”.
I think he did. I think it is in this bill, and I commend him for all his work.
Ms. Françoise Boivin (Gatineau, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the fine member for Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie.
I would have liked to see the minister who just spoke answer the following question, which is perhaps more appropriate: How can a government become a majority government with barely 39% of the votes of the 61% of Canadians who voted? Clearly, there is a serious problem with the way we do things.
I agree with the minister that members of Parliament should not be the only ones wondering what is really happening with the elections process and democracy in our great and beautiful country. That also concerns me.
Furthermore, I am proud to say that, with 62% of the votes in my riding, I felt I was in the driver's seat. I felt I was representing my people. However, I am not proud that only 63% of the people of Gatineau exercised their right to vote. That means that 37% of the population chose to stay home rather than to exercise a fundamental right.
In some countries, people kill each other for the right to vote. They make huge sacrifices for this fundamental right.
We have a rather worrisome problem on our hands and it is not improving. With a bill like this, it is quite cynical to say that we are debating it. As my colleague from Vancouver East said, the title of the bill is the Fair Elections Act fair elections act. In French, it is theloi sur l'intégrité des élections. The intent is to make people believe that it will solve a lot of voter participation problems.
I think the message that the government is sending to Canadians and voters is a message of sheer mistrust.
In their speeches, the Conservatives make much of the fact that people cheat at election time. We heard that a few minutes ago right from the mouth of the minister of state. People are fraudulently vouching for people who have no identification. That fact alone is justification for disenfranchising masses of people who may have no easy access to pieces of identification, with due respect to the minister and all her lists.
It is already complicated enough for Canadians to understand the system and to find out where they have to go to vote. Some people have voted in the same place all their lives and then, suddenly, the polling station is not there any more.
Everyone who has been part of an election day knows what I am talking about. They know just how many questions they are asked that day. It does not matter that people have received their voter card or that they have seen newspaper ads about the date of the election and where they have to go to vote. Our volunteers get a lot of calls. We have a problem getting information to people.
What is the government's solution? It is to take away one of the ways people had to become informed and that was working very well. The Chief Electoral Officer and the institution we call Elections Canada are neutral and non-partisan, with all respect to our friends opposite. The institution is all about exercising democracy.
I remember sitting on the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs in 2004 and meeting Jean-Pierre Kingsley, the chief electoral officer at the time. Members of Parliament were very proud to see the respect given to the chief electoral officer and the institution we call Elections Canada. For several years, there has been a kind of incredible tug-of-war going on under the noses of all Canadians concerning actions and investigations linked to the Conservative government.
Suddenly Elections Canada is biased. The chief electoral officer the Conservatives appointed is wearing a uniform, but not in their team's colours. Therefore, the Conservatives are responding with this bill.
We cannot help but be cynical when once again we are up against time allocation. We keep being told to read the bill and that it is not complicated, but it is 244 pages long. I started reading it carefully and realized that some parts of it are very technical. There is no logic to it; it is a mishmash. It is not entirely clear. Given the motion of the House Leader of the Official Opposition, not only did I look at the French, but I also checked whether the English said the same thing because I now have some doubts about that.
I see there is a discrepancy between the two titles: Loi sur l'intégrité des élections in French, and fair election act in English. Perhaps my English is not the best, but in my mind “fair” in English would be “juste” in French. Next, the French word “intégrité” would be “integrity”, which relates to honesty. There are also mistakes in the summary. It is a bit worrisome, just as it is to impose time allocation to debate a bill that affects a fundamental right to vote, namely, how to get it and how to access it. Many of my colleagues have asked questions, which the government members have done an incredible job of evading.
I am old enough to remember the good old days when people knocked on your door to find out how many voters lived in your house. The people asked you questions and wrote down the answers on the voters list. Next, they did the enumeration and revision of the lists in order to make sure that all the names were written down correctly. That method was eliminated, as though democracy had a price and the government wanted to show how good it is at managing public funds. It is particularly shameful to cut things that affect democracy.
This creates huge problems. I understand my colleagues who are from large rural ridings, especially my friends from Beauce and other areas in the interior of Quebec and Canada's far north. They have to cover huge territories over which small pockets of people are spread. Their situation is certainly different than that of a large city like Gatineau, the fourth largest city in Quebec. In Gatineau, the problems have more to do with the number of new developments. There are people who are not on our voters lists at all and are difficult to track down.
I will refrain from characterizing the comments made by the minister of state, who said to just do the work. I would love to take my scooter or my car and drive through all the streets, which I do anyway in an election campaign, but it is a bit much to suggest that we go and knock on all the doors and count everyone.
I am not saying that we should not do so; on the contrary. I think everyone in the House would do well to encourage their constituents to vote. Besides, no one is more active than I am on Facebook. While I was debating, I was communicating with the people of Gatineau on Facebook to hear what they think of the bill. The Conservatives might not be so happy to hear some of the comments I am receiving. However, that is normal, because they are probably from party supporters.
Am I the right person to encourage all voters in my riding and to do the work of the Chief Electoral Officer? I really like myself and I am confident that I can be impartial, up to a point. However, I have to admit that I do not know who I would encourage to vote if I had to choose between someone who would vote for me and someone who would not vote for me. I do not think that a Conservative would encourage an NDP supporter to go and vote.
The major fault of this bill is the lack of balance. For those listening, I repeat that this bill is 244 pages long. It is not simple. We have to really digest it. It is in the Conservatives' interest to broaden the debate as much as possible.
Mr. Alexandre Boulerice:
Mr. Speaker, it is important to remind people of the context of this debate.
I will address matters as they stand. We are dealing with a bill that has dragged on, but instead of taking the time to work on it intelligently, meeting with people and discussing it with them, the Conservatives worked on this in secret behind closed doors. This is not a unifying bill. On the contrary, it is divisive.
With this approach, the government is changing the rules of the game of our democratic system. It is the law that governs how we regulate elections, election campaigns and the voting process. This should be completely impartial, objective and neutral. There should have been vast public consultations and a broad discussion within our society to determine the problems, the best solutions and what changes are necessary. No, the government did this behind closed doors, in secret. This is not a federal government bill. This is a Conservative Party bill. This is disgraceful and the NDP is taking a stand against it.
The government did not even have any serious discussions with Elections Canada over this. That is the first thing it should have done, but no. The government did not give Elections Canada any advance notice of the legislative changes it was going to make. They were left in the dark. The minister finally admitted that he had a roughly hour-long meeting the Chief Electoral Officer. It was an hour or so. Is he serious? We think that is a joke.
The opposition parties were not consulted and neither was civil society or the citizens of this country. It is outrageous that this bill is being introduced by the party responsible for the in and out scheme. That same party lost a minister, Mr. Penashue, because he broke election rules. That same party's parliamentary secretary to the Prime Minister had to be kicked out of the Conservative caucus for breaking electoral spending rules. That is the party, alone in its corner, that is going to reform electoral legislation? Forgive us if we have any legitimate concern over the changes that will be made and how they will play out.
This bill opens the door to a doctrine from the George W. Bush era in the United States known as vote suppression. It works by effectively ensuring that some people are denied the opportunity to exercise their right to vote and have their say in our democracy. In the last election, 100,000 Canadians exercised their right to vote without having to present photo identification because they did not have any. They were able to have a vouching elector, someone who attested that Mr. or Ms. X was who he or she claimed to be and was entitled to vote.
An example might be a parent who arrives at the polling station with a child who has just turned 18 and may not have the necessary documents yet. The parent is able to say that the child is his or her son or daughter, is 18 years of age, and can swear an oath and vote.
Who are the people without the identification required? Mainly aboriginals, young people and students, but also those with mental health issues or people who are homeless. These are the people the Conservatives do not want to see vote anymore.
This will make it more difficult for at least 100,000 people to exercise their right to vote. That is not trivial. It is extremely serious.
We think and hope that the Conservative government will listen to reason and change these rules. However, we do not have a lot of hope because they have not discussed it with anyone since this whole process began.
Another serious concern to us as progressive people and New Democrats is the fact that Elections Canada's powers are being subtly attacked, which is not very surprising because almost anyone in this country who dares criticize or challenge a decision by the Conservatives is considered a political foe. This is true for the unions, women's groups, environmental groups, international co-operation groups, and the list goes on. This is also true for the Chief Electoral Officer.
We are sort of seeing the same philosophy here. Anyone who speaks against them, anyone who stands in their way and somehow impedes the great march of the Conservative Party will be attacked and stripped of their powers.
It is mind-boggling. The Conservatives are the ones who created the position of parliamentary budget officer, and now this person is forced to go to court and make access to information requests to get the information he needs to do his job. While Elections Canada is investigating members of this caucus, the government is taking away its investigative powers. The government wants to separate the commissioner and the Chief Electoral Officer, so that the chief electoral officer no longer has the investigative powers he previously had to enforce the law.
The government is telling us that this is to make him more independent. Yeah, right. That is not true. Elections Canada is already independent enough from the government. That is what bothers the Conservatives. If the agency is independent from the Chief Electoral Officer, I am not sure that he will be independent from the Conservative government. It is very worrisome that the Chief Electoral Officer will no longer have investigative powers to enforce the law, when that is the very essence of his mandate.
Furthermore, I hope to get some answers from the other side of the House about something rather ridiculous that I still do not understand. I read a comment by the Minister of State for Democratic Reform on the Radio-Canada website that the Conservatives' bill will keep big money out of politics.
Then I looked at the bill and wondered what the minister meant. In the bill, he is increasing the contribution limit from $1,200 to $1,500, which he says would keep big money out of politics. That makes absolutely no sense.
My doubts may be unfounded, but I get the impression that the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party have lots of friends who can contribute $1,500 per year. The NDP might have fewer such friends because it represents ordinary people, people who work for minimum wage, bus drivers and blue collar workers.
The Conservatives will also take away the money Elections Canada uses to encourage people to vote. From now on, only information about polling stations will be given out. Elections Canada will no longer have a mandate to encourage people to vote and to tell them that it is a basic right they should exercise.
That is not important to the Conservatives, and I think I know why: because 62% of Canadians and Quebeckers did not vote for this government. Getting people to vote in the next election is not in the Conservatives' best interest because they would lose power.
Mr. Brad Butt (Mississauga—Streetsville, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to rise and speak today to Bill C-23, the fair elections act, which has been introduced by the Minister of State for Democratic Reform.
The fair elections act would ensure that everyday citizens are in charge of democracy by putting special interests on the sidelines and rule breakers out of business. The bill also makes it harder to break the elections law. It closes loopholes to big money. It imposes new penalties on political impostors who make rogue calls, and empowers law enforcement with sharper teeth, a longer reach, and a freer hand.
The fair elections act would protect voters from rogue calls, with a mandatory public registry for mass calling, prison time for impersonating elections officials, and increased penalties. It would give more independence to the Commissioner of Canada Elections, allowing her or him to have control over their staff and investigations, empowering the officer to seek tougher penalties for existing electoral offences, and providing more than a dozen new offences to combat big money, rogue calls, and fraudulent voting.
It would crack down on voter fraud by prohibiting vouching or voter information cards as the only acceptable forms of ID. It would make the rules for elections clear, predictable, and easier to follow. It would ban the use of loans which are often used to evade donation rules. It would repeal the ban on premature transmission of election results, upholding free speech and the realities of technology and communications in the 21st century. It would provide better customer service to voters and establish an extra day of polling.
In the case of disagreements over election expenses, it would allow a member of Parliament to present the disputed case in the courts and to have judges quickly rule on it, before the Chief Electoral Officer seeks the MP's suspension.
What I want to focus on today is something that I know my colleagues in the House are concerned about. We have all seen how big money can influence elections in other countries, and that is something that our government, this government, is committed to preventing in Canada.
Our government is pursuing a principled agenda to strengthen accountability and democracy in Canada. It was our Conservative government that instituted a ban on union and corporate donations to political parties, and this total ban will remain.
The fair elections act would reduce undue influence, both real and apparent, of wealthy interests in the political process. The current rules on political loans do not meet the high standards of accountability, transparency, and integrity that is expected by Canadians.
With the introduction of the fair elections act, we are building on our flagship Federal Accountability Act by bringing greater accountability and transparency to political loans. Everyday Canadians are expected to pay back their loans under strict rules, and the same should apply to politicians. Big money from special interests can drown out the voice of everyday citizens. That is why Canada's laws strive to keep it out.
The fair elections act would ban the use of loans to evade donation rules. It would allow political parties to fund democratic outreach with small increases in the current spending limits, while imposing tougher audits and penalties to enforce those limits. It would also make it easier for small donors to contribute more to democracy through the front door and harder for illegal big money to sneak in through the back door.
Some have used loans that are never repaid to get around the donations limit. If adopted, the fair elections act would put a stop to that by banning the use of loans to get around donation rules. It would do this by requiring uniform and transparent reporting for all political loans. This includes having to disclose the terms of the loan and the identity of the lender. It would bring the practice of issuing loans to political candidates and to parties out into the light. It would make the limit for total loans, loan guarantees, and contributions by individuals equal to the annual contribution limit.
A person with deeper pockets cannot get around the contribution limit by making a loan that they never intend to have paid back to them. It will ensure that if a candidate needs a bigger loan than the individual annual contribution limit, that candidate will have to go to a financial institution or political entity, not just a friend with money. The loan that they receive will have to be at a fair market rate of interest. There will be no more favours in the form of sub-market loans from political friends. That day is over.
It would tighten up the rules on unpaid loans. Candidates will not simply be able to walk away from loans that they have not repaid, which in reality turns that loan into a donation after the fact. If a candidate's loan is written off by the lender, the riding association or the party of that candidate will be held responsible for the unpaid loan. It would also put the political financing rules for party leadership contestants on the same footing as for other political entities.
The current timeframe, which is pre-event, would be changed to a per calendar year basis.
In addition to closing political loans loopholes, the bill would also make sure that political parties are being diligent about ensuring they comply with the law for political financing. The filings that parties have to make regarding their financial affairs should go farther than simply giving the appearance that a party is in compliance with the rules. Canadians should know that the information is accurate and reliable. An auditor should confirm that this is the case.
These audits are important, as some electoral expenses by parties can be reimbursed, but Canadians should have better assurances that taxpayer money to support our democratic system is only being spent under the right circumstances, and only when the expenses are in full compliance with our electoral laws.
The bill would increase the responsibility of the external auditors of political parties. It would require that they also conduct a compliance audit to assess the party's compliance with the political financing rules. The Chief Electoral Officer would have to consider the auditor's assessment of whether a party has complied with the political financing rules in the Elections Act before he or she could certify that the party's election expenses are eligible for reimbursement.
Canadians should also know what their political parties and candidates are spending money on, particularly when they are using voter contact services. The bill would create an obligation for political parties, registered associations, and candidates to identify any expenses in their returns for voter contact services.
Finally, the bill includes a strong financial deterrent to prevent political parties and candidates from exceeding the expense limits.
The potential reimbursement would be reduced for every dollar they overspend by $1 for every $1 that exceeds the maximum amount by less than 5%; $2 for every $1 that exceeds the maximum amount by 5% or more, but less than 10%; $3 for every $1 that exceeds the maximum amount by 10% or more, but less than 12.5%; and $4 for every $1 that exceeds the maximum amount of 12.5%.
I expect that colleagues in all parties can agree that penalties based on the idea that the more one overspends, the more it could cost in the end would indeed be an even greater incentive to ensure that the rules were followed.
I have just spent a fair bit of time outlining the bill and how it would crack down on illegitimate election spending and close financial loopholes, but the fact of the matter is that campaigning in an election does take money. I know that. We all know that. My colleagues in this place certainly know that.
This bill would ensure that money comes from the right place: from individual Canadians. It would help parties and candidates to fund their campaigns by appealing to Canadian voters. Increasing the annual contribution limit for individuals to $1,500 would also make it easier for small donors to contribute more to democracy through the front door.
The bill would also increase the overall spending limit for national and local campaigns by 5% each.
In conclusion, this bill is about ensuring that the interests of Canadian citizens are at the forefront of our election rules. That means not only ensuring fair access to the electoral system and ensuring fraudsters and tricksters are caught, but also that there is no place for big money to exercise undue influence. It means ensuring that political parties and candidates are complying with the political financing rules. It also means making it easier for Canadians who want to contribute financially to our democratic system to do so. This bill puts Canadian voters first.
As we are at second reading of the bill, I encourage members to support the bill at second reading to get the bill before the procedure and House affairs committee, of which I am pleased and honoured to be a member.
I suspect many organizations and individuals will come forward to speak to the bill. I look forward to their input. I look forward to their ideas and suggestions. I look forward to ensuring that when we pass the final version of the fair elections act, it will stand up for fairness and transparency and it will be a great act to ensure that the voting rights and the democratic rights of each and every Canadian are respected.
Ms. Christine Moore (Abitibi—Témiscamingue, NDP)
Mr. Speaker, I would first like to say that, fortunately, being ridiculous is not a contagious disease; if it were, the Conservative Party would have been decimated at an alarming rate.
I would also like to say that I will be sharing my time with the hon. member for Ottawa Centre.
Why is this ridiculous? Because we have here a bill that, among other things, targets our democratic system, our electoral system. I think that deserves careful attention, especially with the scandals we have recently experienced.
With such an important bill before us, what does the government do? It introduces a closure motion to prevent us from discussing it. Right from the start, the way in which the Conservatives are acting is totally ridiculous.
I would like to take some time to remind my colleagues of some statistics about voter participation. At the 34th general election in 1988, the turnout rate was 75.3%. A few years later, in 2000, it was 64.1%. At the last election in 2011, only 61.1% of the population voted. So it is not hard to understand that the problem with voting is not that people are voting when they have no real right to do so. The problem is that people with the right to vote are not doing so.
At the last election, out of thin air, people in ridings that were considered tight for the Conservative Party received calls telling them that polling stations had been changed, among other things. That turned out not to be true. Therefore there were people who had the right to vote but could not do so. In the last election, the problem was that people were prevented from voting; it was not that people were voting without the right to do so. That was absolutely not the case. It is quite simple to understand. Unfortunately, with this bill, the Conservative Party seems not to have understood.
Courts have handed down major decisions involving Elections Canada, such as, for example, Hughes v. Elections Canada. In February 2010, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordered a series of measures to improve accessibility at polling stations. One of those measures was to allow the voter identification card as proof of identity and address for groups of voters who were likely to have difficulty providing the necessary proof.
Bill C-23 makes it clear that the government is going against the recommendations set out in the Report of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada on the 41st general election of May 2, 2011.
It is completely ridiculous to tell aboriginal communities, young people and seniors—who often do not have many pieces of identification—that we are going to make their lives more complicated and that they can only vote with a voter identification card or with someone who takes an oath.
In my riding, there are small communities with 300 people, where everyone knows everyone. If John Doe goes to vote and does not have any acceptable pieces of ID or there is no one to take an oath, he cannot vote. However, everyone working in the office, living in the town or standing in the room has known him for 40 or 45 years. They know exactly who he is. We can see how ridiculous this is.
Another major flaw in this bill is that the Chief Electoral Officer is prohibited from encouraging people to vote. All he can do now is say where, how and when to vote.
When I go to my riding and ask people why they did not vote, they say, “Why would I go vote?” We try to convince them that it is worthwhile. There is no lack of technical information.
If you think voting is worth it, you will go vote. In any event, people already receive the technical information. We need to convince people who are not voting to do so by explaining why it is useful to vote.
It is also important to ensure that it is not too complicated. Because of address changes, young people living in student residences often get discouraged and are not on the voters' list for the first time. They need to understand why voting is important. Now, unfortunately, this power will be taken away from the Chief Electoral Officer. We are setting aside the opportunity to increase voter participation.
Provincial legislation covers this aspect as well. There are a number of ways of approaching it. It is not obvious, but we need to keep fighting to increase voter participation. It is the very basis of our democracy. Someone had the power to do so, but that is now being taken away, which is completely ridiculous.
The government says it wants to use this bill to prevent big donors who have some control in the elections, but in perspective that makes no sense. In fact, this bill will increase the maximum threshold for individual donations from $1,200 to $1,500. That makes absolutely no sense. The Conservative Party knows very well that this will help it, meaning this is a bill made by the Conservatives, for the Conservatives, that gives them the means to get a head start in future elections.
While a serious problem with election fraud and problems in our electoral process need to be fixed, the government is only offering a partisan response that only the government will benefit from. It makes absolutely no sense.
The thorny issue of contributions to parties was addressed recently in Quebec. After some thought and consultations, it was decided that contributions would be significantly reduced. As a result, the practice of funnelling money through straw men is now practically ineffective because it takes too many people to generate a significant donation.
If the amount donated per person is $1500 and you find 10 people who want to be straw men, you are already up to $15,000. If you find 20 people, you are at $30,000. However, if contributions were limited to $200 or $300 per person, things would be much more complicated. You would need to find a lot more people to fill a party's coffers.
This line of thought was not pursued in the consideration of the bill. In fact, the minister said that he had met with the Chief Electoral Officer, which is absolutely not true. We have no idea why they came up with this bill, other than the fact that they just wanted to find a way to have a head start in the next federal election.
I am extremely disappointed, especially since the NDP had a motion passed unanimously, calling for action within six months. The only thing the government was able to produce in six months is this. It makes no sense that the government took so long to come up with a bill that will overwhelmingly favour the Conservative Party. This bill does not even honour the principle of improving our electoral system. That is a real shame.
We could have done a lot better. Canada routinely monitors the elections of foreign countries to ensure that the democratic process is followed. However, when the time comes to improve our electoral process, the government tries to come up with bills filled with flim-flam to favour the party in power. That is unacceptable. The attitude of the Minister of State for Democratic Reform is irresponsible and quite ridiculous.
Mr. Paul Dewar (Ottawa Centre, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I rise today determined to outline our party's perspective on the difference between making changes to the Canada Elections Act to allow more people to vote and increasing the franchise for people.
Bill C-23 is really about the Conservative Party and about the problems it has had over the last number of years. We outlined some of them earlier.
I want to speak about our vision of a fair voting system and how we could improve voter turnout, not just for young people but for those individuals who find it difficult to vote. I want to speak about how we might do a better job.
I have previously quoted Alfred E. Smith, a former well-known governor of New York and a populist. He was a reformer in the area of child labour. He believed deeply in the idea of democratic development and was very passionate about it. He was a passionate advocate for the poor. He pushed for more democracy. One of my favourite quotes is, “All the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy”. I believe in that.
We feel that we can address these issues in a better way than what we see in this legislation. The bill contains layer upon layer of technical aspects.
The Conservatives had a lot of problems. I will not go over all of them, because they are well known.
We hear from the government that this would open up opportunities for more people to vote. It would increase voter turnout. The problem is that the legislation would take away the very powers required by Elections Canada and its agents to encourage more people to vote.
In 2006-07, I was the NDP critic for democratic reform. I was responsible for providing our party's critique on Bill C-31. That was the last time we looked at changing some of the provisions in the Canada Elections Act. Photo ID was one of the provisions.
One of the provisions in that bill at the time, which we fought vehemently, was the addition to the voters list of birth dates. My colleagues and I had to enlist the support of the Privacy Commissioner to kill that provision. The other parties thought it was a great idea. They thought it was okay to have one's date of birth on the voters list. At the time, I called it a voter ID theft kit, brought to Canadians by their government. As we know, all that is needed for fraud is having someone's date of birth, address, and some other information. That is what the government wanted to provide. Thankfully, that was taken out of the bill after a lot of persuasion.
Another part of that bill was also interesting to me. When we were pushing the government on the issue of the introduction of photo ID, it had to acknowledge that many people do not have access to that kind of information. There was a huge hue and cry from people on low incomes, from seniors, and from transient people.
The government suggested that the provisions being put forward would be okay. One of those provisions was on vouching. The government changed the vouching system so that not just anyone could vouch for someone. It would have to be someone within the riding, and only one person could vouch. We came up with a suggestion we thought made sense. We suggested having a vouching system whereby the citizen could vouch for who he or she was and the ballot would be put aside if there was any concern and could be tracked.
The most disconcerting part of that legislation was that the Conservatives decided to continue what the Liberals had done in 1997, and that was to end universal enumeration.
I have listened carefully to the speeches. There is a lot of rhetoric from the other side about young people who are not voting. They said that with this legislation and by promoting the idea of voting, and the minister talked about telling people where to vote and how to vote, they will vote.
All of that has been done in the past. We have seen it. What has not been done and has not been acknowledged by the government, and which the minister and one of his colleagues acknowledged was a good idea, is having universal enumeration, meaning going out and making sure that every single person who is eligible to vote in every election is given that opportunity. We do not have that anymore.
Growing up, Mr. Speaker, you and I looked forward to when we would turn 18. A person would come to our door and enumerate us for the election. Our names would go on the voters list. We would know for certain that our names would be on the voters list, because we were enumerated.
We are asking that this provision be brought in. Let us go over what the government has said this bill will do. It has said that it will bring more people to the voting stations, because they will know where the voting stations are, and that more people, such as young people and others who are typically under-represented, will participate because of more publicity.
One thing is missing in that equation, and that is giving people the opportunity to vote because they have actually been enumerated. The sad thing is we put that idea forward previously, when I was the critic in 2006-07 when we debated Bill C-31, and the government rejected it.
Everyday people, as the government likes to call citizens, think it is common sense. It makes sense for everyone to have the opportunity to have his or her name on the voters list. What would that do for people who are students? I have a couple of universities in my riding. In the last election, they were caught between voting here, where they were at school, or where they reside in the summer. Their names did not show up on either list. If we had a dedicated process for universal enumeration, and not just in certain areas, as we do now, we would actually deal with that.
Seniors who might be moving from their residences into care homes or who have been in the hospital and have moved back home are another huge demographic that is left off the voters list.
For first nations, what we found out last time was that the requirement to have a photo ID also meant that people had to have an address. Well, when we look at addresses for people living on some of the reserves and in first nations communities, that was not the case. They did not have the address provisions. Tweaking was needed there. If people were there to do the actual enumeration, that would take care of it.
Those are what I would call common sense ideas, along with doing some other things that we have seen the Government of Manitoba do. It provides voting in places where we see actual activity, such as having young people voting in shopping malls. I think that makes sense. We could extended the opportunity to vote by extending the number of days for early balloting.
If we did those things, we could also promote. However, what the government has done in this bill is say that it would take the tools and the power away from Elections Canada. The idea of putting it in the Office of the Prosecutor is an interesting parlour trick. We saw what the government did with the Parliamentary Budget Officer. The government tried to put the Parliamentary Budget Officer away so that no one could actually get the accountability we needed. Despite that, the PBO was able to do the job.
The government would try to shut those things down. Make no mistake, at the end of the day, this bill is not about opening the franchise to more people or increasing the opportunity for more people to vote. In fact, what this bill is about is the Conservative Party trying to deal with all of the challenges it has had in the last number of years. I will not go through the list with the in-and-out and the other issues around how its databases were abused for nefarious purposes.
At the end of the day, the NDP is saying a couple of clear things: Give Elections Canada the power it needs; give Elections Canada the resources it needs; and, finally, let us make sure every single Canadian who is eligible to vote has an opportunity to vote by bringing in and re-establishing universal enumeration for all Canadians.