moved that Bill , be read the second time and referred to a committee.
He said: Mr. Speaker, yesterday I introduced the fair elections act. It keeps everyday citizens in charge of democracy by pushing special interests out of the game and fraudsters out of business.
The bill would make it harder to break the law and easier to vote. It would close loopholes to big money and would impose new penalties on political impostors who make rogue calls. It would empower law enforcement with sharper teeth, a longer reach, and a freer hand.
The fair elections act would make our laws tough, predictable, and easy to follow. Life would be harder for election lawbreakers and easier for honest citizens taking part in democracy.
Law enforcement begins with the Commissioner of Canada Elections. The fair elections act would give him sharper teeth, a longer reach, and a freer hand. Sharper teeth means allowing the commissioner to seek tougher penalties for existing offences. Longer reach means empowering him with more than a dozen new offences to combat big money, rogue calls, and fraudulent voting. It would let him get to the truth by making it an offence for anyone to deceive or disrupt his investigation. Finally, a freer hand means the commissioner would have full independence, with control of his own staff and his own investigations, and a fixed term of seven years, which means he could not be fired without cause.
Consistent with separating the administration from enforcement, the fair elections act would house the commissioner with the Director of Public Prosecutions. He would maintain his powers and functions but gain status as a deputy head, allowing him to make his own staffing decisions and to direct his own investigations. Although the two would be housed in the same office, the director would have no role in the commissioner's investigations.
To ensure impartiality of the position, those individuals who have previously been a candidate or an employee of a political party, a minister, Elections Canada, or an MP's office would not be eligible to serve as commissioner. The referee should not be wearing a team jersey.
The fair elections act proposes that the current commissioner, Yves Côté, and his staff would remain in their roles, and all existing investigations would continue uninterrupted.
One of the responsibilities of the newly empowered watchdog would be to prevent impostors from making rogue calls. The fair elections act would do this by providing a mandatory public registry for mass calling. It would impose prison time for impersonating elections officials, and it would increase penalties for deceiving people out of their votes.
However, it is just as bad to vote illegally as it is to deny someone else's vote. Each fraudulent vote cancels out an honest one. To avoid this, we currently have identification requirements under the Canada Elections Act. Voters can choose from one of 39 acceptable forms of ID. When they fail to bring any of those, someone can vouch for their identity.
Elections Canada commissioned a study last year that found irregularities in one in four cases where vouching was used. Having irregularities 25% of the time constitutes an unacceptable risk.
I want to spend some special time on this particular issue, because these are the findings of the Neufeld report, which was commissioned by Elections Canada. According to that report, as I said earlier, there was a 25% error rate in the use of vouching. That means that every four times Elections Canada used vouching, there was an irregularity once. I will quote directly from the report:
||...the audit showed that errors are made in the majority of cases that require the use of non-regular processes.
Vouching is a non-regular practice. It went on to say:
|...inadequate or ineffective training carries significant negative implications for procedural compliance.
That is on page 21. Furthermore, and I quote directly from the report at page 26:
|| Public trust is at risk if the rate of error is not significantly reduced by the next...election.
|Without amendments to the Canada Elections Act, procedural compliance cannot be significantly improved in the 42nd general election.
If I can quote one more time:
|| Identity vouching procedures are unquestionably the most complex “exception” process administered at polling stations. The level of irregularities for vouching averaged 25 per cent.
It goes on. In a review entitled “A Review of Compliance with Election Day Registration and Voting Process Rules”, this audit showed that errors are made in the majority of cases that require non-regular processes. Then it takes a global view of Canada and the practices that happen in the 308 ridings. It says the following, “Averaged across 308 ridings, election officers made over 500 serious administrative errors per electoral district on Election Day”. That is 500 serious administrative errors per riding, and multiply that by the 308 ridings across the country.
To quote from the report again, “Obviously, this is unacceptable. Aside from legal concerns, public trust in proper administration of the electoral process is at serious risk if these error rates are not addressed”. And address them, we will. The fair elections act would put an end to the use of vouching on election day.
Similarly, Elections Canada recently experimented with the use of the voter identification cards as a form of ID. Before these pilot projects, Canadians voted for years without using cards to identify themselves, and for good reason. A report by Elections Canada recently showed that roughly one in six eligible voters does not have a correct address on the national registrar of electors, which is used to produce the voter information card. In other words, one out of six electors may get a card with the wrong address. That allows some to vote in a different riding than they live in, or to potentially vote more than once.
In fact, the Quebec comedy show Infoman did an interesting exposé on this. Two Montrealers received two voter information cards each, so they both went and voted twice each. They called it the “two-for-one special by Elections Canada”. This level of error, one in six, is also too high. As a result, the fair elections act would end the use of the voter information card as an acceptable form of identification.
To protect against fraud and to uphold the integrity of our electoral system, the fair elections act would not only instill these new rules, but it would also require in law that Elections Canada inform Canadians, through the advertising function, of the required forms of identification. In other words, embedded in the law would be a provision by which Elections Canada would be obliged to inform electors of the following:
|| (b) how an elector may have their name added to a list of electors and may have corrections made to information respecting the elector on the list;
|| (c) how an elector may vote under section 127 and the times, dates and locations for voting;
|| (d) how an elector may establish their identity and residence in order to vote, including the pieces of identification that they may use to that end;
That is the basic information that Elections Canada should advertise, so that when people get to the voting booth they already know what identification they will be required to present. The good news is that there would continue to be roughly 39 different pieces of identification that would be acceptable. That number presents Canadians with plenty of options, as long as Elections Canada educates them of those options.
It is just as important, though, for political parties to follow the rules, as it is for voters. With a 370-page Canada Elections Act, much of the challenge is determining what those rules are. All parties fail at that from time to time, often while trying their best to comply. Since the last election, the commissioner has had to sign 15 different compliance agreements with those who have breached elections law. Some are due to honest mistakes.
Members of all parties have complained that the rules are unclear and complicated. Complicated rules bring unintentional breaches and intimidate honest, law-abiding people from participating in democracy. The fair elections act would make the rules clear, predictable, and easy to follow. Parties would have the right to an advance ruling and interpretations from Elections Canada within 45 days of a request, a service that the Canada Revenue Agency already provides. Elections Canada will also keep a registry of interpretations, and consult and notify parties before changing them.
However, even with clearer rules, members of Parliament and the Chief Electoral Officer will sometimes disagree on an MP's election expense return. When that happens, the Canada Elections Act provides that an MP can no longer sit in the House of Commons until the expense return has been changed to the CEO's satisfaction.
Now, remember, the removal of a member of Parliament from the House of Commons overturns the democratic decision of tens of thousands of electors: Canadian citizens. No one person should have the power to do that without providing due process. To that end, the fair elections bill will allow an MP to present the disputed case in the courts and to have judges rule on it quickly, before the CEO seeks the MP's suspension. Expedited hearings and strict timelines will ensure that these cases do not drag on.
Free speech is the lifeblood of democracy. The government is therefore following through on its commitment to repeal the ban on the premature transmission of election results. According to the Supreme Court, this ban is an infringement on freedom of expression. It is also completely impractical to suggest that merely banning broadcasting of results from eastern Canadian constituencies to the west will prevent that information from travelling westward. We live in a modern era where everyday Canadians have the ability to transmit information via social media and other means, so this provision is unenforceable, even if it were not a violation of our basic principle of free speech.
Voting is to democracy what free speech is to liberty. Unfortunately, Canadians are doing less voting these days. Since Elections Canada began promotional voter participation campaigns, turnout has plummeted, from 75% in 1988, to 61% in 2001. A Library of Parliament analysis shows that between 1984 and 2000, right in the middle of which Elections Canada began mounting its promotional campaigns, voter turnout among youth plummeted by 20 percentage points. Somehow this is not working.
Why is it happening? The truth is that there are many reasons, but some of them are actually very practical. Elections Canada's own report on the last election said that in 2011, 60% of non-voters cited everyday issues as the reason for not voting. These included being too busy and lacking basic information.
The same report showed, “The most important access barrier [to youth voting] was lack of knowledge about the electoral process, including not knowing about different ways to vote..”.
The national youth survey revealed that nearly half of all Canadians aged 18 to 34 were unaware of the three options for voting other than on election day. That means that roughly half of our youth in this country do not know that they can vote at advance polls, by mail, or through special ballot. Students who happen to be busy on election day, studying or working, do not have the knowledge right now that they can vote in other ways. That level of awareness is incredibly low, and it is much lower amongst aboriginal youth, whose turnout we need to see increased. Therefore, we are proposing an increase in the information that voters receive about the options available for them to cast their ballot.
There is more evidence, though, to support the view that that is the kind of information they need. The survey that I just cited indicated that roughly a quarter of young non-voters expressed that not knowing where, when, or how to vote played a role in their decision not to cast the ballot. That is why Elections Canada correctly listed its top priority on youth turnout to be, “increasing awareness about when, where and how to vote, by providing information in formats suitable for youth”.
The job of informing voters is even more important for the disabled. Consultation and data show that Elections Canada does a good job of providing the tools that special needs voters require, such as wheelchair ramps, sign language, and braille services. Where the agency falls short is in making these tools known to those who need them.
To address all of these problems, the fair elections bill will bring better customer service to voters, with an extra advance voting day and more elections officials to relieve congestion at voting stations.
The bill goes further than that. The bill would amend section 18 of the Canada Elections Act to focus all of Elections Canada's promotional campaigns on two purposes: informing people of the basics of voting, where, when, and what ID to bring; and informing disabled people of the extra tools available to help them vote. It would be left to aspiring candidates and parties to give people something for which to vote and to reach Canadians where they are in their communities.
I look to the example set by our former immigration minister, now , who went out to new Canadians who perhaps were not entirely familiar with our democratic process because they came from countries that did not share those processes. He exposed them to democracy, and interested and inspired them in the process. We have seen similar activities that have been done by President Obama, who inspired a whole generation who did not traditionally vote to come out and cast a ballot. All of this shows that political candidates who are aspiring for office are far better at inspiring voters to get out and cast their ballot than our government bureaucracies, which is exactly how we will change the law.
However, that costs money. We live in the second biggest country in the world, with 10 million square kilometres. We are a nation that is twice the size of the entire European Union, and 95% of the countries in the world have a greater population density than we do. That means we have to travel long distances to reach our fellow Canadians. To do that, Canadian political parties and candidates spent $120 million in the last election in total. It sounds like a lot, until one considers that we spend $2.5 billion on cosmetics and fragrances in one year. Our nation spends 20 times more on products like cologne and makeup every year than we spend contesting democratic elections once every four years.
It is fair to say that special interest groups can use big money to drown out the voices of everyday Canadians, but that is why our nation's laws try to block that money. During campaigns, parties should rely on the money of small donors, not powerful special interest groups. Donations, like power, should be dispersed among the many rather than concentrated with the few.
As a result, the fair elections act would ban politicians from using unpaid loans to evade donation limits and maintain the absolute interdiction on corporate and union money. It would also allow a modest increase in the spending and donation limits while imposing tougher audits and penalties for those who exceed those limits. At the same time, the goal of the elections act is to allow small donors to contribute more to democracy through the front door and to block illegal big money from sneaking in the back door.
I would like to take this moment to thank the now , who played a seminal role in crafting the proposals that I have brought before this House today. He and his staff have done tremendous work and have served their country well. I am very proud; in fact, I am very privileged, to have inherited that work.
We have before us a fair elections act that would further protect the basic principles that guide our democracy: that power should be dispersed in the hands of the many rather than concentrated in the hands of the few; that Canadians should be in charge of their democracy; that special interest groups should be on the sidelines; and rule-breakers should be out of the game altogether.
This is yet another occasion for us to celebrate the democracy that has brought us to where we are as a country today, to make it better, to further instill it in the foundation of our country, and to move forward into the future of Canadian democracy.
Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to follow the minister with a reply. I would note that, in some serious respect, the odyssey of the bill began in March 2012 with a motion in this House that was unanimously adopted by all the parties. It was sponsored by the former critic for democratic reform, the member from Hamilton. It was supposed to have produced a bill on the subject matter of the motion, which was heavily focused on better enforcement measures for Elections Canada and measures to combat the kinds of fraud that had become known, through the media, as having occurred in 2011.
That bill was supposed to have been tabled in September 2012. We are now about 16 or 17 months from there. There have been serious delays, and in the course of that time I will acknowledge there have been expansions in the scope of the bill, which unfortunately have let the bill stray well away from what needed to be its core focus and, I also fear, have allowed the injection of an agenda that is very problematic, which I will address.
The minister does like to say that he has talked to this person and that person, but I am not sure how any of the conversations he has had amount to the kind of consultation that is needed on such a fundamental change to such a fundamental law in our country.
The tradition used to be that all parties would be heavily involved at the drafting stage, so that when it hit the House, there would not be any kind of serious problem on key provisions, and at the very least, the Chief Electoral Officer would be intimately involved. We all know that has not been the approach.
That is one reason why I moved and asked for unanimous consent to take this bill, after first reading, to committee, which in our system, would allow a bit more freedom—a lot more freedom, in fact—for Parliament to look at all the elements and not be stuck with the principle of the bill as it has come forward, without consultation.
However, as we all know, the vote went against the motion.
Unfortunately, the way the bill has been rolled out, and I say this with some regret because I do respect the acumen of the minister and the time he has put in since he became minister, it smacks of a “my way or the highway” approach to what is in the bill.
There are good things in it, but I will not be spending my time on the good things. We will hear more about them from different members.
There is absolutely no doubt that there are things in here that nobody is going to have any problem with, that would tighten systems, and that would respond to some of what I call basic reform requests that have come since 2010 from the Chief Electoral Officer around the functioning of the system.
However, “some good points” pale in comparison to what I would actually call “some very awful points”. For that reason, after spending a good part of the last 24 hours reviewing and consulting on the bill, as it was only tabled yesterday, I have come to the conclusion that it is so flawed on these key half dozen points that I will be voting against the bill at second reading, now that the opportunity for an earlier committee process has been rejected.
Allow me to, first, state generally why the bill is, in my view, so deeply problematic before then elaborating a bit further on four or five of the problems.
I would emphasize that if those problems disappeared at third reading, the vote would look different. The problem is that they are there and they are so serious that I cannot recommend to my colleagues that we vote for it.
It got an A minus.
Mr. Craig Scott: Mr. Speaker, that is a very good point. I think the former chief electoral officer is, unfortunately, an extraordinarily easy grader.
All of Canada knows that the imperative behind this bill eventually appearing and the central challenge was to rein in the kinds of election fraud discovered in 2011. There were the fraudulent election calls and other kinds of fraud that we know occurred in 2006 with what we called the in-and-out affair.
Instead, the Conservatives, through the minister, launched a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland detour by turning this exercise into some kind of indirect and sometimes rather pointed flogging of the institution that has been trying to rein in electoral fraud, against considerable Conservative Party resistance and manipulation. That includes Elections Canada and the Chief Electoral Officer, with his associate, the Commissioner for Elections Canada.
This whole exercise started with the unanimous vote in March 2012, and now that trajectory has either been submerged, or to some extent hijacked, in order for the Conservative Party, through the government, to start to portray itself as a victim of a non-partisan agency. The metaphor of “not wearing a team jersey” was carefully chosen and has been repeated by the minister. We all know what is intended by that. We all know the tarnishing of the institution that was intended by that, for Elections Canada and in particular the Chief Electoral Officer. Marc Mayrand and Elections Canada are being portrayed as non-neutral players on some team versus being the neutral referees that we all know they are. This inversion then drives the so-called logic behind so much of what is in Bill .
On top of that, there is a second, rather topsy-turvy move in Bill . After years of examples of fraud and constant brushes between the law and the Conservative Party—-when I say the law, I mean Elections Canada as the embodiment of seeking to enforce the law—what we get from the minister and the government in the bill is a focus on ordinary Canadians as somehow the main concern when it comes to fraud. The government has removed two means of voter identification.
The first is the voter's ID card, which can be presented along with another piece of identity, which has been developed on a kind of rolling pilot project basis by Elections Canada to enfranchise more Canadian voters. The second one is the practice of vouching, for which there were 100,000 Canadians in the last election. Effectively, the government wants to lure, or to some extent sucker, the press and Canadians into thinking this is somehow about fairness and preventing fraud.
This has to be called what it is: voter suppression. These tactics have been building over the past decade, since around 2006, when changes to the law made it harder and harder to prove one has the right to vote in our country. Colleagues of mine will provide overviews of this trajectory and also examples of real-world impacts and who would be disproportionately excluded by these changes. Voter suppression is the result, but I personally will need to be assured that this is not also, frankly, the intention, an intention informed by the deliberate strategies patented south of the border by the Republican Party.
A third feature of this upside-down world is how the government engages in the kind of night equals day, war equals peace, doublespeak by claiming that it gets big money out of elections with Bill , when there are cumulatively a number of measures that keep big money in play in ways that are likely to benefit one party most. I will leave it to everyone's imagination to know which party I am referring to.
Fourth, Orwell would be smiling now—maybe smiling with a grimace, but smiling—if he were listening to the minister talking about adding “enforcement teeth” to the Canada Elections Act, when the single most important measure requested by both the commissioner and the Chief Electoral Officer, the power to compel testimony in the face of delay and recalcitrant witnesses, was omitted.
Mr. Speaker, let me now turn to more detail on these very general points, all the while noting, and this is important, that my colleagues, in the days and weeks to come, will deeply elaborate on every one of these points. The caucus is extraordinarily engaged with the problems relating to this bill, and a lot of expertise will be brought to bear that I hope the minister will listen to and that will inform the committee stage.
I will first comment on my concern and claim that the result is voter suppression. We have to know of, and put into context, an active effort by Elections Canada, which in the last election used voter identification cards in a number of different contexts to try to increase enfranchisement of people in our society who, as the minister rightly pointed out, tend not to vote in greater numbers than others: aboriginal voters on reserves, youth on campuses, and seniors in residences. The method that is now being abolished, the voter identification cards along with another piece of ID, was used successfully in this experiment with an extraordinary amount of positive feedback.
I will move on to the vouching issue. I think that the minister wants to tap into some intuitive problem Canadians might have with one person vouching for another. However, we live in a society that would not function without certain bonds of trust and a degree of procedural stricture.
What happens with vouching is this. There were 100,000 people vouched for in the last election. A person who is already confirmed as a legitimate voter at the poll in question may vouch for one person. If that vouching is believed by the election-day worker, then that person may vote.
Here is an example. Two parents show up with two teenagers, who in a previous election were aged 16 and 17, but when the last election came, they were missed by the enumeration. That is a process that almost does not exist any more. They show up at the poll and do not have the right kind of ID, or may well have it but have not brought it with them. Each parent can vouch for one of the teenagers, who are at least age 18 at this point in the story, and both teenagers can vote. It happens a lot with seniors, persons with disabilities, and other groups.
The minister wants us to understand that somehow or other vouching, and some of that evidence came out of the Etobicoke Centre case, suggests that irregularities are kissing cousins to some kind of massive fraud, or that there is a serious danger of it. However, there is no evidence of that. Even the 25% figure of irregularities does not come close to proving that the people who were not sworn in properly or for whom the vouching was not done properly did not have the right to vote. The Supreme Court of Canada emphasized exactly that. It will be important for us to hear from expert witnesses on that at committee stage. Indeed, I would love to see any reports, or other information I do not know about, tabled by this minister as real evidence that there is a problem.
Here is an example of why I think there likely is not a problem. In 2006, before we went to the newest system, which requires more ID than ever before, there was a controversy. One party claimed that because 11,000 people had registered to vote on election day in the riding of Trinity—Spadina, it somehow meant that something was amiss, that there had to have been all kinds of problems, and that surely a bunch of those people could not have been valid voters. Elections Canada took that concern seriously. It hired a whole team in order to track every one of the people who had registered on election day through a couple of different methods at the time. By knocking on doors, it found all but two. It found no evidence that anyone had voted who was not entitled to vote.
If that was the case before we got into this system, I am not exactly sure why we should have any serious concern that the methods being taken away now, the voter identification card with another piece of ID and vouching, are somehow tied to the risk of fraud, let alone fraud itself.
This is why I want the minister to understand that the result is voter suppression, and it needs to be looked at in that light in terms of who will be affected. My colleagues will go into more detail on this aspect.
With regard to big money, I am not sure that big money is going to be taken out of this. The biggest problem we have in the bill, and there are three or four other points on the big-money point, is that there is a new head-scratching provision. It basically says, as the minister said in the House, that any money spent through communications, including most email, mail, electronic communications, and phone calls, to raise money from existing donors who have given as little as $20 in the last five years is not an expense during the election period.
Any party that has an extensive database system, has the capacity to phone ad infinitum, and has a huge donor base would benefit from that measure. They would also be able to invest the money up front to pay for that excludable expense. It would also add, de facto, to the overall spending limit, which already is going up 5%, and thereby would also benefit any party that is raising a lot of money.
Here I have a grave concern. This could turn into an end run around the expenses involved in the whole pulling-the-vote exercise. All that might have to happen, in the current wording of this provision, is that a phone call is made, saying “We hope you are still interested in voting for us; we understand that you have indicated that. Do you have any questions? By the way, we know you are a donor; could you possibly also donate $50 more during this thing?” That whole exercise then gets shoved into another expense universe and does not get counted as an election expense. The potential for abuse of this provision is huge.
Also, $5,000 donations by candidates are now permitted. How is that getting big money out? The $1,200 limit on donations has now been increased to $1,500. That may seem small to many people in the House. To average Canadians, $1,200 is already a lot. Adding $300 is a huge amount. Who can afford to do that when there is no consequential amendment increasing the tax credit? The tax credit stays at the level it was before, so that extra $300 is only for people who can afford it without worrying about any portion of it as a tax credit.
I will not get into the problems in bringing forward the old political financing act bill that creates an impediment on getting loans to start up a campaign for somebody who does not have even $5,000 of their own. They would have to go out and get $1,200 or $1,500 guarantees from other people to back any loan that they now can only get from a bank.
I know a conscientious effort was made by the former minister, and I am assuming by the current minister, to try to make the political loans systems as fair as possible, but this also will potentially have a serious detrimental effect on any candidates who do need to borrow versus those candidates who do not need to because of fundraising or because the party transfers money to them.
No new powers to compel testimony is a huge issue. The Competition Act provides a clear example, and that is all that is being asked for by the Commissioner of Elections Canada and by the Chief Electoral Officer: the ability to compel testimony in this regulatory context with safeguards that also include that one cannot be charged for whatever one's testimony is.
This has been ignored and I fail to understand why, when we have a working example with the Competition Act. What is good for clean competition should be good for clean elections. It is really befuddling to me that the single most important change that would allow better investigation of what happened with the fraudulent election calls scandal in 2011, the single most important change that would allow that to be investigated better against all kinds of obstruction that has occurred on behalf of the Conservative Party and indeed even its lawyers, would be this amendment, this reform.
If it were included, it would apply retroactively, because it would be a procedural provision that had nothing to do with any new crimes. There are already enough crimes listed in the Elections Act and in the Criminal Code to cover this. We do not need a new crime of impersonation or obstruction to cover, as my leader said in the House today, under the existing act. Enhancing procedural powers could reach back in time and reinvigorate the Elections Canada investigations that are looking to be stalled.
Finally, one way or the other, whether it is a certain philosophy or antipathy toward the office, this is an attack on the Chief Electoral Officer. The gutting of the public education and promotion of democracy function, especially for disadvantaged sectors of the population, found in section 18 of the current act, and replacing it with a very workmanlike technical role of signalling how to vote, et cetera, is a serious undercutting of the function of the Chief Electoral Officer.