|| That it be an instruction to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs that, during its consideration of Bill C-23, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and other Acts and to make consequential amendments to other Acts, the Committee shall: (a) hear witnesses from, but not limited to, Elections Canada, political parties as defined under the Canada Elections Act, the Minister of State who introduced the Bill, representatives of First Nations, anti-poverty groups, groups representing persons with disabilities, groups representing youth advocates and students, as well as specific groups which have been active in society on elections rules; (b) have the power to travel to all regions of Canada, (Atlantic Canada, Quebec, Ontario, Northern Ontario, the Prairies, British Columbia and the North), including downtown urban settings, rural and remote settings, and that the Committee request that this travel take place in March and April 2014; and (c) only proceed to clause-by-clause consideration of the Bill after these hearings have been completed, with a goal to commence clause-by-clause consideration on Thursday, May 1, 2014.
He said: Mr. Speaker, I rise as much in sorrow as in anger: sorrow in terms of the state of affairs of our democracy. We have been watching, drip by drip, the democracy that we love and respect, and that is respected around the world, being deteriorated, removed, and changed.
I will be splitting my time with the member for .
The government brought in a bill that proposed massive sweeping changes to the way we conduct elections here in Canada. However, not long after we began discussing it, the government moved a motion to shut down debate. During the course of that debate, the government said, “Well, this is not all that important because it is the House discussion, and we want to get this to the committee to do some real work and get things done”.
We did not buy that necessarily. We wanted a good, strong, thorough opening debate here so that the committee would have a strong foundation to begin its work. However, the Conservatives have a majority and win votes ten times out of ten when they collectively stay together.
Members will appreciate that in a healthy, mature democracy there are two pieces in dealing with legislation. One is the process by which it is analyzed: who gets input, who gets a say, and what the process is for final determination. The other is the substantive part of the bill.
We put a motion on the floor at the committee to say that we would like to have certain witnesses. It is pretty motherhood, quite frankly, in terms of the witnesses we had; there was no shock there, no games, no twist. It was straightforward.
Also, given that there has been no consultation with the opposition parties or the Chief Electoral Officer, we said we would like to make sure the bill had a review that went beyond what would sort of be regular procedures here: we should get this committee out on the road, into the communities and to the people who would be affected by the proposed changes to the election laws, and give them their say.
The government, early on, indicated it might be open to that. There were actually some off-line discussions that lasted about two or three hours. However, in moving forward, as we were setting out how long we had and beginning to lay the foundations of getting negotiations, I was advised on the floor of the House of Commons that the iron curtain had come down from on high and, no; there would not be any public hearings outside the safety and security of the Ottawa bubble.
Our motion is not only reasonable, it also provides a target starting gate for clause-by-clause. Opposition parties do not normally do this. Why? It is because it would box in the timeframe and manoeuvrability.
However, we were trying to instill in the mind of the public, and most importantly in the government, that we really do want to have a negotiated process that involves getting outside the security of the safety bubble in Ottawa. Give people a chance to have their say, give us an adequate number of days and hours to discuss this properly, and then we could reach an agreement. We could then move on and begin to fill in the days we have identified. We could get speakers lined up, do the usual sorts of things, identify the communities we would be going to, and then start talking about who we would see there. All of that should be happening right now.
Those who study the history of this place and our democracy will know that any attempt to change the rules of the election needs to have the buy-in of all those who participate. We just finished the Olympics. Did the host country decide all of the Olympic rules? No; there is equal input from all the participants because it is the rules of the game, and then we enjoy the games.
That is what used to happen in Canada. It blows my mind that I even have to make the statement, and then the government refused to meet with the Chief Electoral Officer. It is ridiculous. We took one of their reports, and it took over two Parliaments for us to go through every clause and talk about it, have give and take, bring in experts, review the idea, and bring back the experts. However, that was a minority government. That was when there was a much stronger sense of the real Canadian democracy that we know.
We have the floor at committee, call it a filibuster. It is not much of a filibuster; it has only gone one meeting. Nonetheless, we have the floor and we are not relinquishing it. We have sent a message: we are not going to allow any committee travel that we have a say in, in terms of fast-tracking it with unanimous consent. The government members can still do things by motion, but they will have to take the time. We are not giving them the unanimous consent, the way we normally would.
It is not because we are being petulant, but because we believe this is important. As the official opposition, it is our job, our responsibility to Canadians, to put up resistance as a matter of course and in particular when we think something wrong is happening.
With what is at stake here, these are some of the concerns we have. I want to get this on the record. We are concerned that this new legislation will block tens of thousands of students, seniors, aboriginal people, and low-income Canadians from exercising their right to vote.
It is bad enough that most of them are being left out of the economy of Canada, now there are folks who want to keep them out of the elections of Canada. Why? One does not have to stretch their imagination to guess why the government would like those folks to stay home.
It will create loopholes that will allow big money back into Canadian politics. We know, and all Canadians know, that the Conservatives have more money than probably all the other political parties put together, but certainly more than all the other political parties. Money, in and of itself, in a democracy does not outright buy an election, but in a tight one only a few seats need to be bought.
Let us remember, we live in a country with a system right now, as proud as we are of our democracy, in which a party can get less than 40% of the vote and it still gets 100% of the power. That is why this system fails Canadians. At the end of the day, we need to move to proportional representation. That is another debate. That debate will become a reality when the NDP forms the government in 2015 and brings in proportional representation. Then we will be back on the cutting edge of modern democracies.
Lastly, we in the official opposition are concerned that the bill, and we think it says so straight out, will ban Elections Canada from teaching kids about our democracy.
We have these concerns. The government will say that they are not legitimate. Fair enough. Let us go ask the Canadian people what they say. It is their elections. It is their Canada. It is their democracy. They are the ones who stand to be disenfranchised. We need to go to those communities and give them an opportunity not to only say why this bill affects their rights but also to show us. We should go to the far north.
Those of us who have international election observation missions know the extreme differences between voting in cities and in rural villages and mountains. It is the same here in Canada. People in the far north have a very different political election experience than those who are in cities. We have concerns about what is going to happen in the cities. Let us get out there.
My last comment is this: we can solve this in 30 minutes. I said that I rise more in sorry than in anger. We want to get off the process and get on to the substance of the bill. I believe within 30 minutes we could sit down and negotiate with the government a process that is a fair compromise. We are not going to get everything we want, but neither should the government. Let us negotiate, compromise, come up with a process that we can all live with, give Canadians their say, and then we can get on with debating the actual details of the bill.
However, until the government stops ramming things through, believing it has the right to deny Canadians their voice, we will continue to fight and use every tool we have to bring democracy to this place, even if the Conservatives do not believe in democracy.
Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to support the excellent motion moved by my colleague from . This motion would allow Canadians to express their views on a bill that, in its present form, is anti-democratic.
In light of the irregularities that occurred in the last election, it is obvious today that serious reform is needed to guarantee the integrity of our electoral process.
Considering what we have seen over the past two years with the party in power, I am not surprised, but I am very disappointed that the Conservatives did not seize this opportunity to strengthen our democracy. Instead, they have chosen to use this reform to serve their own election interests. Even worse, they are trying to sneak their bill through without consulting anyone.
Why cut debate short only one hour after introducing the bill? Is that democracy?
My colleague's motion is quite simple. The Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs should be allowed to do its job and make recommendations after consulting experts, the groups concerned and especially Canadians. That is true democracy.
In a democracy, the people are part of the discussion, organizations working in the field are given a chance to express their views and the opinions of experts are taken into account in order to make an informed decision.
To achieve this goal, the members of the parliamentary committee have no choice but to meet with Canadians in every region of our country. That is an obligation and a responsibility for us as representatives of the people. Why is the Conservative government putting up obstacles? This type of travel is commonplace. Parliamentary committees must meet with witnesses who are unable to come to Ottawa.
If the Standing Committee on International Trade can travel to Belgium and France—which is fine by me—for its study of the Canada-European Union free trade agreement, then I really do not see why the government would be against this committee leaving Ottawa to hold hearings on an issue as important as electoral reform.
I cannot for the life of me understand why the did not think it would be a good idea to consult the experts before proposing changes to the Canada Elections Act. He did not even ask the top official at Elections Canada, the Chief Electoral Officer, for his opinion. That is just unbelievable. We are fortunate to have so many experts within the public service and society in general, so why did the government choose to do without their expertise?
This botched approach strongly suggests that the government is not in fact seeking the best possible electoral reform for Canadians, but the best possible electoral reform, or should I say deformation, for the Conservative Party.
Canadians will gain nothing if the government reduces the Chief Electoral Officer's powers.
After the robocall scandal and the whole “Pierre Poutine” affair, dozens of my constituents emailed me to say they wanted us to find out what really happened with that sordid story. The people of Hull—Aylmer and the rest of Canada want to have confidence in their electoral system. They want Parliament to take real action to ensure that such fraud never happens again.
That is the same reason the Chief Electoral Officer asked for more power, including the power to request financial documents related to elections and to compel witnesses to testify.
What does this bill actually do? The opposite. It removes a number of Elections Canada's powers. It even prohibits Elections Canada from promoting voter participation. That is shameful.
Canadians will gain nothing if the government makes the voting process more difficult for vulnerable individuals. Democracy is founded on the fact that each vote counts. Social status, age and occupation have no bearing; we are all equal. Canadians take that principle to heart.
We cannot accept that the government is putting up roadblocks for seniors, students and members of aboriginal communities when they wish to exercise their right to vote. However, that is exactly what this bill does by proposing to eliminate vouching and the use of voter ID cards as proof of identity. This measure does nothing more than impede thousands of voters.
In 2011, more than 100,000 people used vouching in order to vote because they did not have a valid ID card. I would like to provide at least example of this.
Take, for example, an 85-year-old woman who has always voted, from the time she was 18. She has no photo identification, she does not drive, she has no ID that proves her address and the electricity bills, heating bills and so on are all in her husband's name. In 2011, her husband vouched for her. Under this bill, she will not be able to vote in 2015. Seniors are being put at a disadvantage, and their access to democracy is being restricted. That is very important to note. It is happening. Their voices count and they need to be defended.
Canadians will gain nothing if the government changes funding rules and increases the influence money has on Canadian politics. By increasing the maximum threshold for individual donations, allowing candidates to pump significant amounts of money into their own campaigns, and amending the list of election expenses that count towards spending limits, the Conservative Party is simply going through the back door to give itself the right to spend more than its adversaries. The Conservatives are putting their interests ahead of concern for an electoral process that is based on the quality of ideas, not wallet size.
What do Canadians have to gain from this electoral reform? The response is quite simple: nothing. They have nothing to gain, since this is a partisan bill designed by and for the Conservative Party. This bill is an affront to the democracy we know and love in Canada. Those are not my words, nor are they the words of an opposition member. Marc Mayrand, the Chief Electoral Officer, called this bill an affront to democracy.
Our democracy is worth protecting. As I said at the beginning, I am very honoured to support my colleague's motion, since protecting our democracy starts with getting back to the basics: listening to the public we are here to represent.
Mr. Speaker, I will begin my remarks by addressing the issue of vouching. It is a subject opposition members have raised, and I would like to point them to some key facts.
Canadians can use 39 different forms of identification to prove who they are and where they live. If they fail to bring any of those, the law allows someone to vouch for them. Due to massive irregularities in the use of vouching, the fair elections act would end the practice. To highlight these irregularities, I pointed to a compliance review commissioned by Elections Canada as evidence of the problem. It included audits from four ridings in which irregularities in vouching averaged 25% of cases. Some have questioned this fact and its importance. The fact comes from page 15 of the Elections Canada compliance review I mentioned. The author was Harry Neufeld, the former Chief Electoral Officer for the Province of British Columbia.
Some correctly point out that the national rate of irregularities is actually 42%. The difference arises from the fact that the 25% number is an average of just four ridings, and the 42% number is a nationwide figure. At worst, I have understated the problem. Either way, both numbers are correct and both are shockingly high.
Are they important? Some argue that they are just minor paperwork glitches that have no importance with respect to the integrity of the vote. Yet that is not what the author of the report found. Mr. Neufeld defined irregularities as “serious errors”. Those are his words. They are not small details but are serious errors.
This is how he officially defined it:
|| An “irregularity” is a failure by an election officer to administer safeguards demonstrating that a voter is entitled to receive a ballot.
Some have correctly pointed out that this failure does not automatically mean that the voter is not eligible to vote. By that logic, we would not require any form of identification rules whatsoever. Instead, we would put the onus on the elections official to prove that a person is not eligible. Someone could walk in and assert his or her identity or address, and unless officials could prove beyond a doubt otherwise, the person would cast a ballot. In that instance, there would be literally thousands of fraudulent votes, and there would be no way to stop it, because one cannot prove a negative, nor should we expect elections officials to try.
ID requirements exists for a reason. Failure to properly identify voters, as so often happens with vouching, allows people to vote when they are not eligible or to vote more than once.
It should not be a guessing game, yet that is what vouching has become in nearly half of the cases where it is used. The facts contained in Elections Canada's own compliance report state:
|| Serious errors, of a type the courts consider “irregularities” that can contribute to an election being overturned, were found to occur in 12 percent of all Election...cases involving voter registration, and 42 percent of cases involving...vouching.
The latter point is particularly devastating. Judges do not overturn election results for nothing, yet the report states that vouching irregularities, which occurred 50,735 times in the last election, are serious enough for a judge to consider doing so. That number of 50,735 irregularities related to vouching comes from page 69 of the aforementioned report.
That is not all. While vouching is theoretically intended to extend the right to vote, it may ultimately rob people of that very same right. When courts invalidate votes because of serious irregularities, there is a chance that legitimate ballots can be invalidated along with them. In other words, a contaminated process can deprive even honest votes from being counted at all.
Why not simply administer vouching more competently instead of ending it altogether, as some ask? The answer to the question of quality assurance seems to be addressed as well in the Neufeld report. Let me quote:
|| During two of these elections, quality assurance programs involving Onsite Conformity Advisors...were applied. However, vouching irregularities still averaged 21 percent during the OCA monitored elections. This indicates that overly complex procedures cannot be remedied simply by improved quality assurance.
To translate, in the four ridings audited, there were irregularities in 25% of the cases where vouching was used. One in four vouched votes had an irregularity. The compliance review then asked if the number of irregularities would be reduced if there was extra supervision to enforce compliance. Sadly, it only reduced them from 25% to 21%. Therefore, even with extra efforts to impose better compliance, one in five cases where vouching was used involved an irregularity.
It is also important to note the key principle here. Yes, we must allow every eligible voter to cast a ballot. That is why the fair elections act proposes another day of advance voting and would require Elections Canada to advertise ID requirements so that people would know what to bring.
Let us consider another way someone's vote can be taken away, and that is through the fraudulent vote of someone else. If an honest voter casts a ballot for candidate A, and a fraudulent voter casts a ballot for candidate B, the fraudulent vote mathematically cancels out the weight of the honest vote. As such, fraudulent voting is a form of disenfranchisement and is one Canadians expect us to combat.
These are serious problems. Our identity laws must be serious as well.
Let me turn my attention to the issue of fundraising. The opposition has raised concerns about the decision to exclude in the fair elections act the cost of fundraising calls and letters to previous donors from the overall spending limit. This criticism, to start with, is at best hypocritical. Both the Liberals and the NDP exempted fundraising calls from spending limits in their own leadership races. They had no problem with the principle of exempting these costs in their own internal party practices. Why do they not believe that those same principles should apply in a general election?
I should also note that fundraising expenses are already partly exempted from the spending limit under subsection 407(2) of the existing Canada Elections Act, so it is not a foreign or exotic concept that there would be some exemptions. The reason is that there is a difference between campaigning, which is to seek out votes, and raising money for campaigning.
People do not put mileage on their cars while they are standing there putting gas in. They put mileage on their cars when the wheels start turning. That is the fundamental difference between the two, and that is the reason both the NDP and the Liberals have made the decision that fundraising costs should not be included under spending caps within their own leadership races. We are rendering consistent with their practices the law of the land.
The number of donors to a party is very small, so calls directed to them could not substantially help get out the vote, not to mention that donors are the most motivated to vote and the least in need of a reminder call. A suggestion that people could use a fundraising call as an indirect effort to finance their entire “get out the vote” operations is completely impractical and devoid of basic knowledge of how campaigns actually work and the demonstrable, documented facts about how many donors are actually out there in the universe.
Furthermore, the fair elections act includes a provision that deals with the purpose of the call. The purpose must be fundraising. It cannot be something else. If the purpose were actually to get out the vote, the call would not be exempted from the spending cap. Concerns about a call being used for something other than its intended purpose are therefore not valid.
The fair elections act also includes compliance measures that would make it hard to skirt these rules. Under the voter contact registry, which the fair elections act would create, unsolicited phone calls to individuals to raise funds for a registered party or candidate would be captured as voter contact calling services. That means that they would have to be specifically reported on a candidate's expense return. Furthermore, the script would have to be kept for an entire year. Therefore, if anyone were to allege that a purported fundraising call was actually designed to do voter turnout, then the investigator could look at the script to ascertain what the purpose of the call actually was.
These would all be new compliance requirements that did not exist prior to the fair elections act.
Furthermore, it would require an external compliance audit that each party would be subjected to. Parties would have to hire an external auditor who would look at all the expenses and claims of the party to ascertain if they had been properly reported, and if they had not been, the commissioner, as the watchdog of elections law, would be able to undertake a law enforcement investigation.
All election period spending by registered parties is eligible for a 50% rebate from taxpayers. If fundraising calls are not exempt from election spending, taxpayers will be stuck paying half the cost of fundraising calls and letters. We judge that inappropriate. Parties across the way might believe that taxpayers should be forced to pay for half their fundraising costs. We in the Conservative Party disagree.
According to proposed sections 348.16 and 348.19 of the Canada Elections Act that we propose in clause 77, political parties would be required to keep a copy of scripts and recordings used to make unsolicited voter contact calls for up to one year. As I stated earlier, this could become an investigative tool for the commissioner or the watchdog of elections.
The fair elections act would require tough new requirements for audits of party expenses. There would also be firm limits on what parties could spend during a campaign. They should not have to use up those limits to raise the money in the first place.
I return to the issue of the purpose test. Under proposed subsection 376(3), there is something called a purpose test for the exclusion of what would constitute an election expense. Calls would have to be made for the purpose of soliciting monetary contributions from past supporters. The more a party relied on these calls to obtain other forms of support from past supporters, the higher the risk that they would be investigated and potentially prosecuted for having failed to submit a complete election expense return. As required by proposed subsection 376(3), the calls would have to be made for the purpose of soliciting monetary contributions in order for their costs to be excluded from the mandatory reporting as an election expense. This would thoroughly deal with the false allegations of the opposition on the subject of fundraising costs.
Allow me to move to the subject of section 18 of the existing act. Our change in the fair elections act to section 18 would require Elections Canada to focus its advertising budget on the basics of voting: where, when, and what ID to bring; and what special tools are available to help disabled Canadians cast their ballots. We know that there have been serious deficiencies in Elections Canada's communication of this basic information in the past, because its own data shows as much. According to Elections Canada's own surveys, 50% of youth were not even aware that they could vote before election day. They were not aware that they could vote in an advance ballot, by mail, or by going to a local Elections Canada office.
Thus a student who is occupied with studies or work on election day might not know they could have voted earlier and, as a result of that logistical obstacle, they miss the chance to cast their ballot altogether. Some 73% of aboriginal youth are unaware of this information.
I think it is an appalling failure that Elections Canada has not informed youth of these voting opportunities, especially considering that the agency says it has dedicated an inordinate amount of its budget to informing Canadians. If that is really the purpose, then it is not currently being fulfilled. The fair elections act would ensure that it would be, by focusing the advertising budget of Elections Canada on the basics of voting, the information that people require to cast their ballots.
The act would not prevent the CEO from speaking publicly. He is not only allowed to speak publicly under the law but is required to do so under sections 534, 535, and others, and that would not change in the fair elections act.
I should add that all of the data that Elections Canada provides on the reasons people decided not to vote in the last election point in the direction that the fair elections act is headed. Let me quote from an Elections Canada report on the May 2, 2011 election: “In 2011, 60% of non-voters cited everyday life issues as the reason for not voting.” While voter turnout increased in 2011 when compared to 2008, there is more work to be done to increase participation in Canada's democracy.
What were these everyday life issues? The report indicates that 17% of people were travelling, 13% had a busy work or school schedule, 10% were just too busy, and 7% lacked information. Those are some examples of the composition of the overall 60% who said that everyday life issues prevented their voting.
Let us break this down. First, we have a solution for travellers. One, they could vote by mail and two, they could vote in advance. However, as I stated earlier, half of young people are not even aware of that. Why does Elections Canada not inform them? The fair elections act would make sure it does.
If a person is too busy, again they can vote in the advance ballot like two million other Canadians did, and the fair elections act would give them an extra day on which to cast their early ballot.
People lack information, which is the case for 7% of non-voters. That is exactly why the fair elections act would require the agency to give people the basic information on voting, where, when and what ID to bring.
The fair elections act looks at the data that Elections Canada provided on the reasons people are not voting and provides direct, tangible solutions that would help people cast their ballot. That is exactly what the law should do; it should respond to data, and respond it would.
I should also point out that the current promotional campaigns of Elections Canada have failed. When they started, the turnout was 75%. Now, roughly five elections later, it is 61%, and the drop has been most precipitous among the people whom the Elections Canada campaigns claim to help.
Are we to suggest that Elections Canada's ads have actually turned people off voting? Of course not. We are suggesting, though, that it has failed to give people the basic information they require to vote. That is not my personal conclusion; that is the result of looking at the data Elections Canada has put on its own website, and we are responding to that data.
I look forward to debating that bill as we move forward. We have had an excellent debate so far, and I look forward to hearing the suggestions of members of the opposition, the government side, and members of civil society as the bill enters rigorous study at committee.
My apologies, Mr. Speaker. I should apologize if my speech interrupted his heckling.
Sometimes debate just degrades itself. I am sure the member did not mean to say that a death certificate could be involved here. It may seem kind of funny, but let us be serious.
I want to stick to the cards issue for just a moment. I have my health card right here; normally I would table it, but considering I will probably need it, I am just going to keep it with me for the moment. However, there is no address on it, and I think a lot of these identification pieces do not have an address.
A lot of people around the country still use their voter ID card, especially people who are older or who are in rural areas. They think that will suffice, but it does not. What I am getting at is that sometimes people continue their voting patterns from one election to the next. Despite the best efforts by Elections Canada to communicate information about the ID out there, sometimes people do not receive that information. Some are people who are in areas that do not get high-speed Internet or who do not have access to high-speed Internet. It is not only cost prohibitive but is just prohibitive in general.
I will talk about vouching for a moment. I think we have seen the fraud that has taken place, and I agree that there are problems with vouching. Every democracy has a problem with its voting system when it comes to this sort of thing, and vouching is one of those areas where people could take advantage. However, the problem is that vouching has been thrown out completely. That is not the solution here. What we need to do is look at vouching itself and make sure that the people who are vouching are the right people to do so. Officials within Elections Canada could be given a greater role.
There are people who just do not have the required ID. People may not have a job, or they may be in a circumstance in a rural area where maybe there was only seasonal work. They may be retired. They may be illiterate. The government can talk about 39 pieces of ID or 300 pieces of ID, but when even the most basic identification does not contain addresses, it is a problem. That is why vouching should exist for these people, and for students and first nations. It is unfortunate that the government has done this.
Let me go to the core of what we are arguing here, which was put forward by the NDP in talking about the discussion to take place with the country. If we have this discussion, we could see a perfect illustration of just how bad an idea it is to throw out vouching completely.
There are places where this happened in by-elections, such as . We could hear from people there. We could also hear from first nations people who say that if this happens, if vouching is thrown out, many people will be disenfranchised right away. That is it. That is all. There is no recourse.
That is a whole generation of people who will not be voting. Chances are that if they do not vote early on, they are more likely not to vote in the future. As we know, as a smart person once said, bad governments get elected by good people who do not vote. Maybe that is the case we have here.
Hon. Gordon O'Connor: No, that was Chrétien's.
Mr. Scott Simms: Again, Mr. Speaker, I apologize. I know sometimes my speech interrupts heckling, so I will just proceed. I would like to talk about how getting out across this country is a good idea, but the best idea was lost.
The government keeps talking about taking this to committee, having a full discussion and talking about everything, putting it all on the table, talking to experts and the people affected, and if we need to change it, we will change it.
However, that is a disingenuous argument, because that is not how the system works. That is not the spirit of what we do here. I am talking about process now, and I know a lot of people complain that I talk too much about process, but it is very important.
During debate—which was cut short by the government, incidentally—we talked about the pros and cons of this bill. I was the first person in this party to speak. Actually, there were only three speakers to start with before time allocation was put on it, and I was the third speaker. I said at the time that I was not going to say definitively that I was supporting it or was against it until I had listened to the debate.
There are a lot of things that I do not like in this bill, but I will still debate it and hold out for any misgivings that I have to be dispelled by the minister or anybody else here. I will give the minister credit for being here during the debate. That is not often done by every minister, so I congratulate him for that.
Here is the issue. It is disingenuous to say that we can change this bill once it gets into committee. That is because we had a vote at second reading, and the whole idea of voting at second reading is to tell Parliament that we accept this bill in principle. If we take the bill and vote yes at second reading, we have genuinely said yes to it and we are now going to fix the edges of it to make it fit into the law of our country.
We might learn that a few words need to be changed. This is one area. Maybe the elections commissioner could have a few more tools or maybe we could change in a certain direction, but the whole point is that we cannot make fundamental and major changes to the bill, because it has already passed second reading. Parliament has said yes in principle.
Members might say that it does not matter and that the committee is its own destiny. They might say that the committee can change the bill, and that is fine. They might say that the majority can agree to change it, and that is fine. However, it cannot be done like that, because it is your call, Mr. Speaker. If somebody makes an amendment and even if every member on the committee decides to accept it and make the change, you can rule that they are not allowed to do that, and we have no say.
It has been done before. I have seen it. That is the problem.
How do we get around it? I am glad someone asked. What we can do is send it to committee before second reading. Then the bill can be changed in a very substantial way.
The government has already done that. It did that with its first environmental bill. It put it to the committee before second reading. Obviously the government believes there are circumstances that will dictate that this can be done. However, this time it is not the case.
What are we left with? Yes, we do want to take this across the country and get the advice of others. We want to see and illustrate what this legislation will mean. I just talked to the member about online voting; there is a good example.
We can say that online voting is open to abuse, and to a great extent I agree. It is not an easy thing to do. People can vote multiple times. As I have always said, the thing is that with technology nowadays, it is so easy to circumvent it. If members put a digital lock on certain cultural material on their laptops, iPads, or tablets, I will give my 19-year-old son 48 hours to get around it.
The point is that although many things could go wrong with online voting, that does not mean that we ignore it. There are municipalities across the country that are fully engaged in this approach. Right now, the way it works is that if Canadians feel that everybody is voting online, from cities across the country to Canadian Idol, there must be a way that democracy can be exercised to the point where online voting has become a secure method.
The option of doing that needs to be explored. Maybe we could conduct a pilot project, and the perfect people to do that would be the people who know the process of voting. If we want to engage people who are experts in the world of technology, especially the security of technology, the organization to do that would be Elections Canada. We might think, according to this new bill, that both Houses would have to vote to do that. There is nothing wrong with that either, but what I would like to do is give Elections Canada some of the tools by which it could do that.
Let us face it: some form of online voting is coming. Whether we like it or not, it is coming, so we have to look at ways to engage the technology that we are presented with.
What I find ironic, though, is that the government will stop at no lengths to open up government to online services. In other words, “You want to apply for EI? Go online.”
If the government is so paranoid about the security of online services, why does it keep pushing for us to apply online for EI, cards, firearms acquisition, or whatever? It is all out there. We can do it all online. The Conservatives get to practise government in a cheaper way. They have to cut somewhere, so this is how they do it.
However, the fundamental concept is that if it is so secure for the Government of Canada to engage citizens in everything else, why can it not look at online voting? Instead there is just an outright dismissal of the idea.
I would say to the government that allowing these people and the election commissioner to have that ability is a fundamental way of empowering Elections Canada to do its job.
When I was in Mongolia, one of the things they talked about was Elections Canada. They like the fact that we have this institution called Elections Canada that is separate from the government and that acts in its own way to ensure the integrity of our exercise of democracy.
In Europe they say the same thing. They like Elections Canada and they like what we are doing, but they are not as eager to say now that it is as good as it was, and the fundamental reason is within this bill.
The government has taken the elections commissioner, the person who gets to the bottom of any fraud that is taking place, from Elections Canada and put him into the public prosecutions office. Now, on the surface, the independence of that particular commissioner sounds like a good thing as, if I may push the analogy even further, the minister wants to have this person be the ultimate referee in a hockey game, so making that person independent makes him more of a referee.
What he does not tell us is that he put him on the ice as a referee but he took his whistle away from him. It is hard to go around yelling people at who are doing wrong. They will not hear him unless he has a whistle.
The fundamental tool of applying to a judge to get information is not only what we believe is the right tool to have, but the Chief Electoral Officer and the elections commissioner both want it.
Mr. Speaker, you are doing your job right now. You know a heck of a lot more than I do about what gives you the best tools available to do your job. That is why you sit in that chair.
If the elections commissioner and the Chief Electoral Officer say that applying to a judge is the tool they want to compel people to provide witness testimony, that is the tool they want. They cannot even ask. They feel that it gives the commissioner too much power, that they do not really need that power, and that it is too excessive.
Well, that is for a judge to decide. That is why they do not have that power outright. They apply to the judge to get it. That is the whole point of doing what we are doing.
The government says that this person will be outright independent, but it would just be moving that person to another building. That is it. That is all.
As I have said before, and I will say it again, that does not make that person neutral; it is making that person neutered, without the right tools.
Pardon the expression; most members cringed. However, that is exactly what is happening here.
I would say to the government in this particular case that these things will find their way into committee as testimony, but the problem is that we have already voted yes in principle, and a lot of fundamental changes cannot be done. I hope that an amendment that is forthcoming to allow the commissioner to do this would be accepted by the government, and beyond that I hope we get to a third reading where we find ourselves with a bill answering all the questions we want.
However, if the government does not want to take this bill out into the public realm, that is not a good sign.
When there is debate in the House, it is from different people, whether it is ministers, members of the official opposition, members of the third party, or independent members. Even the backbench of the government should be challenging some of the stuff that is in this legislation.
There were three speakers, one from the government, one from the NDP, and then a Liberal, and that was it. That was all we got, and then there was time allocation. There was some debate after that, but it is certainly disingenuous when the Conservatives say, “We can invite whoever you want. We can allow anyone to discuss this. However, after a member from each party speaks, that is it, and then we are going to move on very quickly, unless, of course, you feel that going to the public with this type of bill, to allow the discussion to take place, is going to result in what you do not want to hear”.
An hon. member: Hardly.
Mr. Scott Simms: Mr. Speaker, I did not put that right. Let me put it in Conservative speak. “We do not want to hear” means it is a circus show, a gong show. In other words, “Give us what we want to hear; otherwise it becomes an exercise that is not helpful to democracy”, which does the complete opposite. It actually hurts democracy; let us be honest.
As far as a resolution is concerned, the intent of it is right, but I am kind of worried about the date of May 1. I think maybe they might want to change that to make sure it goes beyond May 1. I understand the intent of it, but I think going beyond May 1 would allow more people to speak. It states in the bill the regions that members want to go to, and it pretty much covers everybody in geography and everybody in society. I will read from it. It talks about the regions: Atlantic Canada, which my esteemed colleague from and I are proudly from, Quebec, Ontario, northern Ontario, the Prairies, British Columbia, and of course, the north. That pretty much covers everything.
In rural and urban areas, absolutely, we would get to the nub of the issue about rural vote vouching, which really helps people there. It talks about first nations as well, which is very important on the vouching issue; anti-poverty groups; groups representing persons with disabilities, which has come up quite a bit. The minister goes to great lengths to point out what the government is doing for people with disabilities, and I do not doubt his intention and good-willed nature, but what is going to happen is that the government's intent to do something good would be subjected to a policy that would fail in its execution. That is with regard to vouching, of course.
The right to vote freely and fairly is fundamental to the integrity of Canada's electoral system. We all believe in that, we all want to vote for that, and we push for that, but remember that we are a model for the international community. If we are model for the international community—nations all over the world at any stage of democracy, especially the young democracies—why do we not want to hear from the public about how we can make this legislation better and not worse? I do not know if anybody in the House has noticed—some people have, but not everybody—according to the emails and unsolicited input I get, a lot of people have problems with this bill in a very fundamental and substantial way that will move us away from being the international model that we worked so hard to build.
Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with my colleague, the member for .
I would like to address briefly some comments from my colleague across the way, the member for , and ask that he do his best to not take the word of whomever is feeding him this information. On the day that the bill was tabled, I appeared before the media and said that I was reading it. I had not yet read it all. However, I had read enough of it to be extremely worried about where it was heading and whether it was going to structure things in a very unfair way. I asked the media to be on the outlook for the details. It was the next day that I came out against the bill, after many hours of reading it. Therefore, what my colleague has been fed by way of a line is completely inaccurate.
I would like to address the motion rather than the generalities of the bill; we have already had the second reading debate on it. I want to put it in the context of our request for cross-country hearings to be part of the procedures and house affairs committee study. There have been no public consultations in advance. We had a debate with the minister about how much he consulted, at all, in advance, especially with Elections Canada. We believe, in listening to the Chief Electoral Officer, that it did not take place. Certainly there was no consultation beyond a “hi, hello” session with the critics or the other parties. Therefore, it is all the more important now that we consider the public input side for something as fundamental as this piece of legislation.
It is hard to characterize the Canada Elections Act as anything other than one of the most fundamental statutes in our system. It cannot get anymore fundamental without it being a constitutional document. It is all the more crucial because tradition and convention have been flouted in the context of the bill. In the past, it has been very much the case, majority government or not, that all parties, including opposition MPs who may not belong to parties, are to be involved in some kind of inclusive way before a bill hits the House. That is in order that there is some degree of consensus and buy-in on changes that, by definition, should be consensual and non-partisan. That is not what has happened here.
That is all the more reason that the government and the minister need to be woken up to the concerns that those of us who have had a chance to read the bill have been raising, and that day by day, week by week, more and more people are becoming concerned about. That will only be fully apparent to the government if the committee is able to have some hearings outside of the Ottawa bubble.
I would also like to make a final link: If we had a fair voting system, this unfair elections act would never have hit the floor of the House. If we had a system where proportional representation was built in, we would not have a single party running a majority government. It would be rare in our history that a majority would be generated because it is so rare that one party gets 50% of the vote. The circumstances would be very different. The tradition, the convention, that parties should be consulted and work together on the Canada Elections Act would have been forced upon this government, assuming that it was the government, with fewer than 50% of the seats. If we had a proportional representation system, we would have had a more collegial consensus approach as to how the bill was generated. The concerns that we have been articulating and debating—and I must credit the minister for coming out and continuing to offer his point of view—would have occurred in advance. A lot of the problems in the bill would have been cut off at the knees, if the government were serious that it had no intent to do x, y or z.
We just heard from the minister that the whole question of being able to call former donors is not going to be abused because any calls have to be for the purpose of that. I would like to hear the minister then say, here and now, that he would accept an amendment that says “for the sole purpose of calling former donors”, and that any other aspect of that call would itself be illegal and/or part of the campaign expenses. That would have been sorted out in advance, if we had been involved in this at an earlier stage.
The minister himself did not bring this up in his speech, but it has been brought up on several occasions by colleagues across the way that we do not do cross-country hearings for studies of bills. That is supposedly a truth. That is not a truth.
In recent memory, the relevant committee went to the Northwest Territories with respect to Bill , the Northwest Territories devolution bill. Why? Although it is a piece of text that has to be studied as a piece of legislation, the context in which that bill is going to take root was important to that committee. With respect to Bill , a bill on firearms control, the committee travelled to Toronto. These were for studies of bills.
Members on the opposite side of the House say that they only ever travel for policy studies. That does not help either. There is so much fundamental social context involved in the policy decisions made so far in this piece of legislation that it is important to hear from Canadians in their local settings, whether it is aboriginal communities on reserve, people in transitional situations in downtown cities or urban areas, students on campus, or Canadians who might not otherwise have a chance to testify before a parliamentary committee and are not used to tuning in to CPAC. These Canadians might nonetheless come to a committee hearing to listen and learn, whether or not they are testifying.
This legislation is fundamental legislation, and I think the minister realizes how fundamental it is. There are reasons that this legislation needs to be grounded in a broader consensus and with buy-in from Canadians at large. That is quite apart from the fact that other parties were not involved in bringing it forward.
I would also like to draw attention to my colleague from , who has spoken about the irony of a House committee travelling as far as Ukraine to study democracy there, including having public hearings. Yet, somehow this is being resisted tooth and nail in our own country.
I have been a harsh critic of the bill, ever since I spent a lot of time reading it in one day because we were having a debate on it on the very next day. I am concerned about every one of the replies that the minister has made. I am still concerned that without amendments those replies do not do the job.
Canadians can read what I have to say on my own website, something that I admit is provocatively entitled “The Unfair Elections Act is a Con Game”. They can read about the over two dozen concerns that I have, none of which have been obviated by any of the minister's arguments, despite his best efforts. I am not going to go into those details.
After hearing from many Canadians, my current concern has only been deepened. These Canadians are not just experts in the field of electoral law or electoral processes, but Canadians who have taken the time to read bits and pieces of the legislation and are drawing something new to my attention. If the social knowledge of ordinary Canadians can produce that kind of feedback to me, my guess is that the benefits of cross-country hearings would also produce insight for every member of the procedure and House affairs committee.
I want to end with a quote from Jessica McCormick, national chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, who is in Ottawa, and who hopefully would be on the list for Ottawa hearings. She gives an example of what the effects of the bill would be, which I think members can extrapolate as to why we would benefit from going around the country, at least as part of hearings. She said:
|| Canada has amongst the lowest youth voter turnout when compared to peer nations. The effects of Bill C-23 will make it harder for youth to vote by complicating the voter identification process and eliminating public awareness campaigns that encourage youth to vote.
|| Bill C-23 serves to cement the notion that politicians do not care about the issues that effect youth. It is our firm belief that the Bill will contribute to a decline in voter turnout that the provinces and peer countries are actively attempting to reverse. The decline is clearly a threat to a healthy democracy and must be meaningfully addressed, not encouraged.
It is that kind of input that I would be looking for, not just here on the Hill in parliamentary committee, but also across Canada through cross-country hearings.
Mr. Speaker, I stand in support of the motion by the hon. member for that there should be nation-wide public hearings on the fair elections act, a bill known increasingly across this country as the unfair elections act.
The member for proposes that the House direct the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to hear from witnesses while undertaking its study of the Canada Elections Act. What witnesses? They should include Elections Canada, political parties, the who introduced the “fair” elections act, representatives of first nations, anti-poverty groups, groups representing people with disabilities, groups that speak for youth, advocates, students, and Canadians in general everywhere.
Further, the motion calls on the committee to travel to all regions of Canada throughout March and April, and that the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs only proceed with the clause-by-clause consideration of the fair elections act after the public hearings have been completed.
To sum up, the motion calls on the Conservative government to hold public hearings on changes to the Canada Elections Act, a cornerstone of democracy, so that all Canadians can have a say on how it should be reshaped and adjusted to ensure that elections are above reproach, on how it should be chiselled so that it is solid, and strong, and able to bear the democracy that is one of the envies of the world. If we change the Elections Canada Act, then the electorate should have a say in that change. That request is simple, straightforward, and reasonable, especially with the scandals we have seen in recent years.
There were problems with the federal election of 2011 in my neck of the country, Newfoundland and Labrador. More specifically, there were problems with the election of Peter Penashue, the Conservative MP for the riding of Labrador.
Mr. Penashue won by 79 votes and went on to represent the province in the federal cabinet as the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, only for us to learn soon after his election that he had broken the law. He got elected by that slim margin of 79 votes by cheating. Mr. Penashue resigned in disgrace. He ran again in a byelection triggered by his resignation and lost. However, that loss was expected, considering the seriousness of the allegations against him, the allegations that Mr. Penashue, a Conservative MP, had accepted 28 illegal donations; allegations that he accepted corporate donations, which were also illegal; allegations that Mr. Penashue got an interest-free loan, which, once again, was illegal, from an Inuit company run by his brother-in-law; and allegations that he overspent the campaign spending limit.
Mr. Penashue basically bought his election and was able to run in the byelection with those allegations against him still outstanding, which boggled the minds of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. What would have happened if Mr. Penashue had won and the allegations were proven true? What would have become of those allegations? Elections Canada was supposedly carrying out an investigation and so was the RCMP, but we have not heard a word since, not a peep. The silence across Newfoundland and Labrador and across this country has been deafening.
Was Mr. Penashue, whom the described as the best member of Parliament Labrador ever had, ever charged? Was anyone charged? No one that I know of was. Was anyone fined? No one that I know of was. Is there a problem with the Elections Canada Act? Yes, there is a problem with the act—
Mr. Speaker, this unfair elections act would actually strip Elections Canada of its investigative powers, not strengthen them. We saw how weak those powers are with the Penashue scandal.
The Commissioner of Elections Canada would be under the Director of Public Prosecutions and, therefore, no longer be a part of Elections Canada. My party and I would compare that to removing the RCMP's ability to investigate breaches of the Criminal Code. How is that going to fix anything? It is not.
Get a load of this. Under this unfair elections act, the Chief Electoral Officer would have to seek Treasury Board approval to hire technical experts. That theoretically means that the Chief Electoral Officer could have to seek government approval to investigate possible election cheating by government MPs.
Two key missing elements of the unfair elections act that Elections Canada actually requested and did not get include, first, more power for the Chief Electoral Officer to request financial documents to ensure that political entities are complying with their obligations. That is not in the bill. Second, the unfair elections act is also silent on the powers of Elections Canada to compel witness testimony. A major problem that Elections Canada faced in its robocalls investigations was that Conservative staffers refused to give testimony. That is not going to change either. I wonder why that is.
This unfair elections act would make voting more challenging for some Canadians. It would mean we could no longer vouch for someone when he or she does not have identification. Here I note that aboriginal people, university students, the homeless, and seniors in residences are less likely to have ID or mail on hand. Some 120,000 people used vouching to exercise their vote in the 2011 election, but they will not be allowed to use it in the next election. Clearly, the Conservatives are targeting certain demographics to suppress the vote.
The Conservatives are also changing the political financing rules in their favour. The unfair elections act would increase the limit for individual contributions from $1,200 to $1,500. That would favour the Conservatives, who tend to receive bigger contributions. The unfair elections act would also allow candidates to contribute up to $5,000 to their own campaigns and leadership candidates to contribute up to $25,000 for their own campaigns, which, once again, would give an advantage to the wealthy candidates the Conservative Party attracts. Conservatives look after their own.
The unfair elections act would remove the Chief Electoral Officer's power to engage in public education. The Chief Electoral Officer would be limited to telling voters where, when, and how to vote, but not why they should vote. Who better to talk about democracy than a key expert on democracy, the Chief Electoral Officer?
Under this unfair elections act, Elections Canada would be banned from teaching our children about our democracy, encouraging people to vote, and warning them about electoral fraud. Tens of thousands of students, seniors, aboriginal people, and low-income Canadians would be blocked from exercising their right to vote.
Between the robocalls scandal, the ongoing Senate debacle, illegal contributions, and campaign overspending, faith in elections in this country, the legitimacy of campaign results, has been shaken. What do we get? We get this unfair elections act.
The Conservatives are focused on shutting down debate. They are focused on ramming through a bill designed to stop people from voting and to ensure that they, the Conservatives, will win the next election. Only that will not happen. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, and Canadians generally, know the difference and we will make sure that they do.