Thank you, Chair and committee, for the opportunity to come before you today.
You have a huge bill in front of you. I'm going to dig down or at least somewhat down in one area, the limits on the spending by third parties prior to and during the official election period. This is an area on which I've done research in the past and recently did a fairly large comparative report. It's also one of the major issues that were addressed in the early nineties by the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, often known as the Lortie commission, on which I served as senior research coordinator.
I'll start with the third party limits during the writ period.
At present, the limit on advertising expenses for a third party nationally is $214,350, of which no more than $4,287 can be spent in a particular riding. The bill you have in front of you will expand the scope of spending, subject to limits, to include partisan activity expenses and election survey expenses, in addition to the advertising expenses that have been covered since 2000. In consequence, the limits have been raised considerably according to the backgrounder that was released when the bill was tabled. The new national limit on third party spending is estimated at around $500,000 for 2019. The level that's printed in the bill, $350,000, is adjusted for inflation from 2000, not from now. I find it reasonable to expand the scope of third party limits because the additional activities, such as surveys, are linked to, and indeed may even support, third party election advertising. The level of the new limits also seems reasonable to me.
There's a related amendment that limits the writ period to 50 days, and this will mean that, for political parties and candidates, a pro-rated increase of the third party limits will no longer be possible. I support this move. The pro-rated-limits provision that was brought in under the previous government was a very odd piece of public policy, and dropping it is definitely a good step, not just for third parties but obviously also for parties and candidates.
I'll now turn to the pre-writ spending limits for third parties.
Before commenting on the scope and level of these limits, I want to say a few words about the rationale for this move and the experience in some other jurisdictions.
On the rationale, the government has decided that spending limits for candidates and parties will be extended to the pre-writ period. I think it's fair to say that this is consistent with Canada's long experience with party and candidate spending limits, which date from 1974, and also with the broad public support for such limits. The new third party limits will apply as of June 30 in an election year, along with candidate and party limits, so they will cover a period of almost four months.
As members know, there's a fairly widely held view that to be effective, limits on party and candidate spending need to be paired with limits on third party spending. They're seen as complementary and, in a sense, mutually supportive. Indeed, the Supreme Court in the 2004 Harper decision stated that third party election spending limits are necessary to protect the integrity of the financing regime applicable to candidates and parties. If party and candidate limits are introduced for the pre-writ period, if that decision has been taken, it follows logically that third party spending or at least some aspects of that spending should also be subject to limits, otherwise that linkage, that complementarity, that exists during the election period will not apply.
Other jurisdictions have taken similar steps. In the U.K., there have been pre-writ spending limits for parties, candidates, and third parties since 2000. They're quite long. They apply for an entire year, give or take a few days depending on when the election is held. In Ontario, pre-writ limits for the three entities were introduced in 2016. They are applying in the election that's ending today, and the period there is six months. In your bill, it's somewhat shorter. It's close to four months. I find the duration in Bill to be reasonable.
As for the scope, the new limits will cover three areas: partisan activities, partisan advertising, and election surveys. This may appear analogous to the expanded scope of the election limits, but there's an important difference to be noted.
Unlike the definition of election advertising, partisan advertising does not include advertising messages that take a position on an issue with which a party or person is associated. You have, in the copy of my notes, the two definitions appended at the end. This means that if a third party sponsors advertising on an important public policy issue, but the messages do not promote or oppose a registered party or candidate, the cost of such advertising will not count against the pre-writ spending limit for the third party.
To illustrate this, here are a couple of examples of advertising that a third party might sponsor: Message A: Marijuana can harm your children's health, so don't vote Liberal. Message B: The Trudeau Liberal government legalized marijuana, which can harm your children's health.
Based on my reading of Bill , third party spending on the first message would be subject to a limit, but spending on the second message—The Trudeau government legalized marijuana, which can harm your children's health—would not be because there's no promotion of voting for Liberals or against Liberals. This is often referred to as “issue advertising”.
If that kind of a message were sponsored during the official election period, it would count against the third party limit. There's a policy difference between the pre-writ limits and the election limits for third parties.
I'll finish on the question of the level of permitted spending.
The pre-writ limits on third party spending are estimated at about $1 million nationally, and $10,000 in a single electoral district. Third parties' national pre-limit will thus be twice their election limit, and two-thirds of what registered parties will be allowed to spend in the pre-writ period. For the parties, it's estimated at $1.5 million.
Moreover, in light of the difference between the definitions of advertising expenses that I just explained, the pre-writ limits for third parties will cover a narrower range of activities than their election limits, so they have additional room. The spending on issue advertising is not subject to limit. In light of what I just said, I am not convinced it is necessary to set the pre-spending limits for third parties at such a high level.
Hello, Mr. Chair, members of parliament, dear members of the committee.
My name is Nicolas Lavallée. I am a Strategic Advisor with Citoyenneté jeunesse, formerly known as the Table de concertation des forums jeunesse régionaux du Québec. It was under that name that we appeared before this committee in the spring of 2014.
The core mandate of regional youth forums is to encourage the civic participation of youth and to serve as an advisor on youth matters. Various projects of these youth forums are funded by Quebec's youth secretariat and Quebec's ministry of immigration, diversity and inclusion. For provincial and municipal elections, we have also had various financial partners, including Élections Québec.
We also work with Élections Québec to conduct an election simulation exercise in Quebec called “Voters in training”, which was developed by one of our members, the Forum jeunesse de l'île de Montréal. The youth forums conduct activities year round to increase young people's interest in politics and their sense of competency. For example, we offer activities and workshops on politics for young people. During an election period, we reach out to young voters on the ground to encourage them to exercise their right to vote and to tell them about the different voting procedures.
I will now tell you a bit about civic education and its impact on the youth vote.
In the last federal election, just 57.1% of young Canadians aged 18 to 24 voted, and just 57.4% of young Canadians aged 25 to 35 voted. That is about 10 percentage points below the overall voter turnout of 68.3% for that election. So it is essential for us to get young people out to vote since studies show that a young person who votes as soon as they are of age to do so is very likely to continue voting throughout their life. Getting young people to vote is ultimately a way of getting the whole population to vote.
Why do young people not vote? There are two types of factors at play. Essentially, there are motivational factors, such as interest in politics and knowledge, and voting access factors, such as registration on lists, lack of proper identification, and ignorance of voting procedures. The 2015 National Youth Survey, which measured the relative importance of all factors in the decision to vote, also identified both motivational and access factors.
We need to conduct civic education activities because they are effective. In the fall of 2016, Elections Canada also commissioned an independent evaluation of the Student Vote program. The study showed that the Student Vote program has a positive impact on the many factors involved in electoral participation. In particular, the program increases knowledge of and interest in politics, and also strengthens the view that voting is a civic duty.
If these campaigns are effective for grade school and high school students, they are of course also effective for young people who have just become eligible to vote. It is precisely that age group that needs more information and public education. So we are very excited to see that Bill would once again allow Elections Canada and the chief electoral officer to act independently to address factors relating to motivation to vote and access to voting. Campaigns for the general public also play an important role and help create healthy social pressure to vote.
Research has also shown that people are sensitive to those around them when it comes time to vote. Young people are especially influenced by their family, their peers, and society. Following the general elections in Quebec in 2014, Élections Québec had an evaluation done of its own voting promotion campaigns, which found that 75% of the population studied had seen the ads.
Finally, here are a few recommendations.
We think it is possible and desirable to once again address the motivational and voting access obstacles.
First, we recommend that the new wording of subclauses 18(1) and 18(2) of the bill be adopted. That would once again allow the chief electoral officer to conduct campaigns focused more on motivation or information, at his discretion, with full independence and, of course, without any restrictions.
Secondly, we support initiatives to increase voter participation, especially among young people. Citoyenneté jeunesse is very interested in measures such as creating a registry of future voters and extending the opening hours of advance polling stations.
Finally, we also ask that education remains at the core of Elections Canada's activities, whether through its own initiatives or by providing funding for other organizations, which are obviously non-partisan and whose mandate is civic education. Promoting the vote and democracy, whether through friends, family members, teachers, peers, and so on, is essential in order to prevent youth voter turnout from plummeting.
To turn the tide, society has to work as a whole and play a role, especially Elections Canada, which is responsible for conducting elections and has a great deal of expertise in this area.
I sincerely hope that this bill will be passed and that all the parties can agree to work together to strengthen the health of the country's democracy.
Thank you very much.
Chair, thank you very much for the opportunity to address this committee.
My name is Michael Morden and I'm the Research Director of the Samara Centre for Democracy. Samara is an independent, non-partisan charity that is dedicated to strengthening Canadian democracy through research and programming. Samara welcomes this effort to comprehensively refresh our elections law. This is a significant bill for Canada's democracy as it touches the democratic process itself. We think it deserves time and close scrutiny in Parliament, and a sincere effort to find cross-partisan consensus wherever possible.
Due to the length of the bill, I will also contain our analysis to the elements that touch most closely on Samara's past research, particularly related to voter participation and electoral accessibility, with a very brief note in closing on the parties.
First, on methods of voter identification, we suggest the following as a guiding principle: that the greatest priority be given to permitting as broad and flexible a range of methods for voters to identify themselves as possible, and where potential accuracy or administrative problems may exist, Elections Canada should exhaust other options first before addressing those problems before closing off possible, valid methods of identification. Therefore, we support restoring vouching and enabling the use of voter information cards as valid methods of establishing voter eligibility, in the latter instance with additional ID.
Second, we also support expanding the mandate of the Chief Electoral Officer to provide non-partisan public education on Canadian democracy, which addresses not just how to vote, but also why to vote, not just in classrooms, but beyond classrooms. Elections Canada is uniquely placed to fulfill this role as one of the few well-funded, non-partisan organizations focused on Canadian democracy. Following the example of most other electoral agencies in the country, Elections Canada should be empowered to advertise and educate both during and also between elections, making use of partnerships with community organizations, and contributing to building our capacity in the area of civic education, civic literacy.
Third, regarding young voters, a register of future voters could be very useful for preparing and engaging young people, but this is likely only the case if it's paired with enthusiastic programming. There is research evidence to suggest, looking at other jurisdictions, that where young voter preregistration has been introduced and promoted, it can result in an increase in voter turnout in the 18 to 24 age bracket. The research differs on the magnitude of that change, but they generally find a statistically significant improvement. However, when we're just dealing with the text of the legislation here, I think it should be noted in passing that it could have resourcing implications that can touch on the work of this committee. It's simply creating a system of pre-registry itself; it should not be expected to have significant effects. Pre-registry can be effective, but again experience from other jurisdictions suggests this is only true if it's paired with strong engagement efforts and energetic promotion.
We are happy to see that many of the Chief Electoral Officer's recommendations are reflected in Bill . I also want to briefly highlight an exception. This bill does not adopt a suggestion that the law be amended to permit holding election day on a weekend. I'm aware that this is something the committee has discussed as well. We think the idea may be worth again exploring. It's true that there's not systematic evidence to suggest that moving to weekend voting necessarily results in increased turnout. There are other immediate benefits as described by the Chief Electoral Officer, like making it easier to hire election workers, and having a wider selection of possible poll locations.
We also think it's possible that weekend voting could support higher turnout if it's one piece of a broader state and society partnership to change how we experience elections to make elections more social, more festive, and community-based.
One amendment this committee could consider would be to change the law to permit, but not require or prescribe, a weekend polling day. This could initially apply only to by-elections. In other words, the law could be amended to allow for experimentation such as holding a set of by-elections on a Saturday or Sunday. That experience could then help inform Parliament whether or not to move the polling day for general elections.
Finally, just briefly, on political parties, we believe it is important that the Chief Electoral Officer be given the power to compel receipts from parties. This is a power that provincial electoral agencies hold. It's a long-standing oversight. We support correcting this, and in fact, we think we should be asking for increasingly greater transparency in how parties spend the money that taxpayers reimburse.
Thank you, I appreciate the brevity as well.
In terms of the pre-writ spending limit period for the third parties, you have both made comments on that. Mr. Seidle, you made comments on that here. Samara, you've made comments on this as well in terms of third parties. I want to ask you both, and I guess I'll start with you, Mr. Morden. In Mr. Seidle's opening remarks, he mentioned that in the U.K., they have had pre-writ spending limits for about a year. In Ontario, they have pre-writ spending limits from about six months. Ours are essentially two months or less prior to the election.
Based on some of the comments that Samara has made in the past, there are certainly concerns about the money being spent pre-writ. You've even indicated that many third parties were actually spending a lot of money pre-writ, and then nothing, or essentially nothing, so they didn't have to register during the election. It shows they were just using the pre-writ period as a way around it. I wanted to get your thoughts on whether that “two months or less” period is enough, and if not, what time there should be for pre-writ spending limits.
Mr. Morden, and then Mr. Seidle.
I apologize to the witnesses. This is not how we like to have conversations about such important bills as ones that affect our democracy.
Mr. Morden, you said this bill deserves time and close scrutiny. It's not the fault of anyone sitting around this table, but it's very unlikely this bill is going to get time and close scrutiny.
You support the bill broadly, but it's big. It's 350 pages. Do you think there's any notion of pushing forward some of the things that you support—say, the voter identification, the use of vouching—as a separate piece while these more complex things take longer—third party, misinformation, disinformation, social media, foreign influence, and some of the more complex things that have been introduced on top of the original bill that was introduced 18 months ago?
Perfect. Thank you for having me. I am happy to be here, speaking on Bill today. As mentioned, I am a professor at the University of Ottawa, in the communication department, and my research focuses on how people access and share political information and specifically, the role of digital media, social media platforms, and search engines, for example, in that process. An example here is a report that Dr. Fenwick McKelvey, who is at Concordia University, and I wrote, which is the first, and I believe only, report on the state of political bots in Canada, which was part of the University of Oxford's computational propaganda project.
Today, I want to draw your attention to three key aspects of Bill in my opening remarks. They are computational approaches to voter suppression, technology and platform companies, and political party privacy policies.
First up, based on evidence from recent elections and referenda internationally, we know that individuals and groups are experimenting with computationally supported tactics for political communication with the electorate. This could lead to voter suppression.
These techniques might include creating automated social media accounts, which we call bots. They are non-human. They could include creating fake accounts or troll accounts, which are run by humans, but aren't necessarily representative of actual voters. They could be targeted advertisement strategies which involve quickly removing ads, so they are very hard to track.
By using computational approaches and automation, it is possible to amplify and spread information very quickly. It is also possible to dampen messages and suppress ideas. This can be used for obvious and explicit forms of voter suppression, such as telling people to go to the wrong polling place. One could imagine a bot-driven version of the robocall scandal. It could also be used for more covert forms of suppression, such as creating an environment of distrust in the electoral system or encouraging political apathy. This could be done via a chatbot, for example. Emerging forms of artificial intelligence become pretty important when we're thinking about securing the integrity of our elections.
Notably, most research currently considers the role of political bots on social media alone, but increasingly, tools such as WhatsApp and other instant messaging applications are being employed. Voter suppression in these contexts is even harder to track, trace, and then enforce our existing laws.
This is clearly against the spirit of the law, but not explicitly addressed. Nor are there adequate mechanisms in place to prevent or identify these practices. A requirement to register use of automated techniques, which would also include emerging artificial intelligence approaches for communicating with the electorate, would be a very valuable addition to this legislation.
I would like to note that I say register and not ban. I believe there are valuable and legitimate uses of automated techniques for communicating with the electorate that should not necessarily be discouraged.
Second, considering the role of platforms, such as major social media companies and search engines, I think there could be better direction within Bill . The bill requires organizations to not knowingly sell election advertisements to foreign entities, which of course will affect platform companies. However, beyond that, the bill ignores the substantial role platforms play when it comes to enforcing many aspects of Canadian election laws.
For example, the low cost of online advertisement and the ability to micro-target means that hundreds of versions of advertisements can be delivered throughout various Internet platforms. They are hard to track and therefore, it can be difficult to establish if and when illegal activities are happening, such as voter suppression or advertisement spend which exceeds spending limits, is purchased by foreign entities or is purchased by unregistered third parties.
Having been confronted with this problem elsewhere, for example, in the U.S., platform companies are starting to create advertisement transparency tools which are useful, but this is voluntary and could be changed at any moment, if it's not required legally.
This poses significant risk to Canadian elections because platforms make decisions in an international and commercial context, which does not necessarily align with the needs of Canada's democracy.
Finally, Bill requires political parties to make a privacy statement about protecting information of individuals. This proposed legislation does not include any form of audit or verification that the policy is adequate, ethical, or being followed. There are no penalties for non-compliance. There are no provisions that permit Canadians to request their data be corrected or deleted, which is the case in many other jurisdictions.
It is certainly fair to say that this issue is much broader than elections. The fact that political parties are not covered by PIPEDA or other privacy constraints, and the fact that elections are fundamental to the functioning of our democracy mean it's an issue that I don't think we can ignore. It needs to be discussed further, in the context of this bill.
Ultimately, I think there are useful aspects in this bill, but there are also substantial concerns regarding such things as computational approaches to voter suppression, the role of technology companies and platforms, and privacy, which I hope will be considered in more detail.
Thank you for your time and I look forward to questions.
Good morning, Mr. Chair and members of the committee. Thank you for inviting me to speak with you this morning on behalf of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, or CCLA.
I know my time this morning is short so I want to highlight CCLA's two primary concerns with respect to Bill . The first relates to political advertising, particularly the restrictions on third party advertising. The second concerns political parties' treatment of personal information.
With respect to political advertising, we wish to highlight that what the legislation currently does, and what the bill would continue to do, is place significant restrictions on political speech, speech that is considered to lie at the very core of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms' protection of freedom of expression. We appreciate and take seriously the concern that wealth should not be translated into the ability to dominate political discourse. However, we have not seen any evidence that justifies or even purports to justify the restrictions that are placed on third party advertising, or that would justify the distinctions that this bill makes between different types of political expression and different political actors.
We are aware that the act's third party spending limits were upheld by a majority of the Supreme Court of Canada in the Harper case. In our view, however, the majority of the court was wrong in that case. The evidence before the court could not justify the significant restrictions placed on third party advertising. As the dissenting judges in that case noted:
||The law at issue sets advertising spending limits for citizens—called third parties—at such low levels that they cannot effectively communicate with their fellow citizens on election issues during an election campaign. The practical effect is that effective communication during the writ period is confined to registered political parties and their candidates.
The dissenters pointed out that the spending limit was less than what it would cost to run a full page ad for a single day in national newspapers. Even with the increase in spending limits brought in by this bill, it's not clear if third party actors would have an effective voice in an election campaign. In our view, this is a serious infringement of charter rights that can only be justified with clear and compelling evidence. To date, we have yet to see or hear any of that evidence.
The bill also restricts political parties in the pre-writ period, only in terms of their partisan advertising, while the restrictions on third parties are much broader. Again, it's not clear on what basis this distinction has been drawn or how it can be justified.
At a more general level, CCLA has concerns about the value and practicality of differentiating between partisan and election advertising, or more generally, attempting to limit issue-based advocacy when an issue is one with which a “registered party or candidate is associated”.
The U.S. Supreme Court has noted that what separates issue advocacy and political advocacy is a line in the sand drawn on a windy day. By continuing to restrict issue-based advocacy, the limits on third party advertising may simply serve to unduly narrow the parameters of public debate around government policy or proposed policy options, rather than limit the kind of expression that we're trying to limit here, that which influences or aims to improperly influence elections.
We also question why spending limits are set out in legislation set by the individuals and parties who stand to benefit from restricting voices that may be critical of them. We urge the committee to consider, either in the context of this bill or in a future study, whether an independent body should be established to address the question of spending limits for third parties and political parties and candidates.
The second issue I'd like to address is Bill 's provisions aimed at empowering parties to better protect the privacy of Canadians.
Put simply, this scheme proposed by the bill is inadequate. It contains no meaningful privacy protections and no independent oversight of how the parties protect personal information or consequences for failing to do so. In light of what we are beginning to understand about the information that can be harnessed from social media and other tools and used by political parties to engage in micro-targeting of voters, the failure to truly address the privacy issue in this bill is disappointing, to say the least.
I'm aware that the committee has heard about this issue from a number of witnesses in the last few days, so I won't belabour the point. I'll simply state that the CCLA is in general agreement with the amendments proposed by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.
Finally, CCLA wishes to note its support for portions of the bill that reverse some of the negative changes that were made when Parliament passed the so-called Fair Elections Act. We welcome the provisions that allow for the use of voter information cards, the return of vouching, as well as the loosening of restrictions on the educational activities of the Chief Electoral Officer. We also welcome the reform that will allow Canadian citizens who reside abroad to participate in federal elections.
I look forward to answering your questions. Thank you for having me this morning.
Mr. Chair and committee members, good morning and thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today.
I am here on behalf of the Canadian Labour Congress, Canada's largest labour central. The CLC is the voice on national and international issues for three million working people in Canada. It brings together 55 national and international unions, 12 provincial and territorial federations of labour, and over 100 local labour councils.
The Canadian Labour Congress broadly supports Bill . In particular, the CLC is supportive of the measures in the bill to ensure a fair, accessible, and inclusive voting process. We strongly support the bill's measures to improve access for voters with physical disabilities and to include child care and expenses related to a disability in a candidate's expenses.
Bill restores the ability of the Chief Electoral Officer to authorize the notice of confirmation of registration, the voter information card, as identification. This is a welcome step in our view. We also support the restoration of the ability of the Chief Electoral Officer to undertake public education and information programs to promote awareness of the electoral process among the voting public, especially groups facing barriers to access.
Bill reintroduces the option of vouching for the identity and residence of an elector, a step that we support. We agree, however, with Monsieur Mayrand that the option of vouching should be extended to staff in long-term care facilities and nursing homes, even when the staff person is not an elector in the same polling division.
I want to turn now to the bill's ramifications for third parties, such as unions and labour organizations.
Bill introduces significant additional requirements for third parties participating in elections. Under the bill, reporting requirements on third parties will become more extensive than for other participants in the electoral process.
During and between elections, unions and labour centrals engage with their members and with Canadians about issues that are important to working people. This education and engagement is vital to the informed and effective participation of working people in civic life and democratic debate.
We appreciate the fact that subclause 222(3) of Bill excludes from the definition of “partisan activity” the act of taking a position on issues that parties and candidates may be associated with. This is in the pre-writ period. Nevertheless, we urge the committee to carefully evaluate the additional restrictions and reporting requirements in Bill to ensure that the ability of labour organizations to engage with members and the public on workers' issues is not impeded.
A leading concern of the CLC is that if and when Bill is enacted, Elections Canada will issue an updated handbook for third parties that establishes the identical interpretative guidance for pre-writ partisan activity and partisan advertising over the Internet, as Elections Canada established for Internet election advertising during the writ period.
This established that Internet-based messaging during the writ period is only election advertising if there is a placement cost, that is, the cost of purchasing the advertising space. If there is no placement cost, then social media, email, and own-website messaging do not fall within the definition of election advertising. We hope and expect that Elections Canada will apply the same definition to pre-writ messaging. This is especially important now that, effectively, the period between elections—from polling day of the previous general election all the way up to the current pre-writ period—will be subject to regulation and reporting requirements.
With that, honourable members, I'll conclude my remarks.
Thank you very much for your attention.
I have some quick questions for the three of you based on what I've heard thus far. I'll go to Mr. Roberts first.
You have been talking about the paradigm you're in, prior to and prior to , and I've seen a lot of the issue campaigning you have done from the CLC. I have been involved in it, as a matter of fact, not just because I'm left of centre, but because I've liked quite a bit of it.
If you notice now, we're shifting things here towards election activity, election advertising, and election surveys. The middle one, election advertising, I get. It's the other two, the activity and the surveying information you get from the activities you do. What do you do in your organization that would be captured under those two headlines?
Mr. Cullen stole my question. I shouldn't say he stole it, because he was thinking as I was thinking that if Facebook and Twitter were in front of you, what would you ask them? I remember from years ago, whether it was back in the 1990s or the early 2000s, this term called “truthiness”. It's a fact but it's only half the story, which later becomes the full story to some people. How do you police that?
For me, that was the biggest problem I had to deal with as a politician. When people come to me now with Facebook and say, “How dare you think this”, I'm like, “Well, no, I don't.” Then I'm asked, “But is this true”, and I have to say, “Yes, that's true, but...”, and it goes from there. The manipulation of the story scares me, and the proliferation of this.
As a general question, what do we say to a social media platform that to me seems to be shrugging their shoulders as if it's just a buyer beware kind of thing?
Thank you very much. I have submitted a brief to the committee, and it has been translated and circulated. I will try to stay strictly within the five-minute limit and make five brief points in five minutes so the chair doesn't have to bring down the guillotine on me.
The first point, and an integrating theme of my brief to the committee, is that Bill is an excellent illustration of how technical and complicated election law has become in response to changing social, technological, and political activities within Canada and elsewhere. Under those conditions, Elections Canada needs a very diverse and flexible set of policy tools in order to plan for and execute elections. In other words, unlike the traditional Canada Elections Act, which is very detailed and prescriptive, we need a future act that grants broader authority to the professionals within Elections Canada. Bill C-76 goes some way in this direction. It grants the CEO of Elections Canada more authority to conduct the operations of the election, it grants the commissioner administrative monetary penalties, and it makes use of written interpretations and opinions, and so on.
Second, overall, this bill is worthwhile. I endorse it in general terms. I endorse the features that are brought forward from Bill that made changes to the more problematic features of the so-called Fair Elections Act. I like some of the new features that are included within the bill, such as the creation of a pre-writ period ceiling on party and advocacy advertising, tags on all advertising, and so on.
Then I shift in my brief to three concerns I have. The greatest disappointment for me is the failure to bring political parties under the provisions of the privacy acts in Canada and to provide a route to address privacy concerns through the Office of the Privacy Commissioner. This bill essentially says that the parties will be left to regulate themselves with respect to privacy practices. Not my preferred one, but a second-best solution would require the Privacy Commissioner, not Elections Canada, to give the parties' privacy policies and practices a Good Housekeeping seal of approval. On the second part of that concern, another option I would suggest is that annually the parties publish online a statement of what has gone on with respect to their privacy activities, including the education of their members and staff, and so on, on any privacy complaints that have come up.
My fourth point has to do with the flow of foreign money and foreign influence into Canadian elections. As I read the bill, and I'm not a lawyer, there appears to be a loophole in the bill that allows for the commingling of foreign and domestic funds, including the support to advocacy groups, third parties as they're called in the bill. I don't see any easy fix to this problem through legislation or regulation, but I note the provision in the bill for a prohibition on collusion. It may be over time, through the operation of the collusion clause, that precedents will develop that will restrict but probably not eliminate completely the potential for foreign influence in Canadian elections.
My fifth point and final concern has to do with the pre-writ period beginning on June 30. The point I'm making there in the brief is the need to align the timing of restrictions on partisan and advocacy advertising with the ban on government advertising that currently flows out of an administrative policy statement. It is not based on legislation. That ban requires the ads to stop 90 days before voting day. The two periods should be aligned so that you set up a situation where the government is, in effect, in a caretaker situation and any benefit that might come to the governing party from government advertising would be eliminated.
My final observation is that this bill should have been proceeded with much earlier, or an earlier version of a bill, perhaps. It has been left late.
I know the professionals at Elections Canada do their utmost to execute the provisions of the bill, but we have to get into the habit of treating these deadlines for planning an election more seriously.
Thank you very much. I look forward to questions.
Thank you for this opportunity.
My presentation here is based on a complaint I made a number of years ago to Elections Canada with regard to involvement of Elections Canada and their staff in a publication which was put on their website and otherwise distributed. It's dated December 2005, so it occurred during a federal election campaign. It says that the document was prepared with the support of Elections Canada, and it has a list of the staff at Elections Canada who were involved in this publication.
My complaint is that it's talking about women's political equality, and I'm hoping to make this relevant to the current bill. One of the things they were asking for in this is a change of legislation and policy so that, under certain circumstances, men would be banned from running as members of Parliament. Elections Canada looked into my complaint, the actions of their staff, and the posting of this during an election campaign. They decided that this question, this issue, had not arisen during the election campaign, and had no relevance to this. In my opinion, it has been raised in every election campaign.
They also said that this was merely editorializing during an election campaign by Elections Canada staff and that there's no reason why they shouldn't be able to do it. Bringing this into relevance to the current bill, it seems to me that if Elections Canada is going to be deciding who is in the rules, then you have to have some mechanism for ensuring that Elections Canada and their staff also follow the rules.
I should point out that I attempted a number of years ago to make this exact presentation to this committee. I was told by five members of Parliament that I was right, that this was not the thing that Elections Canada should be doing, and that this was a violation of the law, the Canada Elections Act. I was also told that they would not present me in front of the committee because they feared that Elections Canada would pull their right to run in the next election.
It seems to me that I largely support these provisions of this bill. My concerns are, in this case, that you have Government of Canada money, through Status of Women, going into this publication, and money from Elections Canada going into supporting this issue, and yet these people are deciding themselves as to whether they're in violation of the rules.
This, I agree, is a bit of a conundrum. I'm certainly concerned about foreign money. My thinking is that the Government of Canada money, and Elections Canada money and staff, also should be considered as foreign money, and should not be used to influence elections and issues that are raised during that election.
I want to thank the committee for the opportunity to address the bill. The Green Party of Canada is especially grateful for the time allotted to prepare for this appearance.
A good portion of this bill is not so much modernization but rather restoration of the Canada Elections Act pre-Harper, which is mostly good, but the central promise of no longer voting in a first past the post system is unfortunately absent. I will not be obtuse. This is a clear promise, clearly and unapologetically broken.
In consultations across the country, the majority of Canadians favoured reform and a form of proportional representation. It is regrettable that a government without a popular mandate gets to continue perpetuating a system that silences the voices of Canadians who are not represented in a so-called representative democracy.
Some important modernization changes have been taken, though, but the Green Party of Canada wonders whether the government has given Elections Canada sufficient time to update their technologies, their administrative processes, and to put in place training programs. After all, a quarter of a million Canadians work the polls on a general election. We are 15 months away from the 43rd general election and nothing has been put into law.
Improvements that are of particular note are the use of voter information cards as a piece of valid ID. This should speed up the voting process and improve accessibility. Allowing young people, 16- and 17-year-olds, to register is a good first step toward having them vote. Studies show that engagement in the voting process at an early age translates to lifelong voting behaviour. The Green Party commends you here, and would like to draw your attention to Ms. May's private member's Bill .
This being said, there are two items I want to underscore as being insufficient.
First, the privacy provisions are inadequate. Political parties possess enormous amounts of data and personal information on Canadians, and they are currently exempt from most of the provisions under the Privacy Act. Moreover, in a day and age where politically motivated hacking is no longer a possibility but a reality, it is imperative that the parties work together to ensure that their information is safe. The big political parties, if hacked, could compromise the electoral system as a whole. Our democracy is run on trust and the big parties are currently the weakest link.
The Green Party urges the parties to coordinate their efforts informally, and that Bill contain provisions that are in keeping with Canada's Privacy Act.
Second, more needs to be done in curbing the influence of money in politics. Returning the per-vote allowance would lessen the influence of donors on politicians, and be more cost-efficient than the current 75% tax credit system. We all know the distorted effect that money and donors have on American democracy. So, at all costs, we should be avoiding these excesses that we see south of the border.
The Green Party suggests that we redefine the pre-writ period as starting the day after an election and ending when the writ is dropped in the following general election. Spending limits during this redefined pre-writ period should remain the same as they are and be indexed to inflation. Redefining this reflects the realities of what some have called the permanent campaign. There are only two periods in political advertising in reality, writ and pre-writ.
We need to set limits to the election process to avoid excesses, but also to ensure that citizens, political parties, and lawmakers alike focus on the business of good, democratic governance, and not being constantly distracted by the demands and, sometimes, fanfare of politics.
Professor Thomas, you mentioned in your opening remarks, in talking about the pre-writ period, something on which I certainly agree with you: the idea you mentioned of the need to look at harmonizing the period of time in which there is a ban on government advertising with the same period of time that there are restrictions put on the political parties.
I wonder what your thoughts are, though, under that same principle, on the idea of looking at ministerial travel as well. Obviously you can see, when we're talking about travel of ministers or the prime minister in that time, maybe they're making government announcements, which could be intended to entice voters to support them because of something they're announcing or highlighting that they've done as a government. We've seen that in byelections with this government already.
What are your thoughts on that? Should that be restricted in the same period of time, as well?
The other thing I want to touch on with you briefly is something I wanted to ask one of our witnesses earlier, but we were cut off when the government forced a vote. It was a group that represents youth, Citoyenneté jeunesse, and I had wanted to ask them about ID. You mentioned ID as well, so I will ask you the question.
This is with respect to the educational components of Elections Canada. One of the things I think they haven't done a very good job of, and I would like to see them do a better job of—but I wanted to see if you would share my opinion—is informing people of the logistics of voting. In other words, there are a lot of different IDs that are available. You're advocating bringing back the idea of a voter information card, but there are 39 forms that exist now. I think a lot of people aren't aware of what the options are and maybe show up at the polls without one of those pieces because they don't realize they need to bring it.
I'm wondering what your thoughts are on this, because even the Canadian Federation of Students indicated to us when they were here recently that they had to engage in a campaign themselves to inform young people about these options. I guess they felt Elections Canada wasn't doing a good enough job.
Do you think Elections Canada could do a better job of informing people about the options they have available to them?
Thank you, Chair. Thank you to the witnesses here and to our friend from Manitoba.
I will start with you, Professor Thomas. I'm getting a theme with this bill. When we talk to experts and folks from different fields, there are two clear aspects of the bill.
One is fixing some of what I would call “damage done” by the previous government in terms of enfranchisement, allowing the voter ID cards, allowing vouching, and whatnot. All of that was introduced 18 months ago in a bill.
The second part of the bill is more ambitious, I suppose, in trying to deal with things like third party financing, foreign influence, social media, and those kinds of components.
Have I described the legislation satisfactorily, in your mind?
I'm starting to believe that, as my grandmother used to say, a lack of planning on your part doesn't make for a crisis on mine. I was eight years old at the time, but she had a point that still stays with me today when I look at this bill. With days to study it, virtually every committee meeting we've had has been interrupted by votes. We've rarely gone through an entire cycle, yet I, too, am supporting some of what you've said here. I'm in support of some of what I'll call the enfranchisement pieces of the bill.
There are a number of questions outstanding, particularly around privacy, the loophole you talked about in commingling, and some of the pre-writ conversations we've had as to whether they're fair between the government and non-government parties.
I'm wondering if the bill needs to be split. I'm wondering if we need to expedite the pieces that there has been some dispute about but more of a consensus around—the Bill components. There have been a lot of questions about the second part, the third party, the commingling loophole, and the lack of privacy restrictions of parties. What do you think of that suggestion?
Before I ask any questions, I want to make a little editorial.
The fundamental issue that relates to people being able to vote without identification, the various mechanisms that have been provided, such as the use of the voter information card and so on, all comes down to the question ultimately of whether people have the right to vote. Some people turn up with ID—I've done it myself—who sometimes don't have time to get back. Sometimes, maybe in rarer cases, they don't have ID and you don't want to deprive those people of the right to vote. On the other hand, if enough people turn up to vote fraudulently, then you can have everybody in that riding effectively deprived of their franchise. That is not a small thing. The pretense that we don't have, and have not had, fraudulent voting in the country is just laughable.
I know when we were debating this stuff during the last minority government, I was contacted by the wife of a Liberal candidate, a former Liberal MP from downtown Toronto, who argued that her husband had been effectively deprived of his elected office due to fraudulent NDP voting. Was that true? I don't know, but it was plausible enough that she was willing to say this to me. These things have to be taken seriously.
There is a way it could be resolved. I suggested it to the . It's practised in other countries, including respectable democracies like the United States of America, and that is provisional balloting. You vote when you don't have ID. I'd say, “I am Scott Reid.” They'd take my word for it. They'd put my ballot into an anonymizing envelope, just like a vote that's been cast by mail. That gets dropped into a second envelope, which I'd sign. Later on they'd verify whether or not I really am who I said I was. We add up those ballots, if it's necessary, because the number of ballots outweighs the number of the margin of victory.
I merely throw that out. That would resolve this entire problem. It didn't make it into the bill, and I regret that.
However, I have a separate question on an entirely different issue for you, Mr. Cooke. It is on the question of the leaders' debates. As you know, a debates commission is being set up, not under this bill or indeed under any bill, but under government auspices. There is a very good chance that it will set up leaders' debates from which the leader of your party will be excluded. Alternatively, they may include the leader of your party then cut off someone else, such as the leader of the Bloc. This creates an inherent problem.
I have no clever solution for the problem of the fact that there's no clear division between the major parties and the parties that are not major. Can I get your thoughts on that?
I'd like to begin by thanking each of you for your time and your testimony today.
Professor Thomas, I'm going to begin with you. I appreciate your compliment to the work of the procedure and House affairs committee. I'm not looking for more compliments but to just to make you aware about our work with respect to elections, the CEO did appear before this committee with his report, and we spent 22 meetings with that report. Each meeting is an average of two hours.
In addition to that, we'll have had by the end of this week, by my calculations, about 30 hours of testimony. The last two days have been a little more difficult because we've had votes, which is just a function of this place. I just wanted to let you know of the time that we've spent on this.
You mentioned the comment, and it came out in the CEO's report with respect to some of the changes that have been made in this legislation. The VIC and the vouching are two, as well as the preregistration of young voters, both of which I believe you support. You see them as good.
Are there other provisions in this bill that you are also very pleased to see and that you think are important to implement before the next election?
Yes. If you read my brief, you'll see that my compliments go beyond simply what I have said today.
I recognize that you did an extensive review and three reports and heard from the acting CEO and maybe Mr. Mayrand before that, so I know you've studied this. That's why I thought the work shouldn't be swamped by the late arrival of this bill. It has complicated things; we should have had action before this. That's my opinion.
Yes, there are other things in the bill that I like. I like the fact that the commissioner is now being moved back inside the administrative framework of Elections Canada. I mentioned already the educational mandate that the CEO should have. That's important work to do to create a healthy and vibrant democracy.
There are lots of other things. There are lots of nuts and bolts of election management that go into this bill. One thing I'm saying in my main theme is that we have to move away from the tradition of highly detailed, prescriptive legislation. In this dynamic world we live in, when we have these technological changes and changing political practice, we have to give more autonomy and scope to improvise on the part of Elections Canada—as I said, a diverse toolkit of instruments that they can use.
I like the idea, for example, that no longer are you going to have to take someone who violates elections spending rules to court. That costs time and money. We have to find a better way. We have compliance agreements now. Now there's this whole toolkit that has to be built up.
When I did studies in the past, I noted that the U.K. election commissioner has far more authority to engage in the management of this process. You're doing, as I said, a number of good things in this bill in that direction, such as being able to hire half the staff before the date closes when the parties can nominate returning officers. That's a step forward, especially in today's context.
Yes, we're going in the right direction. I just think that longer term there needs to be a broad grant of statutory authority and delegated regulatory power. That's where the modern election agency needs to be.