Good morning. Welcome to the 118th meeting of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.
Welcome, Mr. Cullen. Welcome, Ms. May. It's great to have you here.
We will continue on Bill , an act to amend the Canada Elections Act and other acts and to make certain consequential amendments.
We're pleased to be joined by Stéphane Perrault, Canada's Chief Electoral Officer. He is accompanied by Anne Lawson, deputy chief electoral officer, regulatory affairs; and Michel Roussel, deputy chief electoral officer, electoral events and innovation.
For the information of members, we invited the Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario to appear today, but he declined due to prior commitments.
Thank you for coming. You probably have better attendance than some of us; you've been here lots of times. It's great to have you back.
Mr. Perrault, we'll let you make some opening remarks, and then we'll go on to some questions.
It's always a pleasure to be here and to support the work of the committee. Hopefully this morning my colleagues and I will be of assistance to the committee as it reviews Bill .
I don't have any written remarks. I would like, though, to briefly touch upon three points before turning to questions.
The first point relates to the importance of this bill, in particular for the next election. The second point touches upon a technical amendment, which I did not bring to the attention of the committee when I last appeared, so I want to bring it to your attention. The third point relates to the work that we need to do to prepare the implementation of this bill and to be ready for the next election, as well as how that fits into the work of this committee, and of the Senate, of course.
On the importance of the bill, again, I don't want to repeat what I've said. Overall this is, in my view, a very strong bill, albeit not a perfect one. I've made some recommendations to improve that bill.
What I would say, though, is that the bill brings some long-term benefits to the electoral process, and it brings some much-needed short-term remedies to some of the concerns that many share regarding the integrity of the electoral process. Of course, that's a very important part of our mandate.
For the next election, given the environment, I very much look forward to having this legislation passed. It includes measures to deal with third parties and foreign influence. It also includes measures to deal with cyber-attacks and disinformation. It is an important piece of legislation from that perspective.
Also, it significantly reinforces the powers of the commissioner in terms of his investigations, so, from an integrity point of view, I think it's important to have this bill passed.
If there is one area where the bill failed, it is privacy. The parties are not subjected to any kind of privacy regime. I have pointed this out in the past and I want to mention it again today. The Privacy Commissioner has talked about it, and we are in agreement on this issue. I simply wanted to reiterate that this morning, without going into detail.
As for the technical amendment I talked about, the committee unanimously approved a recommendation that had been made by my predecessor. The recommendation pertained to situations where, as required under the Parliament of Canada Act, a by-election must be held late in the election cycle, shortly before a fixed-date election. It was agreed that it was inadvisable in such cases to hold a by-election, because these elections are generally cancelled when a general election is held. The committee had unanimously approved that recommendation, and the government agreed.
The bill includes a provision on this matter. Unfortunately, as it is currently drafted, in the case of a vacancy, a government could decide not to hold a by-election during the last nine months of the cycle, and on top of that, there would be an additional period of six months less a day. Thus, there could be a period of 15 months less a day without a by-election to fill a vacancy. I am pretty sure that was not the intention of our recommendation, nor is it what the committee or the government wants.
I noticed the flaw this summer. We brought it to the government's attention, but my role is to report to the committee. If you would like us to propose some new phrasing to correct the problem, I would be happy to do so.
The last point I want to touch upon relates, as I said, to preparation for implementing Bill and our readiness efforts, and how that fits with the work that Parliament needs to do.
As you know, I would have liked this bill to have been passed last spring. It would have given us more time to work toward its implementation.
When I met this committee, I indicated that we would need to start the summer, first of all, by having a two-track approach to the training and the guidebooks for poll workers so we're prepared. We have prepared guidebooks on the current legislation, as well as the potentially amended legislation. We have not printed that material, of course, and we may adjust it further as the committee and Parliament do their work. However, that's been done.
The other part, and perhaps the more challenging part, relates to the IT systems. The bill would affect, at a minimum, 20 of our IT systems, some in small ways and some in large ways. What I said last spring was that we would spend the summer completing the work that we have to do on our side with our systems, and then start in the fall to look at the coding for the new system changes for Bill . That's largely what we've done.
As you may recall, I indicated that we were then building a new, much more secure data centre, which is really the bedrock of our election delivery. That data centre has been built successfully and we've done the migration. It was scheduled for September 1. We did it on September 15, so it was a two-week delay, which is not bad. We're fine-tuning that, but it's going quite well. We still have a bit of IT work to do, but overall we are progressing well.
We now turn our attention to this bill. We will need a window to do some of that coding and then some of that testing. The coding window is, essentially, between October 1 and early December, when the House rises. That's when we need finality, basically, in terms of how this bill will impact our systems, because after that we go through a very rigorous testing in January, and then we do bug fixing. Then we roll out the systems in a field simulation in March.
That's our timeline to make sure that everything works well for this election. That may be useful for the committee to understand in terms of the time that we need.
I have one more point, which is not directly related to Bill . Perhaps if there's time at the end I'd like to come back to it. That's the issue of electronic poll books, which we have discussed before this committee a number of times. There were some changes just last week in our plans in that regard. If there are questions I'll be happy to answer them, and perhaps at the end, if there's time, I could speak to the changes that we're making to that project.
Sure. You will recall—and some of you here were not members of this committee—that over the last couple of years we talked about introducing electronic poll books, which is not electronic voting and it's not electronic tabulation, but it's essentially the electronic lists and the poll books that assist the poll workers in processing voters.
We planned to do that because it improves the integrity of the record-keeping. It reduces the errors and speeds up the process, especially at advanced polls. It's one of several ways in which we're improving services for the future.
We've seen that kind of technology being used increasingly at provincial levels. In order to roll that out for the next election, I need to be satisfied that the systems meet the highest standards in terms of security. You will remember that the Communications Security Establishment Canada issued a report in 2017 saying that the threat to elections is highest at the federal level, and that's not surprising. Our standards are commensurate to that threat, and we've been working with them to set those standards.
In order to roll out that technology at the next general election in any significant way, I need to be ready to pilot that technology in by-elections this fall. Last week, despite a lot of hard work that has gone into this, I was not satisfied that the technology was sufficiently secure and mature to be rolled out in a by-election. So, it will not be piloted in a by-election.
I remain absolutely convinced that this is the way of the future, but it will happen only if and when I'm satisfied that it is robust and flawless. Those are the conditions under which we set out to do this project, and those are the conditions under which we are pursuing that project.
This has implications for the general election in terms of the rollout. We planned to roll out that technology in 225 advanced polls. That will not happen.
Will we do some testing in some polls? I think we still have to explore that. I am still committed to the future of that vision in terms of serving electors and assisting poll workers, but I have to be satisfied, at this point in time, a year ahead of the election, that it will succeed and that it meets the highest standards; and at this point I don't have that degree of assurance. So I have pulled the plug on this for the by-elections. That will have impacts for the general election.
It has no bearing on this bill, but the bill does provide long-term flexibility to better leverage that technology. The bill and that project have some connection and, as I said, I remain convinced of a future. It just has to be ready, to be safe and flawless, as I said.
I think it is flexible.
It's our role to identify voters who face challenges, and we know who these are. These are young Canadians, Canadians with disabilities and new Canadians. We need to focus our attention there.
There are two angles to this. One is focusing our attention to make sure that these groups have the right information about how to exercise their right to vote, how to register, when to vote and so forth.
The civic education question is a much broader question. It used to be a broad mandate. It was restricted in 2014 to pre-18-year-olds, basically to non-voters.
The bill proposes to remove that barrier so we don't have to worry about what age group we're dealing with when we're talking about the importance of democracy and of voting. We can have products and activities that deal with that, including, for example, groups of students that may have 18-year-olds. We don't have to cut back on our activities because it may hit some older population.
However, that's different from the voter information campaign, which is really the factual approach to understanding the mechanics of voting.
They are the ones who will decide whether to vote. However, it is certainly important to educate them.
Young adults who are 18 to 24 years old when they vote for the first time tend to become lifelong voters. We talk about encouraging young people to vote, but we are essentially creating tomorrow's voters. We want these individuals to vote their whole lives, and not only when they are 18 years old. Conversely, those who do not vote when they are young adults will not vote when they are 40 or 60. There is a critical period.
We think it's too late to start focusing on them if they're 18 or 19 years old and it's their first time voting. We think we should start working with them in grade 9 or 10, when they are between 14 to 17. This is the ideal age. It's possible to start earlier, but there is a critical stage.
Teachers from across the country have developed the tools we have access to, so that they can be included in all of the provincial curricula, whether or not these curricula include civic education courses. These exercises give students a chance to explore on their own what civic engagement and voting mean. We do not tell them what to do or how to act. We encourage them to explore and think. We believe that this method will pique their interest. Unless they're interested, young people will not use the information we give them when they turn 18. We must therefore start by getting them interested, and then educating them, so that they become lifelong voters.
I think it's a challenge that every democracy is facing. We've certainly been following the discussions around the world—in Europe, in the United States, and in the U.K. around Brexit. Nobody has a silver bullet for that, so there are a range of measures.
One of the things they are concerned about in the U.K. is foreign funding of third parties. One of the recommendations they're making is to create a contribution limit, simply because it's harder for a foreign entity to sprinkle money around in small amounts and not be caught, rather than giving a large amount.
Well, we already have that in Canada. They're also recommending tag lines, but we have that in Canada as well. We already have a number of measures that other countries are looking into—which doesn't mean we have all the answers. It means that we are struggling to find the right balance and exploring that. I think the bill has a number of measures in there.
On our side, we have been collaborating and coordinating our work with security agencies, security partners in Canada: the Communications Security Establishment, CSIS, PCO security, and the RCMP. Starting this fall, we're doing round table exercises to look at various scenarios—working, of course, with the current legal framework.
It's a whole-of-society challenge, however. This is not something that one entity—be it Elections Canada, CSE, or CSIS—can tackle. I suspect we'll be struggling with that for a little while.
I enjoyed the last exchange. I always appreciate the naive optimism of my colleague from northern British Columbia, who has floated the hopeful thought that the Chief Electoral Officer will be able to solve the problems associated with untrue things being said on the Internet. Once he's done that, I would appreciate his conveying a message to Ukrainian supermodels that I'm not actually interested in dating them and that they can stop sending me information about how to contact them.
Some hon. members: Oh, oh!
Mr. Scott Reid: I probably shouldn't have shared that information.
A previous committee that both Mr. Cullen and I served on was the electoral reform committee, and we had some fascinating testimony. Mr. Cullen will remember this. We were in Vancouver at the time, and we had an American expert on how elections can be interfered with. I forget the name of the professor, but she made the observation that when a well-funded foreign actor interferes—it could be the Russian government, the Chinese government, or maybe a non-state actor who is willing to flout our laws—it's not with the goal of electing candidate X or candidate Y; it is with the goal of making it unclear whether whoever wins has legitimate authority to govern.
This was an argument against electronic voting. If it's no longer clear whether candidate X or candidate Y actually won, if it's no longer clear whether that person has a clear mandate, then they've done their job. That was one of the things that made us decide not to go for electronic voting, which, as you mentioned, is not the same thing as the vote tabulation you're proposing to do.
In looking at your mandate, I don't believe it is trying to resolve the problem of fake news on the Internet. I don't know if anybody can do that. Culturally, I think maybe we have to learn to just do fact-checking on our own, as if we're going through a cultural learning process in that regard. It seems to me that the real danger, from your perspective, is somebody illegally personating Elections Canada and advising people to go to the wrong voting stations, or telling them that the voting times have been changed. I can imagine a number of other things where the true information you're trying to convey is replaced with untrue information, or alternatively, someone is trying to prohibit the true information that you are mandated to provide—how to vote, where to vote, what the voting times are, how you can have access if you are a person who has a disability, and so on.
I just wanted to hear you indicate whether you feel that more needs to be done, or whether you feel that you have the tools you need to make sure those dangers are being minimized at this point, not perfectly but to the extent realistically possible.
To say 118 meetings doesn't do us justice. Unfortunately, some of our meetings were prolonged.
I'd like to start by proposing a motion to advance the legislation for which we just had the Chief Electoral Officer here, Bill and, where appropriate, to propose and approve amendments.
The motion that I propose is this:
That the Committee commence clause-by-clause consideration of Bill C-76 on Tuesday, October 2, 2018 at 11:00 a.m.;
That the Chair be empowered to hold meetings outside of normal hours to accommodate clause-by-clause consideration;
That the Chair may limit debate on each clause to a maximum of five minutes per party, per clause; and,
That if the Committee has not completed the clause-by-clause consideration of the Bill by 1:00 p.m. on Tuesday, October 16, 2018, all remaining amendments submitted to the Committee shall be deemed moved, the Chair shall put the question, forthwith and successively, without further debate on all remaining clauses and proposed amendments, as well as each and every question necessary to dispose of clause-by-clause consideration of the Bill, as well as questions necessary to report the Bill to the House and to order the Chair to report the Bill to the House as soon as possible.
I'd like to comment on the motion a bit and explain where it's coming from.
In the discussion with the CEO today, it was brought up by the Conservatives that whatever legislation comes forward, when it affects our elections, we should have cross-party support. I would like to point out that we had Elizabeth May here with us today. She put on the record that she is supportive of Bill . We know that the NDP is supportive of Bill C-76. Of course, the Liberals in this committee are extremely supportive of the bill.
The Chief Electoral Officer has been here three times prior to this, regarding this study of the legislation, not to mention the report of the Chief Electoral Officer that we spent numerous hours on. I believe he's probably been here 30 or 40 times on the recommendations. He was here every single day, in his capacity as acting chief electoral officer, to guide us through all of the recommendations that were made.
I also want to give a bit of background as to how we got here.
On May 23, Bill was given second reading in the House and referred to committee, so on May 23 this bill came before us. As of September 17, the committee had held seven meetings and heard from 56 witnesses on the study of the bill. We had all parties submit hundreds of names of witnesses, and many witnesses declined to appear. The list was quite exhaustive—basically anyone who had any kind of opinion, even down to those who had just run in the various elections, to come before this committee and present. Therefore, we've exhausted quite a bit of our witness testimony here, and of course the person with the most knowledge on the subject matter, the Chief Electoral Officer, has been here several times.
I'd also like to point out that the Harper government's so-called Fair Elections Act made it harder for Canadians to vote and easier for people to evade our elections laws. The Globe and Mail even said, “This bill deserves to die.” The Chief Electoral Officer has also been quoted—
Thank you. I appreciate that.
Bill has revised a lot of Bill , which was passed in 2014. I will give some context regarding why we are up against some opposition.
The Chief Electoral Officer at the time when Bill was passed was quoted as saying, “I certainly can’t endorse a bill that disenfranchises electors.” The government was encouraged, through the many recommendations, to improve and modernize its election law so that more people could vote.
There are many reasons why this legislation has been brought forward, and we've done so in a way where we've continued to work with the Chief Electoral Officer. A lot of the recommendations that have come from the experience of the 2015 election have been inserted into this legislation.
In order to repeal and improve laws to modernize our elections, it was necessary to bring Bill forward. I know the NDP has been quite eager, like us, to move this legislation through, but many obstacles have gotten in our way. Perhaps some members don't want those disenfranchised by the previous bill, Bill , to participate in this election.
However, I have to point out that although we have a strong democracy, one of the most stable in the world, we have seen, through the recommendations brought forward to us, that there are a lot of improvements to make. A lot of damage was done through Bill , the so-called Fair Elections Act, which has to be corrected.
After the 2015 election, the Chief Electoral Officer made about 130 recommendations on ways to improve how our democracy functions. We did a careful study of those recommendations through consideration by this parliamentary committee and by both houses. We also received input from several experts across the country. After all of that work, the government proposed Bill , the elections modernization act.
As we just heard from the Chief Electoral Officer, this act is really necessary. It's essential that they have this in their hands come October.
Although certain people around this table may feel that the motion I'm bringing forward is halting democracy, I would argue that it's the complete opposite. There is a vital need to modernize our Elections Act and repeal some of the things that have disenfranchised people from voting and completely participating in our democracy. We need to do this as soon as possible so that it can take effect for the next election. To the point that Nathan brought up, the longer we take, the more we lose and the more Canadians lose.
Bill would make it easier for Canadians to vote, and it would make elections easier to administer and protect. It would also protect Canadians from organizations and individuals seeking to unduly influence their vote. However, as Nathan discussed, we know there are forces beyond this act that we need to further discuss and study. I would propose that at a future date we do all of that and bring all of the necessary actors to help make our democracy even safer. But this bill is a really good start toward doing the things the Chief Electoral Officer has found to be necessary.
One party has stalled us time and time again. We've seen it for several months now. There is an unwillingness to move forward. The government has been given a mandate by the people to move legislation, and although I'm not saying by any means that the committee process is not important, we have seen practices such as this in the past, and in particular when it came to Bill .
If I may remind the committee—some of the members are here, actually. Scott Reid is here, and used to be here, before the House rose for the summer. They were both involved with this committee when Bill was passed. At that time—I believe it was in the spring of 2014—a very similar motion was brought forward in order to pass Bill C-23 through committee. There was a start date proposed; there was an end date proposed.
If I may, I will read an excerpt from the committee blues at that time. It was moved by the member and the motion that was moved at that time was:
That the Committee, in relation to its Order of Reference from the House concerning C-23, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and other Acts and to make consequential amendments to certain Acts, initiate a study on this legislation, which will include the following:
That the Committee, as per its usual practice, hear witnesses to be determined by the Committee at a later date;
That the Committee shall only proceed to clause-by-clause consideration of this bill after these hearings have been completed, provided that clause-by-clause consideration shall be concluded no later than Thursday, May 1, 2014 and, if required, at 5:00 p.m., on that day, all remaining amendments shall be deemed moved, and the Chair shall put the question, forthwith and successively, without further debate, on all remaining clauses and amendments submitted to the Committee, as well as each and every question necessary (i) to dispose of clause-by-clause consideration of the Bill, (ii) to report the Bill to the House, and (iii) to order the Chair to report the Bill to the House as early as possible.
It's interesting. At that point, all of the Conservative members, including Scott Reid and , who used to be on this committee, voted in favour of this motion. Right now, in the last few meetings, I've heard some outrage that we can't possibly be thinking about a start date or an end date by any means, that this is not fair and we need to give the committee time.
I would argue that this committee has been given a lot of time. We have essentially adopted a lot of what the CEO has said, and we have spent several meetings on that previously in this committee, not to mention the 53 witnesses we've heard from already, after the legislation was brought to this committee. We've given it ample consideration, so I think it's time that we pass this legislation and allow Canadians to access their right to vote. We need to make sure that we bring forward the important amendments, and the Conservatives have definitely done so. They've brought hundreds of amendments forward. We'd like to get to work on those amendments and begin the clause-by-clause.
Just to reiterate, my motion was that we start the clause-by-clause on October 2. May I also remind the Conservatives that at the meeting we had last Thursday, there was a commitment made that we would start clause-by-clause earlier than that. September 27 was the commitment that was made at that time, so we're allowing for even more flexibility, in order to start by October 2 and then have everything completed by October 16.
Hopefully, when I give up my spot as a speaker after this, I'm not going to hear the type of outrage that we heard last time, because the Conservatives in this committee are quite familiar with this and did exactly the same thing when they brought their so-called Fair Elections Act.
Yes, that was discussed at the last meeting, I believe, between you and Mr. Christopherson.
I want to say thank you to Ms. Sahota for bringing forward the motion and laying it out. I think it's beneficial when we have our cards on the table and we know what's being discussed so that we can start from the starting point.
I would ask that we have that motion circulated as quickly as possible, so that we have it in written form. I have the gist of it, though, and I do appreciate where that's coming from.
I might begin with a bit of an interesting point, that when Bill was brought before the committee, the actual date for reporting back to the House was set by Her Majesty's loyal opposition, at the time, so the voting date actually reflected the views of the opposition. Perhaps we could have some agreement on that as well, when the time comes.
I also want to say that, on our side, there are discussions going on, and I appreciate that. I know Mrs. Kusie and Ms. Jordan have had worthwhile conversations, as well as conversations with the minister's office. I think that's a positive development, and I appreciate that. We will be hearing from the minister, I believe, on Thursday at at 3:30, so I look forward to hearing about any undertakings she may have from that standpoint.
I want to go back, though, to a conversation that I brought up at the last couple of meetings about witnesses, in particular the Ontario Chief Electoral Officer. In June, we had the CEO come within days of the Ontario provincial election, in the midst of voter recounts and returning the writs. There is no question that it was a challenge getting him here at that point in time.
As a committee, we cannot compel the testimony of the Chief Electoral Officer. He is an officer of the Ontario legislative assembly, and we cannot compel testimony from an officer of a parliament or a legislature. Obviously, we cannot force Mr. Essensa to come. We can double-check.
My understanding is that we cannot compel, but I don't think he's showing an unwillingness to come. My understanding is that it is a challenge with scheduling. I would still like to hear from him at some point prior to clause-by-clause. I hope he can come at our regularly scheduled time on Thursday. I believe that is when the clerk is hoping that will happen. I'm optimistic and hopeful that this can be achieved. The changes that have been implemented in Ontario do reflect some of the challenges and issues we are debating here, so I think the ability to hear about their successes and challenges on this bill is worthwhile.
I'm not going to express outrage—Ms. Sahota did mention that—but I will point out some concerns that I don't think are insurmountable. I think this committee has worked well in the past. I believe the motion says, “the Chair may”, not “the Chair shall”, so there is that discretion.
I was not a member of the committee at the time, but a year and a half ago, we had our little.... I don't want to call it a filibuster; I think it was just an extensive discussion. I guess that was back in the spring of 2017.
I want to point out that we did establish the Simms protocol, thanks to the member for Coast of Bays—Central—Notre Dame...or just Newfoundland and Labrador. I do appreciate the nice long titles. Perth—Wellington is nice and short. I can remember it.
I do appreciate that and I hope that there would be a similar type of discretion and debate allowed, arbitrarily limiting it to five minutes for all clauses. Hopefully there will be some discussion there, because there are going to be certain clauses that we can deal with in 30 seconds. Hopefully by that point we will have some commitments among those of us around the table that certain clauses will be passed or rejected fairly quickly. I think there will be certain clauses that, when we come to them, will need a little more fulsome debate. We may not agree on the outcome, but hopefully we can get to the point where we can agree to disagree on certain points and go forward.
I accept where the Chief Electoral Officer was coming from this morning. He and his organization, I believe, have done exceptional work since the last election, to be frank, and prior to that. I appreciate his comments that they're always ready to run an election based on the rules that are in place, based on the last election and using the by-elections as an outcome. I expect that we'll likely have some by-elections this fall. I don't foresee those going past the new year.
It's disappointing, but we can understand where he was coming from in terms of the poll books. It's disappointing in the sense that it would have been nice to have that in. It's certainly understandable that we do not want Elections Canada going ahead with an experiment in the middle of a campaign where things like that are at issue. I do appreciate that, but as we go forward, outside of the context of this particular bill, things like the poll books and making the process that much easier are there and can be undertaken.
We did discuss Bill a bit. I have what I think was a very interesting quotation about Bill C-23:
When time restrictions are placed on committees so there is a drop-dead time and when five o'clock comes around all questions are put, we do a disservice in the terms of the principle of democracy at the committee level by not allowing for debate and questions and answers.
Does anybody know who said that? It was Kevin Lamoureux. I always appreciate Kevin's sage wisdom and sage advice.