Welcome to the 152nd meeting of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.
We had discussions with all parties, and if it's okay with everyone, we will proceed with 45 minutes for each set of witnesses because we have two sets and a half hour less.
Is that okay with everyone?
This morning, we are continuing our study on the main estimates for 2019-20, vote 1 under Office of the Chief Electoral Officer.
The witnesses are from Elections Canada. We have Stéphane Perrault, Chief Electoral Officer; Michel Roussel, Deputy Chief Electoral Officer, Electoral Events and Innovation; and Hughes St-Pierre, Deputy Chief Electoral Officer, Internal Services.
Thank you for being here today.
I will now hand the floor over to you, Mr. Perrault. You may go ahead with your presentation.
It is a pleasure to be before the committee today to present Elections Canada's main estimates and plans for 2019-20. This appearance also provides the opportunity to update committee members on the implementation of Bill and, above all, our final preparations for the general election.
Today, the committee is voting on Election Canada's annual appropriation, which is $39.2 million and represents the salaries of some 440 indeterminate positions. This is an increase of $8.4 million over last year's appropriation. As I indicated when I last appeared before this committee, the increase is essentially a rebalancing of the agency's budgets, moving expenses for terms and contract resources out of the statutory authority and into the annual appropriation in order to fund indeterminate resources. It does not represent any spending increase overall. In fact, it results in a slight spending reduction.
Combined with our statutory authority, which funds all other expenditures under the Canada Elections Act, our 2019-20 main estimates total $493.2 million. This includes $398 million for the October 21 election, which represents the direct election delivery costs that will be incurred in this fiscal year.
Our most recent estimates indicate that total expenditures for the 43rd general election will be some $500 million. The expenditures may vary due to various factors such as the duration of the campaign.
I note that, while preparing our budgets last fall, we had estimated the cost of the election at some $470 million. The difference is mainly due to Bill —$21 million—which had not been passed at the time of preparing our estimates and therefore had not been taken into account.
Elections Canada continues to implement Bill and bring into force its provisions as preparations are completed.
On May 11, the changes brought by Bill for electors residing outside Canada will also come into force. The balance of other provisions will come into force in June. From an electoral operation perspective, Elections Canada will then be ready to conduct the election with the required Bill C-76 changes. Our applications, training and instructions will have been updated, tested and ready for use.
In terms of regulatory activities, all guidance on political financing will be finalized and published prior to the beginning of the pre-writ period on June 30. Leading up to that date, we will continue consulting parties on various products through the opinions, guidelines and interpretation notes process.
The agency is also gearing up to complete the audits of political entity returns following the election. We are expecting increases in the audit work stemming from the new requirements introduced by Bill , notably for third parties, as well as the removal of the $1,000 deposit for candidates.
Despite this increase, we aim to reduce the time required to complete the audit of candidate returns by 30% in order to improve transparency and ensure more timely reimbursements. To achieve this, we are implementing a streamlined risk-based audit plan.
A key priority as part of our final preparations is to further improve the quality of the list of electors. Every year some three million Canadians move, 300,000 pass away, more than 100,000 become citizens, and 400,000 turn 18. This translates roughly into 70,000 changes in any given week.
To ensure the accuracy of the register, Elections Canada regularly draws on multiple data sources from more than 40 provincial and federal bodies as well as from information provided directly by Canadians, mostly online. This will be facilitated by recent improvements made to our online registration systems to capture non-standard addresses and upload identification documents.
With the enactment of Bill , Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada is now able to share information about permanent residents and foreign nationals. This provides Elections Canada with a much-needed tool to address the long-recognized issue of non-citizens appearing on the register of electors. This spring, we expect to remove approximately 100,000 records as a result.
We have also recently written to 250,000 households for which we believe we have records that need correction. Efforts to improve the accuracy of the list of electors will continue and will be supported by a new pre-writ campaign to encourage Canadians to verify and update their information over the spring and the summer.
On April 18 the agency concluded an extensive three-week election simulation exercise in five electoral districts. The simulation allowed us to test our business processes, handbooks and IT systems in a setting that closely resembles that of an actual election. Election workers were hired and trained, and they participated in simulated voting exercises that factored in changes introduced by Bill . This exercise also gave some of our new returning officers the opportunity to observe local office operations and exchange with more experienced colleagues.
Overall, the simulation exercise confirmed our readiness level while identifying a few areas in which we need to refine some of our procedures, instructions and applications. The final adjustments will be made this spring.
With the assurance provided by our simulation and most recent by-elections, I have a high level of confidence in our state of readiness and our tools to deliver this election.
From an electoral security perspective, the agency is engaged this spring in a number of scenario exercises with the Commissioner of Canada Elections and Canada's lead security agencies to ensure that roles and responsibilities are clear and that proper governance is established to coordinate our actions. As indicated in the Communications Security Establishment's most recent report, Canada is not immune to cyber-threats and disinformation.
Since the last general election, a wide range of organizations, including Elections Canada, have worked to adapt to the new context and strengthen Canada's democratic resilience in the face of these evolving threats. Elections Canada and its security partners approach the next general election with a new level of vigilance and awareness and unprecedented level of co-operation.
General elections are one of Canada's largest civic events. Our role is to provide a trusted and accessible voting service to 27 million electors in some 338 electoral districts. lt involves hiring and training more than 300,000 poll workers deployed in more than 70,000 polls across the country. Our returning officers have been continually engaged in improvements planned for the next election. I had the opportunity to meet with our field personnel across Canada. I can assure you that they are engaged, ready and resolved in their commitment to provide electors and candidates with outstanding service.
Mr. Chair, I would be pleased to answer any questions the committee members may have.
Thank you very much, Chair.
I certainly would like to thank the honourable member for for being here today to bring these occurrences to light, and I have to say that I have a lot of respect for the Chief Electoral Officer. As a former diplomat, I can see that he's being very gracious in his responses and is certainly doing his best to answer the questions without any overreach for his counterpart, the Commissioner of Canada Elections.
However, it seems to be, following upon the questioning of my colleague, the honourable member for Carleton, that it's necessary to go beyond the responses of the Chief Electoral Officer here. He has indeed indicated that if it is the will of the committee we certainly can ask these questions of the Commissioner of Canada Elections.
As such, Chair, I would like to move the following motion, which is now being table-dropped in both official languages.
I would like to move a motion that the Commissioner of Canada Elections appear before the procedure and House affairs committee on our study of the estimates.
I am moving this motion at this time, Chair, and would like to open it up to debate. Thank you.
Good afternoon, Mr. Chair and members of the committee. It's wonderful to be back.
Thank you for the opportunity to appear before the committee today.
Thank you inviting the Leaders' Debates Commission to review our main estimates. You've kindly introduced us, so let me jump right in.
As you know, the mandate of the commission is to put on two debates, one in each official language. Within that directive is also a commitment to important elements such as transparency, accessibility and reaching as many Canadians as possible. Since my appointment as debates commissioner in late 2018, the commission has been working to achieve these goals and help give Canadians the best debates possible.
Let me begin with a brief overview of the 2019-20 main estimates. The commission is seeking a total of $4.63 million overall for its core responsibility, which is to organize two leaders debates for the 2019 federal general election, one in each official language.
Before I tell you how we plan to use the funding to carry out our mandate, I'd like to talk a bit about what we've accomplished thus far.
Since work began in December 2018, the commission has completed the first phase of our mandate, consulting with over 40 groups and individuals with a wide range of expertise and views. This includes accessibility, youth, indigenous, academic and journalistic groups. We've been pleased with the positive responses from these groups on the existence of a debates commission and our mandate. Our consultation process will continue throughout our mandate.
We have also met with the leaders of the Liberals, Conservatives, NDP, Bloc Québécois, People's Party and Green Party. Overall, there was a positive response to the commission and our mandate. Furthermore, we have set up our communications infrastructure; initiated the process for hiring a debates producer through a request for interest followed by a request for proposal; and, appointed an advisory board of seven members.
We are very proud of the board we have assembled. We're heartened by the enthusiasm from this group of great Canadians to join our cause. Also, I am especially delighted with the quality of the people on our small five-person secretariat.
We are now entering the second phase of our mandate, which will bring us well into the summer. lt consists of initiating an outreach program through partnerships with different groups and enterprises; choosing a debates producer; engaging with the political parties and producers to ensure successful negotiations; and, developing a research strategy that will enable us to measure the impact and engagement of the debates.
The third phase, which will start with the election call, will consist of ongoing consultation on the production of the debates, raising public awareness of the debates and the national outreach initiatives that foster a wide understanding of the importance of debates. We will also be evaluating the interest in, engagement with and influence of the debates.
Lastly, the fourth phase of our mandate consists of developing recommendations and reporting to Parliament.
Let me return to the $4.63 million that is being sought. As you know, this is the first time Canada has entrusted a debates commission with the tasks that we are now undertaking. The funds we are seeking represent an “up to” amount that will allow for our work to be guided by the independent pursuit of the public interest. However, as I emphasized previously, we intend to ensure that the commission operates cost-effectively in everything we do, in keeping with the direction provided to us in the order in council establishing our mandate.
I will cite a few examples. Our goal with our request for proposals for the production of the debates will be to focus commission expenditures on areas not generally provided by past debate organizers, such as accessibility initiatives. We are also working to identify and build relationships with existing entities in our work to both raise awareness about debates and assess their effectiveness. Additionally, it is our intention to provide a detailed report on our expenditures in our report to Parliament after the debates so that policy-makers can assess how to resource a future debates commission should that be the path chosen.
I hope that overview of the commission's main estimates for 2019-20 demonstrates how we plan to fulfill our mandate in order to deliver the debates Canadians deserve.
Once again, members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to provide you with this context in which the Leaders' Debates Commission operates.
We would now be pleased to answer the committee's questions.
Those are two very important questions.
First of all, in our terms of reference in the request for proposals we will establish the conditions that come from our mandate as to the kind and type of debate in the public interest that we want. We'll ask for commentary on the matters that you have just raised. Once a decision has been made to go to a particular consortium to carry off at least the two national debates in each official language and their dissemination, we will enter into further discussions with them as to how one can push the outreach, perhaps more enthusiastically then we've seen in the past, and continue in discussions with that consortium right up to the point of the debate.
The actual format, questions to be asked, etc., will be in the hands of the successful consortium, not our hands. But through the process of following that successful request for proposal and awarding the contract we expect to be in quite frequent discussions to have some sense of how those things are evolving, but not to have the ultimate responsibility.
With respect to journalistic standards, a condition of the feed that will be provided by the successful consortium will be anybody using that feed will have to respect appropriate journalistic standards and quality. That could present some questions down the road. There's nothing in our mandate that permits us to enforce that, nor I suppose in the hands of the consortium other than to seek an injunction or some remedy after the fact.
I suppose there are three or four reasons. The simplest reason sounds a little hokey, but it's simply because I was asked.
I've spent my life as a tenured university professor, one of the most delightful positions possible in our society, and have been asked frequently to chair different public interest things. I've almost always said yes to that over 40 years or so, subject to, “I don't think I have the qualifications,” and sometimes that's been a debate. From time to time I don't have the time. Typically it's simply because I'm doing another one. I do believe that it's a citizen responsibility, especially when you're lucky enough to be a professor of law in one of Canada's fine universities.
Second, I think it's vitally important that we have timely, predictable, first-class debates where people can make decisions on what kind of leader they want to be leading our country and what kinds of policies that person and his party should be pursuing, and be broadly engaged in the spectrum of choices that good societies have to make about where they want to take their country.
I must say, I have been somewhat worried about erosion of trust in public institutions, which moved me to write a book called Trust. It came out about six months or so ago. I think that was another compelling reason to say, “I suppose I need this like another hole in my head, but it's something I should do.”
Our communication manager Jill Clark is right here. Jill frequently reminds us that she doesn't have a television set in her home and she doesn't need it, and she's more informed than any one of us on what she does. She and Jess Milton have been leading this exercise in reaching out and making contact.
One of the seven members of our advisory board is Craig Kielburger. If you haven't seen the WE headquarters near King East and Parliament in Toronto, do so. It's absolutely extraordinary. They have a digital media studio to figure out how to reach.... I guess they go from about 9- to 21-year-olds with these various programs.
Today we were discussing this very question: what was the number? We've had about 40 consultations, Jill, but how many groups did we have on our list. I think 120 or so, 140.
With more to come, to whom we will reach out and say that they are interested in election debates, in election politics, what can we do to assist you, to engage the audience to which you have a catchment area, in a very positive way and reinforce that? I dare say that of the 40 or so consultations, we probably had eight or ten that would be specifically focused on that kind of—
A voice: Twitter, Facebook, Google as well. We all met with them as a part of our initial consultations.
We go to our mandate. It's an important question, and we debated this a lot, the degree to which you are standoffish and let the players in the field participate and the degree to which you are pre-emptive.
When we go to our mandate, it asks us to carry off at least two national debates in two official languages that are engaging, as accessible as possible and meet high journalistic standards. We don't say that we will be the people who create those specific rules.
In the response to the proposals, we will expect some detailed commentary on what the consortium winner will in fact do to meet the standards set out in our mandate and make some judgment on that. Having made that judgment, and to be sure that we're not just standing back and saying, “You won the bid, go ahead; we'll see you in late October,” we'll engage first in biweekly discussions and then weekly discussions. Then, in the 10 days leading up to the debate, there will daily discussions, all of which will provide us with information on what they're doing. Also, without becoming too much of a schoolmaster, we'll be in a position to say, “When one thinks about it, perhaps a somewhat different approach on this particular matter might be appropriate.”
Mr. Johnston, this is very hard for me to ask, one, because I like you; two, because you were previously appointed by a man I respect very much; and three, because I don't have five bucks.
I'm looking at the process by which you were selected. It was not an open application; you were selected by the Liberal government. I am listening to how the advisory board was selected. It was selected by you, appointed by the Liberal government, not through an open application process. I would also have to assume, then, that the secretariat was appointed either by you, appointed by the Liberal government, or by the Liberal government as well through a process. Either way, you were put in place by the Liberal government.
You keep referring to your mandate: our mandate tells us to do this; our mandate drives us to do this. Who gave you your mandate, Mr. Johnston?