I call this meeting to order.
Good morning, and welcome to the 46th meeting of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. This meeting is being held in public and it's televised.
Pursuant to the order adopted by the committee on November 29, we have with us today the Minister of Democratic Institutions, the Honourable Maryam Monsef, to discuss the provisions contained in Bill an act to amend the Canada Elections Act and to make consequential amendments to other acts.
The minister is accompanied by Natasha Kim, director, democratic reform, Privy Council Office; and Robert Sampson, senior policy adviser, counsel, democratic reform, Privy Council Office.
Before giving the floor to the minister, I want to make a couple of points.
I'm sure you all received the document sent to you by the Library of Parliament researcher comparing the recommendations in the Chief Electoral Officer's report and the items in Bill .
Although Bill has not been referred to our committee by the House, the committee has invited the minister to discuss the content of the bill, pursuant to its permanent mandate under Standing Order 108(3)(a). Members will note similarities between some of the provisions of the bill and the recommendations contained in the Chief Electoral Officer's report, which the committee has been studying. Much of that study has been carried out in camera so members should exercise caution if they refer to the committee's deliberations.
The Chief Electoral Officer's report and all the recommendations are public. You could talk about them and talk about Bill , which is public, but not what we discussed about the Chief Electoral Officer's recommendations.
Minister, welcome. Thank you for coming. The floor is yours.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair, and thank you, colleagues, for your invitation to be here with you today.
The last time I was here we talked about the Senate appointment process and the government's mandate and commitments on ways we can improve our democracy and our democratic institutions.
I'm very much grateful for the opportunity to be here with you today for a number of reasons. You've had more than 40 meetings; it has been about a year since this Parliament began sitting, and you and I very much walk the same path. We have the same challenges and we have the same goals of protecting what's working and what we are so fortunate to have and improving it further.
As always, your input and perspective are greatly appreciated. As my parliamentary secretary Mark Holland and I have travelled the country and studied the work we're doing, time and time again the testimony that has come before this committee comes up, around a family-friendly Parliament, for example. The work this committee has done and the conversations you've had come up again and again. As you know, my work on this file is shaped mostly by a desire to make this place more inclusive, to make the voting process more accessible. I know that together we share these objectives. We have a lot of work to do, and we've begun some of that work.
I also know that you have been reviewing the recommendations our Chief Electoral Officer made based on the results of the last election. I'm really looking forward to the results of that study. I'm looking forward to the possibility of hearing more about that work today. As I've said, we're very proud of the phase one reforms that we've introduced through Bill . We believe it's a strong bill, but I'm also mindful of the fact that the bill could be further strengthened, and if your committee and the work you've done could contribute to that, I think we would serve Canada well.
Now, before I move on I think it's really important, given that it's the middle of December, Mr. Chair, that I take this opportunity to express how much I value—and I think we all share this—the work we've been able to do with our Chief Electoral Officer. He has served this country and Canadians for a decade, and his professionalism and dedication to this country and to the health and integrity of our democracy, I believe, are a model for public service. I'm sure we all wish him well in his retirement, which is imminent.
As you know, Bill proposes amendments to the Canada Elections Act. We introduced it in the House recently, and it's important to talk a little about the current Canadian context for Bill .
You've been involved in this conversation, colleagues, as has the electoral reform committee. What Mark Holland and I have heard across the country is that, while it's important to enhance the way we vote, it's also really important to make it easier for people to get to the polling station, to prove their identity, to have the right information, and to remove unnecessary barriers that exist. This is in line with what we've heard across the country.
As we work towards electoral reform, while it's clear there are sometimes contradictory perspectives on process and many different perspectives, I think something we can all agree on is that our democracy is connected very much to who we are as individuals and to our sense of identity as Canadians. Canadian democracy continues to be a model for the world.
That's why I think it's really important that any improvements we make be in the best interests of all Canadians, and that's what Bill is all about. The changes we're proposing in Bill C-33 are about empowering Canadians with the knowledge they need and encouraging greater engagement in our democracy.
Bill is about helping more Canadians learn about the value of voting. It's about empowering more Canadians who qualify in casting a ballot. It's about breaking down barriers that don't need to be there, that currently prevent too many Canadians from voting. While it's true that the democracy and culture we have here in Canada are the envy of the world, and they work, we can't be complacent. The pressing challenge for us ahead I believe is to make sure that our democracy works for all Canadians without exception.
We want to make it easier for Canadians to vote, because when that happens, democracy is better. This is a goal that I believe we can all agree on. It can only be accomplished if we all work together. You may recall the conversation I had with the good folks at the press gallery after introducing Bill , when I mentioned how important it is for me for this bill to have benefited from the expertise and contributions of all parliamentarians. I want to reinforce that here today. I am counting on your deep expertise and knowledge of electoral reform to achieve that.
To paint the picture of this suite of reforms that I have been mandated to ask for, I'm going to set aside Bill for just a moment, just to let you know what we've done in the past year and what's ahead of us. I have a feeling I'll be coming back to this committee again and again, and I think it's helpful for you to know what initiatives are likely to come before you for deliberation.
As you know, the Prime Minister set a rather ambitious agenda for democratic reform. While it brings many complex challenges, we are making progress on this agenda.
A non-partisan, merit-based appointment process for the Prime Minister to be advised on Senate appointments so that accomplished Canadians from all walks of life from across the country would be considered for the Senate has been established.
A parliamentary committee has studied electoral reform. The committee's report was received on December 1. The government will be responding in detail to that report in the new year.
The matter that brings me here today is an item that is in my mandate letter. As you know, the Fair Elections Act has unfair aspects which were controversial in nature but also unhelpful in engaging Canadians and allowing them to participate in their democracy in their ability to vote. These are things I have been asked to address through repealing those elements of the Fair Elections Act. These again are things that make it harder for Canadians to vote and easier for lawbreakers to evade punishment.
With Bill , the government has introduced some amendments to advance these commitments. The focus was on making changes to those areas that we heard most loudly on from Canadians. We've heard from the debates that took place in the House and in committees like this one, during the last election, and from people, frankly, who I've met across the country in talking about electoral reform, that changes need to be made. There was no good reason why some of those changes were introduced in the first place.
There are other changes that have been suggested and the government will be looking to introduce further legislation going forward. I look forward to the input and advice of this committee to make sure that we're putting the best possible legislation forward to benefit all Canadians.
What is Bill about? It responds to the concerns that I've just shared with seven important reforms.
The first two reforms focus on making it easier for eligible Canadians to vote. Ultimately, it would increase voter participation through reinstating the voter information card and the vouching process.
The third reform is about engaging Canadians through education about Canada's electoral process.
The fourth, and this is something that I've heard across the country, is about engaging youth further by providing an opportunity for Elections Canada to pre-register youth ages 14 to 17, so that they can be invited to be part of the democratic institutions at an earlier age.
The fifth reform is about building more integrity into our voting system by giving Elections Canada the resources it needs to clean up the data in the national list of electors.
Our sixth reform would make the administrative adjustments necessary to formally return the commissioner of Canada elections to Elections Canada.
Finally, our seventh reform would make it easier for Canadians working and living abroad by expanding the right to vote to over a million Canadians, even if they've been away from home for more than five years.
Again, I want to be clear. I believe these are strong reforms that we've introduced. There's more work to be done and we'll be introducing further legislation, but Bill is the first of a series of reforms that will come before you for consideration.
Another area that is a priority for Mark and me is to focus on ways to improve access to the democratic process for Canadians who are often on the margins of our society. I'm talking about homeless people, young people, seniors, indigenous Canadians, new Canadians, those with physical disabilities, those with various abilities and exceptionalities, and of course, those who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
Bill aims to address some of those challenges for these groups by making voting easier for groups that traditionally and consistently experience difficulty proving their identity. There is also a great deal invested in enhancing youth participation through a future list of electors being generated, but as always, there's more work to be done.
Something that we can look forward to in the future is a commitment to bring forward options to create an independent commissioner to organize political party debates. The options that we present need to be informed by the input of Canadians, political parties, broadcasters, journalists, and others as we work towards this goal. We've learned that knowledge is key to democratic participation, and leaders' debates are an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to educating Canadians. I know that the Chief Electoral Officer's recommendations are before you. You'll be working together to enhance the accessibility of our elections. I very much look forward to hearing your recommendations on the Chief Electoral Officer's advice.
I want to thank you, again, for the opportunity to be here, Mr. Chair. I'm very happy to answer any questions that colleagues may have.
Mr. Chair, I thank my colleague for his very thoughtful question.
While I'm not privy to the conversations you folks have through your in camera deliberations, I understand that reviewing and making recommendations on the Chief Electoral Officer's report is very much within your mandate. It's something I'm counting on. These changes we put forward in Bill I believe are straightforward. I'm not sure where you are in your review of them, but you're right that there's quite a bit more work to be done. I understand that you will be providing a report to the House in the new year. We're eagerly awaiting your recommendations.
On this particular bill, too, there were areas where we could have gone further, but the decision we considered to be the most thoughtful one was to just wait. An example is expanding the right to vote to Canadians living and working abroad for more than five years. We've expanded the right to those Canadians who have at one time lived here in Canada, but something that we're counting on this committee to study further and provide its recommendations on is the status of the children of those Canadians living abroad who are still Canadians but who have never lived in Canada. Do we expand the right to vote to them?
Ultimately, I believe my main goal with my mandate letter, the reason we all work very hard every day, is that we want to see more Canadians participating in their democratic process, whether as engaged and informed voters or as active participants and candidates. That is an area of key priority for me: accessibility and inclusion. That is something I think we can do in the months, if not years, ahead. That's something we can improve upon. These are some of my priorities that I think are important for you to know, but I'm also happy to have conversations with colleagues around this table about what you would collectively like to see moving forward.
I know that what you do in this committee, one of the things that's quite impressive, is you're able to work collegially. You're able to put partisan interests aside. You see the big picture and you move forward based on what's in the best interests of all Canadians. That's the spirit that I think we need to work towards to improve democratic participation. If there are areas you believe need to be at the heart of our focus, then talk to me.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair. We were at one minute and 45 seconds when we stopped.
First of all, Minister, thank you for coming here to talk about Bill .
Minister, I've been on this committee for over a decade, through a number of election cycles, starting under the Chrétien government, and every election cycle, the minister, or rather, I correct myself, the Chief Electoral Officer submits a report on recommended changes subsequent to the election and the experiences that he—it's been a he so far, so that's not sexist language—Mr. Kingsley or Mr. Mayrand, thinks ought to be made based on the experience.
Then the procedure and House affairs committee engages in an exhaustive review of that report, makes recommendations based on a riffing off, if you like, of the CEO's recommendations, submits those, and the government responds. It may respond in a way the committee judges to be satisfactory or unsatisfactory, but the fact is that you wait for that process.
You moved ahead without waiting for our report, and although we're not permitted to say what we were discussing, I can tell you that some of what we were discussing in our report was, I thought, of enormous use, and cannot be dealt with in some supplemental piece of legislation because it very much featured some of the key issues that you're dealing with and setting in stone in this piece of legislation.
May I ask why you didn't follow the precedent of all your predecessors in this regard and wait until our report had been submitted? If I may say so...well, let me just stop there and ask that question, Minister.
Minister, thank you very much for coming. We very much appreciate it.
I have to tell you, you being here is a complete shemozzle. I am so confused. I am further confused as to why you're here talking to us about this bill.
The fact of the matter is there's only so much I can say in terms of our in camera talks, but there are smart people in this room, such as Kady O'Malley, who can look very carefully at the chronology of what has happened to get some idea of why you're in front of this committee. I can assure you that it wasn't to talk about the pleasantries of Bill .
The fact of the matter is you say things such as “eagerly awaiting”, “walk the same path”, “if we all work together”, and “collegial”. The fact is that we started an excellent process of working together on this committee to review the recommendations of the Chief Electoral Officer. We were going along working, and we have dual tracks and lots of stuff. We're doing good work; we thought we were doing good work. We're feeling good about it. That's not to say we've agreed on everything, but in terms of process, we were working as a team trying to come up with rules that everybody thought would be fair. Then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, thump, and Bill lands in the middle of the floor of the House of Commons on the very same day that we're about to meet and continue working. We're left, or at least I was left, wondering what the hell? What is going on?
On the one hand, we have a committee that's working together. Your government, Minister, promised that you were going to treat parliamentary committees with the respect they deserve, that you were going to bring back the importance of parliamentary committees, yet all we've seen are insults, especially with this committee as a result of Bill . Then, I won't dwell on it but I have to say, we watched the absolute disgrace of the government's response to the electoral reform committee's tabling of that report, where you were on your feet apologizing.
Again, I'm kind of stuck here because I can't talk about what was said in camera, but I can say—and if somebody wants to hold me for telling tales out of school, fine, but I think I'm walking the line carefully—that Mr. Graham, to his credit, came to me immediately afterwards, when we were seized of the bill being tabled, and said, “How can we fix this? What can we do?” I said my goal was to get us back to work, that after all these decades in public life I didn't need another headline, and that what I wanted to do was some good work.
Then I happened to bump into you, Minister. I won't talk about the full conversation, but I think it's fair to say that we actually bumped into each other twice in the hallway on that day, and you were asking the same as Mr. Graham, “How can we fix this?” My response was the same, that an apology would be a good way to start. I still haven't heard one.
You go on and on about Bill . We didn't call you in here, Minister, to talk about Bill C-33, because it hasn't been referred to us yet.
What I as one member of this committee want to know is how do we continue to do the work that we're doing—which is supposed to show the respect and importance that this government was going to return to committees—when you drop that bill on the floor, looking for all intents and purposes as nothing but a diversion to get you and your government out of trouble for the heat you were taking on the broader file that was going down in flames?
If it's not that, at best it's a lack of respect or consideration for this committee. At worst, it's a total disregard for committee work, which happens to have been reinforced by the comments. I accept that you've apologized; nonetheless, it happened. I happened to walk into the House as you were beginning and I couldn't believe that was the response.
Minister, I am still angry about the process. At least the previous government didn't pretend to want to make the committees important. They at least were clear about their disdain for parliamentary committees and the work they do. Fair enough; that has been dealt with. Those chickens came home to roost, and that's why you, Minister, are sitting where you are sitting, in large part because of that attitude. You can say you're going to do something different, but so far we hear talk, talk, talk, but none of the walk.
So, Minister, I need a couple of things from you, starting with an apology to this committee, as you apologized to the last committee, for the way you have treated the work of this committee. Second, I'd like to get some idea of how you think this parliamentary committee is going to continue to do its work in light of you dropping bills on the floor that cherry-pick issues we're working with.
I'll end on this final point. When you say things such as, “When will your report be ready,” it is a very good question, but that is the kind of question that should be asked at the beginning of the process of our work if your ministry is serious about coordinating it with the work of your government. Right now, there's a disconnect.
I need to hear from you, Minister, how you think we are going to respond and get back on track, or are we not going to be able to? Are we just going to continue to have this government pitted against its own parliamentary committees?
I'd also like to ask about an element that is not in the Chief Electoral Officer's report, but is in Bill . It is one that is of personal interest to me, having worked overseas for many years with the United Nations and other organizations. There are some very good Canadians who are abroad, who are doing work promoting Canadian values. In my case, I even received a peacekeeping service medal from the Governor General for the work that I was doing in Kosovo with OSCE, and yet, had I continued that work, I would have become ineligible to vote in Canadian elections, as have many other Canadians, because of the changes that were made by the previous government.
I understood you to say earlier that you were looking to our committee, not only to look at that aspect of Bill , but to decide on some of the parameters and how this would actually apply.
I also know there is a court case right now, a charter challenge, Frank v. Canada.
Could you elaborate on why it is important that a young generation of Canadians who are going around the world and starting businesses...? We have doctors and teachers who are going around the world. There are all kinds of Canadians who are doing very good work around the world. To lose your right to vote because you have gone abroad to promote Canadian values, I think, is wrong.
Could you elaborate on that and tell us what you see our committee doing in that regard?
Mr. Chair, the world is changing. Globalization means that people, especially younger people, frankly, are travelling abroad to see the world, to contribute to the complex challenges that exist, and also to bring different ways of doing things, different ways of thinking, back to Canada.
We want to promote that. We want to promote the sharing of Canadian values abroad. The right to vote is protected for Canadians. This is one of those fundamental rights that we have as Canadian citizens. Our government believes that a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.
Yes, there is a court case that will be heard in February. We are mindful of that, but I've heard stories like yours, Anita, and I've also heard stories of young people whose parents are working abroad. These are people who didn't choose to go abroad. They went because they had to.
I'm getting letters and emails from them saying, “We're paying attention to what's happening to our country. When we're old enough to vote, we want to be able to, but right now we can't. That's not right, and it's not fair.” We agree.
These are young people who have lived in Canada at one time, and so the provisions that we've introduced here will grant them the ability to vote, just as it will for over a million Canadians. As I mentioned earlier, what we need deeper analysis on from this committee is this: the children of those Canadians living and working abroad who may have come to Canada to visit, but have never actually resided in Canada, have never lived here. Do we extend the franchise to them, too?
That's an area that requires cross-party conversations, something that this committee is very well positioned to do.
A lot can happen in two minutes.
Minister, I just want to thank you for coming.
Of course, I didn't have the pleasure of being there when Bill was introduced in the House. I wasn't present and I apologize for that. As a result of my absence, I inadvertently missed it.
I might be in the minority relative to all of my colleagues, but I'm not fussed, David, by the minister's introduction of Bill in the House. From my perspective, the minister has a clear executive mandate, which is very publicly accessible. She has every right to introduce legislation that the political executive deemed is important.
We have clear work, which is mandated legislatively and through the Standing Orders, for us to review the results of the previous Parliament and the report from the Chief Electoral Officer, and as legislation comes to this particular committee, when it finally gets referred to it from the House, we pivot accordingly. I actually don't see much substantive divergence. I think folks here are a bit fussed with respect to the process and the minister is committed to finding, I think, a better way to communicate that better.
I'm here to work with you. I think we want to achieve the same substantive outcomes at the end of the day and I think we should just get on with it and get that particular work done. When Bill comes from the House, we'll make adjustments accordingly. As I've already indicated, I am not fussed by what has transpired.
I think there are substantive questions that my Conservative friends would like to ask and I think the government has already demonstrated more than it's willingness and openness to deal with any substantive questions that they want to pose, so we'll get answers from the minister accordingly.
My invitation to my colleagues on the opposite side is, when we come back in the new year, let's get back on to the work that we're doing and when Bill is referred to us from the House, we will then pivot accordingly. Until the House has spoken and we are seized of that legislation, I think it's premature for us to get into a lot of the details, without knowing the substance of what we're allowed to actually review and study. From my perspective, the work that we're already doing is good work and let's get on with it.