Thank you very much.
Good afternoon everyone.
I am delighted and honoured to be here with you today.
Good afternoon, and thank you for your invitation to appear today.
It is an honour to be before the committee this afternoon. I was appointed minister just four weeks ago today, and this is my first appearance as a minister before a committee of the House. I'm delighted that it's with all of you today.
I would like to introduce my parliamentary secretary, Andy Fillmore, member of Parliament for Halifax, and my deputy minister, Ian McCowan, who is the deputy secretary of governance of the Privy Council Office. Also joining us are Allen Sutherland, assistant secretary to the cabinet, and Natasha Kim, director of democratic reform.
I am pleased to be here before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs with its valuable knowledge and insights on many of the electoral matters mandated to me by the . I have a deep respect for committees and the important role they play in our Parliament. I'm eager to engage, consult, and work with the committee to improve Canada's democracy. The studies you conduct and the years of experience you bring to the table are a few of the many reasons I will particularly value working with all members of this committee and hearing your contributions to these files.
I would like to focus my remarks today on my new mandate letter, as well as on Bill, an act to amend the Canada Elections Act. If it pleases the House to adopt the bill at second reading, I would, of course, look forward to returning to this committee to discuss it in more detail.
I will turn now to my mandate letter. As you know, my overarching goal, as Minister of Democratic Institutions, is to strengthen the openness and fairness of Canada's public institutions. I have been mandated to lead on improving our democratic institutions and to restore Canadians' trust and participation in our democratic processes.
I have been mandated to lead on improving our democratic institutions and to restore Canadians' trust and participation in our democratic process.
In terms of my specific mandate, allow me to begin with the topic of electoral reform, a topic on which I know there are strongly held views. Much has been said about this already.
Our government consulted broadly with Canadians on electoral reform over the past year. Any proposed changes to the foundational values of how we elect our representatives should have the broad support of Canadians. More importantly, Canadians would expect to be consulted before embarking on a change of this magnitude.
Public consultations came in many forms. In reaching out to Canadians, there was tremendous work done by the Special Committee on Electoral Reform, several members of which are here today; by members of Parliament representing all parties in the House; by the cross-country ministerial tour; and through the government's engagement of over 360,000 individuals in Canada through Mydemocracy.ca.
In fact, the consultations launched on electoral reform make it one of the largest and farthest reaching consultations ever undertaken by the Government of Canada. This conversation was at times spirited, and it was a conversation in which many had legitimate and passionate views. I respect and thank each and every Canadian who participated in these discussions on something as fundamental as how we choose to govern ourselves.
I appreciate the diversity of views. It was our responsibility to listen to what Canadians said in these consultations and to take that into account.
A clear preference for a new electoral system, let alone a consensus, did not emerge from these consultations.
Without a clear preference for change, much less a specific preferred alternative system, a referendum could be divisive and not in Canada's interests.
Consequently, changing the electoral system is not within the mandate the has given me. We listened to Canadians and made a difficult decision, but I am confident it was the responsible one. The first past the post system may not be perfect. No electoral system is, but it has served this country for 150 years and advances a number of democratic values Canadians hold dear, such as strong local representation, stability, and accountability.
My job is to strengthen and protect our democratic institutions. We remain committed to improving this country's electoral system in many ways, which I will turn to now. There is much useful work to be done to improve Canada's democracy, and I look forward to working with the committee on this important responsibility.
First, I would like to highlight new items in my mandate letter to strengthen and protect the integrity of the democratic process. As we have seen globally, there is increased concern that Canada's electoral process could be susceptible to cyber-attacks in a bid to destabilize Canada's democratic governments or influence the outcome of an election. We must guard against this.
In ensuring the integrity of our democratic institutions, I have been mandated, in collaboration with the and the , to lead the government of Canada's efforts to defend the Canadian electoral process from cyber-threats.
This will include working with the Communications Security Establishment to analyze risks to Canada's political and electoral activities, and to release this assessment publicly. As well, I intend to ask CSE to offer advice and information to Canada's political parties on best practices they may wish to consider when it comes to cybersecurity.
As I've previously stated, this is about assisting parties to protect themselves. Ensuring the safety of our democratic system is a non-partisan issue. It is vital that we protect Canada's democratic infrastructure from cyber-threats. I hope you will agree that we must protect our democracy from emerging threats.
I've also been mandated to introduce legislation to examine and tighten the rules surrounding fundraisers attended by the Prime Minister, ministers, party leaders, and leadership contestants.
Federally, Canada has among the strongest and most stringent political financing rules in the world. Nonetheless, it is essential that Canadians continue to have confidence in our political finance and fundraising laws, and we must seek ways to ensure such confidence in the strength of our system is regularly enforced.
One such way to do that is to bring even more light to fundraising activities. We believe that Canadians have a right to know even more than they do now about political fundraising. We will take action to ensure that fundraisers are conducted in publicly available spaces, advertised in advance, and reported on in a timely manner after the fact. These changes will increase openness and help ensure that Canadians have continued trust in their political financing regime and in their political system generally.
I look forward to discussing with other parties any additional ways we can enhance transparency in the fundraising system. This is an area where all parties have an interest and experience to bring to bear.
I will also work on recommending options to create an independent commissioner to organize political party leaders' debates, reviewing the limits on the amounts political parties and third parties can spend during and between elections, proposing measures to ensure that spending between elections is subject to reasonable limits, as well as supporting the president of the Treasury Board and the Minister of Justice in reviewing the Access to Information Act. I am confident you share a desire to work on these important matters with our government.
In addition, I am the lead minister in relation to Senate reform, including the government's non-partisan, merit-based Senate appointments process to fill Senate vacancies.
I am also responsible for working to pass amendments to the Canada Elections Act to make the Commissioner of Canada Elections more independent from government and to work to repeal the the elements of the Fair Elections Act that make it harder for Canadians to vote.
In terms of this final point, as you know, the government has already introduced Bill , which proposes seven measures in this regard. This bill is designed to increase voter participation by breaking down barriers to voting while enhancing the efficiency and integrity of Canada's elections. These elements are at the heart of our electoral system and I am pleased with the legislation that has been put forth. Should the House refer Bill to committee after second reading I would look forward to working with the committee in its study of this legislation.
While not a specific item in my mandate letter, as I noted earlier, it is my overarching mandate to strengthen and protect our democratic institutions. That includes continually working to improve the Canada Elections Act and the administration of elections. I am very pleased that this committee is charged with the same goal particularly in relation to your current study into the Chief Electoral Officer's recommendations report following the 42nd general election. I know this committee has been working quite diligently on this report, which includes 132 detailed recommendations to further modernize and strengthen the integrity and accessibility of our electoral system. Your work will help inform the government in the next step of modernizing our electoral system. I welcome your insights into these matters and improving the Canada Elections Act with you.
I'm eager to begin the hard work necessary to achieve these mandate commitments given to me by the Prime Minister.
Canada's democracy remains the envy of the world, but we should never become complacent. Our system is trusted by Canadians and renowned worldwide because we are constantly working to improve it.
I hope I can count on your expertise and your contributions on Bill , on your contributions and expertise on the recommendations from the CEO of Elections Canada, and as I continue to work to fulfill the mandate set before me.
Thank you again for inviting me here today. I look forward to working on my mandate, I look forward to working with all of you, and I would be happy to take your questions.
Thank you very much for the question.
I think it's a very important and timely question to be asking. It has been four weeks now. I haven't had the opportunity at this point to sit down with CSE. We've had some preliminary discussions, but that's something that will be coming in the near term in terms of what this looks like and what the breadth of the mandate will look like.
My mandate letter talks specifically about political parties and ensuring that the Communications Security Establishment is analyzing, monitoring, and reviewing what the potential threats to political parties' information systems could be and then providing information as to how they can protect themselves.
It's really important that we do this right and that Canadians have the confidence that this is not about the CSE going in and looking at political parties' information systems, but rather about them providing an overview about best practices on how they can protect themselves and identify potential emerging threats.
The conversation you raised this morning was in regard to a young man who works in artificial intelligence who was talking about the fact of how news sources in many ways, in some respects, can be targeted to individuals based on their preferences and the silo effect of how we consume media and information as citizens. His concerns were about how we ensure that we get a diversity of views that are reaching many individuals.
I think that is definitely an area we need to be considering and looking at. It's something that I'm definitely concerned about, but it's a question of how we as a government, we as parliamentarians, and we as political leaders engage with this. I think in Canada we have one of the highest per capita uses of Facebook, and we know that Facebook and other social media will push information to you based on your own preferences. So how do we ensure that people are getting a diversity of viewpoints to make informed choices, but also have the digital literacy to be able to look at these and understand where they're coming from and make those informed choices?
It's a really important conversation to be having. It's something to start thinking about. As political leaders, it's incumbent upon us to make sure that we're doing what we can to ensure people have that access to diverse points of view and different sources of information. I think it's a really important thing.
It will be about us determining what is the breadth of democratic institutions in Canada and does that include the media, and then how do we work in partnership with the media for them to have access to those tools as well. That's something that I think will come in time. Of course, I welcome points of view and ideas or thoughts from either this committee or other members of Parliament on that.
Very good. Thank you, Chair.
Minister, thank you very much for coming. I've congratulated you privately. Let me publicly congratulate you on your ascension to cabinet.
While I have a moment, I will also give my public congratulations in addition to my private ones to my colleague Filomena Tassi, who has also been appointed deputy whip of the government. I wish both of you well. I know you'll do a great job.
Minister, thank you so much for being here. As you can appreciate, this is like the last meeting with your predecessor. These really aren't meet-and-greets, hi-how-are-you courtesy meetings. We specifically called you in to deal with a couple of issues that are affecting our work. I can't go too far. We're limited because it's in camera work, but I don't think it's any big secret that the work at committee has seized up until we get these issues resolved. I can't get into the specifics, but we need some answers here that will allow us to get back to work, so I'm going to be dealing with some rather mundane issues to most people, but they are critically important for us.
You stated that you have deep respect for committees. I've heard this from the government. The Prime Minister enunciated it during the campaign all the way through and said committees were going to matter and were going to be respected. That's the issue. One of the big issues was that we were in the midst, as you rightly alluded to, of going through the Chief Electoral Officer's report. We were doing good work. We had our sleeves rolled up. We were identifying things that we could quickly agree on and setting aside the harder things that we needed to spend time on. Then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, Bill landed with a thud in the middle of our work.
It left us with a real problem, because if you say you respect the work of the committees, then it would have made sense for you to wait until we had issued at least some reports to give some advice on legislation you might be considering. But the way it was done, there was total disregard for the work we're doing. It left us—me anyway, I'll speak for myself—feeling that it is a make-work project. Why bother doing all this if the government is going to ignore it and just do what it wants?
There is that issue. Then the second, somewhat attached issue is this. I appreciate Mr. Graham's raising it, and you did allude to it in part, but I really need something clear on this, Minister, with respect. The second part of this is going forward. I had said we wanted an absolute guarantee that you aren't going to do that again. Mr. Chan and Mr. Graham argued that we could appreciate that the government can't give that kind of a blanket assurance in case we get bogged down. I understood all that. Again, I think you made some reference to that in your remarks.
What we were looking for was respect for our process, to find some way we could communicate so we would know what you are considering and you would ask us if we would turn our attention to that particular area to give you our thinking and to help advise you. You can choose to take it or not, but to just continue to produce electoral reform bills—and, by the way, as you know, getting rid of some of that awful unfair elections act stuff is a priority.... But procedures matter and committees matter, so we need some assurance that the work we are doing is actually meaningful and that the government is considering it; otherwise, why would we bother doing it? We would just go on to other things.
I'm looking for two things, if you will. One is an acknowledgement that the government was wrong. An apology would be nice and not that difficult, because it really was so wrong and disrespectful. Second, I'd like a further undertaking that there will be more dialogue so that we can actually do work that does help inform your decisions in a timely way.
Thank you, Chair.
Minister, like you, I'm new here today at this committee, but I'm certainly not new to the House. As Mr. Christopherson pointed out and Mr. Graham alluded to, I was here during the unfair/fair elections act, whatever the name it goes by these days.
Section 3 of the charter says, “Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election...”. It's quite clear. Witness testimony at that time a few years ago, time after time, witness after witness, not just here in Canada, but also in Europe, pointed to what the former bill was trying to do, which was to limit that right to vote.
An analysis of section 3 of the charter says “There is an onus on the government to prevent unreasonable administrative [barriers] to the exercise of [our] democratic rights”. It's our responsibility to make sure that these barriers do not exist. The thrust of that last piece of legislation was to put up barriers to those they felt they wanted to disenfranchise.
In my limited time, could I get your comment on this, and how, as minister, I hope you would not be in favour of putting up any more administrative barriers, and to enfranchise the most vulnerable in society to exercise their democratic right in section 3?
The Chair: You have 20 seconds for the answer.
Mr. Scott Simms: Sorry.