Welcome to the 91st meeting of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. The first part of this meeting is being held in public today. Pursuant to Standing Order 81(6), we are studying the interim estimates for 2018-19: vote 1 under the House of Commons, vote 1 under Parliamentary Protective Service, and vote 1 under the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer.
Members will recall that in June 2017 the House made a number of provisional changes to Standing Order 81. As it currently stands, these changes will be in effect for the duration of the 42nd Parliament. Of note for the purposes of today's meeting is that “interim supply” was replaced by “interim estimates”. They're treated in the same manner as other sets of estimates, including being referred to and studied by committees.
For this reason, we will be pleased to have with us shortly the Honourable Geoff Regan, Speaker of the House of Commons, joined by Charles Robert, Clerk of the House of Commons; Michel Patrice, deputy clerk of administration; and Daniel Paquette, chief financial officer. Accompanying the Speaker from the Parliamentary Protective Service are Chief Superintendent Jane MacLatchy, director, and Robert Graham, administration and personnel officer.
I just want to quickly do one piece of business before we go on. The subcommittee had a couple of witnesses who we have to have a budget to pay for. The subcommittee approved a budget of $2,750. We just have to reaffirm that approval.
Some hon. members: Agreed.
The Chair: Good.
While we're waiting for the Speaker, I'll just remind you that on Thursday we will go over the report, which you've all received, on the debates commissioner. Then on the first day back after the two constituency weeks we will be looking at the use of indigenous languages, as scheduled. Tentatively in the first hour we would have Charles Robert, Clerk of the House, and senior officials from the House of Commons, and in the second hour we would have the first of the three MPs we've invited, Romeo Saganash. We will have a translator for him into East Cree. Then in the second hour on Thursday of that week tentatively we would have Georgina Jolibois, member of Parliament, for the first 45 minutes, and in the second 45 minutes we would have Robert-Falcon Ouellette, member of Parliament. In the last half hour we would have Bill with Brenda Shanahan and clause by clause on that, which is just changing the name of the riding, as you all know.
Are there any comments on that schedule?
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair and committee members.
Thank you for welcoming us here today. I am pleased to appear before you to present the 2018-19 interim estimates and address the funding required to maintain and enhance the administration's support to members of Parliament and to the institution.
I am joined today by the executive management team from the House administration: Charles Robert, clerk of the House of Commons, Michel Patrice, deputy clerk of Administration, and Daniel Paquette, chief financial officer.
I will also be presenting the interim estimates for the PPS, and so I am accompanied by Chief Superintendent Jane MacLatchy, director of PPS, and Robert Graham, the service’s administration and personnel officer.
As a result of an amendment to the Standing Orders, the interim estimates must now be tabled. This will provide Parliament with the information it needs to align the federal budget and the estimates.
The 2018–19 interim estimates include an overview of spending requirements for the first three months of the fiscal year, with a comparison to the 2017–18 estimates, as well as the proposed schedules to the first appropriation bill.
The House of Commons’ interim estimates, as tabled in the House, total approximately $87 million.
Further to the tabling of the main estimates in the House, I anticipate that we will meet again in the spring, at which time I will provide an overview of the year-over-year changes, as has been the practice in previous years.
Today, I'll cover the main themes of the House’s requests for funding and priorities. The operating budget for the House covers members’ and House officers’ budgets and expenditures, committees, House participation in parliamentary diplomacy, and funding for the House administration.
The House administration's first priority is to support members in their work as parliamentarians, focusing on service-delivery excellence and ongoing modernization.
Key initiatives include the digital strategy on modernizing the delivery of parliamentary information and the implementation of the new constituency connectivity service for constituency offices, new householder formats in support of members' communications with their constituents, and optimized food services in the Parliamentary Precinct.
The renewal of our physical spaces and services provided within them is another key priority for the House administration. Public Services and Procurement Canada, the House of Commons, the team of builders and architects and senior officials are overseeing a number of large-scale projects, most notably the reopening of the restored West Block and the closure of Centre Block.
Upon the completion of the restoration of West Block, there will be massive planning required to move critical activities and accommodations from Centre Block to West Block while ensuring that Parliament continues to function seamlessly.
The operation, support, maintenance, and life-cycle management of equipment and connectivity elements in buildings are closely linked to the long-term vision and plan. Those key elements are essential to the implementation of a mobile work environment for members and the administration. The expected outcome is that heritage buildings are protected but refurbished with modernized technological infrastructure, a bit like this one has been.
The House of Commons and its security partners continue to collaborate on an enhanced emergency management and security approach. The institution's collective vision is the result of ongoing security awareness and education efforts.
The various groups responsible for security on the Hill and in satellite offices work together to prevent, respond to and manage disruptive events. They also build communication and awareness with all stakeholders around new physical and IT security approaches.
In keeping with evolving cybersecurity threats and information technology developments, it is imperative that the House be equipped with a robust cybersecurity infrastructure and a renewed IT security policy.
These are the current House administration priorities in support of members and the institution.
I will now turn to the interim estimates for the PPS. The PPS is requesting access to $20.7 million in these interim estimates, which will cover regular operations and the continuation of the external video surveillance improvement project over the first three months of the fiscal year 2018-19.
Regular operations include employee salaries and operational funding required to maintain our current service levels. The external video surveillance improvement project will introduce technical upgrades to existing infrastructure and ensure better coverage of the parliamentary precinct. Funding for this project was previously set aside in the fiscal framework by the RCMP and was recently allocated to the PPS.
Following the tabling of the 2018–19 main estimates, the PPS will return and explain the changes from the 2017–18 main estimates.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my presentation. My team and I would be happy to answer any questions.
I welcome this opportunity to appear before the committee today to present Election Canada's 2018-19 interim estimates as well as to update members on the status of our preparations for the 2019 general election.
Today, the committee is voting on Election Canada's interim supply, which totals $7.7 million. This represents the salaries of some 350 indeterminate positions for the first quarter of the fiscal year beginning April 1, 2018. It does not include any of the agency's other expenditures, which are funded from a statutory appropriation.
In addition to supporting Parliament in its review of legislative changes, you will recall from my appearance on the Main Estimates last spring that Elections Canada has been pursuing two strategic priorities since the last general election.
Our first priority is to modernize our electoral services through a range of initiatives such as the introduction of electronic poll books to improve the process at the polls, and other projects regarding services to voters and political entities. I will come back to that in a moment.
The second strategic priority relates to the replacement and improvement of key infrastructure assets that are required for the delivery of elections, such as our data centres, IT networks, telecommunications services and the pay system for poll workers.
To be ready for the next general election, we need to have completed our transformation projects by September 2018 in order to begin integrated testing of all IT-enabled projects, which would enable us to reach a state of complete preparation in the spring of 2019. This timeline means that final decisions about the scope of our transformation projects have already been made, or will be, in the next few months. In this regard, I would like to briefly highlight the progress made on key improvement initiatives.
First, I am pleased to report that a company was selected last fall through a rigorous procurement process to provide electronic poll books at the next election. This will allow us to automate a number of record-keeping transactions at the polls. Ballots will continue to be marked and counted by hand.
For the next general election, electronic poll books will be deployed in some 225 electoral districts for advance polls only, which can be done under the current legislation. Deployment of this technology in advance polls will address the most critical challenges experienced in the last general election in terms of wait times in urban and semi-urban districts. The use of electronic poll books at ordinary polls will be considered only after the next general election, if changes are made to the legislation. In rural areas, where the main challenge for voters is the travel distance to the polls, returning officers will be provided with new IT tools to inform the creation of polling divisions and improve the proximity of polling places to electors.
We are also working on the first release of an online portal for political entities. Our objective through this service is that parties, candidates and official agents will be able to complete and file various documents online, including nomination papers, if so enabled by legislation change. We have engaged the Advisory Committee of Political Parties throughout the development of this project and, I would add, of all projects involving services to constituents or political entities.
Other key projects related to voting services include the expansion of voting on campus opportunities from 40 post-secondary institutions to some 110, close to triple the number. This matter had interested committee members last spring. This summer, returning officers will be reaching out to university and college administrations to make the necessary arrangements. In spring 2018, returning officers will also begin working with remote Indigenous communities to improve registration and voting services.
We have also made significant progress in renewing infrastructure systems and services.
In December, the agency selected a new data-hosting service provider to support many of the systems used to deliver electoral services, as the current contract expires later this calendar year. A schedule is being finalized to ensure a seamless transition to the new Canadian hosting site.
As well, by the end of summer 2018, the agency will have finalized the development of a new system and processes for its various contact centres, in order to provide Canadians, election workers, and political entities with more timely and relevant information.
This spring, we will also complete the procurement of field telecommunications services for local offices and will have updated a key component of the system to pay poll workers.
Finally, the agency is making progress in renewing the system used by political entities to file financial returns electronically, in order to provide additional capabilities and make it more convenient to users.
As the agency enters the final phase of its preparations for the next general election, I see two main challenges ahead.
The first relates to cybersecurity and the broader issue of disinformation. The Communications Security Establishment estimates that multiple groups will very likely deploy cyber-capabilities in an attempt to influence the democratic process during the 2019 federal election. In response, Elections Canada is taking a number of steps to further strengthen its security posture. For example, the security design of our IT network has been improved, and our new data-hosting services will offer a range of additional protections. The agency is also commissioning an independent audit of its security controls, which should be completed this spring.
Upgrading the agency's technological infrastructure to meet the requirements of the new security environment, however, requires considerable investments. The incremental costs required to improve and maintain this infrastructure are funded through our statutory appropriation. These costs will be reflected in the agency's expenditures, beginning this fiscal year.
With respect to the broader issue of disinformation, we are working with the Commissioner of Canada Elections, and our integrity program is keeping abreast of developments. Our main role in this area is ensuring that Canadians have the correct information on where, when, and how to register and vote.
The second challenge for the agency relates to the implementation of legislative changes as we get closer to the general election. At this time, two bills introducing changes to the Canada Elections Act remain before Parliament, and the introduction of further reform, as indicated by the government, is expected. We remain hopeful that it will include several of the important changes this committee has recommended.
Having said that, the window of opportunity to implement major changes in time for the next general election is rapidly closing. We will continue to support parliamentarians as they examine new electoral legislation, and to inform them of the impacts of the changes and the timelines for the implementation. As always, we will keep in mind the imperative of ensuring that processes, systems, and training necessary for the delivery of the election are well tested and ready to be deployed without risk to the election.
In conclusion, Mr. Chair, I am pleased to report that Elections Canada is progressing as planned on its improvements and is now entering the final phase of preparations for the next general election.
Thank you to our witnesses as well.
I have a question regarding cybersecurity, but before I do that, I just want to follow up on the comments from Mr. Graham and Mr. Simms regarding the issue of people having unreasonable driving distances, particularly to advance polls. I did indeed have a problem in the last election with one particular part of my constituency where people who live in a place called Port Elmsley had to drive 45 minutes in each direction, passing a number of other advance polling stations.
First of all, when we raised the issue, Elections Canada was very businesslike about correcting that situation. Second, I think the solution you're proposing is exactly the right one, so thank you for that. Starting by working out driving distances is clearly the logical way of handling it.
With regard to the issue of the problem of finding accessible locations, which ultimately is the issue, my understanding is that Elections Canada is under a court order, effectively, to only allow certain locations. This has the unintended consequence of eliminating a lot of public buildings that are accessible—and I think it's in five different ways—meaning that they become frequently inaccessible to everybody, disabled and fully able together.
The only way to solve that over a court order is legislation. If we think it's enough of a problem, then we'd have to suggest a legislative proposal. We could all understand how that could be cast as being against the rights of disabled people, so you'd have to be very thoughtful about how to do it. There would have to be multipartisan support for anything of that sort. I think that's a good understanding of the situation there.
Finally, there's a question I want to raise about cybersecurity. The issue that concerns me— should concern you is a better way of putting it—is this: during an election, the most effective way of causing disruption would be to cause people to inadvertently give up their right to vote by sending them to the wrong location, by announcing that they should go to this location or that location rather than the real location, that polling times had been changed, or something else like that.
It's a modern version of the old theme where you'd announce that so-and-so had withdrawn his or her candidacy, but it wasn't true. I think it would be given out by people purporting to be Elections Canada. It would be given out retail as opposed to wholesale, making it hard to trace these things. That would be the way that would be logical if you were a foreign power trying to disrupt an election and make it uncertain who had won. I think that's what you should be protecting against. How you do that I have no idea, but that's where the danger lies, frankly.
You raised a number of interesting and important points.
On the first one, I do want to remind the committee that there are recommendations we made regarding the expansion of transfer certificates for people with disabilities. If we have that, in that way we'll introduce some flexibility into the system to provide those with disabilities access to other polling locations.
On the point of sending people to the wrong place or at the wrong time, of course, that is at the heart of our mandate. Our concern there is making sure that Canadians know where to get the right information. One thing I have asked my team to work on for the next election is having a repository available online, on our website, of all of our public communications, our advertisements, and our social media. If somebody sees something that they're not quite sure comes from Elections Canada, they would be able to verify against our website whether, in fact, it is from Elections Canada or not. There would be a public record to check against. That's one administrative measure.
There are provisions that were introduced in 2014 in the act that prohibit and create an offence for impersonation. Of course, unfortunately, that's after the fact, and that's the role of the commissioner to enforce. Administratively, we do have a key role to play in making sure people have access to the right information, and if they're not sure, they can verify there.