Bill C-55 (Historical)
An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act (expanded voting opportunities) and to make a consequential amendment to the Referendum Act
This bill was last introduced in the 39th Parliament, 1st Session, which ended in October 2007.
Peter Van Loan Conservative
Second Reading and Referral to Committee
(This bill did not become law.)
Canada Elections Act
June 1st, 2007 / 10:05 a.m.
André Bellavance Richmond—Arthabaska, QC
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased on this Friday to take part in the debate on Bill C-55. When a bill has to do with exercising our democratic right to vote, it is very important to participate in the debate. Some speakers have already talked about this bill, and I join with my Bloc Québécois colleagues in saying that we support the bill in principle. However, we do have some reservations, because Bill C-55 will not eliminate the problem of low voter turnout for federal elections.
This bill amends the Canada Elections Act and aims essentially to improve voter turnout. Quite simply, Bill C-55 would add two days of advance polling. As I said, in and of itself, this measure is a good thing, because it would give people more opportunities to get to polling stations. But it is not the answer.
Personally, probably like the members of this House, I do not believe there is any one way to help improve voting. Still, Bill C-55 is a bit like sugar pie: you have to like it. It may not be the answer, though. I will have some proposals from the Bloc Québécois to present. They will no doubt be very interesting, and we may be able to play with them and draft possible bills.
The Bloc Québécois supports this bill in principle, because our party has long been concerned about the decline in voter turnout, particularly among young people.
I have some statistics from a time before I was even born. In the early 1960s—shortly before I was born—the voter turnout for federal elections was close to 80%. It is interesting to note that at one time the vast majority of people exercised their right to vote.
We all know about the epic battles that have been fought to enable people to exercise their right to vote. Consider women, who, after quite some time, managed to get the right to vote in Canada and Quebec—even later in Quebec than in Canada. Even today, in other countries, people are forced to fight for the right to vote. And I mean fight physically. Some people have to go to war to bring democracy to their country. I have seen places where armed guards had to supervise polling stations so that people could vote. So we in Canada are pretty lucky to have the right to vote. Our democracy enables people to choose who will represent them at various levels of government. Unfortunately, there are still places in the world where people cannot do that.
There was a time when a great majority of people exercised their right to vote. In my speech, I will refer to some statistics to show that unfortunately, little by little, people have been losing interest. Now, as I was saying, there is no one way to generate interest in the democratic process. There are a lot of solutions that would boost voter turnout to an acceptable level, if not as high as the levels of the 1950s and 1960s.
Typically, in the 1970s and 1980s, voter participation rates were over 70%. Since 1993, which was not that long ago, voter turnout has fallen to less than 70%. In 2004, only 60.9% of eligible voters cast a ballot. That is 20% less than in the 1950s and 1960s.
In the last federal election, participation rates climbed to 65%. Was that mere chance, or was it the result of the work of the Chief Electoral Officer and Elections Canada? I have to say that they did work very hard. I am asking because we do not really know exactly what happened in 2006 that brought out 5% more voters than in 2004. Still, it is good news, and I hope that we are seeing a trend toward higher voter turnout even though for some time now, voter participation has, unfortunately, been dropping.
I am thinking about the United States or France. At one point, only about 50% of people exercised their right to vote. Imagine that 50% of people did not choose their government because they refused to vote. I am reminded of the second-last French election, when in the second round, people found themselves stuck with—I say that because it is my personal opinion, but also that of many French people—Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far right Front National, who made it to the second round.
We can imagine how worried some people were at the idea of such a person leading a country as powerful as France.
I am also thinking of the United States. When George Bush was elected, voter turnout was only about 50%. A lot of Americans say that this is not who they wanted to be president. If these people did not vote, it is harder to then criticize and say that the person representing them is a problem, since they did not make an effort to exercise their right to vote.
Perhaps people should make more of an effort. But the politicians must also make it easier, so that they can go and vote. Sometimes it is the opposite. There are places or times where it is made more difficult for some types of people. I will have the time to explain this during my speech.
As I was saying, we must recognize that for a few years, the Chief Electoral Officer and Elections Canada have been trying to make it easier for voters. For example, it is very interesting that it is now possible to vote every day during federal elections, which many voters still do not know.
From the moment we could do so, our organization—I am referring not only to the Bloc Québécois, but also to my riding of Richmond—Arthabaska—has always made an effort to get the word out about this flexible system, which definitely allows more people to exercise their right to vote. Not everyone works 9 to 5 these days. There are all kinds of work schedules, including weekends, evenings, nights. My brother, for example, has been working nights for years. Certain jobs require workers to ply their trade through the night.
It is not always easy to find time in one's schedule, even though it only takes a few minutes to go out to vote. I think more people need to be made aware of the possibility of voting throughout an entire federal election campaign. People need to know that if they must be away and cannot exercise their right to vote on election day or at advance polls, they can vote at any time. There is now even a system in place that allows people to vote by mail. I know some people who had to leave the country and had the opportunity to vote by mail.
Perhaps one day we will even be able to vote by Internet. We must be careful, however, not to open the door to certain kinds of fraud. I know for a fact that people can now vote by mail, even if they cannot be here for the entire election campaign. To do so, they need only be Canadian citizens and indicate their intention to exercise the right to vote. This is another way that people can vote and exercise this democratic right.
In addition, we are trying to improve access to polling stations for the elderly and those persons with physical limitations. Earlier, I mentioned that we sometimes put up obstacles. That is not done in bad faith, of course. There are some individuals who would definitely like to be able to vote but cannot do so even with mobile polling stations, even with advance polls, and even if political parties often organize transportation for these individuals. From time to time, there are exceptions. Unfortunately, some voters have to travel a few kilometres to vote, and that is just not manageable for them. They have certain limitations and there is no mobile polling station that goes to where these individuals live. Some improvements could probably still be made in this area. I do not think that we are pushing the idea that everyone should have clerks and secretaries come to their homes so they can vote and place their ballots in the box. However, some improvements could most definitely be made. We are also trying to make it easier for youth, especially students, to vote.
I stood for election the first time in 2000. That was not so long ago—just seven years ago. At the time, it was extremely difficult for some students who wanted to vote to cast a ballot. That was fairly recently, as I mentioned. When an election is held during the school year, students can vote in their host riding. However, they are usually on the voters list in the riding where their principal residence is located, which is often their parents' residence. A person cannot vote in two different places; you must choose where you wish to vote based on where you are at the time of the election. It is possible to vote according to the address of the parental home which, when you are a student, is usually your main residence. When in the middle of a school term, it is also possible to vote where you are studying.
In our area, we have the CEGEP of Victoriaville. It makes a lot of sense that students come there from other towns or even other areas. We also have a unique furniture and woodworking school in Victoriaville, where people from other parts of Canada come to study. These people have to be able to exercise their right to vote. It is very complicated. A system was established in 2000, which was described by many as bungled, whereby students would show up to vote, but they were not at the right polling station and had not received their voters cards, so they would be told that they were not registered.
Accommodations can always be made, but people end up getting frustrated and turning back without voting—that is what these files are all about—and various solutions are sought. As I said, in 2000, many students experienced difficulties. We have to look at that very carefully, since it is tougher to ensure adequate turnout among young voters.
It would be a very good idea to have polling stations in educational institutions, as we do in retirement homes and other places such as hospitals, where mobile polling stations can be set up. Taking that approach would certainly solve the problem at the CEGEP of Victoriaville, which I described a moment ago. I have had discussions with officials at Elections Canada who are considering doing just that. That would be great news.
Young voter turnout is a concern: the turnout rate for eligible voters under 24 is half that of those 58 and over. A series of statistics show that much work does indeed need to be done with young voters to improve turnout. Among the 21-24 year olds—it is in fact 21½ to 24—the turnout for federal elections is a mere 35%. Among the 25-29, it goes up to 46%. Among the 30-37, it is 49%. Then, it jumps to 58% for the 38-47, which is incidentally my age group. It reaches 67% among the 48-57.
The age group with a rather high turnout is that of the 58 to 67 year olds, with 75% of them voting in federal elections. As I said earlier, some people among those aged 68 or more have more limitations, making it harder for them to vote, and this results in a somewhat lower percentage for that group. However, older people have developed this habit of voting because it is important and no one can ever deprive them of that right. I am pleased to see these people react in this fashion. Among those aged 68 or more, the turnout in federal elections is still an impressive 71%.
However, contrary to what we may think, it is not that young people are not politicized. We have to be careful and realize that it is not all young people who do not care about politics. It is not true that they do not want to hear anything and that they do not understand. That is not how I see things. They may be cynical and disenchanted about politics in general, or politicians in particular, but their concerns have everything to do with politics. One simply has to visit a CEGEP or an organization with young people and talk to them to realize that they know very well what is going on, not only at the national level, but also on the international scene. I am thinking about young people's concerns regarding the environment, globalization and social justice. These are issues in which young people are not only interested but also involved.
Again, one simply has to visit a CEGEP. Earlier, I referred to the Victoriaville CEGEP, which I attended. I go back there regularly for various meetings, and I see how young people are aware of the world that surrounds them and of the challenges that it poses.
Today, a lot more young people are involved in numerous causes, including, for example, international aid and the protection of forests and waterways. All kinds of organizations have been created in our region to protect the environment. In the Bois-Francs region, recycling and salvaging have long been taken to heart. Consequently, many young people are aware of this cause, and I am very proud of that.
Being interested in politics does not necessarily lead youth to exercise their right to vote. Why not? Some people will say that it does not change anything. One can protest all one wants, get out to vote or do all kinds of things, in the long run, it does not change anything, because it is more of the same old, same old: politicians make promises that they cannot keep once they are elected. Examples come from the top down, and this is perhaps where work has to be done, by the government and the other parties.
In fact, to reach youth, not only does one have to speak their language, but one must also address and consider their concerns. It is also necessary to speak the truth and avoid saying just about anything only to get a vote. Indeed, one should not promise all kinds of things without keeping one's promises, although, unfortunately, this is still the case, even today.
Let us remember all these recent political scandals. Let us consider the sponsorship scandal. Young people and their elders are still telling us about it. In face of such results, they wonder why they should vote or bother to trust people who created all kinds of schemes to get money or votes. The effect of such wrongdoing is that the reputation of all politicians is tarnished because some individuals decided to use a program for thoroughly partisan purposes.
There is also the sense that politicians are in ivory towers making grand speeches. I am making one today. We have great ideas, but what really happens at the end of the day? I think I can generalize because it is not just young people who get this feeling. For those people, what can a government really do to directly solve their problems? Of course when we receive people in our offices, we as members know that we manage to help a number of them. We do not help them all. In many cases, we manage to get a resource directly from the government that we are affiliated with, the federal government, in order to help people. And often—and this is what I ask of my employees—my staff manages to direct people to the right place where they can get help in resolving their problems. For these people, not only is visiting a member's office interesting, but it allows them to resolve many problems.
What is the Conservative government doing now when it comes to the Kyoto protocol and summer jobs? There was an uprising over summer jobs. I call this an uprising because there was outrage, especially in Quebec, when the former summer career placements program became Canada summer jobs. All of this makes people increasingly cynical.
Nonetheless, I hope this will encourage people to go out and vote instead of saying it is not worth it. In my opinion, if something like the Kyoto protocol matters to someone, then it is very important that they exercise their right to vote to express their opinion. As everyone knows, the Kyoto protocol matters to the vast majority of Quebeckers.
Bill C-55 will not solve all the voter turnout problems. We could talk about this for a long time to come.
It is a step forward. It provides another opportunity for people to exercise their right to vote. However, we have to come up with other solutions. For example, the government could keep its election promises on the fiscal imbalance. Then people would say progress is being made, that something is happening, that politics yield results and that their vote matters, it counts and it is significant.
The House resumed from May 31 consideration of the motion that Bill C-55, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act (expanded voting opportunities) and to make a consequential amendment to the Referendum Act, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mario Laframboise Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, QC
Indeed, it does take a lot of text. My colleague from Sherbrooke is right, there are 14 pages to add two more days. The summary reads as follows:
This enactment amends the Canada Elections Act to increase the number of days of advance polling from three to five, and to increase the number of advance polling stations open on the last day of advance polling. It also makes a consequential amendment to the Referendum Act.
So, we have understood the purpose of this bill. I will begin by saying that the Bloc Québécois will be in favour of this bill, but there are far too many pages considering the objectives. In relation to the principal objective intended by the Conservative government, though, hon. members will understand there are too few.
First of all, as the chief organizer of the Bloc Québécois, I will attempt to make my comments very constructive. I merely wish to say that, in the 75 Quebec ridings, the Bloc Québécois has a tough political machine, as our opponents are well aware. We are the best organized political party, and the one most aware of all the problems that everyone can run into on election day.
Since 1993, we have been the party, each and every time, that obtains the majority of the Quebec seats here in the House of Commons. We will continue to do so, precisely because we are a formidable organization, with exceptionally generous workers and supporters in the 75 ridings of Quebec. Some of those ridings cover a huge area. I would like this aspect to have particular attention paid to it.
It is true that it does seem worthwhile to have two more days, and to have an advance poll in each polling station on the Sunday preceding the Monday election day. Yes, at first glance, it seems worthwhile, and that is why we will be in favour of the bill and will attempt to make improvements to it.
I say it seems worthwhile, because the government's objective is to increase turnout. I believe—or at least I hope—that on this point all the parliamentarians in this House will have the full support of all the men and women of the Bloc Québécois deputation.
Our objective is precisely to ensure that as many persons as possible of voting age who are entitled to vote may make use of the only way we can pass judgment on the way democracy is being exercised in Canada or in Quebec: our right to vote.
The message today will be a constructive one. Obviously, the interests of the Bloc Québécois and of Quebeckers are at stake. Our objective is, therefore, a simple one. Yes, it is a good thing to have two more days, including the Sunday prior to election day, when advance polls will be held in each polling station to be used on election day. This is a positive step.
However, on the other days of advance polling, including the weekend before the election, we would like to see a larger number of advance polling stations. That weekend has traditionally been the advance polling weekend. This is ingrained in people's minds. They know that the weekend before an election—not the Saturday and Sunday that immediately precede the Monday of the election but, rather, the previous weekend, that is the eighth and ninth days before the election—is advance polling weekend.
So, we must be able to increase the number of advance polling stations and the number of polling stations. Indeed, if we want to try to increase voter turnout, we must not merely say that there are advance polling stations, we must not merely tell people that they have the option of voting eight or nine days—that is either the Saturday or the Sunday—before election day, because they may not be available that weekend.
The quality of the voting services must also be similar to the ones that we have on election day. This is what is lacking here. Indeed, during the four days allocated for the advance polling process—because we are adding two days—the number of polling stations will be limited.
Advance polling stations are often few and far between. For example, in my riding of Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, the advance polling station is located in Thurso. This means that the citizens of the eight municipalities surrounding the town of Thurso must sometimes travel over 70 or 80 kilometres to vote in advance. This does not make any sense in 2007, because people have to travel by car, which is a major drawback. Moreover, when an advance polling station is centralized, this means longer waits, because a larger number of voters use it.
Having to drive 80 kilometres and then wait for two hours to vote in advance is in and of itself a deterrent that sometimes seems deliberate. This has happened too often in the past, and I am tempted to say that it may not have been by accident. We can blame returning officers for not setting up enough advance polling stations, but the fact remains that it is the government that gives them their budgets.
Bill C-55 could have included a provision for more polling stations. Adding another polling day the Sunday before voting day in each polling station is a step forward. However, they could have increased the number of polling stations and polling divisions for the other four days of advance polling. The Bloc Québécois is seeking fairness so that all citizens, regardless of where they live in Quebec—and we are working for the rest of Canada too—can have the same opportunity to vote in advance at polling stations.
I want to highlight that because some of the numbers are worrisome. Since the 1980s, voter participation in federal elections has plummeted by 10%. Dropping from 75% to 63% or 64% is serious. That means that in 10 years, 10% of the population lost interest in politics. What is even more worrisome is the fact that people under 24 have the lowest participation rate.
We have to be able to tell our young citizens, the young men and women who are the future of our society, that we are giving them every possible opportunity to exercise their right to vote for the first time. This is important for all kinds of reasons: they go to university, they work and they have a lot of responsibilities. That is why we have to increase the number of voting days, but we also have to give them the opportunity to vote close to home because young people often do not have cars and have to find other ways to get around.
Students go to universities in major urban centres that have public transit. When they go back to the regions—regions like mine—there is no public transit, so they cannot get around. Giving them more opportunities to exercise their right to vote is one way to encourage them to vote. Once again, Bill C-55 does not touch on this, which is unfortunate because this would have been the perfect time to do something about it if the government had wanted to. The Bloc Québécois will certainly propose amendments when the bill goes to committee, amendments that will increase participation overall and especially among young people.
It is not enough to increase the number of polling days; you must also have a message to deliver. Increasing the number of polling stations or divisions or advance polling days will not necessarily guarantee an increase in voter turnout.
The best proof of this was the last election in Quebec, where there was a change in advance polling. In Quebec, prior to March 2007, you had to have a reason to vote in advance. You had to say why you could not vote on election day. That was changed and advance voting increased. However, in terms of overall voter turnout—the total number of ballots cast on election day and in advance polls—only increased by a few one hundredths of a per cent.
Once again, why do citizens not exercise their right to vote? This is due to the cynicism spawned by many situations. We saw an example this week in the House. Justice Grenier led an inquiry into the 1995 referendum expenses. $539,000 was spent illegally. That was the general conclusion of Justice Grenier's report.
Another conclusion is that one whole part of the investigation could not take place, because it had to do with federal government spending, which was beyond Judge Grenier's mandate. Everyone understands this. The press understands. The Bloc Québécois, a great defender of the interests and values of Quebeckers, is simply asking the government to investigate everything that was not covered by Judge Grenier. None of the parties, not the Conservatives, not the Liberals, not the New Democrats, no one except the Bloc Québécois asked for this investigation.
And then we wonder why citizens do not participate in elections. There was a denial of democracy. I am not talking about charges or anything. But as soon as we find that funds were spent illegally based on a law in a province, a big red light should come on here in Ottawa, especially when they participated in the event. But no, there is no red light here in Ottawa. They do not want an investigation. They do not want to know. They spent money illegally, but think what you will, it was for the cause, for Canadian unity or for anything else.
We should not encounter such situations in a democracy. Citizens should be able to make their own choices. Quite simply, the federal government denied citizens that opportunity in 1995. It did not allow the people of Quebec to make their choice freely. It bought ads, it spent money illegally on public opinion polls and other things. It tried to influence the vote and have its point of view adopted by not respecting Quebec's Referendum Act.
Regardless of whether I am a sovereignist or not, some things should not be acceptable in a democracy. A government cannot use money to try to influence democracy for any reason. Again, these are the situations that make people disengage. Maybe the Liberals, the Conservatives and the NDP want fewer people to vote. Maybe to them, the fewer the people who vote, the fewer they have to please and they can go on governing without having to satisfy the majority. That is what will happen. The way things are going, fewer people will vote in federal elections. This type of thing should never happen.
It is not true that this cynicism is disappearing because the Conservatives are in power. I would like to give a few examples and read a text, because it is worth mentioning. Please understand that these are not the sort of things that one would say without having verified the facts. Thus, the Conservative Party, contrary to what some people may think, is not the party of ethics and transparency. In a few months, the Conservative Party has accumulated a track record that attests to a lack of political will to respect the rules in place and to put an end to the culture of entitlement. As we all know, the current Prime Minister was the one who went on and on about the Liberals and their culture of entitlement during the election campaign.
This government appointed certain individuals to cabinet, and not just any individuals—talk about a culture of entitlement. It appointed a former lobbyist, now the Minister of National Defence, to the head of the Department of National Defence. As a lobbyist, this minister worked with the largest weapons dealers, including BAE Systems, Raytheon and General Dynamics, for over a decade. And now, this same Minister of National Defence is granting $20 billion in military contracts to the industries for which he recently worked as a lobbyist. That is how the government works today.
Another lobbyist, Sandra Buckler, is now the Prime Minister's director of communications. She worked for Royal LePage and the Harper government decided to maintain the contract with Royal LePage relocation services—
Mario Laframboise Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, QC
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak on Bill C-55, the title of which is An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act (expanded voting opportunities) and to make a consequential amendment to the Referendum Act.
This bill comprises 14 pages, so I will settle for reading the summary.
Monique Guay Rivière-du-Nord, QC
Mr. Speaker, I thank my hon. colleague for his question. I might add that it is truly a pleasure to be touring Quebec. We are learning so many things, because people have much to say and, as I indicated, they have a lot of good ideas to suggest.
Advance polling poses a problem in terms of the limited number of sites. There is not a variety of sites like on election day. That poses a serious problem. Take a municipality like Saint-Colomban, which covers a huge area. There is only one place where people can vote. This makes it very difficult to vote in advance, especially for people who do not have cars. It might be a better idea to add advance polling sites instead of adding voting days. There is a serious problem due to the fact there is only one voting site, and this site can be located anywhere. As I said earlier, people cannot vote in schools, hence the need to try to find other sites or some small place where voting can take place.
With regard to advance polling, there would have to be provision for additional staff. Very few people work at advance polls. Those who truly wish to vote early are forced to wait a very long time in order to cast their ballot. Perhaps we should concentrate on the following points to increase voter turnout: have more polling stations and hire more staff. At the office of the chief electoral officer, people had to wait two hours to vote. That does not make sense. In Saint-Hyppolite, the polling station was a very small, unheated chapel. Voters waited outside and could not use the church pews. It is not pleasant to have to wait half an hour in -30 oC; some people did not go to vote. We need to take another look at that.
Bill C-55 is an opportunity to make some changes that would be much more worthwhile and enduring. This would be a greater incentive for our voters to go to the polls than just adding two extra days for voting. Adding two additional voting days is not the only solution. We could do that but I believe that other improvements are needed. There will definitely be some constructive suggestions to be made with regard to Bill C-55 when it goes to committee. In addition, witnesses such as the chief electoral officer of Quebec or of other provinces may have suggestions. We shall see. In any event, I believe we should improve the bill in order to reach out to as many voters as possible.
Canada Elections Act
May 31st, 2007 / 4:10 p.m.
Monique Guay Rivière-du-Nord, QC
Mr. Speaker, I would also like to commend my colleague on his speech. Since he is from Montreal, his situation is different than mine. My constituency is on the north shore in the Montreal area.
I have five municipalities to cover, including a regional capital, and the realities are truly different from one municipality to another. It is much easier to cover a regional capital than the small surrounding municipalities, because sometimes there are great distances to travel from one end of the municipality to the other. We therefore need more polling stations for people to get to.
The problem we often encounter is the absence of public transit, which is not an issue in Montreal. In our regions—except for the regional capital of Saint-Jérôme—there is no public transit to allow young people to travel to vote, if they want. It is extremely difficult to get a high voter turnout depending on where the polling station is located. This entire matter should be reviewed.
Reference was made to low voter turnout among our youth. Should we not consider having polling stations in CEGEPs, and allowing voting on more than one day? Should we not consider having polling stations in universities, where students could register? Students often come from other cities. If the fixed election date is in the fall, they are in school then. They do not necessarily go back home over the weekend, because they have homework to do. Also, if they got to register right at the university, that might act as an incentive to vote. The very low voter turnout among high school, college and university students is definitely a concern.
I have nothing against two additional voting days, but I do not think that will boost voter turnout. We know that, at the federal level, from the moment that a candidate's nomination paper has been filed with and approved by the Chief Electoral Officer, one may already vote at any time at the office of the Chief Electoral Officer. The name of the candidate may even be written by hand, if the ballots are not ready. It has been done, and it has been a common occurrence where I come from.
However, there is a single office of the Chief Electoral Officer and it is normally located downtown in the regional capital. People from outside that area are not likely to be able to easily get there to vote.
We also know that one can vote by mail. There are various ways one can vote. Many mechanisms are already in place at the federal level to allow people to vote.
Someone mentioned ID card and the voter cards earlier. There have been discussions for quite some time about the idea of a voter card for everyone. Voters would only have to show that card, instead of having to produce two pieces of identification.
I will give an example. I have an 18-year-old son who voted for the first time in my last election. However, he still does not have all the cards that we have, as adults. He still does not have a driver's licence, he has only his health insurance card. I had to identify him because I was asked to. He was asked for two cards at the polling station.
So this is a problem for young people. It is also a problem for some people who live below the poverty line and who may not have all these cards and all these tools to be able to go and vote. They will not take the trouble to go, either, because they will tell themselves that they would not be able to vote in any event.
When the bill is sent to committee, we may have to consider this possibility and examine it properly to be sure that we include it in Bill C-55 and improve the bill.
This bill is of some value, but it is very slight. It talks about adding only two days. There is not a lot in Bill C-55 that would prompt us to vote for it with any great enthusiasm because it is changing a lot of things.
On the contrary, it is not changing much. We said that we would vote for this bill at second reading to be able to study it further and in greater depth in committee. I hope that some ideas will come out of that committee for improving the bill.
There is also the whole question of the lack of interest in politics, as several of my colleagues have said. When it comes to federal politics, fewer people are voting. People have lost interest. Since 1993, I have taken part in five election campaigns. I have to say that I have been disappointed several times. There was even one time when the turnout fell to 52%, and that was disturbing because the percentage of people voting should be higher than 52%. This means that there is a lack of interest in politics, in representation in Parliament and in political parties. There is also a lack of interest in ideologies. This is disturbing. We have to find a way of restoring our fellow citizens' interest in voting.
The last campaign we had lasted almost 59 days. In the middle of that campaign we had Christmas and New Year. That made no sense. In my riding, during the holiday period, people had things planned for Christmas and New Year's Day. They had family and other people coming to visit. Of course people talk politics over Christmas, whether as a family or in other groups, but I have to say, sincerely, that the volunteers and people working on the ground needed a bit of time off to be able to celebrate with their families.
In my riding, we decided to take a break for those two periods. It made no sense to force volunteers to work on Christmas Day or New Year's Day. They are volunteers, they give their time, energy and enthusiasm to our election campaigns. We have to take all that into account too.
I am very happy with Bill C-16, which will give us fixed election dates so long as the government is not defeated because it is a minority government. Fixed election dates are a necessary and much less partisan approach. People might listen a bit more to what we have to say. People might have more confidence in us if the government cannot take advantage of being ahead in the polls to call an election and hand out goodies. We know how that works. As I said, I have been through five election campaigns.
I think that there will be some basic changes in this bill. I can well understand what my colleague from Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel goes through. He has a huge riding. Mine is a little smaller, but I still have to deal with five large municipalities. If we want to make services available and heighten people’s awareness, we have to provide them with more places to go and vote. I know that my colleague has to deal, just as I do, with a lack of public transit. People must have a car. But not everybody has one. Poor people do not have the means. Not all young people have access to one. For my part, I went to get my son so that he could go to an advance poll in the last election in Quebec. If I had not done that, he probably would not have gone to vote. It is very important, therefore, to raise the awareness of our youth and do so while they are still very young and in secondary school. They should be told what politics is all about. I am not saying they should be able to vote at a younger age, but they should be informed in school.
I have toured around some schools. I have been invited to speak about politics and tell young people what a day in Parliament is like and what an MP is. They do not really have any idea. It should be part of what we do and our responsibilities as MPs to go and talk to young people in secondary school—I do not mean grade 7 but students who are 14 or 15 years old—so that they can ask questions, get informed and understand. They should also be invited to come here and see what happens. A lot of schools send students. They visit Parliament and see question period. That is not always so great, however, because they see us get very excited. It is not necessarily a good example, but I believe that we can connect with our young people.
I was also invited to visit a political science class in a CEGEP to answer questions from the students and to tell them about the work of an MP, in their riding and also in Ottawa. So, it is important to discuss these matters and to find a way to connect with them.
There are also people who cannot get out and who must vote at home because they have a serious disability. My returning officer personally went to a house to allow someone to vote in her own home. That was a fine deed. People may vote as they please, but everyone has an absolute right to vote and I believe we have to maintain that.
However, I do not believe that simply adding two days, as the bill proposes, will be enough. A great many other changes are needed. There are things missing from this bill. We must also avoid scandals and observe the electoral laws. Spending limits must be enforced and there must not be any slush funds. That is extremely important. Our transparency must be crystal clear. That is, perhaps, what will lead people to take a greater interest in politics. They will then say that their politicians are much more honest than they thought. They will look at us in a new way. I believe that is how we should engage in politics. I have always practised politics in an honest manner and I believe it pays dividends.
There is a great deal of work to be done with the media in terms of awareness. Returning officers already do that work. However, on the media side—television, radio, etc.—even more information is needed, perhaps targeted at young people and specific age groups, with very precise messages to seize their attention and give them a desire to vote. In addition, there is all the work that we do. When people hear about things like the sponsorship scandal, that does not help us, and it leaves people disgusted with politics and politicians. We all felt that in the last election campaign. That kind of thing should never happen again. I hope it will not happen again and that, in future, the rules will be tightened up to avoid things like Option Canada and the endless list of scandals.
Scandal after scandal, people are disillusioned and fed up with politics. They say that politics are not necessary and, in any case, politicians are all the same. It is a bit disappointing to hear people say that. There is not much use trying to explain because that is often the answer we get. I think that politics have to be made more accessible insofar as what we do is concerned. We are making progress. We are doing it by means of the householders we send out to inform our people four times a year. What we do here has to be made known, though, in a much more general way so that people really understand. If I am talking with someone about Bill C-55, he has to be able to understand exactly what that is.
Not everyone is highly politicized, of course, but I think that we can connect with people more and get through to them.
I am looking forward to this bill going back to committee because I think it can be improved. All the parties in the House surely have important suggestions to make. We can make them in a harmonious atmosphere because they are intended to make it easier for our fellow citizens to go and vote.
What I have seen in some places did not make sense. Polling stations were chosen in inaccessible places, sometimes even churches or little chapels when it was bitterly cold outside. People could not even get inside to wait. They had to stay outside in the middle of the winter in a snowstorm or in temperatures of 30o C below zero. That is unacceptable. We need to review all that. We have to make sure places are found. I know that people cannot vote in schools in federal elections, but in Quebec they do. It is much easier that way. As a result, locations have to be found all over the place and sometimes they are very inaccessible. This is something that we really should review for Canadians. One result of all this is that people get angry. They go back home and say they will not vote because it does not make sense to be forced to wait outside for half an hour when it is 30o C below zero.
Then there is the whole issue of homeless people, to which my colleague referred earlier. It is important that these people also be allowed to vote. A voter's card would be the best means to allow them to vote in an election. We must reach out to these people, and we must also find an effective way to do so. They must have a say in the election of their government, which is going to develop policies that may save them, or help them move away from homelessness. There are associations that look after these people, but we must do more to encourage them to vote.
In conclusion, I personally think that Bill C-55 does not do much. I hope the government will be open to constructive amendments that will truly increase the chances of seeing these people vote in large numbers. We must fare better than we currently do in this regard. Indeed, it is rather disappointing to see that only 52% of the population voted. Even when we win, it is disappointing to see that people are turning away from politics.
So, as I said, I hope we can improve this bill by using everyone's input, and by using our experience both in Parliament and in the community, because we also work in the community.
I am currently working as the assistant to our new election campaign director. We talk to people and we hear what they think. They have good ideas. We must follow up on these ideas with concrete measures. Of course, we should not expect miracles. We will not achieve a 100% voter turnout. However, the more the voter turnout increases, the better we can do our work as representatives of the public, as elected people, as members of all the various parties and, in my case, as member of the Bloc Québécois.
The House resumed consideration of the motion that Bill C-55, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act (expanded voting opportunities) and to make a consequential amendment to the Referendum Act, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Canada Elections Act
May 31st, 2007 / 3:55 p.m.
Réal Ménard Hochelaga, QC
Mr. Speaker, I ask that my colleague stay calm, listen to my speech and allow me to speak. I am talking about a democratic referendum. That is what we are talking about: democracy. I ask that my colleague show some respect and stay calm. His intolerance explains why the NDP does not have a foothold in Quebec.
I was saying that democracy is very important and that Quebec has its Referendum Act. This legislation was put into use in 1980 and in 1995. To our colleagues in the NDP, I would say that the Bloc Québécois is not convinced that the bill, as presented, will encourage voter participation. We do not think it is enough to increase the number of days of advance polling. It is political cynicism that is keeping people away from the polls. In this context of social disengagement, we have to do a little more than just increase the period set aside for advance polling.
I will give a few examples. Some positive measures were taken during the second-last election. In every one of our ridings, the Chief Electoral Officer hired people who canvassed youth. These people had to convince youth to add their name to the voters list. Young people tend to vote less than others. Not only would we have liked incentives like that to be included in the bill, but we think other measures could have been taken in Bill C-55 that would be more likely to promote voter participation. For example, would it not have been wiser to ask for more polling stations?
Earlier, the hon. member for Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel made an important point. In his riding, urban centres are quite spread out. Would it not be better to add more polling stations than increase the period designated for advance polling?
The Bloc Québécois is also concerned about the many errors in the register of electors. Quebec has already held a debate on mandatory voter cards. At the federal level, for some elections, it was even possible to register on voting day with two pieces of identification. All this encourages voter turnout. Obviously, there must be guarantees with respect to the potential for fraud. It is very important to question the integrity of the register of electors.
There must be a debate within society. We must ask ourselves why fewer citizens are casting their vote. Is it because they do not trust the leaders? Is it because it is not easy for them? Perhaps election day should be a statutory holiday. That way, people would have more time to vote. Is it because we should have fixed election dates? These are questions that come to mind. The Prime Minister has some very firm ideas about this. Personally, I tend to think that fixed election dates are an advantage. As a matter of fact, the Bloc Québécois, in its wisdom, supports the bill that would set fixed election dates. They would be an advantage, because they would shield us from partisan vagaries.
Twice, the Liberals called elections, called Canadians and Quebeckers to the ballot boxes, before the four-year term was up. In Jean Chrétien's case, it was three years.
He did it because he thought his party would win, because it was easier for his party.
This bill was drafted in response to concerns about voter participation. It would be better to bring in fixed election dates. It seems to me that in Canada—perhaps my colleagues can help me out here—there are already two provinces that have fixed election dates: Ontario and British Columbia, if I am not mistaken. There is no reason for the federal government not to have fixed election dates. I am trying to come up with relevant ways to improve voter turnout.
One day, I sat in for my party whip on a committee. I had the pleasure of speaking with the former Chief Electoral Officer, Mr. Kingsley. I went to a meeting of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to meet with him, and I asked him about the connection between poverty and voter turnout. It is clear that in Hochelaga, where I am from, voter participation is lower than the national average. The national average is 65%, but voter turnout in Hochelaga is only 55%. We have to consider the possibility that there is a correlation between the poverty index and voter turnout. I think there is. When people have trouble meeting their basic needs—food, clothing and shelter—they are much less likely to care about getting involved in our public institutions.
In the end, what does it mean to vote? To vote is to assert one's citizenship. This is why some people believe that, until Quebec achieves sovereignty, we cannot truly have Quebec citizenship. I must admit, I am pretty close to sharing that point of view. This does not mean that people cannot take an interest in the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, participate in the operations of the National Assembly, be familiar with Bill 101, and know the history of Quebec. But, clearly, true citizenship is conferred by the features of sovereignty. This is certainly one more reason to strive for sovereignty.
Indeed, there is a rather tenuous link between social disengagement and participation in democratic institutions, and this should make us reflect on how we can address poverty. I know, for example, that the hon. member for Sherbrooke—and I can never thank him enough—tabled a motion a few years ago to add a provision to the Canadian Human Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on social condition. I was not surprised by his actions. I know how much the hon. member for Sherbrooke cares about such issues. He is an asset to the social democratic wing of the Bloc Québécois, and I would like to thank him once again.
In closing, we are not convinced that we will support the bill, nor are we convinced that it is enough. The bill lacks the measures and the vision needed to really increase voter turnout. We would have liked to see more polling stations and greater incentives, including a better register of electors and the ability to reach out to voters who are more likely to disengage socially.
Canada Elections Act
May 31st, 2007 / 3:55 p.m.
Charlie Angus Timmins—James Bay, ON
Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of order.
We are talking about Bill C-55, not the fact that the PQ lost an election because someone paid more than, what, $1,000, and they lost their nation by $200. That is irrelevant to the discussion. They beat the same old tired drum all the time, and they have ample opportunity to. Could we at least be relevant and talk about this bill and what it means now and not this tired old--
Canada Elections Act
May 31st, 2007 / 3:45 p.m.
Réal Ménard Hochelaga, QC
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to speak to Bill C-55. Before I get to the substance of the bill, I would like to inform the House of the departure of one the Bloc Québécois' colleagues, Catherine Lacroix, whose work is greatly appreciated. I know that all parties have people behind the scenes who help us on a daily basis. Ms. Lacroix, whom I affectionately call Catou, has been with us for many years. She is following her adventurous spirit and plans to travel around Europe. She will leave us at the end of this session. I am not certain if that will be next week or the week after, but I would like to take this opportunity to thank her for her loyal service to the members of the Bloc Québécois, her unfailing good humour and her perennial smile. We know that it is not always easy to work with elected representatives. First of all, by definition, elected representatives tend to be self-confident. While not suggesting that we all have big egos, I think it is fair to say that, in order to make it in politics, one must have self-confidence. I would ask my fellow members in this House to join me in a round of applause for our colleague, Catherine Lacroix, who will be leaving us to take up new challenges. I know there are other people just as dedicated as Ms. Lacroix who work with the Liberals, the NDP and the government.
Democracy is not only a virtue, but a practice that must constantly be questioned. As elected representatives, we have a vested interest in the voting process, particularly whether it should be a proportional system or a uninominal single ballot system, as it is at the federal level and in most provinces. We have a keen interest in electoral motives, polls and, basically, in knowing why people vote the way they do. What makes people vote for one party over another? What makes a certain candidate successful in several election campaigns? What variables contribute to the popularity of candidates?
One might compare urban communities or urban and rural communities, but the most important principle is that of equal opportunity. In a democracy, the primary consideration must not be wealth, gender or age; we must all be equal before the law, whether we have $100,000 in the bank or are homeless. It is part of being a citizen to select those people who will represent the others, which is the work of parliamentarians.
We are all aware, of course, that voter turnout rates have dropped in recent years. When we were younger—as older members in particular, and there are many, will recall—we were told that voting was a duty, like any other civic duty. There was disgrace and stigma attached to not voting, which was considered as a form of social drop-out behaviour.
Over time, voting came to be viewed as somewhat less important. Let us face it, we have witnessed some social dropping out. Canada is not alone. This is true of several other democracies, such as France, Italy and Germany. I remember the days when Verchères-Les Patriotes was represented in this place by Stéphane Bergeron, our whip. At the time, a debate among our caucus was taken up by other caucuses. Should we not lower the voting age to 16, we asked ourselves? A colleague from the Liberal Party, whose riding I cannot remember but who was the youngest member ever in this House, introduced a bill to allow voting at 16.
It was said to be a way of not only enlarging the electorate, but also of making young people aware of their duties as citizens. I was rather in favour of the bill. I do not know how my colleagues in the House saw it, but we discussed it in caucus and at our general council.
There were two schools of thought. At 16, we can drive a car. As soon as we start working, we can pay income tax. So some said that, if there are a number of things we can do at 16, if we can do such important things involving our personnel commitment, we should be able to avail ourselves of the right to vote.
Others in my party thought differently. They included my former nice parliamentary leader. He is still nice, but he is no longer leader. The word “former” does not apply to nice but to leader. He said that we had to look out at what was involved in terms of responsibility. This was an argument worthy of consideration. Would young people take the time to become informed? There is something solemn underlying the right to vote. Is there not something a bit offhand about wanting to lower the voting age?
So what we have to be concerned about is turnout. Here I will digress. I was rereading the figures in the report by Justice Grenier. In the 1995 referendum, voter turnout was 93%. That is getting close to 100%. And it shows that when the stakes are high, people can be civic-minded and do turn out to vote.
Obviously the referendum is still an important event. To make a long story short, members will recall that there were two firmly established camps. There was the camp for change, with Mr. Parizeau, Mr. Bouchard and the others, who wanted the National Assembly to be able to keep all its taxes in Quebec City, to be able to decide on its own foreign policy and exercise all the prerogatives presently held by the House of Commons. The other camp, led by Daniel Johnson, Liza Frulla and Jean Charest, argued in favour of belonging to Canada, saying that there was an equalization system that benefited Quebec and that it was in Quebec’s interest to be part of a great Canadian whole.
When we talk about democracy, we know of course that there have been some major breaches of the Referendum Act. If I may, I am going to say a few words about the Referendum Act. This legislation was proposed by Robert Burns, who was also the member for Hochelaga—Maisonneuve. He had got this mandate from René Lévesque.
One of the first things that the Parti Québécois did when it came to power in 1976 was to clean up election financing. It put an end to slush funds. Furthermore, Mr. Lévesque asked Robert Burns, an Irishman, to draft a green paper on referendums. This resulted in a certain number of rules. For example, during a referendum, to respect the principle of equality of opportunity, all members of the National Assembly must register either with the yes or the no camp. This results in the establishment of a provisional committee that later becomes a permanent one with equitable public funding. It is interesting to note that equality of opportunity is so important that a government does not have the right to spend more just because it calls a referendum.
Another rule from Robert Burns' Referendum Act is the idea that there must be a democratic debate of 35 hours.