House of Commons Hansard #124 of the 37th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was billion.

Topics

Nuclear Fuel Waste Act
Government Orders

6:15 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Gary Lunn Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

Mr. Speaker, I vote yes.

(The House divided on the motion, which was agreed to on the following division:)

Nuclear Fuel Waste Act
Government Orders

6:15 p.m.

The Speaker

I declare the motion carried.

The House resumed from November 29 consideration of the motion.

Strychnine Solutions
Private Members' Business

6:15 p.m.

The Speaker

Pursuant to order made on Thursday, November 29, the House will now proceed to the taking of the deferred record division on Motion P-3 under private members' business.

(The House divided on the motion, which was agreed to on the following division:)

Strychnine Solutions
Private Members' Business

6:25 p.m.

The Speaker

I declare the motion carried.

It being 6.28 p.m. the House will now proceed to the consideration of private members' business as listed on today's order paper.

Canada Elections Act
Private Members' Business

6:25 p.m.

Liberal

Charles Caccia Davenport, ON

moved that Bill C-319, an act to amend the Canada Elections Act (declined vote ballots), be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Madam Speaker, the explanation of this bill is very short and simple.The purpose is to provide Canadian voters when they cast their votes the opportunity to express on the ballot not by way of spoiling it or handling it in a manner that would lead to rejection of the ballot but by way of placing the appropriate sign on the ballot itself that they decline to vote for any of the candidates named on the ballot. The ballot should be redesigned. In addition to indicating the duly registered candidates, it should have a line where the voter could indicate that he or she declines to vote for any of the candidates named on the ballot.

In French, “Je refuse de voter pour l'un ou l'autre des candidats nommés ci-dessus”.

One may wonder, why is that. Current trends show that rejected ballots comprise about 1% of the total number of ballots. It is not a large number of ballots that are rejected because of mistreatment or dissatisfaction on the part of the voter who would somehow express, as is often the case, dissatisfaction by way of rejection. An increased tendency was noticed in the last election. This matter was brought to my attention at that time by some voters in the riding of Davenport who were dissatisfied with the candidates in the race, so to speak. The bill is intended to provide a way of expressing this type of dissatisfaction.

Some people claim that we should not proceed with this type of measure because it would encourage even further disinterest on the part of Canadian voters in the democratic process. That is an opinion one should respect of course. I am inclined to think there is room in our democratic system, which is one of the best in the world, for a measure that would allow a voter, having already thought about how to vote before entering the polling station, to come to the conclusion that none of the named candidates or parties, as most of the time it is a matter of party choice, meets the requirements, expectations or political inclinations of that voter.

That is the essence of the bill. I bring it to the attention of the House as a measure that would perhaps provide some degree of satisfaction for voters who disagree with the system. If this measure is eventually adopted, I hope it will not attract a large number of voters. In a democratic system I think we ought to make room for every perspective and point of view. On election day we should provide for any type of expression, even if it sounds like one that is out of the main stream of thought and of democratic forces that are at play on election day.

Having said that, because of the late hour I will sit down and look forward to the comments of my colleagues on this measure.

Canada Elections Act
Private Members' Business

December 4th, 2001 / 6:30 p.m.

Halifax West
Nova Scotia

Liberal

Geoff Regan Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Madam Speaker, it is an honour to rise tonight to speak on the bill, which would provide that every ballot would include a category for voting for “none of the above” candidates. I would like to thank the hon. member for Davenport for his ongoing interest in electoral issues and for his many contributions in this area.

Today's discussion relates to the fundamental matter of how Canadians choose their representatives in government. The right to vote is of course a fundamental right in our system of parliamentary democracy. Indeed, few responsibilities of democratic citizenship are more important than the exercising of that right. Through the exercising of this responsibility, Canadians send members to parliament to sit in the House and choose a government.

The government has been very active in improving our electoral laws in recent years. These changes have in large part sought to facilitate Canadians in exercising their democratic responsibility to choose members of parliament.

In 1996 parliament passed Bill C-63, which created the National Register of Electors. Bill C-63 also changed the polling hours so that the polls would close at the same time in the western provinces as in Ontario and Quebec. In 1999 parliament debated and passed Bill C-2 ,which thoroughly overhauled and modernized the electoral law of our country. The bill updated the tax credits for individual political contributions and made it easier for people to run as candidates by making the candidate deposit fully refundable on the filing of financial statements. Earlier this year parliament passed Bill C-9, which made it much easier for parties to qualify to have their party names on the ballot.

Under the bill before us today every ballot printed by Elections Canada would include the line “none of the above”. It seems to me that this would be at odds with the very purpose of elections, that is, to send members of parliament to the House. My concern is that the bill could be seen by Canadians as saying that they should have the option of avoiding their democratic responsibilities.

Democracy is not easy. In fact, Sir Winston Churchill, as many or perhaps all members in the House would know, said, as we recall, that democracy is the worst system there is except for all the others. That is clear. In other words, it is not a perfect system. It is a difficult system. It requires citizens to take an interest in what is going on and make difficult choices sometimes, but that is what voting is all about and that is our responsibility. We do not get to choose the exact person and party we might ideally like to have as our candidate or as a government. We have to choose among the alternatives. We choose among people who are doing the best they can as individual human beings and that is what democracy is all about.

The bill could also lead to cynicism about democracy and about our parliamentary institutions. I would like to point out to the hon. member for Davenport that Canadians already have ways to avoid participation in choosing their government and representatives. Canadians can avoid participating in the electoral process by spoiling their ballots. In every election Elections Canada records the number of voters in each riding who choose to spoil their ballots, so there is in fact a record kept of those people. Canadians can also simply choose to stay at home on election day, as we all know. This is unlike the situation in many countries around the world, such as Australia, where all citizens are required by law to vote. The bill, then, would present a third route of non-participation.

The bill is also unnecessary because our system ensures that Canadians have many alternatives from which to choose in elections. As we know, there are five political parties currently represented in the House and in the last election there were 11 political parties with candidates on the ballot. In total, 1,808 candidates ran for office across this great country.

These candidates and parties spanned the ideological spectrum and took different views on all kinds of issues. Advocates of the right to vote for none of the above may suggest that it is a way to give people an outlet where they are starved for choice, but we Canadians are not starved for choice as we are given a wide range of visions of the future at election time.

In any event, it is now even easier for parties to be recognized so that they can get their names on the ballot during an election campaign. There was a time when a party had to have 50 candidates to have its name on the ballot. Now, thanks to the changes introduced earlier this year in Bill C-9, that number is 12. To get official recognition as a party and to have its name on the ballot, a party needs only 12 candidates across the country. As a result, we can expect that in future elections Canadians will have even more choice on their ballots. I also point out that the proposal would be inconsistent with our own traditions and I am not aware of any other country providing this option in national elections.

I note that last year the people of California considered a measure similar to the one presented in this bill and in a referendum 64% of them voted against including a category of none of the above on ballots in that state. I am not suggesting that what the people in California do should determine what we should do here, but it is interesting that California, which is often considered to be avant-garde in many ways, was not supportive of this measure.

In conclusion, I believe that our current system encourages Canadians to exercise the right to vote and provides a range of possibilities for doing so. The option of adding a new category to our election ballots seems to me unnecessary, potentially harmful to our parliamentary institutions, not in keeping with our electoral traditions and not shared by other major countries for national elections.

I applaud the hon. member for his commitment and efforts at pursuing electoral reform, although in this case I feel that there may be alternatives that would be more in keeping with our traditions and practices.

Canada Elections Act
Private Members' Business

6:40 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Rob Anders Calgary West, AB

Madam Speaker, what we are talking about here tonight is the idea of making our democracy more participatory. The member across the way has proposed a novel idea, that is, not only should people have the option of voting for any of a number of political parties or particular individuals on a ballot, but as well, as I understand his bill, they also would be allowed to have other options, for example, on a referendum question. Maybe that is indeed what he is aiming at more particularly with his bill. I applaud him on any of those initiatives.

What happens right now is that if I, or anyone else for that matter, vote in a federal election, I am allowed to choose among, let us say, five political parties. Maybe if I am lucky, in a given area I might have an independent or two on the ballot to allow me a half a dozen or so choices to decide from on election day.

However, right now in Canada I am not given the option to vote for none of the above. In other words, if I feel that all the political parties happen to have a particular world view or side a particular way on a given question or I am frankly frustrated by the electoral process in terms of how they go about their electoral business, I do not have any other options aside from political parties already participating in the system.

The idea of the bill is to allow people to go to the polls and check off none of the above, those people who right now feel disenfranchised, who do not feel comfortable going to the polls because they do not think they have a real choice on the ballot. The Liberal member across the way talked about spoiled ballots. That is not nearly as positive or as affirmative a statement as actually voting for none of the above.

As a result of that, I would argue that there have been parties in our political past like the Rhinoceros Party, for example, for which a lot of the people who voted would have enjoyed having an option on the ballot to say none of the above. I think a lot of the individuals who voted for, if you will, the underdog, or what some would call fringe parties, did so because they did not like the other established parties on the ballot. They did not like the status quo very much. They could have spoiled their ballots, but that is not nearly as positive or as indicative a statement as to vote for none of the above.

In other words, there is a clear distinction between voting for none of the above and spoiling a ballot. People who spoil a ballot are considered to be in the same category as those who do not understand voting instructions or maybe somehow cheat on the ballot and mark two options rather than one. As a result, I think that a lot of the time spoiled ballots are not even considered by politicians and political parties.

For example, if I am asked how many spoiled ballots there were in Calgary West in the last election I would be hard pressed to say exactly how many there were, because often we do not look at that as an indicator of how many people are frustrated with the system. Often we look at it as a number of people who, for any number of reasons, most likely filled out a ballot incorrectly, or we look at it as scrutineers for given political parties determining ballots to be invalid. That is what the number of spoiled ballots actually represents, not the people who took the time to go out to vote and intentionally spoil their ballots to indicate that they do not approve of the process.

I would say that there is a real marked difference between a spoiled ballot, which could be a ballot that someone just did not know how to fill out, filled out incorrectly or illegally filled out, and someone actually voting in a very constructive and demonstrative way to say that he or she is voting for none of the above. There is a marked difference.

There are other countries in the world that do experiment with their electoral system in a positive way.

I understand that Switzerland has a category for none of the above on its ballot. That allows people to go to the polls and cast their ballot. Switzerland has a lot of referendum questions that it poses to its citizens every election cycle. As a result, if the people do not agree with the wording of the question, they do not have to vote against the question, in other words vote to oppose the particular initiative. They can actually vote for none of the above on a given question. That would signify that they may have some interest in the issue, that they may not be definitely opposed to whatever the question is, or the issue that has been raised by the question, but that they are opposed to the wording of the question.

I would argue that in a Canadian context that could be incredibly important. We decided a constitutional package not that many years ago, the Charlottetown accord, by a national referendum. It had the highest amount of voter participation that I have seen in Canadian federal politics in quite some time. As I remember, it had over 80% turnout. I am hard pressed to think of other elections that had that high a turnout.

If people do not like the wording of a question for example with regard to secession or with regard to the constitution and the provinces and jurisdiction and powers, which are very sensitive and important questions, they should be able to demonstrate whether or not they think the question is a fair one. The populous should be able to demonstrate whether questions such as those are fair ones.

Merely asking a yes or no on a framed question will not allow the same degree of scrutiny and demonstration of opinion about the question that actually having three options would. In other words, if there is a question and people feel it has been framed, when they have an option to say none of the above, they can vote for it, they can vote against it or they can say neither of those two. They can say they did not like the wording of the question, that they are opposed to the framing of the question. That alone is a valuable reason for supporting this initiative.

It is a shame that we as members will not be voting on this bill. I am sure the member for Davenport shares my frustration. I am sure he put a lot of thought and hours into crafting this piece of legislation. It is a shame that it is not getting the will of the assembly here.

There could be five or six choices on the ballot and a choice for none of the above. If a plurality of the people decide that they do not like any of the options and they actually win, in other words if none of the above gets more votes than any of the other options for given parties, individuals, or a referendum question on the ballot, that is a very strong indication of the public's distaste for the question, for the political process or any number of things.

If the only thing that is exercised is yes, no and spoiled ballots, the will of the people to cast aside the wording of the question, the framing of the question, is not taken into account. Those spoiled ballots, for example, will never determine the final outcome of whether or not it passes or fails and meets the judgment of the people.

As a result, I would argue that the none of the above option, certainly if it wins, is a very strong and powerful indication that people are either not buying into the political process or they are not buying into the framing of the question. That is a crucial piece of information we should not be overlooking. We should not group those votes into spoiled ballots and say those people just did not know how to fill out a ballot.

Madam Speaker, as you are indicating that I am short on time, I will run through the rest of the reasons that I think this is a good bill.

The bill will encourage more people to participate. It is a better reflection of the electorate's mood. It is a way to build a better mousetrap, and frankly that is what this is all about. That is why I ran for election. That is why I was elected to this place. I thought we could build a better Canada. This is a way toward doing that. It is an improvement over the current system. I applaud the member for coming up with a new idea.

Canada Elections Act
Private Members' Business

6:50 p.m.

NDP

Lorne Nystrom Regina—Qu'Appelle, SK

Madam Speaker, there is no doubt the member presenting the bill is motivated by good intentions but I do not feel inclined to support a bill to have a none of the above choice on the ballot itself.

In today's election campaigns one can vote for none of the above just by not voting at all. One can write none of the above on it if one wishes. One can spoil the ballot if wants to. However I do not think we should be offering a choice where one can vote for none of the above. We should be doing positive things to encourage people to turn out for the election campaign, to vote in campaigns, to make a choice, to vote for a vision of the country and to do a positive thing rather than a negative thing. That is the way we should go.

That being said, this debate gives an opportunity to say we need some voting reform in the country. We have tried going with a permanent voters list and I do not think that is working. A lot of people were left off the list in every riding of the country.

My recollection is that there were about one million Canadians who were not on the voters list in the November 2000 election. We should go back to the door to door enumeration of people in the campaign. It is a way to motivate the population to vote. It is a way to make sure that those not on the list get on it.

If we look at the lack of participation, we find that it is greatest among people living in poorer communities and in the inner cities, and among young people who tend to move a lot and have different addresses on a very frequent basis.

One of the changes we should make is the permanent voters list in the country. I heard that all over the place in my riding during the last campaign. I have heard it from colleagues from all the parties in the House since then. It is important that kind of change be made in terms of voting practices in Canada.

I am concerned about the plummeting drop in turnout. It was not long ago in the 1950s through to the 1980s when 75% or 80% of the people would vote. I was shocked in 1997, four years ago, when the turnout was only 67%.

Last fall the turnout dropped even lower. It went down to only 61% of the people on the list who actually voted. If we include people who were not enumerated on the permanent voters list, and many people say there were about one million of them, we find that well under 60% of the population who were over the age of 18 and were Canadian citizens participated in the last election campaign.

We have to do something to motivate people to vote. Why do people not vote? Part of the problem is the need for reform of the parliamentary system and reform of the voting system in the country. Our parliament is in dire need of radical reform to make this place more meaningful, accountable and democratic.

The Prime Minister's Office has far too much power. Almost every vote in the House of Commons is a confidence vote. Parliamentary committees do not have enough power. Individual MPs do not have much power. There are too many confidence votes and not enough free votes. Government appointments are made without any kind of ratification process in the opposition.

The public accounts committee today heard from the auditor general. One of the complaints was the lack of parliamentary oversight for many spending programs, like the employment insurance program.

More and more decisions are made by the executive, by the Prime Minister's Office and the Privy Council Office.

We have to make a change to democratize the place, to make sure that on major appointments for example the government will nominate and have the relevant committee of the House of Commons either ratify or reject the nomination. Committees and MPs should be given a more meaningful role. Committees should be given more independence and the right to initiate legislation and timetable it. We should have rules and regulations like in Great Britain where parliament can defeat government bills and the government does not fall.

In Britain, despite the popularity years ago of the Margaret Thatcher government, several government bills were defeated. It is the same thing in Tony Blair's government despite his popularity. Government bills have been defeated and the only consequence is that the bills are defeated. The government does not fall. It is healthy for parliamentary democracy.

Time and again I talked to Liberal backbenchers who are extremely frustrated with the Prime Minister's Office, the PCO or cabinet but they cannot do anything about it because of the kind of system we have. The Prime Minister appoints all the cabinet ministers and the parliamentary secretaries. The government appoints all the committee chairs. There is also parliamentary travel and parliamentary associations.

When we have that kind of handcuffed parliamentary system, the voters see it for what it is, that it is not democratic. They feel that politicians are not listening to them and that all politicians and political parties are the same. That is why we need serious parliamentary reform in this institution.

The last point is voting reform. We are one of the few democracies in the world where the will of the people is not accurately reflected in the House of Commons. Most countries in the world have a measure of proportional representation, where if a party has 20% of the votes, it gets 20% of the seats in that parliamentary institution.

There are only three countries in the world now with more than eight million people where there is not some measure of proportional representation. The United States is one, we are another one and India is the third. When we do not have proportional representation, we get all kinds of distortions in the system.

South of the border last year Al Gore had 550,000 more votes than George W. Bush. Who became the president? George W. Bush. There was an election in New Brunswick back in the 1980s when Frank McKenna was the premier. He got 55% or 60% of the votes, something in that range, and he had 100% of the seats. People who voted for the other parties had zero representation in the legislature.

Even in this parliament the Prime Minister's party got 41% of the votes cast and 60% of the people cast a ballot. However with 41% of the votes cast, he has a mandate constitutionally for five years. The opposition represent roughly 60% of the electorate, yet the opposition is in the minority.

There can be a distortion between parties. I think of 1993 when the Conservative Party had 16% or 17% of the votes and had two MPs. In the 1997 election the Tories and the Reform both had 19% of the votes. There were 60 Reformers and some 20 Conservatives. The NDP and the Bloc each had 11% of the vote. The NDP had 21 seats and the Bloc Quebecois had 44 seats. These distortions happen time and time again.

An analysis was done of the last election. I cannot remember the exact numbers now but it took something like 65,000 Canadians to elect the average Liberal member of parliament. For the NDP it was 97,000. For the Conservative Party it was 130,000.

Everybody's vote is not equal. Everybody's vote is not the same. We need a parliamentary system where the will of the people is represented and reflected in the parliamentary body that governs the people. That is what most countries in the world have when they have a measure of PR.

Even Britain with its longstanding parliamentary system is starting to move in that direction. The Scottish parliament, the Welsh parliament and the Irish parliament have some proportional representation. All of the MPs elected to the European parliament in Strasbourg are elected by proportional representation. In Great Britain Tony Blair has promised a referendum on a measure or model of PR in Westminster itself before the next election campaign, which is due in about three and a half to four years.

The bill before us today gives us an opportunity to talk about voting reform so we would have a parliamentary system that reflects the will of the people. We should encourage the people to participate in much greater numbers. It would mean that if one cast a vote for a political party, one's vote would count. Everybody's vote would be equal. Nobody's vote would be wasted. That is the kind of parliamentary system we need.

I close by saying that the time has come when we should strike an all party committee to look at the various models of proportional representation that would be relevant to our unique federation. My preference would be what I call a mixed member proportional like Germany has, where some members are elected riding by riding and some members are elected in accordance with proportional representation. There are 13 countries in the world that have a mixed member proportional. That is the direction we should be going in.

The important thing is to strike a committee to look at reforming the electoral system. Let us get back to door to door enumeration. Let us reform the House of Commons. Let us abolish the unelected Senate. If we did those kinds of things, more people would have confidence and faith in the parliamentary system. They would be willing to participate in election campaigns. It is extremely important that people participate and fulfill a responsibility which many people died fighting wars for.

I had an uncle who was killed in the second world war in Normandy fighting for freedom and democracy. Many people in the House have family and friends who have died in great wars fighting for democracy.

Let us not take democracy for granted. Let us get out there and vote, but let us reform our parliamentary institutions and voting system.

Canada Elections Act
Private Members' Business

7 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

Peter MacKay Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough, NS

Madam Speaker, I commend the previous speaker who has for many years championed the cause of electoral reform. He has taken the occasion quite rightly to delve into some important discussions that touch on the very cornerstones of democracy.

He referred specifically to the need to discuss this matter in a more open way in the House of Commons, the Parliament of Canada, where people should parle and be encouraged to talk.

This debate should take place through the formation of a committee both to specifically get information from various countries the member referred to in his remarks and, more important, to allow Canadians to engage through their members of parliament in a process that could perhaps reinvigorate and revitalize a parliament that is sadly fading. I will take a moment to--

Canada Elections Act
Private Members' Business

7 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Ms. Bakopanos)

The hon. member for Davenport.

Canada Elections Act
Private Members' Business

7 p.m.

Liberal

Charles Caccia Davenport, ON

Madam Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I draw attention to the fact that the member for Regina--Qu'Appelle already spoke at considerable length on a matter that is not before us at the moment.

I therefore invoke the rule of relevance since the present speaker, the member for Pictou--Antigonish--Guysborough, is following the bad example already set by the member for Regina--Qu'Appelle.

Canada Elections Act
Private Members' Business

7 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Ms. Bakopanos)

I believe the hon. member is right in terms of relevance. Perhaps the hon. member was getting to his point.

Canada Elections Act
Private Members' Business

7 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

Peter MacKay Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough, NS

Madam Speaker, I will delve immediately into the relevant part of my remarks. I was milliseconds away from doing so before I was pre-empted.

Having said that, I have a great deal of respect for the hon. member for Davenport and the valuable work he has done for many years both in the Chamber and in his previous incarnation in the provincial legislature. However I regret to inform him and the House that I am not able to support the bill before us.

The bill is quite accurately described as a none of the above addition to ballots in the Canadian electoral process. It would for all intents and purposes entrench into our system a non-choice. It would codify much of the cynicism of our current system by allowing individuals to go into a ballot booth and check off none of the above. As has been referred to by previous speakers, Canadians already have that ability. They can write it on their ballot. They can spoil their ballot.

What additional exercise of democracy would result from Bill C-319? Ballots must contain the names of candidates arranged alphabetically. The information is calculated from nominating papers. Having a choice on the ballot of declining to vote for any candidate would essentially encourage people not to participate. It would be an act of apathy.

As in regular voting, the names of individuals who wish to vote in this manner would not be disclosed so the statistic would be of little use. Bill C-319 would allow us to calculate the number of people who come out to vote to say they do not want to vote. I do not know what this would give us in terms of information or instruction.

Voting by special ballot allows electors to vote in writing in the designated area on a ballot. Voters may fill in the name of the candidate of their choice. They might spoil the ballot as a protest to signify they are not pleased with the candidates or as an expression of dismay at the overall system. Bill C-319 is not necessary. It would create a more complicated ballot and encourage complacency.

In discussing the bill with other members I thought of an anomaly. What if the none of the above choice won? What if the none of the above candidate received the most support? This would presumably necessitate a byelection or some form of recount that would add cost and cumbersome recounts to a system that is in some ways already too convoluted.

We should be encouraging Canadian citizens to participate. I know the hon. member for Davenport shares that view. Perhaps the intent behind his private member's bill is to somehow generate discussion and debate on the issue.

Bringing more people into the democratic process to exercise their democratic right to vote is a good thing and something we all want to embrace. However encouraging them to come out and signify on a ballot that they do not want to vote is a bit of an oxymoron.

The 2000 federal election saw the lowest voter turnout in 100 years. Perhaps this is some indication of the crisis. We can fairly deem it to be a crisis when such low turnout occurs that it directly impacts on Canadians. I am not in any way attaching motives to the hon. member in tabling his bill, but bolstering statistics by showing that individuals came out and voted even if they did not support any of the candidates would be somewhat misleading and counterproductive.

The old saying is that if we do not vote we do not have a right to complain. I do not completely ascribe to that. However younger people must be instilled with the importance of participating in the democratic process.

They must be encouraged to come out and make an informed decision. It is a cop out to say that one can go into a ballot box and simply not make a decision by checking the none of the above option.

I have listened to the remarks and I have done a little background work on the bill before us. Whatever is directly behind the initiative, I simply do not see that it would strengthen our process in any way. Lengthening the ballot which forces electoral officers to generate more activity and more effort to calculate statistics that really indicate nothing is counterproductive to the process. It would increase costs and confusion and give this outlet to individuals who simply are choosing not to participate.

I do not feel this is necessary as a public expression of disinterest because there are other ways to do so. Simply to stay home is sadly the option that most Canadians chose to exercise in the last general election.

Although I would not promote the right for Canadians to simply abstain from voting in an election, such action would be preferable to complicating this ballot with the choice of none of the above or declining any preference for the candidate.

I regret to say that I cannot support this proposal, but I thank the hon. member for Davenport for bringing the matter forward. Airing the issue in a public way is always a positive initiative. I simply would state that I wish the government would share his enthusiasm and honesty for debate, public commentary and discourse in the Chamber. It is very much a useful exercise to embark on the discussion of a process such as this one.

Regrettably I will not be supporting the motion, but I thank the hon. member again for bringing forward Bill C-319.

Canada Elections Act
Private Members' Business

7:05 p.m.

Bloc

Pierre Brien Témiscamingue, QC

Madam Speaker, it is my turn to speak to the member's bill, the purpose of which is to include a space on election ballots in which voters could indicate their disagreement with all the candidates on the ballot. In other words, this could be another way for them to cancel their vote or to express their dissatisfaction by not selecting any of the candidates on the ballot.

I think that we must go back to the basic purposes and the reason underlying such a proposal. The main reason is that there is substantial cynicism among a certain segment of voters and there is a desire to allow them to express it.

I would rather we focus on the things that give rise to this cynicism, on modernizing our institutions, and finding ways to give more recognition to what members do, so that citizens feel that their MP is playing a greater role. This seems to me to be more promising than simply allowing them to indicate on their ballot that they do not wish to vote for any of the candidates of the parties represented on the ballot.

I do not see how this would add to our democratic life. After all, we must look at things as they are. The turnout rate is still significant in our democratic system. I will take the case of Quebec, where there is high turnout. Obviously, the turnout for provincial elections is higher, at around 80%. Provincial elections in Quebec are followed fairly closely by voters, but an 80% turnout is still high.

The turnout for federal elections is a bit lower, around 70%. But there are reasons for this. People feel much more distant from political representatives and issues here. Without getting into a partisan debate on what this might indicate, there is still a message in it.

During important votes, such as the 1995 referendum in Quebec, 95% of voters turned out to vote.

So, when people feel that the stakes are high, they will cast their ballot and feel that it is important.

I do not think we should take chances with giving voters an additional option by indicating on the ballot that people will be allowed to not select candidates, although they already do so in different ways, by marking several names or some other way. This is how they express their discontent or their cynicism. About 1% or 2% of voters use this means. Others simply do not vote. There is also a message in the numbers of abstentions. It is up to us, as elected representatives, to take a look at all that and understand the various messages there are, while realizing that those who get elected are those who receive the majority of the votes in their riding.

I would prefer we put our energies into improving members' powers. I think there is a serious problem. The executive power is omnipresent here. There is some confusion in our system between the legislative and the executive, because the ministers and the Prime Minister have disproportionate influence in parliament. They impose party lines and play out personal ambition. It means that very often an opinion cannot be expressed as representatively as it ought, in our electors' opinion.

I do not think this is healthy. We should examine these issues. It is one of the aspects of real power we have as members with respect to the decisions taken in our communities.

One thing that encourages cynicism is the fact that people feel that, in some cases, it does not matter much whether they vote for one candidate or another. I can remember, in the last election, what did not help anything was the fact that many members changed parties just before the election.

It did not say much for the work we had done and the convictions we must uphold in political parties. We saw Conservatives join the Liberals—that happened in Quebec—because they thought things were going better for the Liberals than for the Conservatives. Even though I would have liked our candidate to win in the riding, the Conservative candidate won. It was to his credit that he appeared under his true banner and did not hide behind a Liberal label in order to get elected, while others did. They argued that in general elections there are so many issues that they would not likely be judged for what they had just done.

This matter was discussed earlier this week, that is the question of not allowing a member to change parties within a mandate. He or she could go independent. If ever he or she should wish to change political affiliations, there would have to be a byelection. This is not a perfect solution, but voters were becoming cynical with members changing parties and they have trouble figuring out what is going on with all the comings and goings.

The fact that this debate is being held today is a source of pleasure to me nevertheless. I acknowledge the hon. member's sincerity and I know there are others who would like to see improvements made and for voters to have more confidence in what we do here. They would like to see the profession of MP and the role of parliamentarian take on greater prestige.

I am involved in politics because I believe this is a very important job, and this place is where decisions are made. One can criticize it from without; that is one way of doing things. But one can also try to make changes from within. That is the way I have chosen, as has everyone else here. Some may be very comfortable with the system as it is.

I think, for instance, that everyone acknowledges that a lot of modernization could be done, which would improve people's confidence. I am not sure that all our procedures might not benefit from a bit of a review, which would be in the best interests of the public as well as ourselves.

We debate, but often there are not very many of us in the House. At times, one might wonder whether it is still relevant, whereas committee work is often more interesting. Sometimes there is less partisanship when the government is willing to let members work a little more independently in committee. This is one time members like their work, because they feel they are a little more in control.

Unfortunately, committee recommendations are often rejected out of hand by the government, when we return to the House. This too is an example of the executive's excessive control of members, who are lawmakers first and foremost.

In my opinion, this is very unhealthy. It is one of the fundamental causes of members' inability to properly represent the viewpoint of their electors. Very often, we see members opposite agreeing with us. But they do not dare say so because of the reprisals they might face or to protect their career or their ability to negotiate certain things with various ministers afterwards. I do not think this is healthy.

Some ministers are more open than others. I imagine that some Prime Ministers were more open than others in dealing with dissent within their party ranks. This does not seem to be the case with the government opposite, based on my experience here, particularly regarding the role of committees, which do not have enough autonomy.

Everyone will say “Yes, in theory, this is true, it can work really well”. But we see what happens when we adopt reports at the end of a session. As we are speaking, there is a bill in committee that will be passed this evening with several clauses. This is an omnibus bill amending several acts and technical aspects. Unfortunately, the whole thing will be rammed through parliament, and people will not have time to do any real, serious work.

This is not serious. If the public saw this end-of-session bulldozing, it would strongly criticize this way of doing things. It would be interesting to take a group of citizens, let them watch us work over a number of days and then ask for their comments. We would realize that there are things they find hard to understand. This would make us think about how we saw things before becoming members of parliament.

There are many things that can be improved. We often hear a criticism that applies to all of us. I am referring to decorum in parliament. One of the things that really strike people who come to watch us from the gallery is the lack of discipline in the House. I recall groups of students from my riding who visited the House and told me that, if they behaved like we do in their classrooms, they would be reprimanded. They could not understand why adults, responsible people, could behave in such a way.

Unfortunately, this is the only part, or one of the only parts of our work that citizens see. The work that we do in this House is the best known part of our job, the part that receives the most media attention. Most other parts of our work and lives as members, such as casework for constituents, committee work, party dynamics and caucus life, are given much less attention. It might be wise for us to think about ways to change this perception of the work we do.

In closing, this is unfortunately not a votable bill. Once again, our system appears to be somewhat antiquated when we debate bills or motions that will not be voted on. Try explaining that to someone in your riding and you will see that they find it hard to understand why we debate issues that will not be voted on.

I would be open to having more votes. I know that there is some consensus on this and that everyone is working on it. As for what I am hearing on this, I do not think there is much sympathy within the Bloc Quebecois, or as far as I am concerned, to add another space on voting ballots to indicate that the voter does not support any of the candidates running.

As I mentioned earlier, we should work on other issues to improve voter trust. This would be a better use of our time.