House of Commons Hansard #160 of the 39th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was drug.

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Canada Elections Act
Government Orders

May 30th, 2007 / 4:15 p.m.

Liberal

Stephen Owen Vancouver Quadra, BC

Mr. Speaker, the debate on Bill C-55 provides the opportunity for us to have a wider debate as well on democratic reform.

However we might support the bill, and I support it very strongly to give greater opportunities for individual electors to get to the polls and vote, there is a difficulty with the government's approach to democratic reform as a whole. This is one other example of issues being brought to the House in both a piecemeal fashion, instead of a comprehensive way, as well as in a way that has involved no consultation with the other parties, the provinces or the public in general.

It is passing strange that we have seen a series of piecemeal bills not dealing comprehensively with either Senate reform, electoral reform or parliamentary reform, but trying to nick them off one at a time. They are done in the name of greater public engagement, when the public, nor Parliament, nor the other parties and provinces are engaged in consultation beforehand to see what might be the best way to move forward to ensure that these various elements of electoral, parliamentary and Senate reform are going ahead in a comprehensive way that makes sense with each other and do not give rise to unintended or, even worse, intended consequences of the government.

Let us look at this approach with respect to other aspects of, in this case, electoral reform. Cooperation and collaboration is immensely important, especially in this complex federation in which are fortunate enough to live. We have many levels of government, constitutional divisions of power and high sensitivities to overlapping powers and impacts that actions and legislation in one level or order of government may have on another. That is why it is so important to have full consultation. Let me speak to a few.

Bill C-56 would attempt to better reflect the constitutional principle of representation by population by adding extra seats to British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario. This sounds like, in constitutional principle, a very valid objective with which to go forward.

It can be said that this is something within the individual competence of the Parliament of Canada with which provincial and territorial governments do not have to give their consent. However, that completely misses the complex nature of our country and the need for collaboration among different levels of government to make things happen in a way that best reflects the interests of the whole country and does not lead to any unintended consequences.

Bill C-56 has been introduced and it sounds good. I am a member of Parliament from British Columbia and British Columbia is to get seven extra seats to bring it up to representation by population, as with the five extra seats in Alberta. However, almost immediately we get a unanimous vote in the motion condemning this by the National Assembly of Quebec. Within a week of that, we get both the Conservative leader in the Ontario legislature plus the Premier of Ontario saying that they are against it and are considering legal action on the basis that this is inappropriate.

Since the bill has been discussed, we have heard in the last two weeks concern expressed from members from the prairie provinces, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. They feel their relative influence in the House may be slipping even though their absolute numbers stay the same. We have also heard from MPs from Atlantic Canada who may be protected in certain ways from having their absolute numbers slip, but are worried about their declining influence in the House.

That is not to say they all have to be completely taken into full account. There may be, and obviously is in this case, some kind of negotiation and collaboration that has to go forward so the range of interests in the House, reflecting the interests of the different regions of the country, is properly protected and balanced. But that requires consultation.

That is why we would like Bill C-56 to go to committee before second reading, so there can be the fullest scope for the consultation to take place and that we in committee, as members of Parliament individually, can consult with the various provinces that have various information on it.

One of the most foundational issues of conflict resolution, and there seems to be conflict in this case, is that we involve everyone in the discussion who is affected by it. They will be interested in it and perhaps have the best information about it, without trying to prejudge that.

I raise that as an issue, as a bit of a paradox of putting forward legislation that is meant to make things more democratic, when in fact it is cutting off a prior consultation that would be effective in making the democracy more effective.

That takes me to issues of the Senate, and they were raised by the government House leader. He raised the issue of Bill S-4, which would limit the terms of senators. Let me take a step back and again reflect that this is piecemeal and without adequate consultation.

There is a complaint that this has been stuck in the Senate for a year. In fact, a very important motion was put before the Senate, which is very much related to this, by former Senator Jack Austin and the sole remaining Progressive Conservative senator, Senator Lowell Murray. It would look to the addition of seats to western Canada in the Senate, to bring some proportionality to the regions of Canada, which was intended by our founding fathers, the Fathers of Confederation.

That raises the issue of distribution again, which makes it very clear why piecemeal approaches to Senate reform, electoral reform and parliamentary reform are so inappropriate. If we look at the Senate, there are three critical areas of the other place that must be respected if we are to have change. I think we all agree, including members of the Senate, that a modern democracy should not have a legislative assembly which is non-elected. It is how we get there that is important. To get there, we have to deal with three things simultaneously in Senate reform.

One is the selection process, and that could be both the terms and the fixed dates that have been suggested in Bill S-4. It also could become the selection process and the consultative elections that have been suggested in Bill C-43. The problem is that this is only one of three categories.

Another category is the mandate of the other place. Is it to be, as it is now, a mirror image of the legislative authority, only altered by convention of this place, that creates the expectation of deference at some stage after full debate in both places, or is there to be something different?

If it exactly the same, and electoral legitimacy is equal by elected senators or consultatively elected senators, however Bill C-43 puts it, then we will risk gridlock and that we must avoid. To deal with that, we must have either different mandates or offset mandates or a dispute resolution clause to deal with problems that might arise between the Houses of Parliament. Therefore, a second stage is neglected in just dealing with Bill S-4 or Bill C-43.

A third area, and perhaps in many ways in terms of the health of our Confederation the most important, is the distribution of Senate seats across the country. I notice in Bill C-56 there is an attempt to arrange for better representation. I say attempt because, as I have mentioned, the government has not done the proper consultation to get the very best answer for that. There is no enthusiasm whatsoever to contemporaneously, in looking for Senate elections or Senate set terms, look at distribution, and most important, the extraordinarily inequitable distribution across the country with respect to western Canada.

It is hard to imagine that members of the government, who represent ridings in western Canada, could possibly be in favour, including the Prime Minister, of trying to give more status, more validity to the other place as a legislative body without first fixing the inequitable distribution across the west. That is passing strange, but it is another example of doing things piecemeal without proper consultation and without dealing with them comprehensively.

Let us look for a moment at electoral reform, because this is immensely important to members of the House. It is part of the old Bill C-55, which attempts to address a small corner of electoral reform.

We have a suggested consultative process by the government, which put out tenders to hire a polling firm and then hire, some would say, a think tank. In fact, it turns out to be Frontier Centre in Winnipeg, which has published works against notions of proportionality to amend, improve and reform our electoral system. It is to hold so-called deliberative, closed door meetings in a few centres in the country, which is somehow some kind of a substitute for a meaningful public discussion on the very desperately needed electoral reform in our country.

It is worse than that, because it is in the face of two other clear opportunities, one is an exercise and another is before us, to do this properly. Again, in reverse order, we do not pretend to consult and then bring in some kind of response to that without going to the people and to the opposition and looking to parliamentary committees and other expert bodies first. This is a jury-rigged, false consultation, which will do nothing for the health of our elective democracy.

Let us look at what the other options are. The Law Commission of Canada is highly respected internationally as one of the foremost law reform bodies in the Commonwealth. Its reports are watched and followed in many other countries. After extensive real public consultation and extensive research here and internationally on electoral reform, in 2004 it published a very thoughtful deliberative piece on a mixed member proportional system. This is an independent statutory body with the responsibility to consult, to do research and to report publicly to Parliament and the Minister of Justice. It reported more than three years ago now and there has been no response, no reflection of any attention being given to that good work.

In 2004 we also had the Speech from the Throne, which was amended in the sense of its application to include electoral reform as a prime objective of the 38th Parliament. Unfortunately and unnecessarily it was interrupted by an election that was commenced in 2005. The work of a special committee to do the proper consultation on behalf of all the House of Commons was cut short.

We should be working with the opposition parties, and I hope with the government, to have a legislative committee, perhaps the procedure and House affairs committee, hold those consultations, rather than the closed door, jury-rigged type of consultation that has been set forward. That is important. Let us have the House involved. Let us look to real public consultation and let us get moving on real electoral reform.

Maybe in the wisdom of that deliberative discussion with Canadians, we can reaffirm the first past the post system we have now, but let us do it when we know there are real strains and real non-representative aspects to it. Let us have that conversation and make it a real deliberative one.

Let me turn to another aspect of democratic reform. This is one about which we have heard so much rhetoric from the government, and that is the Federal Accountability Act, Bill C-2. It is almost Orwellian in the way that aspects of this act, and aspects that certainly this side of the House supported, are actually damaging and non-democratic.

I start with observing that Bill C-2, the accountability act, got royal assent on December 14, 2006. Members will recall that this was following a number of months of very careful deliberations and amendments passed by the Senate and then accepted by the House. I think there were more than 50 of them.

There was constant deriding of the other place for having delayed that important piece of democratic legislation and yet one of the absolutely most important foundational parts of the accountability act was the appointments commission. This would apply the same principles around public service appointments that the Public Service Commission applies: objective criteria, competitive processes, transparence, real accountability. That appointments commission which was part of the act in a form that in fact the NDP put forward, a form that I put forward as an amendment were not accepted. That was five months ago .

I will end with this reflection on non-accountability. After five months, there is no appointments commission and yet every week there are dozens and dozens and dozens of order in council appointments that should have been subject to that merit based, objective, non-partisan appointments commission. What kind of accountability is that? What kind of democratic reform is that?

While I have no difficulty supporting the idea of greater advance opportunities for people to vote to increase voter opportunity and therefore voter turnout, we have to look at the whole picture and, if we are to be taken seriously as a modern democracy, deal with this in a comprehensive way.

Canada Elections Act
Government Orders

4:35 p.m.

Bloc

Raynald Blais Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to ask my Liberal colleague if the bill before us looks like what I would call a simplistic solution to a complex problem. The voter turnout rate decreases from year to year or from election to election, I should say. But there are opportunities to vote. For example, people can vote at any time, provided they go to a specific place. Unfortunately, in some ridings that place can be some distance away.

We wanted to simplify the process. But despite the solutions that have been proposed, with each election people are becoming uneasy about democracy and participation.

My impression—my colleague perhaps shares my view—is that the proposed solution could be considered simplistic. Adding two days will not automatically resolve the problem of voter turnout.

Canada Elections Act
Government Orders

4:35 p.m.

Liberal

Stephen Owen Vancouver Quadra, BC

Mr. Speaker, I think the hon. member has put it very well. This is a necessary step to take. I support it because it adds some opportunity.

The difficulty is that it is presented by the government House leader as some kind of comprehensive answer to voter apathy, low voter turnout. It may be a small step to make more opportunity available to some people. It is fine to have it, but it does not get at what we really need to get at in this country.

We need a thorough examination of electoral reform on a comprehensive basis and a thorough analysis of why there is apathy in this country not just of inconvenience but apathy that is borne out of people's mistrust of the political process. Perhaps it is broken promises. They are one of the greatest causes of apathy. I do not simply point to the Conservative government for breaking its promises because I think that we would find in our history that every governing party at every level of government in the political process has intentionally or unintentionally broken promises. But where we have some very clear promises where electoral legitimacy was given, then I think we have to really ensure that in this House we, as an opposition, call the government to account and that the government show responsibility in making sure that we keep faith with the electorate.

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4:35 p.m.

NDP

Paul Dewar Ottawa Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, my colleague has been fairly consistent and reputable on the issue of democratic reform, so I welcomed his comments.

It was interesting that there was quite a buzz when this announcement was made by the government. It was during the so-called week of democratic reform, on the Wednesday. I recall it well. I went out to the lawn of Parliament Hill and there was great fanfare. There were a number of young people who turned out to be interns who had been marshalled in by the government for a photo op.

We all thought there was going to be a great announcement on democratic reform and that we would be marshalling ourselves into a new and pleasant day in a green and pleasant land. Then we found out that the announcement was an extra day of advanced polling and that the government had taken the interns and put them in the photo op simply for this announcement.

I am curious as to my colleague's thoughts around this kind of democratic reform. It dropped out of the sky from nowhere, like Bill C-56. In fact, that bill has already become a problem for the government because the Conservatives did not consult anyone.

The only people the government consulted on this bill I think were the interns who were asked to be in the photo op.

What does the member think about the government's consultation process on this bill?

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4:40 p.m.

Liberal

Stephen Owen Vancouver Quadra, BC

Mr. Speaker, the hon. member's comments build on those of our colleague from the Bloc in terms of the superficiality of the bill, if I could put it that way. I do not think anyone is going to take much issue with the extra opportunity that the bill provides for voters to get out and vote, perhaps more conveniently.

The government has dressed the bill up as a major piece of democratic reform. I was not lured out that day, but I did watch with interest from afar to see what the great announcement would be. I must say I was left quite unsatisfied with the announcement.

It is important that we take these steps but let us do it seriously. Let us pull together all of the ideas. Let us have a national consultation. For goodness' sake, let us talk to each other in this House to build the best possible legislation to go forward. We should also talk to our provincial counterparts to see if there may be any unintended consequences or if there are better ideas of how to approach it without bringing legislation before the House, having provincial premiers talk about going to court or having other provincial legislatures reject the idea outright.

As well meaning as some of these little pieces might be, they do not build the faith that we need in this House, in the seriousness of our approach to respecting the democratic complexity of our country, our Constitution. We must work together to get the very best system possible. We must be as responsible as possible in the reform. When we do that comprehensively, I can assure the House that it will do more for voter turnout in this country, because it is not just inconvenience, it is apathy that is reducing the numbers.

Canada Elections Act
Government Orders

4:40 p.m.

Bloc

Louise Thibault Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques, QC

Mr. Speaker, I will be brief. I want to share an observation and if my colleague wants to respond to it, he is obviously free to do so.

I was shocked earlier by the way the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons was talking about this bill, especially in the last 10 minutes. He was talking about this bill as the be-all and end-all—like all the other bills the government has introduced—for democratic reform.

This really irritates me. If the Conservative government truly thought this was important it would focus on something essential, on the voter turnout the hon. member was just talking about. Holding consultations will yield better voter turnout. Respect, both for citizens and their representatives here, is a basic concept.

The truly simple and necessary thing to do is to talk to people and hold consultations at every level.

No one will be fooled by this 20 minute presentation.

Canada Elections Act
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4:40 p.m.

Liberal

Stephen Owen Vancouver Quadra, BC

Mr. Speaker, I thank the member for that observation. I agree with the hon. member that the essence of a democracy is public participation.

We are a self-governing people in this democracy. To self-govern we have to be engaged. To be engaged we have to be informed of options and consulted on our ideas, either on what is being proposed or on other alternative ideas we may not have thought of.

It is immensely important that those of us in this House, all of us together, whatever party we might represent, talk together, and most important, talk to and listen to members of the public about the ideas we are throwing around for consideration.

Canada Elections Act
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4:40 p.m.

Bloc

Pierre Paquette Joliette, QC

Mr. Speaker, this is another opportunity for me to rise on a bill that is far from revolutionary. I have said so several times, and I believe that the same sentiment has been expressed many times in this House in the past few months. It is hard to be opposed to this bill. But at the same time, it does not attack the root of the problem of voter turnout, which is not dropping dramatically, but declining from year to year, particularly at the federal level.

This bill is intended to increase voter turnout. It proposes to add two advance polling days on the two Sundays prior to polling day. All the polling stations that will be open on the day of the general election would be open on the Sunday before that day, maximizing—according to the bill's sponsors—voting opportunities until polls close on the Monday after the second Sunday. On the other advance polling days, a limited number of polling stations would be open, as is the case now.

It seems to me to be a bit simplistic to expect that adding advance polling days will reverse the strong downward trend in voter turnout. However, we cannot oppose a relatively minor measure that would create a real opportunity for some people to vote on the added Sundays. We will therefore not vote against this bill. However, in our opinion, this is a minor measure that will not correct the strong downward trend in voter turnout. The government needs to attack the real causes of this decrease, which are diverse.

I want to give the figures for some past elections, which show that voter turnout at advance polls does not have a substantial or significant impact on general voter turnout on polling day.

For example, here are the results from Quebec for the 1997 federal election. Approximately 704,000 people voted at advance polls, some 3.6% of everyone who voted in the 1997 election. Again, I am referring to the federal election, but these figures pertain only to voters in Quebec. The overall voter turnout was 67%.

In 2006, during the last federal election, 1.5 million voters voted at advance polls in Quebec, or 6.8%. Thus, 6.8% voted in advance. One might have expected this to translate into much higher voter turnout, since the number of people who voted at advance polls nearly doubled. Yet, when we look at the overall voter turnout in the 2006 election, for Quebec, it was only 64.7%. We can therefore see that increasing the number of days of advance polling does not necessarily lead to higher voter turnout overall.

In that regard, we must ask ourselves whether the money it would cost to open polling stations the Sunday before an election—since, as we heard, all polling stations would be open that day—could not be used much more productively towards increasing overall voter turnout.

For instance, the total number of polling stations in each riding could have been increased, to make them more accessible. Also, particularly for our seniors, we could have tried to find ways to ensure they do not have to travel. I think there is a long list of possible solutions that would have been much more effective in increasing voter turnout, which, as we know, is decreasing every year.

Once again, I believe that the crux of the problem is not a function of the mechanics but of the general context and our citizens' views of politics. This holds true for Canada, and to a certain extent for Quebec, which nevertheless has a higher voter turnout. We have noticed it also in the United States and in France, although this last presidential election was quite exceptional with voter turnout of 85%. It may be an exception, but that is all for the best. Perhaps there is a change in the trend.

In my view, this fairly widespread tendency—particularly in industrialized countries where voter turnout is decreasing with every election—should lead us to look more closely at the general public's perception of politicians and of politics. For example, almost every government that has taken power, here in Ottawa and in many western countries, has told us—and the Minister of Industry is one of the best examples that I know of—that nothing can be done about the effects of globalization and market forces, and that the strongest must be able to crush the weakest as it is the law of nature manifesting itself in society.

That is wrong. A good part of the population, a good number of voters, have been led to believe that voting for representatives when electing a government is pointless because they are unable to solve their problems. What can the federal government do to help a worker from Saint-Michel-des-Saints who is losing his job because a Louisiana-Pacific sawmill and waferboard plant are shutting down?

The Minister of Industry is constantly telling us that nothing can be done, that these are the results of market forces and that no manner of industrial policy will prevent it. It could not have been prevented. But I say that it could have been prevented.

I would like to remind the House that, since 2003, the Bloc Québécois has been promoting a plan to help the forestry industry get through the current crisis. However, the previous Liberal government and the current Conservative government have always hidden behind market forces and the unrelenting effects of globalization. We know very well that when the citizens' democratic will is expressed through its democratic institutions, we are capable of putting a stop to things, of changing the course of events in economic, social or environmental matters.

For example, some countries, such as France, have said they did not want to be part of the multilateral agreement on investment and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, because they were negotiating privately. This would diminish the role of the state and its ability to exercise its sovereignty. France was able to stop this agreement, and this decision was made in the general interest.

At that time, the French president did not say that he could do nothing about it because of market forces and that this was the natural tendency. On the contrary, he said that this was not the direction in which he wanted to see French society and all other societies in the world go.

Currently, there is a disillusionment with respect to politics that is the fault of politicians. Obviously I am not talking about all politicians, but about those who, like the Minister of Industry, say that democratic institutions and political power no longer have any influence over economic, environmental and social matters. Not only are they responsible for this disillusionment, but they have also created in the population—this is true in Canada, Quebec, Europe, Latin America and the United States—a protectionist sentiment against opening up markets and borders. For three or four years, the Doha round has been blocked by the inability of governments to turn the people of the countries involved in favour of opening up the markets with rules, of course. Politicians could have made rules, but they did not want to. Because politicians did not want to make rules, the process collapsed.

It primarily collapsed because of the demonstrations in Seattle. But the developing countries said that in the last round, the developed countries had advantages, but had not done what was necessary to open their markets. So the developing countries decided to put a stop to it.

This happened because of the approach adopted by the Minister of Industry and the Conservative government. Not only did this approach lead to the current standstill in WTO and Free Trade Area of the Americas negotiations, but it also led to political disenchantment. This way of thinking is false because if we want to, we can use politics to influence economic, cultural, social and environmental issues. This way of thinking has led to disillusionment among many people who believe that voting is pointless because even citizens' representatives are powerless to help them get through difficult situations.

Unfortunately, politicians like our Minister of Industry and our Prime Minister have caused problems in other areas as well. This is also about transparency. We must not fool ourselves: the sponsorship scandal really hurt the Liberal Party of Canada, especially in Quebec, and that is a good thing. However, unfortunately, it also hurt politicians as a whole.

Our governments have demonstrated their ineptitude. I am referring to the Liberal government, but I have a feeling that the Conservative government is heading in the same direction by trying to fiddle with things. In so doing, they have discredited their own political activities as well as all politicians, and that is a real shame. They got caught red-handed, which is exactly what they deserved.

We are currently facing another situation. With respect to Option Canada, the Prime Minister can launch an independent public inquiry to uncover everything that happened during the 1995 referendum. Let us not forget that the government invested $11 million—no small sum—through Option Canada and the Canadian Unity Council. I would also like to mention that each camp—the yes camp and the no camp—was entitled to $5 million. Option Canada spent as much as both camps combined. In all, the federal government invested over twice as much as the yes camp.

The Prime Minister's refusal to launch an investigation to get to the bottom of this is, understandably, creating doubt among Canadians It suggests that the first thing a government would try to do is hide as much as possible from the public, by creating organizations such as Option Canada, which break the law. This time, it was Quebec's Referendum Act. Theoretically, politicians should be the ones to ensure respect for the law, since parliamentarians are the ones who make the law.

This creates rather serious uneasiness. We saw this uneasiness during the sponsorship scandal. We are seeing it again now, because of the Prime Minister's refusal to create a commission of inquiry to get to the bottom of the Option Canada scandal. This is a second factor in our problem with voter turnout. Unfortunately, more and more people are losing faith in the role of MPs and therefore choose not to vote.

In his response, the minister responsible for economic development said so many things that are out of touch with reality and the facts that, if I were a regular citizen, I would not vote for the Conservatives—I can assure this House that that will never happen, nor have I ever even considered it, in all my years of voting. This creates a degree of cynicism. I will give some examples.

Question period took place barely a few hours ago. I will give the example of one of this government's ministers. Earlier today, the Minister of Industry was in my line of fire, now, it is the Minister of Labour. What did that minister say in response to a question from a Liberal member, who asked him what was happening with the bill on bankruptcy, once known as Bill C-55?

The Minister of Labour stood up and said that everyone agrees, but the Bloc Québécois is blocking the bill. That is absolutely false. The Bloc Québécois is not blocking the bill. The minister is blocking it by digging in his heels on an amendment that the governments of Quebec and the other provinces want in order to ensure that the federal legislation will be consistent with provincial legislation. I have here the proposed amendment on which we worked together with the Government of Quebec. The minister has been aware of this for several weeks now. However, he is misrepresenting reality by saying that the Bloc is preventing the passage of this bill. We are in favour of the bill, but we are also in favour of respecting Quebec's jurisdictions. In his response, the minister completely misrepresented reality. What we are trying to do with this amendment is protect Quebec's power to exclude certain heritage property in bankruptcy situations, to keep RRSPs and RRSFs in comprehensive plans and to respond in a simple and effective manner to the concerns raised by Quebec's finance minister, a Liberal and a federalist. I am talking about Mr. Audet.

Once again, words were taken out of context and reality was misrepresented. Everyone is well aware that the Minister of Labour was not describing reality. Again, they are discrediting the ability of politicians, hon. members, ministers and members of this government in particular, to respond to questions accurately and truthfully.

On other occasions the debate is completely diverted. I am thinking of the Minister of Labour in his role as Minister of the Economic Development Agency of Canada.

The Minister of Canadian Heritage and Status of Women was asked about the $60 million over two years for festivals. Some festivals are starting to have serious problems. Mr. Bachand, Quebec's tourism minister, warned Conservative ministers when they come to Quebec not to make too many appearances at festivals because he was not sure they would be welcome. Again, Mr. Bachand is a Liberal and a federalist.

For several days now, we have been trying to ask the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Status of Women why she has been unable to establish criteria to distribute the $30 million allocated to festivals this year. This is true for Quebec, and it is also true for the rest of Canada. Her answers do not really make sense.

My colleague from Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine brought the issue up again by sharing the example of a festival in the Magdalen Islands that lost its permit in a competition because it did not have the necessary funds. Then the Minister of Labour and Minister of the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec—the same minister I was talking about earlier—rose to say that last year, the government invested a certain amount of money to promote the event, but that this year, since the event has already been promoted, it invested a little less. He did not answer the question. The question was for the Minister of Canadian Heritage concerning a new program to replace the old program that the Liberals messed up with the sponsorship scandal. Festivals, exhibitions and cultural events need the government's support. They did not answer the question; they are avoiding the issue.

This sort of conduct has increased in recent years, especially here in Ottawa, and has discouraged many people from voting. It is very clear that by adding two days of advance polling, Bill C-55 will not solve this fundamental problem.

All parliamentarians need to do some serious soul-searching about their ability not only to see the truth for what it is and give honest answers to the questions they are asked, but also to shoulder their responsibilities instead of hiding behind so-called market forces and the inevitable effects of globalization. They are creating a sort of skepticism and defeatism among members of the public. Once again, even though we are seeing this more here in Ottawa than in Quebec City, it will still have an impact if nothing is done to correct things.

I will close by saying that the Prime Minister was asked to apologize for the federal government's actions during the referendum campaign, when the government violated the Referendum Act. He refused to do so. I am happy, though, that this afternoon, the Premier of Quebec, Jean Charest, condemned the violations of the Referendum Act, even though he had initially had the same reaction as the Prime Minister. I believe that his response may signal that politics will be cleaned up. It is to be hoped that a new generation of politicians—and I am not referring to age—will change these practices and promote greater voter participation in our electoral process.

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5 p.m.

Liberal

Alan Tonks York South—Weston, ON

Mr. Speaker, the bill that is before us states as its objective to increase voter participation, the interest of our citizens to get involved in the electoral process.

I was taken by the comments made by the member with respect to ways in which we could become more effective in the House that would engage Canadians in critical issues. I think the member would agree the critical issues that affect Canadians range from the erosion of jobs in the manufacturing sector to world peace.

The point made by the member is that this bill falls short of really challenging us in a constructive and instructive way to change the system in order to engage Canadians and then bring them into democratic participation.

My question for the member is this. Is there any experience in Quebec with respect to the universities, reaching out to youth, and targeting those groups that have not been engaged in the democratic process? Is there any experience in Quebec that the member could allude to which might be instructive for the government to really engage Canadians and get them involved in the voting process in this country?

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5:05 p.m.

Bloc

Pierre Paquette Joliette, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the member for his question.

As I said earlier, voter turnout in Quebec is higher. I think that this is because the political debate there focuses on more fundamental issues than it does here in Ottawa. I am not saying that to be mean. Politically, the constitutional future of Quebec gives rise to a sense of competition. As a result, voter turnout is higher in Quebec, especially among young people, even though they vote less than older people.

I think that the lesson here is about political issues and how we should be debating them. I am not against taking steps to facilitate voter turnout. People have to feel that their vote makes a difference and will affect not only their community's future, but also their own. I think that this is what has been lacking in Canada and in most western societies over the past few years.

As I suggested in my counter-example, during the recent elections in France, where voter turnout had been in decline, Mr. Sarkozy and Ms. Royal talked about issues that would have an impact on France's future, which resulted in an 85% voter turnout. I think that we should work toward that rather than on superficial measures, like those in Bill C-55. Even so, we will not oppose it. Fundamentally, we still have to ask ourselves questions about how we do politics in Canada, in Quebec and in the entire western world.

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5:05 p.m.

Bloc

Marcel Lussier Brossard—La Prairie, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague, the member for Joliette, for his excellent presentation. I would like to ask him two questions.

With regard to the list of electors, does the member for Joliette believe that it is reliable?

Second, can voters still register at the last minute if, for example, they move a few weeks before an election? If they bring proof of residence, can they go to the advance poll or to the polling station on the day of the election? Does the new law change that?

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5:05 p.m.

Bloc

Pierre Paquette Joliette, QC

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the hon. member for Brossard—La Prairie for his question, which will also allow me to complete my response.

In Quebec, the permanent voters list is an extremely important tool. For example, every time a person moves and changes their address on their driver's licence or social insurance card, the address is automatically changed on the voters list. This makes life easier for the Chief Electoral Officer and also for the individual, who will not have to jump through hoops to ensure that their name is on the voters list. This does not solve every problem since some people do not have a driver's licence, although people usually have a health insurance card. Nonetheless, this makes it easier to register voters, who then receive a notice from the Chief Electoral Officer.

The federal Chief Electoral Officer wants to incorporate this permanent list. It has been noted during past elections that this list was quite incomplete and people who honestly thought they were registered on voters lists learned they were not.

At the federal level, rather than address this problem by creating a permanent voters list, they decided to allow voters to be added to the voters list on election day, which sometimes causes problems in terms of identifying the voters and their eligibility to vote. In Quebec, a voter can only be added to the voters list during the period scheduled by law for the revision of the voters list. In my opinion this provides a better guarantee to citizens who have the right to vote and greater fairness for everyone.

The response of the Chief Electoral Officer and Parliament was to create a new gadget to respond to a real problem. I think they should have opted for a real tool like a permanent list. That is precisely the type of suggestion that Bill C-55 proposes. I am not against allowing people to register on election day since the voters list is so poorly managed. However, I think we should address the real problem, and that is the quality of the voters list. We should make it easier for people to register on this list before the election to make sure they are eligible to vote.

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5:10 p.m.

Conservative

Bruce Stanton Simcoe North, ON

Mr. Speaker, my hon. colleague had a rather lengthy dissertation on various topics, some of which I thought did begin to stray a bit from the matter at hand here, but really he was talking in terms of what he felt were some of the causes for poorer participation in elections.

As I consider some of the points that have been brought up this afternoon, it has been interesting to see that in other jurisdictions that have in fact expanded to Sunday voting and increased advanced polling, certainly the statistics suggest, both in this country but also in Europe, they are getting in some cases as high as a 10 point increase.

As a matter of fact, even in the province of Quebec, and I thought this was rather instructional, I have come to understand that advance polls are conducted on a Sunday both in municipal elections in the province of Quebec and provincial elections.

Therefore, I would suggest that in fact what we are seeing here in this bill before us, Bill C-55, is intending to address the very problems and issues of which the member speaks. I wonder whether he would feel that this approach in fact is going to do exactly as his home province would suggest, where participation has increased, and that this bill is in fact right on the mark, and it is going to create the kinds of results in voter participation that are needed.

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5:10 p.m.

Bloc

Pierre Paquette Joliette, QC

Mr. Speaker, as I said, we are not opposed to this measure; however, in our view, it is not enough to make us believe that voter turnout will change significantly. If we do not engage citizens and make them want to vote on the issues that are democratically debated and decided by a vote, all we are doing is shifting the timing of the vote. The most recent Quebec election provides an example of this. Voter turnout at the advance polls reached 10%, a record high. More than 500,000 votes were cast at advance polls in Quebec; however, the voter turnout was the same as in 2003. Voters who would have cast their ballots on Monday, March 26, simply voted at advance polls.

In closing, I would say it is somewhat like the hours of operation of a business. More shopping hours do not translate into more purchases by consumers. If they could shop 24/7, they would not buy more because they do not have more money in their pockets and they cannot go any further into debt. We must not believe that Bill C-55 will solve all our problems. We must avoid simply displacing the votes that would be cast anyway, on the day of a general election.

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5:15 p.m.

NDP

Paul Dewar Ottawa Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to speak in the House to this bill. I want to outline a number of things the government has said about this bill. I want to look at what, I believe, is the motivation for this bill. I also want to talk about some of the concerns about the bill that have been brought to my attention. I will then underline the void left by the government on the whole issue of fairness and voting on democratic reform that the bill does not really substantively deal with.

I will begin with the bill itself in terms of when we first heard about it. As I mentioned in questions and comments earlier, it was with much fanfare on the front lawn of the House of Commons that the announcement was made. As I previously said, we were told there was a big announcement coming on democratic reform and, in fact, the government even titled the week democratic reform week. We were all wondering with great anticipation what the announcement would be.

There was a great photo op with all the interns together to make it look good on camera. The minister came out and announced that there would be what we thought would be democratic reform, like the mixed member system or some other substantive proposal, but, lo and behold, he announced that the government would be expanding advance polling. People in the crowd made some comments and even the media asked, “They brought us out here for this”.

In fact, the page from the press release that I have in front of me on the bill itself is pretty small. It contains the main parts of the bill but it is what we call piecemeal. I say that because the government is trying to brand itself, as it says now, as getting things done on democratic reform, which is a laudable goal. Some would say that is the way to do it, one piece at a time, but the problem is that there was absolutely no consultation on this bill.

This idea came from what looks like the back room of the Conservative Party to cover for the fact that it had not done some things on democratic reform, like the triple E Senate that many in the party had gotten involved in politics on. In fact, we are hearing now from the backbench that the Conservatives have not been able to deliver on the triple E Senate. The government had to come up with something so it came up with Bill C-55 and Bill C-56. That is the background, the trajectory of how we got this bill.

The claims that the government has made are very interesting. When the minister spoke on this bill today he said things like, “We want more people to vote”, “Elections Canada has indeed identified that people need more time to vote”, “Canadians need more opportunity to vote”, et cetera. Of course no one will disagree with that. The problem is that the Conservatives make assertions that this bill will be the grandiose architecture for changing our democratic system so that we will see more voter participation and that it somehow will deal with all the ills that exist in our present system.

However, there is a cost to this. As the minister said today, it will cost somewhere around $38 million for this initiative, an initiative that the government has not consulted on but just dreamed up and brought forward. I say that because it is important to underline.

This is not a bill that was discussed at committee nor was it discussed during the election. It also was not discussed in the House. This is not a bill that Canadians were clamouring the government to act on. That is important to note. In my opinion, this is the piecemeal approach of the Conservative Party to cover for the fact that it has not delivered on its triple E Senate promise.

The minister also stated that there was more advance voting in 2006. I see some smiles from my friends so I must be hitting a nerve. Therefore, this will be a continuation of that and there will be more voting if we do that. That might be but 2006 was a very different election. Many people who were going south took advantage of the fact they could vote in the advance poll. Therefore, I do not think it is a good benchmark to look at 2006.

The government talks about France having had 85% voter participation in the last election and that they vote on a Sunday and, therefore, that is a meritorious argument for this bill. I think it is a bit of a stretch to say that because they vote on Sundays in France and that they had an 85% voter turnout that somehow is the rationale for this bill. The reason is that it is a different political culture.

One of the things they have in France is a proportional system as well. We have spoken consistently from this side of the House, from the NDP's perspective, on the need, not just to have piecemeal change but to ensure that we change our voting structure so that it actually makes the system fair. Just to provide more time for people to vote, in and of itself, is not what really ails us right now. What really ails the body politic in Canada right now is having a fair vote so that someone's vote in Calgary counts as much as someone's vote in Prince Edward Island, in Toronto or in Timmins.

We know that a person, shall we say, wanting to vote Conservative in downtown Montreal, as we learned this past election, finds that their vote really is meaningless, other than the $1.75 that might go to the Conservative Party. That was illustrated clearly after the last election when the government could not find a cabinet minister so it had to pluck one from the back room of the Conservative Party, pop him into the Senate and then hoist him into the cabinet. It was a sad day for democracy.

What we need instead of these piecemeal solutions that have been put forward by the government is substantive democratic reform. What we and the Citizens Assembly here in Ontario have proposed is to have a mixed member system, which is what the system the government is lauding in France has, and that is some proportionality. If the Conservative Party had won the election fair and square with a mixed member system, Mr. Fortier may have been a nominated candidate on its list and he could have been legitimately appointed to cabinet.

The same goes for the minister who crossed the floor from the Liberal Party and ended up in the cabinet of the Conservative Party. It was simply that the Prime Minister had no one from Vancouver. I do not know when the actual conversation took place but I suspect it was either right after the election or soon thereafter.

I underline those examples because what is wrong with our system right now are the floor crossings and the appointments to the Senate and then into cabinet, which deepens the cynicism of the population. I would submit that is more problematic and more of a challenge to us as parliamentarians to increase voter participation, not these piecemeal approaches, as populace as they might be, if I may use that word, because young people, for instance, are not voting because they do not see their vote counting. It is not that they cannot find the time.

I should turn to the province of Manitoba where recently the people of Manitoba increased their voter participation. I think it was because the government opened up the opportunities to vote, as well as, hopefully, they had something to vote for. That should be looked at. Manitoba made voting polls more available to people. They did not do what the government is proposing. They actually made the advance polls very accessible. They were in shopping malls and in everyday places where people go. That is the kind of thing we should look at.

I do not think this idea of having an advance polling day on a Sunday will find favour with people from our faith communities. I have talked to people in my constituency and some of them, not all, believe that Sunday should not be a voting day. I think some people in other faiths would have the same concern if were on their Sabbath. That needs to be addressed as well.

What are the costs? The government has estimated it at $37 million. How will we do this if the voting booths or the advanced polling booths are in churches? Will that affect the services of any given church? Has that been thought through? I would think not. Has the government consulted with people in the faith communities about this? I think not. It is obviously something that can be addressed at committee.

The last thing I want to talk a little bit about is what the government's agenda is on democratic reform. I have already mentioned the fact that the government has had some democratic reform ideas but, in many ways, they are a cover for its democratic deficits that it suffered from in the first days of government. I am speaking of the floor-crossing and the appointment of the public works minister to the Senate and into cabinet.

On the surface, one would think that a government that claims to want substantive democratic reform would actually consult.

I guess we will debate Bill C-56 at some time. It fell off the calendar recently. It was on the calendar, then I gather the Conservative leader from Ontario said a couple of things about it and then it disappeared off the calendar, but I will leave the government to respond to that. It is another bill on democratic reform.

What the government is trying to do with that bill is to change the formula on how seats are assigned after a census. Do members know who the government consulted on this? Did it consult the provinces? It consulted no one other than itself. The problem with that is that this has consequences for every province. The way the government has done it, in terms of the lack of consultation, it will divide people as opposed to bringing them together. What democratic reform should be is bringing people together to have more faith in the democratic system and the democratic institutions we have built.

The government is offside on its consultation on this bill and on Bill C-56. I saw this on Bill C-31 when we saw that our privacy would be compromised. Bill C-31 is in the Senate now but Canadians are surprised to find out that a bill that is supposed to deal with so-called voter fraud gives up their privacy by having their birthdates published on the voters' list and given to political parties for their benefit.

The government says one thing and does the other. It has some pieces that we can say are fine, but the government does not consult. It has missed, not only the boat on the practise of democratic reform in terms of accepting floor-crossers and putting people from the back room into the Senate and into cabinet, but it has not dealt with the one issue that Canadians want it to deal with, be they young, middle aged or older, and that is the fairness of our system so that when someone votes their vote counts.

The fundamental question for our party has to do with voter fairness and until we deal with voter fairness, all these other tinkerings and piecemeal approaches are really secondary. They do not deal with the fundamental question.

When the minister talks about comparisons to Europe and other jurisdictions, he should look at the whole picture and not cherry-pick but, sadly, that is what the minister has done.