Mr. Speaker, in this House, not a day goes by that the merits of democracy are not praised, and rightly so.
In the name of democracy, we exchange ideas, we debate social issues and we legislate. In this whole process, there are rules to be followed that our legislators have set out and that we must abide by. We can decide together to change some standards, since nothing is permanent. But this must be done in accordance with the system in which we live.
Can we decide to change the rules to accommodate just one person? I doubt that very much, and I will take the few minutes I have to show that the purpose of Bill C-49 is not to further the public's general interests, but only to look after the interests of the hon. member for LaSalle—Émard.
First, for those who have just joined us, I want to say what the debate is all about. After each decennial census, the House of Commons reviews the number of its members according to the Canadian population. After numerous steps and consultations, a representation order is proclaimed to confirm the new electoral boundaries. However, the legislation provides that the coming into force of the new electoral map cannot occur less than a year following the proclamation date. Why this time frame? Although the government tries to pretend that this is just a formality to accommodate the Chief Electoral Officer, it is much more complicated.
When, as representatives of the people of our respective ridings, we have the interests of fellow citizens and respect for democracy at heart, we cannot proceed without the required formalism. We are the first ones to deplore the lower voter turnout, to deplore the lack of interest for politics.
Is it possible that we are prepared to effect major changes, so major that some people's ridings will disappear—as is the case for Saguenay—Lac-Saint-Jean and Mauricie—without even taking the time to provide the public with proper information on the impact of these changes? This is where we have a major disagreement with the government. Here, as in many other areas, what is worth doing is worth doing right.
The present time frame in this bill makes it possible to do as I am doing at this time in my own riding, that is to inform people of the changes being made and what to expect when the next election is called. People need to feel that we have taken the necessary time to keep them informed and have not rushed to push through at top speed the election of the future crowned head of the Liberal Party of Canada. The Liberals claim the purpose of what they are doing is to reflect as well as possible the new demographic realities. That is not where we have a problem; it is with the government trying to convince us of the urgency to do something. That is why we have no choice but to denounce this as false.
The last federal election was held in November 2000, which means that the government has until November 2005 under the law to call people back to the polls.
Since the order on the new electoral boundaries was issued on August 25, 2003, this leaves us until August 25, 2004 for the new electoral map to take effect. From August 2004 to November 2005 is more than a year. The government can very easily leave the legislation as it is, and call an election after August 25, 2004. That is, moreover, what logic would dictate, because it would allow Parliament to make progress on some very important matters that have, unfortunately, been at a standstill since the Prime Minister's announcement during the summer of 2002 of his intention to retire in February 2004. Everyone knows that the candidate for his position is the hon. member for LaSalle—Émard, whose coronation, nothing more than a formality, will take place in November.
I will digress for a moment to talk about this famous convention to be held in November, and the way the government has been paralyzed for more than a year now. Hon. members are aware that rumours abound in the best of families, in the most respectable of circles. The Parliament of Canada is no exception.
Although I am aware that rumours must not be given more credence than they deserve, I would still like our audience to know about the most persistent rumour that is going around the Hill at this time. It is obvious that the government does not know which way to turn, with a present PM and a future PM both around.
The members opposite would have a hard time telling us with a straight face which one of the two caucus meetings is the most important: the one organized by the member for LaSalle—Émard or the one organized by the member for Saint-Maurice, the present and real prime minister. This is why it is rumoured that Parliament could adjourn as early as November 7 until February. That is right, February. Because of an ambiguous situation, a clear lack of leadership and a childish fight for power, Parliament could recess for several months, leaving a lot of work undone. And if an election is called after that for the spring, we might as well give the Liberal government's score for its third mandate right away. The result will be quite simple. Nobody will ever forget it. Efforts: zero. Work: zero. Listening to the people: zero. Accomplishments: zero. In short, the Liberal government's global score on ten points will be zero, four times over.
But let us get back to the issue at hand. We were saying that this future prime minister should take office in February 2004. Is it really that urgent to call an election right away? There is no doubt that this is what he wants to do, since his friends and supporters are already working to pave the way for him, for instance by promoting Bill C-49. Why does the government feel it has to adopt an act before the new electoral boundaries take effect? Did it get confirmation that the member for LaSalle—Émard intends to call an election for the spring, only three years and a bit into its current mandate?
Parliament is neither a place for reflection nor a portrait gallery of former prime ministers. We are here to legislate on important issues. The Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration, of which I am a member, is currently considering Bill C-18 on citizenship. This is the government's third attempt since 1977 to modernize the Citizenship Act. Many witnesses have appeared for the third time before the committee due to the prorogation of work and election calls. This time, the committee has reached clause by clause consideration. Things are plodding along: slow and steady wins the race, as the saying goes. However, there is nothing to indicate that we will be able to complete work on Bill C-18 once again, particularly since we have had to put it on hold to consider the thrilling idea of a national identity card.
If the future prime minister decides to call a spring election, Parliament will be prorogued, and all our work will be abandoned. What credibility will this Parliament have when we need to call witnesses for a fourth time and start all over again? Will they trust our wish to move on this? With Bill C-49, we risk once again playing the fools, and it comes down to this institution's credibility.
That is the danger with this bill. It is much more than simply advancing the effective date of the new electoral map. It is about respecting people.
By considering an election call in the spring of 2004, the hon. member for LaSalle—Émard is saying that he is not bothered by such considerations. Voters who brought in a majority Liberal government in November 2000 expect more from him. The change in leadership will not change this government. It is the same party with the same members. Under the new prime minister, the government will still be formed by members of the Liberal Party of Canada, as per our democracy. It is and will be merely a continuation, no matter what that 65-year-old greenhorn would have us believe, in his attempt to personify renewal. The hon. member for LaSalle—Émard should not count his chickens yet; everyone will remember that he was one of the key players in this government over the past ten years. We do not need to be fortune tellers to know that this is not the coming of the messiah.
We still have to wonder why the future prime minister is so eager to call an early election. Instead, he should use the next few months to show Canadians how his government would be different. If he were not afraid to show his true colours, he would not be concerned that a few months would cost him a lot of seats in the House of Commons.
He is also showing a total lack of leadership. He is trying to avoid setting up a ministerial team and, in doing so, alienating some of his partisans, and that could cost him dearly in the next election.
Election organization is usually partisan in nature. There is however one basic fact that is really crucial to proper elections. I am talking about the administrative structure that ensures the proper enforcement of the Elections Act, including the role played by the returning officers, the ROs.
Raising the number of federal ridings from 301 to 308 will not be done without some major changes to the boundaries. When the boundaries are changed, the mandates of the ROs are over. New returning officers will have to be appointed, based on their knowledge of the law and their judgment—meaning their respect for democracy. Once the ROs are appointed, they will need to be trained and given the necessary tools to properly enforce the law. Support staff will then have to be trained, polling divisions will have to be set up, polling stations accessible to everyone, including the handicapped, will have to be located, and the list of duties to carry out goes on and on.
Reducing the time set aside to complete the electoral administrative process is deliberately choosing amateurism and a “who cares” attitude. As a matter of fact, with Bill C-49, it is “who cares as long as we win as soon as possible”.
The opposition parties have grown accustomed to seeing the government call general elections after only three years and a bit, even though it is a blatant waste of time, energy and, mostly, public money. By the way, do you know that the last federal election, which took place in November 2000, cost taxpayers close to $250 million? As a matter of fact, in 2004, it will be the fourth election since 1993 for a total of about one billion dollars. With four elections in eleven years, when traditionally there is one election every four years, one does not need to be an accountant to realize that we have had one too many under the Liberal regime. It is high time we looked at fixed election dates.
We are all ready to face the music should the next election campaign take place in the spring of 2004. However, we are no fools and we know full well that an election campaign is not something you plan on a paper napkin between the aperitif and the crème brûlée. To be well structured and more than smoke and mirrors and a litany of empty promises, something the party in power is so good at, a campaign must be carefully orchestrated. The stakes are huge and the challenges many.
First, each party must have enough time to make people understand the true choices as well as the ins and outs of the various stakeholders' positions. To do this effectively, political parties must rely on a proven and well thought out platform. That is done in cooperation with party members and in consultation with a number of social players in order to clearly reflect the needs of the people.
However, it is an entirely different story when it comes to the Liberal Party of Canada, which is not in the habit of consulting the public, let alone listening to and following up on their concerns. Nevertheless, for anyone who truly has the public's interests at heart, this process should be given the time it needs and not be rushed in a moment of defiance for purely electoral considerations.
The other challenge is to have the opportunity to oppose ideas and hold real debates that rise above the ongoing partisan trench wars. To do so, political parties have to rely on the mobilization of their members and try to convince those less inclined to support them so that their view is at least considered. If the campaign is organized on a whim, or a power trip, then some groups risk being left out in the cold. What do we stand to gain as a society if our government represents only a very select part of the electorate? The answer is obvious.
The organizational side of things is nothing without the many people who become actively involved during the election. And most volunteers do not come knocking at the door.
Hundreds, even thousands of people across Canada have to be recruited for this undertaking to run smoothly. These are people who, through their work, foster the emergence of a political conscience and sense of social duty. If we want to have a higher turnout than in previous years, then we must ensure that these volunteers do not feel rushed by a last minute deadline. Without their invaluable support, rest assured that voter turnout will decline at an even more alarming rate than we have seen over the past few years.
Among all these challenges, the greatest remains that of convincing the public that politics is much more than what they read in the paper or see on television.
Beyond partisanship, political power is the source of the major policy thrusts are made. Is this an issue so insignificant that a handful of elected members can decide to call an early election to serve their own personal interests? I think that our duty goes way beyond such considerations. Can we accept a voter turnout of about 60% in a so-called democratic society such as ours? I for one am not satisfied with that; in fact, it is a source of serious concern for me.
Can we ignore the fact that people are losing interest in politics while major debates are taking place? Let us look at issues on which the involvement and interest of the public are crucial. Should same-sex marriage be allowed? Should we have a national identity card? Should abortion rights be challenged? Should the federal government recognize its responsibility in the fiscal imbalance experienced by Quebec and the other provinces of Canada?
All of these issues concern the public. Public participation is important at election time, so that these topics can be discussed and voters can make informed decisions regarding the party they want to put into office. It is up to us to ensure that the public feels concerned by these issues and by our work.
However, it is difficult to ask people to become actively involved and make themselves heard in an election campaign when at the same time we are trying to pull a fast one on them.
It has been demonstrated that Bill C-49 is futile. By moving up the effective date of the new electoral map, we are denying the pulbic the right to be properly informed about the changes that will take place at the next election.
In closing, allow me to make a final prediction: if under the guise of showing respect to the public the government gives it a slap in the face and shows it contempt, rest assured the public will remember come election day. Unfortunately, this could result in aneven lower voter turnout than in the 2000 election. No one will be a winner, especially not democracy.