Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to take part in this debate. I will not presume to be as eloquent or as passionate as the previous two speakers, but I will do my best to speak on Bill C-23, known as the fair elections act. It is a bill I strongly support.
At the start, I want to commend the minister who has introduced and is shepherding the bill through the House of Commons. I think he has done an outstanding job in presenting the details and facts of the bill, which respond, frankly, to many of the recommendations of the Chief Electoral Officer and others in addressing the deficiencies of our electoral system in Canada.
However, we should all note on both sides of the House that we have one of the best electoral systems in the world here in Canada. We should be very proud of it, but we should never shy away from making improvements to it. I want to recognize the minister's work in this area as someone who gave one of the most impressive presentations to our caucus that I have seen in years, and I speak here as a member who has been here for over 13 years.
I want to return to the substance of the bill. As I mentioned, there are many issues that do need to be addressed. Frankly, this very comprehensive bill would do and implement 38 of the Chief Electoral Officer's past recommendations. I would like to go through them in detail.
I would caution members on both sides to stick to the substance of the bill. I know there are a lot of charges at Elections Canada, and I emphasize that they are “charges”. We should leave them to be investigated, but as legislators we should stick to the text of the bill itself.
First of all, the bill would protect voters from rogue calls and impersonation with a mandatory public registry for mass calling, prison time for impersonating elections officials, and increased penalties for deceiving people out of their votes. All of these issues, such as impersonating elections officials and voter suppression, are addressed and taken very seriously in this proposed legislation.
I speak as someone who has been a candidate in five elections. My local election officials with Elections Canada have done an outstanding job, with some 90% and more being volunteers. They do an excellent job and need all the help they can get, and this proposed legislation would do that.
This bill deals with the so-called robocalls issue, involving the impersonation of others using these types of technologies. However, it should be noted that these types of technologies can be used legitimately if, obviously, the person calling identifies themself and the purpose of the call. Many members of Parliament on both sides use them to do electronic town halls, as I have done. It is a very good method, but I obviously identify who I am, why I am calling, and engage citizens in that way. The bill would deal with impersonation, the first item I want to emphasize.
Second, the bill would give law enforcement sharper teeth, a longer reach, and a freer hand. It would allow the commissioner to seek tougher penalties for existing offences and empower the commissioner with more than a dozen new offences to combat big money, rogue calls, and fraudulent voting. A freer hand means that the commissioner would have full independence with control of his or her staff in investigations and a fixed term of seven years so he or she cannot be fired without cause.
The bill would crack down on voter fraud by prohibiting the use of vouching and voter information cards as replacement for acceptable ID, something one would presume the opposition would strongly support.
Studies commissioned by Elections Canada demonstrate mass irregularities in the use of vouching and high rates of inaccuracy on voter information cards. It is important to note, as the minister just pointed out in response to a question by the member opposite, that voters would still have 39 forms of authorized ID to choose from to prove their identity and residence. In order to ensure that election results are legitimate, especially in ridings where the vote is very close, I think it is entirely reasonable for us to require voters to present ID to show they are in fact eligible voters, as the parliamentary secretary to the House leader pointed out earlier.
Next, the bill would make rules easy to follow for all. Since the last election, the commissioner has had to sign 15 different compliance agreements with those who have breached elections law, some due to honest mistakes. Members of all parties have noted that the rules can be unclear. Complicated rules bring unintentional breaches and intimidate everyday people from taking part in democracy. That is why the fair elections act would make the rules for elections clearer, more predictable, and easier to follow.
Parties would have the right to advance rulings and interpretations from Elections Canada within 45 days of a request, a service similar to one provided by the Canada Revenue Agency. Elections Canada would also be required to keep a registry of interpretations and provide for consultations with notice to parties before changing them.
This is important and here I will point to someone who has been my official agent for a number of elections and the financial agent for the electoral district association in-between elections. He is a very reputable chartered accountant with Deloitte and Touche in Edmonton. He says that one of the things that is challenging as an official agent is that there are some grey areas. When he is not exactly certain what the rules are, he contacts Elections Canada and asks what exactly the rule is, and they always err on the side of caution. However, this is something that this legislation would help improve, by ensuring that all electoral district associations in all ridings across the country have one set of very clear and consistent interpretations.
We all have to recognize as members of Parliament that we may have an office manager, a campaign manager, and some people who may receive compensation. They do not in my campaign's case, as our official agents are typically volunteers. I am very fortunate to have someone who is very qualified, but these people are typically volunteers and need very simple, clear, and consistent rules so they know exactly what they are doing and can be sure they are following all the rules and regulations.
This legislation would also allow small donations and keep big money out. One of the changes we made as a government that I am most proud of was to ensure that corporations and unions and organizations would not control political parties. Individual donations are set to a maximum amount. That is one of the biggest changes that our government has made. Obviously, the previous government made some changes along those lines with Bill C-24, but our government made some further changes to ensure that citizens themselves would be the ones who controlled elections. As we all know, special-interest money can sometimes drown out the voices of everyday citizens. That is why this act would ban the use of loans to evade donation rules. It would also allow parties to better fund democratic outreach, with small and reasonable increases in spending limits while imposing tougher audits and penalties to enforce those limits. It would let small donors contribute more to democracy through the front door in a very transparent way, and block illegal big money from sneaking in the back door. The modest adjustments in the donation limit, up to $1,500 from the current $1,200, and election spending limits of 5% would let parties raise their own funds to reach out to Canadians. A total ban on union and corporate money would remain in place, as I mentioned earlier.
It would also respect democratic results. Members of Parliament and the Chief Electoral Officer sometimes disagree on an MP's election expense. This has happened in the past and will happen in the future for people from all parties. When that happens, the Canada Elections Act provides that the MP can no longer sit or vote in the House of Commons until the expense return is changed to the CEO's satisfaction. However, the removal of a democratically elected MP reverses the decision of tens of thousands of voters. The fair elections act would allow an MP to present the disputed case in the courts and to have judges quickly rule on it before the CEO seeks the MP's suspension. Again, this is a very fair, reasonable change that the minister is seeking to make.
Next, it would uphold free speech. The Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that the ban on premature transmission of election results infringes on freedom of expression. I can say as a westerner that it is interesting to be in Alberta waiting for the election results when various people are testing that, especially via social media today. The fair elections act would repeal this ban and uphold free speech.
It would provide better customer service for voters by focusing Elections Canada advertising on the basics of voting: where, when, and what ID to bring. Also, the fair elections act would explicitly require Elections Canada to inform disabled voters of the extra help available to them to vote. The act would also establish an extra day of advance polling. The proposed change would give Canadians access to four advance polling days: the 10th, 9th, 8th and 7th days before an election. This is one thing that I have supported very strongly and asked to be included in this legislation, because, depending on when the election is held, in our constituency I have an area where there are a lot of people who are working in and out of the country and in and out of the constituency. I have a very high seasonal population, especially in the Nisku area. So it is important to allow Canadians as much time as possible and as much access to voting as possible. We in Edmonton—Leduc have one of the highest advance polling numbers across the country. This follows along the lines of encouraging more people to vote.
I hear some of the comments and criticisms that the bill may be used in a partisan way. Absolutely not. In fact, I encourage Canadians and parliamentarians to read the bill and see what it is. Expanding the number of hours and days of voting is explicitly designed to increase the percentage of people who vote. Ensuring that we get as much information as possible out to people so that they know when and where they ought to vote is designed explicitly to allow more voters to have more opportunity to vote.
Another thing we would be doing along these lines is reducing congestion at the polls. The fair elections act proposes a number of practical changes that should make the voting process more efficient. It would streamline the process for appointing election officers and providing for additional resources for Elections Canada. It would allow for additional election officers to be appointed to ease the congestion of polling stations, which has been a problem in the past.
My time is up. I look forward to questions from my colleagues.