Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise on behalf of the constituents of Surrey Central to participate in the debate on Bill C-51, particularly on this Friday, possibly the last day of this session, to talk about enhancing and restoring democracy in Canada, which we must not take for granted.
Bill C-51 is an act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Income Tax Act. I believe members on this side of the House have many questions, and hopefully we will have further opportunity, but it would be nice if we could ask the government House leader questions.
We know why the bill is before us. The bill is designed to address the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in what is known as the Miguel Figueroa case. Miguel Figueroa is the leader of the Communist Party of Canada that was founded in 1921, and had been registered as a party under the Canada's Elections Act since registration first began in 1974.
In the 1993 federal election, however, that party lost its status as a registered party and all the benefits because it failed to nominate at least 50 candidates. As a consequence of deregistration, the party was forced to liquidate its assets, pay all its debts and remit the outstanding balance to the Chief Electoral Officer.
Mr. Figueroa commenced an action against the attorney general seeking a declaration that several provisions of the Canada Elections Act infringed various provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and were therefore of no force and effect.
The original decision in the case was rendered in March 1999 by the Ontario Court of Justice that described the requirement to field 50 candidates as draconian and held that it was in violation of section 3 of the charter, which guarantees the right to vote and to run as a candidate. However that decision was not what the Liberals wanted to hear so they appealed the judgment and won.
In August 2000 the Ontario Court of Appeal declared the 50 candidate requirement was within the bounds of reasonableness. Mr. Figueroa then took his case to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled in his favour and struck down the 50 candidate threshold. According to the court, this requirement treated small parties unfairly by denying the benefits granted to registered parties. This unequal treatment was found to infringe on the rights of citizens to participate in a meaningful way in the electoral process as protected by section 3 of the charter.
The court has, however, suspended the application of the judgment until June 27, 2004, in order to allow Parliament time to bring forward the necessary changes to the Canada Elections Act.
It is interesting how when it comes to the Canada Elections Act the government keeps appealing court decisions that suggest Canadians' democratic rights are being violated but when same sex marriage is the issue, these same Liberals are quick to say that the courts have spoken, and immediately alter legislation.
For the sake of restoring and enhancing democracy, they keep on appealing decision after decision to the courts. It seems that taking away the constitutional right of Canadians to voice their opinions in federal elections is worth appealing to a higher court but destroying eons worth of common law governing holy matrimony is not worth the bother. Give me a break.
According to departmental documents, the primary objective of Bill C-51 is to strike an appropriate balance between fairness to parties and the need to preserve the integrity of the electoral system. We therefore find that while the bill drops the 50 candidate rule, it also proposes new requirements applicable to all parties. These new requirements are meant to exclude from registration entities that do not intend to participate in the electoral process.
The new registration requirements include the following: that the party have at least 250 members who have signed statements declaring that they are members of the party and support its registration; that one of the party's fundamental purposes be to participate in public affairs by endorsing one or more of its members as candidates and supporting their election, and that the party leader make a declaration to that effect; that the party actually endorse a candidate in an election. Parties that do not endorse at least one candidate during a general election will be automatically deregistered. The last requirement is that the party have at least three officers in addition to the leader.
The legal recognition and registration of political parties is a relatively recent development. Registration was introduced in the early 1970s as part of various changes to Canada's electoral legislation.
Registration does convey significant benefits and opportunities to a party. Benefits include: entitlement to issue tax receipts, reimbursement of election expenses, access to broadcasting time, access to copies of the voters' lists on an annual basis, and continue to have their candidates identified on the ballots.
In 1993 the government of the day responded to the report of the royal commission on electoral reform and party financing, known as the Lortie commission, with amendments to the Canada Elections Act. It was Bill C-114 that made it mandatory rather than discretionary for parties to be deregistered for failing to nominate at least 50 candidates in a general election. The bill also made life more difficult for smaller parties by raising a candidate's deposit from $200 to $1,000. This effectively became a $50,000 obstacle for parties wishing to participate in the democratic process.
The bill, which also put in place the limits on third party advertising, which were recently found unconstitutional, became commonly known as the “gag law”. The bill had been debated for only 15 minutes in the House and was cunningly passed at the end of the day, on a Friday, before a two week recess.
The Globe and Mail referred to the bill as “the worst violation of Canadians' rights of free expression in years” and suggested it was an attempt by federal politicians, particularly on that side of the House, “to perpetuate themselves in office”.
If the 50 candidate rule was meant to eliminate small parties and their dissenting voices, it was a resounding success in stomping on democracy.
More and more Canadians were becoming disaffected by government and the old line political parties. One result was the emergence of fringe or protest parties. They served, and for that matter continue to serve, although to a lesser degree, an important function. They allow for the expression of ideas important to some voters. They allow Canadians to be heard, giving them a voice that might be lost in the larger parties.
The protest vote is more substantial than most would think, even in this House. In the 1988 federal election precisely 584,521 Canadians voted for fringe parties or independent candidates. To put that in perspective, only 540,941 Canadians voted in the Manitoba election.
Eleven fringe parties ran candidates in the 1988 election, including such old parties as the Social Credit and the CCF, and one new party that would soon become an important player in federal politics, the Reform Party of Canada, which had made a significant contribution to the political arena.
With the stricter enforcement of the 50 candidate rule, the 2000 election results showed considerable change. Only six fringe parties ran candidates but they collected about 300,000 votes.
Every time there are amendments to the Canada Elections Act the government seems to make it more difficult for Canadians to organize new political parties. The Liberals have shaped the act to perpetuate the monopoly on power of the major parties. The result is that it has a prejudicial effect on small parties and independent candidates.
For real debate and democracy, we need parties representing a broad range of interests. Many Canadians abstain from voting because they feel alienated by the mainstream parties. Voter turnout has been falling steadily since the 1980 federal election from 75% turnout to just 61%, a new low in the 2000 federal election. What about the other 39% of potential voters? This is a serious concern.
If we are truly interested in voter participation the system should be fair. We should make it easier for small parties to get on the ballot, participate in the debate, get media coverage and receive public funding.
The Liberals are dismissive of small parties. It is part of their arrogance. They fail to realize that there is more to democracy than winning power. Democracy is also about sharing ideas, respecting and protecting the rights of others, particularly minorities or minority opinions. Members of small parties are not under some false illusion that they will win the next election. However just because they will not be forming the next government, just because they are unlikely to even win a seat, does not lessen their enthusiasm for participating in the democratic process.
Participating in elections allows smaller parties to demonstrate the popularity of their platforms. In that way they might gain more adherents or their ideas might be accepted as a policy of a major political party. These parties also provide an opportunity for those dissatisfied with the major parties to register protest votes, which can tip the scale in a closely contested election.
Democratic reform has been a core principle of my political party, the Reform Party of Canada and now the Canadian Alliance for the last 16 years. Unlike the party opposite, we did not develop a temporary itch for democratic reform when we were seeking approval of backbenchers, or in a leadership struggle, or when we go to the voters every three and a half years. It has been a constant theme of this party since 1987.
Democracy is something in which everyone should participate, including the small parties. The 50 candidate rule of the Canada Elections Act not only attacks small parties but seriously infringes and endangers the public's right to free political expression and association, both rights guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It seeks to perpetuate the dominance of big political parties by hampering the establishment of small or new political parties.
The government's attempt to wiggle around the 50 candidate rule decision suggests that the Liberals are downright hostile to democracy; in fact, it seems like an elected dictatorship in Canada. We all know how the incoming leader of the Liberal Party staged a slow coup within his party. He and his cronies took over the control of the riding associations. They bullied their caucus, including the Prime Minister. They scared away the competing leadership candidates. Eventually the Prime Minister will be forced out prior to the end of his mandate.
The Liberals have been trying to make it as hard as possible for any political group to challenge them at the ballot box. Despite all this, still the incoming leader of the Liberal Party is doubting democratic reform. I do not know how he can say he stands for democratic reform.