Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to my Bill C-312 on the appointment of returning officers.
First, I should point out that, while I am the one in charge of this issue right now, a review of the appointment process for returning officers has been a concern of the members of the Bloc Québécois, particularly since 1993. I would go as far as to say that it was already a concern after the first round, from 1990 to 1993.
Particularly since 1993, we in the Bloc Québécois have had the opportunity to lament this process, an attitude shared by many of our colleagues from the Conservative Party and the NDP, in our private discussions. I also remember discussions with some colleagues from the Liberal Party at the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, where they agreed that the process for the appointment of returning officers was totally archaic and outdated.
Suffice to quote a recent statement of the hon. member for Edmonton—Mill Woods—Beaumont, I believe, who is now sitting as an independent. I do not have the clipping in front of me, but recently, about 10 days ago, he described the current process as archaic.
Canada boasts about giving lessons in democracy around the world. Chief Electoral Officer Kingsley often goes on conference tours. Members of this House travel to emerging democracies to supervise elections. We boast about being a model of democracy, we are so proud but, on the face of it, the process is flawed from the start because returning officers are not all fully and totally independent, which they should be in order to be able to play their role effectively.
That is why this bill is intended to clean up our political practices in the appointment of returning officers. Under the current system, the appointments are made by the governor in council or the government.
We can see that there are currently 308 filled returning officer positions across Canada. There are also 10 or so vacant ones, I might point out, while an election could be called within a week or two. On May 5, Chief Electoral Officer Kingsley told the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs that he was very concerned about 10 such positions still being vacant at this time.
So, upon examination, we see that the appointees have one thing in common. Directly or indirectly, they have been involved with the Liberal Party of Canada. They are friends of the government, former organizers of the governing Liberal Party. We have seen this first-hand; they are former Liberal Party candidates who were defeated. They would have us believe that, through divine intervention, they have suddenly become non-partisan overnight; they have forgotten their years as Liberal Party supporters and, now, they have become the guardians of democracy and the selection process by which our future parliamentarians will be chosen.
This bill proposes an open and transparent process where positions, based on pre-established selection criteria, would be posted in newspapers. Ultimately, the most qualified people would be appointed as returning officers.
There will be opposition to this from the start. I can already hear people saying that this cannot work and that it is impossible to make it work. I would submit that this process has been used in Quebec since 1980.
Some people in the House are tired of hearing about the situation in Quebec with regard to returning officers. When Quebec does something well, the immediate reaction is to say that it is no good and that it would not work. I am sorry, but since 1980, Quebec's returning officers have been selected according to an open and transparent process, using newspaper advertisements. Anyone can apply and there is no doubt about how they are appointed.
An open and transparent process where positions would be advertised in newspapers would support the free and democratic election of the people's representatives, in other words, the members.
Under this bill introduced by the Bloc Québécois, the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada could supervise the appointment of returning officers himself. However, I must clarify that we do not want the Chief Electoral Officer to make the appointments. His role would be to supervise the appointment of returning officers, who would be selected based on their competence, merit and qualifications to fulfill such duties. The bill introduced by the Bloc would give the Chief Electoral Officer powers similar to the ones his Quebec counterpart has had since 1980, as I mentioned earlier.
Quebec's electoral system is known around the world for its effectiveness and its democratic transparency. Again, a Quebec institution is showing its know-how. By passing this bill, the House of Commons would eliminate once and for all the ambiguity that undermines the authority of the Chief Electoral Officer in his relationship with returning officers. Under the current system, returning officers feel that they are accountable to the party in office, that is to those who appointed them, and not to the Chief Electoral Officer, who is the guardian of the democratic process.
I have been a member of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs since 2000. My colleague from Verchères—Les Patriotes was our party's chief whip at that time. On several occasions, we complained about irregularities in the electoral process, but the Chief Electoral Officer, Mr. Kingsley, responded that he had to work with the returning officers who were appointed because he did not have the authority to fire them since he was not the one who had appointed them. Indeed, only the person who hires them has the right to fire them. This rule does not exist anywhere else in the area of labour relations or staffing. I know since I worked in that area for 16 years before becoming a member of Parliament. However, in this case, only the person who hires has the right to fire. The Chief Electoral Officer himself would like nothing better than to have the authority to make these appointments.
I do not have much time, but I would like to mention a few examples. At the last election, out of the 75 Bloc Québécois candidates in Quebec, 54 succeeded in getting elected. We did an inventory of some of the problems experienced at the last election. We had conducted the same exercise following the 2000, the 1997 and the 1993 elections. The problems that surface at every election are the same. This means that the existing system does not work. Citizens cannot be assured that returning officers are competent.
I will just mention one small example that occurred in my riding. At the last election, in Baie-Saint-Paul, which is located in the Charlevoix region, the returning officer did not have enough ballots for the advance polls. The act was amended regarding people who vote in advance polls.
Unlike before, in order to vote in advance, it is no longer necessary for a person to mention the reason why he or she will not be able to vote on election day. That requirement no longer exists. Some people think it still does, but it is no longer necessary to say why you will not be available. You simply have to say that you want to vote in advance. Of course, you have to identify yourself and provide some ID.
In Baie-Saint-Paul, before the June 28, 2004 election, from six to ten people went to vote in advance, because they were not going to be able to vote on June 28, either because they would be out of town or for some personal reason. Would you believe that these people were not able to cast their ballots, because the returning officer did not have enough ballots? This is as bad as it gets.
We discovered that there were returning officers in many ridings who either did not know the Canada Elections Act at all, or who did not know it well. I should also mention that the training provided to poll clerks and deputy returning officers is totally inadequate. It includes reading some manuals and watching a video cassette without any explanations.
It seems that June 28 is only a few days after June 24, which is la Fête nationale du Québec. The returning officer wanted the training to be on the evenings of June 23 and 24. While I do not wish to cite specific cases, I can say that this was in your very own riding, Mr. Speaker, Hull—Aylmer. In that riding, the returning officer, a good Liberal probably, wanted to train the deputy returning officers on the evenings of June 23 and 24, that is right in the midst of the Quebec national holiday celebrations. I am sure that you will agree with me that this is totally unacceptable. In another riding, it was discovered that the returning officer was the president of the Liberal association for the riding. It is time somebody woke up. This is Earth calling. The returning officer is the president of the Liberal riding association in Ahuntsic. Then one could raise the problem election staff had in getting appointments to see the returning officer. Or his refusal to provide a copy of the other candidates' nomination papers, although it is written in black and white in the law that each candidate is entitled to see the nomination papers of the other candidates.
Poll clerks have to be of the other party, that is the party that got the second highest number of votes in the last election, but in Beauce the returning officer mentioned to the director of the Bloc Québécois organization that the substitute clerks absolutely had to be Liberals. In yet another riding, the returning officer hired a poll clerk unable to read or write.
I am getting the sign that my time is nearly up. I am almost tempted to seek unanimous consent to continue until question period, because I have a whole lot of cases I could give. Since the member for Gatineau has just arrived, I would add that the returning officer wants to give training on the evenings of June 23 and 24. This goes for Gatineau as well as Hull—Aylmer, and no doubt a good Liberal has been appointed returning officer for Gatineau.
In conclusion, given the horror stories such as those—all chapter and verse—not to mention the others I will spare you concerning polls that were inaccessible, poorly equipped, poorly adapted to the purpose, which I could talk about until tomorrow—I am sure that my colleagues will vote in favour of Bill C-312.