Thank you to the chair and to the committee for inviting the Progressive Canadian Party to present important evidence, in our view, concerning Bill C-76, the elections modernization act.
The Progressive Canadian Party is a continuation of the tradition in Canadian politics of a Tory party willing “to embrace every person desirous of being counted as a progressive Conservative”, in the words of Sir John A. Macdonald. The PC Party was led, until his recent passing, by the Honourable Sinclair Stevens, who was a minister in the Clark and Mulroney Progressive Conservative governments, and is now led by former PC MP Joe Hueglin.
I'm speaking today as communications and policy chair on the PC Party national council, but I also contributed to the Elections Canada advisory committee of political parties in 2015; again in meetings in 2018, and in fact yesterday; and previously served, before political involvement, as an Elections Canada DRO and Elections BC voting officer and clerk. I hope this experience adds value to our testimony.
Evidence and comments today will be limited largely to implications of Bill C-76 in the context of today's fixed-date election law introduced in 2006, the Fair Elections Act, sometimes described as the voter suppression act by Progressive Canadians, introduced as Bill C-23 in the 41st Parliament, and other proposed electoral reforms that have been part of public discussion of this bill. I welcome questions from the committee in its larger context or details insofar as I may be able to contribute positively to your study of the bill.
As an aside, I will note that because Bill C-76 is important in the evolution of our democracy, vigorous debate in the Senate is likely to follow given the new partisan spirit introduced by appointments in the previous government, which have been moderated but not checked by the new independent advisory committee recommending persons for Senate nomination by the Prime Minister to the Governor General. I have further comments on that. If you wish, we can take care of that in questions.
Change in Westminster parliamentary democracy may be characterized as a balance of continuity and change, of evolutionary trial and error, and at its best when it proceeds by what Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus described as “by little and little”. Unexpected consequences can be moderated, and ill-advised choices mitigated or remedied. Bill C-76 is about evolutionary change. The need for progressive evolutionary parliamentary change is suggested by the 42nd general election.
The 42nd general election of Parliament, on October 19, 2015, well illustrates the need for many of the measures recommended in Bill C-76. The 2015 election was the first one honouring the fixed-date election law. The 41st Parliament had seen the parliamentary opposition in effect neutered by the unavailability of parliamentary responsible government by excesses of party discipline in a majority government and the fixed-date election law.
Omnibus bills and limited debate on controversial legislation, including the Fair Elections Act, became the norm rather than the exception. The last year of the 41st Parliament was reduced, arguably, to a campaign to elect the next parliament. By the end of the session, in June 2015, campaigns and campaign spending by parties and third parties were ramped up before rules applying to writ-period spending came into effect. An almost unprecedented 78-day writ period followed in which party spending limits allowed nationally, and in all 338 riding elections, doubled per candidate. Money became key. The distance between public interest and party interest widened, and concern about Bill C-23 voter suppression grew.
I refer you to “Memo on the Fixed Date Election Law, Money and the Corporate Political Party in 2015, and the implications for Smaller Political Parties, and Independents.” The written copy is appended to this document.
Many of these concerns were anticipated. The Progressive Canadian Party addressed several of these concerns and proposed remedies, which were discussed in a submission solicited by this committee, PROC, in September 2006, when the fixed-date election law was originated as Bill C-16, and in a submission to the Elections Canada Advisory Committee of Political Parties, ACPP, on election advertising, in which the implications of fixed-date elections were discussed. Both documents are available on the EC website or by request from Elections Canada.
Bill C-76 proposes a new pre-writ period in a fixed-date election, beginning June 30, at the end of the session in the year a fixed-date election is to be honoured, and a maximum limit of a 50-day campaign writ period. We cite the following remarks in the PC Party 2015 submission to Elections Canada by way of guidance on ways in which Bill C-76 may be improved:
It is widely reported that political parties or candidates are conducting political campaigns well in advance of the writ being dropped to begin the formal election period. At present, there is no limitation on the spending of political parties or candidates outside of the writ period.
In other Commonwealth countries, notably the United Kingdom, political advertising outside of the writ period is subject to legislated “long campaign” and “short campaign” limits administered by the Elections Commission.... EC advice and interpretative instruction for the 2015 election is strongly recommended.
Advertising activities by the Government of Canada and government departments have included public service announcements of programmes “subject to parliamentary approval.” Such announcements may be deemed partisan advertisements funded by public monies and taxpayer dollars by the agencies contracting to issue such public service announcements because they concern proposals, generally by the governing party of the day, which have not received parliamentary approval.
While this practice is not strictly election advertising in advance of the writ period, the effect is the same. It is recommended that these practices be qualified and that a pre-writ period in the fixed-date election years be extended to mirror long campaign practices administered by the U.K. Elections Commission. This recommendation would apply if the fixed-date election law is not repealed in the interest of protecting the principle of responsible government at the heart of Canadian Westminister Parliamentary democracy.
The Progressive Canadian Party strongly agrees with the intention and certain of the provisions in Bill C-76, which are intended to reverse the outcomes of Bill C-23, the Fair Elections Act, passed in the 41st Parliament, and to see these corrections as part of the continuity, change, and evolution in Parliamentary practice, by which the unintended consequences or error in previous legislation may be mitigated or remedied. In particular, we commend the restored role of Elections Canada and the Chief Electoral Officer in providing public information during elections and measures to ensure that every qualified Canadian may take part in riding elections of a Parliament in Canada.
We recommend restoring the voter identification card issued by EC as acceptable identification of voters at the polls. We note that in other places and countries, requirements for photo ID and other limitations have had the effect of limiting voter participation and have been described as voter suppression in some sources.
The Honourable Sinclair Stevens, speaking for the PC Party national council in 2014, underscored the seriousness of these concerns, stating that:
It is the view of the Progressive Canadian Party that Bill C-23, entitled the Fair Elections Act...will betray basic principles of democracy in Canada even if substantially amended. Bill C-23 will deny the right to vote to large numbers of Canadians and as such must be challenged in the courts as unconstitutional...in ways indicated by scholars of Canadian constitutional law and political science published in the national media, Progressive Canadians believe the Fair Elections Act must be rejected as unfair, undemocratic, and deserving of constitutional challenge even in light of amendments which are being recommended by members of the House of Commons and in Senate committee. Bill C-23, the Fair Elections Act is deeply flawed in fundamental ways and for its apparent intent.
The media release from which this is drawn is appended to this document.
Bill C-76 is a welcome remedy for some of the flaws of the Fair Elections Act. We welcome this remedy. Finally, on the margins of debate concerning Bill C-76 can be heard voices calling to revisit the question of electoral reform, which for them means replacing riding-elected MPs in each of Canada's 338 electoral districts according to single-member pluralities or majorities with party proportional representation according to the national or regional party popular vote.
We elect members of Parliament to the Parliament of Canada in riding elections held in each riding separately in a general election of a Parliament when Parliament is dissolved or in by-elections between general elections. We elect members of Parliament, not parties, movements or prime ministers. Party vote, or distributing seats in the House of Commons according to the proportion of votes received by party members nationally, is not relevant.
These facts about Canadian electoral practices are consistent with the constitutional architecture of Canada and with Canadian realities of space and population. Diversity of interest and of opinion, even within party groups, often varies widely in distant parts of Canada. The view in the north, the coasts, the prairies, and the industrial heartland can vary considerably in ways of party discipline, whether formal or as a part of movement politics, yet it is not reflected in party proportional representational systems.
We strongly advise that the debate on Bill C-76 not be distracted by those who purpose to achieve partisan advantage by advocating for systems of party proportionality regardless of the merit of the movement or party view they may represent. Democratic rights and objectives are not achieved, sustained, or protected by changing the system to achieve partisan advantage; they are achieved by the power of persuasion and a willingness to do the hard work of achieving democratic societal consensus.
I'd like to thank the committee for taking the time to consider our representation and my remarks. I hope they will help to guide you in meaningful debate and conclusions toward modernization of Canadian elections. There are documents appended to this, which you may find expand upon some of these issues that time here may not have provided for. I thank you again.