moved that Bill C-23, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and other Acts and to make consequential amendments to certain Acts, be read the third time and passed.
Mr. Speaker, here we are arising to debate at third reading the fair elections act. This has been an excellent process in considering the democracy that we have been fortunate to inherit from our ancestors in this country, to build upon its foundations and to make it even better.
Today, we have before the House the fair elections act, a bill widely supported by the Canadian people, based on the principle of fairness and universal suffrage. It would make it easier for law-abiding Canadians to vote and harder to break the law. It would make it easier for law-abiding Canadians to contribute more financially to democracy, while making it harder for special interest groups to break election finance laws. It would make it more difficult to vote illegally or fraudulently, while giving new opportunities for Canadian voters to cast their ballots conveniently throughout an election campaign.
The bill has been subject to a great deal of debate, a variety of opinions, and some modest amendments, which built upon the foundations of the original document; so let us review now the final product that the House will consider with its vote on the bill tonight.
To start with, Canadians would be required to bring ID when they cast their ballots. In the last election, it was possible for people to arrive at their voting location without a single piece of ID and cast their ballot by having someone else vouch for their identity. Identity vouching would be no more. Every single Canadian voter would be required to bring ID showing who they are before they vote.
Beyond that, there would be a safety valve in the system to help those people whose address may not appear on their identification. For example, in communities throughout rural Alberta, Canadians often have drivers licences that do not contain a home address, but rather a post office box. That creates complications at the voting booth. In such circumstances, or ones like it, the voter would be allowed to co-sign an oath with another voter from the same polling division who does have ID and proof of residence in hand, to confirm the residency of the voter.
There would be a list of oath takers, and Elections Canada would be required by law to check that list for duplicates. Duplicates would of course be evidence of multiple voting. If that occurred, it would automatically be sent over to the commissioner, whose job it is to investigate breaches of the Canada Elections Act. Signing of a false oath or using oaths to vote more than once would subject a voter to a $50,000 fine or up to five years in prison.
There would also be a mandatory external audit to examine whether or not Elections Canada followed all of these procedures. That is particularly important, considering the abysmal record of the agency in managing the vouching process during the last election. The agency had roughly 50,000 irregularities linked to vouching last time, and 165,000 irregularities throughout the organization in other areas of its management on election day. This mandatory external audit would hold the agency accountable for this kind of mismanagement and these sorts of irregularities. That is an enormous step forward. Those protections were not in place in the last election, nor was a mandatory ID required.
The presence of ID would ensure that we know who people are before they vote, so that if they, for example, misused, abused, or misled in the taking of an oath, we would be able to track them down afterwards, having actually seen their identification.
Under the status quo, people who used vouching to commit voter fraud might never have been tracked down because they never provided ID and their identify is therefore not even registered in the system. These new safeguards would prevent against abuse, and they would embed a very simple principle into our system: if people want to vote, they must present ID.
I realize that this position is contentious within the House. The NDP and the Liberals believe that people should be allowed to vote with no ID whatsoever, that they should be able to walk in and have someone vouch for their identity. I disagree, and so do Canadians. Before I even announced that there would be some amendments to this bill, 87% of Canadians believed that identification should be required in order to vote. We agree with that 87%.
In addition to requiring ID, we would eliminate a form of identification that has proven unreliable and susceptible to abuse. In the last couple of elections, the agency has allowed voters to use their voter information card as a form of ID. This card is error-ridden. It has millions of mistakes. Some voters even get more than one of them, allowing for multiple voting to occur.
In the last election, there were errors with 12%, or roughly 1 in 6, of these voter information cards. Even today, the Chief Electoral Officer says there is a roughly 6% error rate within the voter information cards. That percentage might not sound like a lot, until we consider that there are 25 million voters in Canada, so off the top of my head, 6% equals almost 2 million errors in those cards. That presents an unacceptably high level of risk. As a result the fair elections act would end the use of the voter information card as a form of ID.
Furthermore, the fair elections act would close financial loopholes that have allowed some powerful interests to get around the donation limits. Some years ago, the House of Commons passed into place, with a great deal of consensus, restrictions on the amount that people could give and the sources from which those funds could come. Corporate and union money was no longer allowed. Individual donors were restricted to $1,000 a year. With inflation, that is about $1,200 now.
The problem is that some have found loopholes. Liberal leadership candidates, for example, took enormous loans from powerful interests and just never repaid them. In essence, those loans are identical in their effect to illegal donations. For some reason, Elections Canada did not pursue an investigation into this breach of the law, and these Liberals were allowed to get away with that practice.
New Democrats, on the other hand, were particularly creative. They invited people to leave enormous donations in excess of the donation limit in their testaments or in their wills. The NDP received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations bequeathed to them because the limits did not apply to dead people. Although dead people cannot vote, they can contribute under the status quo. The fair elections act would put a nail in that coffin and end the practice of dead donors. From now on, wills and testaments would be subject to the same donation limits as those applied to living Canadians.
All this is designed to end the abuse and the loopholes that have permitted big money to creep back into our electoral system. We understand that big money can drown out the voices of everyday Canadians. That is why our laws would attempt to restrict the flow of that money. It is so that parties can never take enough money from one donor to require them to be indebted to that donor with their public policy decision making.
These rules, whether to prevent voter fraud or to keep out unacceptably large donations, would be useless without enforcement. That is why the fair elections act would strengthen enforcement by making the chief investigator of election law independent. We would be giving him sharper teeth, a longer reach, and a freer hand.
Sharper teeth means that he would have tougher penalties for existing offences. A longer reach means that he would have many new offences to crack down on big money, voter fraud, and other forms of abuse. A freer hand means that he would be completely independent.
Right now, the commissioner is subject to the control of the CEO. The CEO picks his staff, directs his investigations, hires him, and can fire him at any time without cause, according to the law. This is not independence.
The fair elections act would give the commissioner control of his own staff and his own investigation, and guarantee that he cannot be fired without cause. That is the kind of independence the Canadian people expect from a chief investigator. I expect that independence would vastly improve the quality and consistency of enforcement that Canadians enjoy in their electoral system.
One of the best ways to ensure that people do not break the rules is to make those rules known and consistently applied. For example, if the agency were to allow a practice for many years and then change its mind suddenly, as it has been known to do, then it is hard for political actors to know which set of rules they are supposed to follow. As a result, the fair elections act would require the CEO to issue legal interpretations and advance rulings on requests from political parties.
For example, if a party is unclear as to how the agency would enforce a certain rule, it could send a request for an advance ruling to ask the CEO if its plan to do a, b, c, and d would be allowed. The CEO would be required to respond within a confined time period, and the party would then be able to use that advance ruling to carry out its actions in compliance. The ruling would be binding on Elections Canada.
In other words, the agency would not be allowed to tell a party that something is allowed and then change its mind after the fact. Furthermore, it would set a precedent so that all parties could follow the same practice as one party had been allowed to do. In other words, there would be one set of rules for everybody. This is a massive improvement and it represents the use of an ounce of prevention instead of a pound of punishment.
The democracy we enjoy should never be taken for granted. All of us have been given this sacred opportunity to choose who shall govern our country. Unfortunately, many Canadians choose not to exercise that right. One of the biggest obstacles to voter participation, according to Elections Canada, is a lack of basic information about how to participate.
Now most Canadians understand that they can vote on election day. That knowledge is widely understood. However, half of young people are not aware that one can vote before election day. A poll by Elections Canada showed that three-quarters of aboriginal youth were not aware that they could vote before election day, through an advance ballot, a mail-in ballot, or by going to the Elections Canada local office on any day throughout the campaign.
That knowledge would be useful in helping people get out and vote who are too busy, out of town, working, or having family or health obstacles. That is why the fair elections act would focus Elections Canada's advertising on where, when, and how to vote.
In fact, with the passage of the fair elections act, the agency would only be allowed to advertise on the basics of voting. That is a change from the system right now, and it would ensure that the information the people of Canada receive from their election agency is relevant to their role.
Finally, for the vote to matter, it has to be honoured. Under the status quo, Elections Canada is able to attempt to remove a member of Parliament, through suspension, from the House of Commons if there is a financial dispute over election spending.
I think all of us agree that if someone flagrantly and deliberately breaks election law in order to be elected, that person should be suspended, but we have to make sure that the allegation is in fact true before reversing the decision of thousands of voters by the edict of one agency head. Therefore, the fair elections act will allow any member of Parliament whose financial claims are disputed by the agency to exhaust all levels of legal appeal in the courts before the CEO can come to Parliament and ask for that MP's suspension. This is altogether fitting and proper. It is not right for an agency head to attempt to overturn the results of a democratic election and to cancel out the votes of tens of thousands of voters unless and until a judge has agreed with the allegation the CEO has presented. The fair elections act will imbed that required judicial proceeding in place, rather than the current system, which is undemocratic and unfair to voters.
We in this party and in this government believe that voting should be as easy as possible. That is why we are adding an additional day of voting during which Canadians can show up and cast their ballots in advance, in case they are not able to do so on election day.
This is a summary of the changes we are putting forward before the Canadian people. They have been widely debated and thoroughly considered in the committees of both the House and the Senate, and now we move forward to decision day. Having had all of this debate and having considered some modest but fair changes, it is time for people to decide.
This bill will allow Elections Canada to focus on its core mandate of running elections fairly and efficiently while removing from its mandate aspects that really do not belong with the agency at all. It is a major step forward for democracy. It will protect the independence of our elections, and it will allow the Canadian people to have full confidence in the apparatus constructed to carry out the vote on election day.
I invite members of all parties, having carefully considered it, to vote in favour of the fair elections act tonight and to celebrate it as a step forward in the evolution of Canadian democracy, building upon our longstanding traditions and democratic heritage to move our country forward into the future of its democracy.