moved that Bill C-586, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Parliament of Canada Act (candidacy and caucus reforms), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I, like many of my colleagues in the House, have spent countless hours in this place over the years. We have spent countless years debating and arguing and trying to convince our colleagues of our position on various issues. Like my colleagues in the House, I have participated in numerous debates, sat for hundreds of hours on parliamentary committees, and sat late into the evening, as we will once again tonight, on debate. I have run in five general elections, standing up for the principles and ideals that I believe in and for my constituents in Wellington—Halton Hills.
I say all this because the House of Commons is really like a second home to all of us because of the amount of time we spend here. My colleagues are like family, and like all families we have our agreements and our disagreements and we have our ups and downs. Like family, we are honest with each other. If we are honest, we will acknowledge that we have a problem in Canada's Parliament.
The Senate scandals and last year's controversy in the House about whether or not MPs have the right to stand and speak make it clear that decades of changes to Parliament and our electoral laws have weakened the role of elected legislators and centralized that power in party leaders. It is clear that Parliament needs to be reformed.
Barrels of ink have been spent documenting this problem throughout the decades. Countless books, academic papers, columns, and journals have been written.
The problems in Parliament today are not the result of any one party or any one leader. They are not the result of any one set of actors. They are the result of changes that have happened through successive Parliaments, through governments and leaders of different stripes from different parties.
Party leaders themselves have acknowledged this problem. Party leaders from John Turner to Preston Manning, from Paul Martin to current party leaders, have called for measures to address this “democratic deficit”.
Despite all the barrels of ink, despite all the platform commitments, despite all the attempts to change, little if anything has happened. Arguably the problem is worse today than it ever has been, so today, in this month, in this year, the time has come to act, and act we must, because it is clear that Canadians are becoming increasingly disillusioned with their Parliament and their democracy.
Parliamentary reform includes both the House of Commons and the Senate, but before we reform the Senate, we must reform the House of Commons. The reason is very simple: in our Parliament there is only one place where the people have a democratically elected voice, where people are democratically elected on the basis of population, where people have an appeal to the powers that govern this country, and that is the House of Commons, not the Senate of Canada.
Furthermore, it is clear with the recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling that Senate reform, whether it is in the form of abolition or whether it is in the form of term limits and direct election of senators, will require a constitutional amendment and the consent of provincial governments and provincial legislatures.
The bill in front of us today addresses reform in what I believe to be the more important chamber in this Parliament; not only that, it is achievable through a simple piece of legislation.
I have spent a quarter of my life in this institution, and I believe there are three reasons for the problems we face today.
First, party leaders approve party candidates. In fact, to my knowledge, Canada is the only western democracy where by law party leaders have the power to approve party candidates in an election. To my knowledge, no other western democracy has given party leaders this enormous power over their party candidates.
Second, the unwritten conventions that have governed parliamentary party caucuses have changed over the decades, and they have changed and evolved in a way that has advantaged the caucus leadership and disadvantaged caucus members.
Third, the role of the caucus in reviewing the leader has been little used and the rules are opaque. This has weakened the accountability of party leaders to their respective caucuses in a system of parliamentary democracy wherein caucuses once elected the party leader.
As a result, Canadians are losing confidence in the ability of their elected MPs to represent them in Ottawa and increasingly feel that MPs represent Ottawa to them. Voter turnout has declined and many feel disconnected from politics and political parties. In the last federal election, four out of 10 Canadians did not vote. According to Samara, a democracy think tank, 50 years ago, nearly 80% of Canadians voted in federal elections. Today voter turnout is closer to 60%, and the most dramatic declines have taken place in the last 25 years. According to Nik Nanos, the pollster, just over 60% of eligible voters cast their ballots in the last federal election, and among those under 30 years of age, fewer than 40% bothered to vote.
Before we suggest that this problem is endemic in all western democracies, if we look at data from Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and the United Kingdom, voter turnout in their recent federal elections was 93% in Australia, 74% in New Zealand, 67% in the United States, and 66% in the United Kingdom. Canada is the outlier in voter participation in national elections. This data comes from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
I want to emphasize why the role of elected MPs is so important. In many democracies, such as the great democracy to the south of us, voters and citizens have three franchises. They have three votes at the national level. They vote for the head of government, the president; they vote for a member of their upper chamber, a senator; and they vote for a member of their lower chamber, a congressman or congresswoman. The same is true in France, where citizens vote for a president, a member of their lower chamber, and indirectly, for members of their upper chamber.
In those democracies and many others, citizens have three avenues to pursue when they want their democratic voice effected, when they want their representation heard. However, in Canada and most Westminster parliamentary democracies, voters have one vote, one franchise, at the federal level, and that is a vote for their local member of Parliament. That is why the role of that local elected member of Parliament in the Canadian system is so incredibly important.
Many colleagues have questioned why we should use legislation as a means to implement this. They have pointed to other Westminster parliamentary democracies and have suggested that in those Westminster systems, the rules have not been effected through legislation, and they are correct. I would say two things in response to that argument. First, legislation is important for two reasons. First, it is important to apply these changes to all parties so that no one party can game the system to its advantage, so that the rules are consistent for all parties. Second, for over 20 years, we have been talking about reforms that will address the democratic deficit, and to this point, little, if anything, has happened. Legislation is a clear and transparent way to implement the changes necessary.
I want to make a point on the need to write the rules down. If we look at other Westminster parliamentary democracies, they have all written the rules down about either the review or the election of the party leader and the role caucuses play in the review or the election of the party leader. The U.K. conservative caucus has written down rules in a document called, “The Fresh Future”. It is filed with the library of Parliament in the United Kingdom.
The U.K. Labour Party has a document that details the rules for the election of the party leader and the participation of caucus in that election. The New Zealand Labour Party has rules that clearly outline the role of caucus in reviewing and electing the party leader. The New Zealand National Party has rules that clearly outline the role of the caucus in the review and election of the party leader.
The Australian Liberal Party has clear rules on the review and the election of the party leader, as does the Labor Party. It has clear, written-down rules about the review and election of the party leader. I say all this because we are the last holdout among Westminster parliamentary democracies in writing down the rules on the role caucus should play in either the review of the leader or the election of the interim leader, and that is why this legislation is necessary.
Transitions in power, whether they be in opposition or government caucuses, are vitally important in a democracy. It is the hallmark of a democracy. Clear rules-based systems for transfers of power are especially important for the caucus that is in power.
Now, some have suggested that by restoring local control over party candidates, as this bill would do, we would get problem candidates. Well, we already do. We can all think of the instance in the Conservative Party when we had an embarrassing situation in 2006, when a candidate smuggled 112 bottles of booze across the U.S.-Canada border. We can all think of the New Democratic candidate who videotaped himself smoking marijuana in the Vancouver Lower Mainland and gave Mr. Layton a great deal of indigestion when he uploaded the video to YouTube. We can all think of the white supremacist who ran as a Liberal Party candidate in the last election.
Every party has candidates who cause embarrassment for the party. It happens today and no doubt it will happen under local control. Furthermore, by restoring local control, there is nothing to prevent the local officials from deciding that a party candidate needs to be removed as a party candidate.
Finally, before 1970, the parliaments of Canada were not characterized as full of crazy and extreme candidates. Those parliaments were populated by Canadians who did the hard work of governing this country. Therefore, the need for the party leader veto simply is not there and needs to be removed.
We have a double check in our system. First, we must ask local party members to select the party candidate in an electoral district, and then the voters in that electoral district have to decide if that party candidate should be their member of Parliament. If both groups of Canadians, local party members and the voters in that riding, decide that a particular candidate should be their member of Parliament, we should respect their choice and respect their vote.
Review of the rules for the interim leader and for the election of the interim leader are vitally important. What would happen if, god forbid, the head of a G7 government were to suddenly become incapacitated or die while in office? What exactly are the rules and the role caucus plays in electing a new interim leader who would also become, based on the appointment by the Governor General, the full prime minister of this country, with all the powers vested in that office? These rules need to be a lot clearer, and they need to be written down.
There is a lot more I could say about the importance of this legislation and why I think members in the House should support it, but I will finish on this thought.
Democracies around the world are the most prosperous, most stable, and most productive societies, and that is no accident. This economic prosperity, productivity, and stability derives directly from the democratic foundations of these societies.
In Canada, it is the health of our democratic institutions that is going to determine the economic prosperity our children and grandchildren will enjoy in these years of the 21st century. In the long run, democratic checks and balances on power are the most important way to ensure long-run outcomes that ensure prosperity and stability.
It is clear that Canadians want us to reform Parliament. We must reform Parliament, or the reform will be forced upon us by Canadians themselves, so let us not be timid about the changes proposed in this piece of legislation. Let us be bold. Let us send it to committee for further study and amendment.
If we are asking Canadians to once again trust us as politicians, if we are asking Canadians to once again trust their elected officials, the House of Commons, and the Senate, the Parliament of Canada, to govern this body politic, we as politicians and members of this House must trust Canadians. We must trust Canadians with the vote, whether they be local party members electing a local party candidate, Canadians electing their member of Parliament to make decisions on their behalf, or Canadians in this House of Commons exercising their judgment as to whether a colleague should sit inside or outside of caucus or whether a party leader should be reviewed and an interim leader elected.
We have to trust. That is the foundation of this bill. I ask members of this House to support this bill at second reading and send it to committee for further study and debate.