moved that Bill C-76, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and other Acts and to make certain consequential amendments, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to begin the debate at second reading of Bill C-76, the elections modernization act.
Our democracy is stronger when more Canadians, not fewer, are able to participate in our elections. Our government believes that democratic institutions and election rules must keep pace with changes in society and the expectations of our citizens. The elections modernization act is an important step forward for our democracy and for the ability of Canadians to participate in and trust our democratic institutions.
The changes we are proposing under the elections modernization act will make the electoral process more accessible to all Canadians, will help modernize the administration and enforcement of election rules, will make the electoral process more secure and transparent, and will protect the integrity of the Canadian electoral system, while better protecting the personal information and privacy of Canadian citizens.
We believe that our democracy is stronger when as many Canadians as possible participate in it.
In 2014, the previous government passed the Fair Elections Act. This was a regressive piece of legislation that former chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand said contained measures that would “undermine [its] stated purpose and won’t serve Canadians well.” One hundred and sixty academics signed a National Post editorial stating that the Fair Elections Act would “damage the institution at the heart of our country’s democracy: voting in federal elections.” The Globe and Mail ran five editorial board pieces, pleading with the Conservatives to reconsider that legislation.
The Harper Conservatives did not listen to reason. They did not pay attention to evidence, and Canadians paid the price. After the passage of the so-called Fair Elections Act, we saw the disenfranchisement of more than 170,000 Canadian voters who lacked sufficient identification. That is according to Statistics Canada. We saw it become more difficult for Canadians to get information about where, when, and how to vote. We saw it became easier for elections lawbreakers to actually evade punishment.
Unlike the Conservatives, we are listening to Canadians. We want Canadians to be able to participate in our democracy.
By repealing the unfair provisions of the Harper government's Fair Elections Act, we are making it easier for all Canadians to vote.
In April, I was pleased to introduce the elections modernization act on behalf of our government. Not only would it undo the controversial aspects of the Conservatives' so-called Fair Elections Act, but it would strengthen our democratic institutions by making voting more accessible to millions of Canadians who have previously faced unfair barriers.
I will illustrate some of the proposed changes by focusing on four groups of voters: Canadians with disabilities, women and men of the Canadian Armed Forces, Canadian citizens living abroad, and those who do not have the identification required under the Fair Elections Act.
To ensure Canadians with disabilities are better able to participate in our democracy, Bill C-76 confirms existing accessibility practices and further requires a combination of measures to be available to all persons with disabilities, regardless of the nature of that disability. Bill C-76 creates financial incentives for political parties and candidates to accommodate electors with disabilities. These could include providing election material in accessible formats or adding wheelchair ramps to campaign offices, as examples. It makes changes to election expense provisions so that candidates with disabilities or candidates who are caregivers for young, sick, or disabled loved ones would find it easier to run for office.
For these individuals, costs related to this caregiving could be paid from either personal or campaign expenses and would not count against spending limits. These expenses would be reimbursed at up to 90%.
Canadian Forces members make tremendous sacrifices defending our democracy. It only makes sense that we make sure they are able to participate in it as well. In the most recent election, 68% of Canadian electors voted. Among members of the Canadian Forces, the participation rate was only 46%. The bill would give Canadian Forces personnel the same flexibility as other Canadians in choosing how to cast their vote.
Canadians living abroad are no less dedicated to our country than those who reside within its borders, yet many are not able to vote. The bill restores voting rights to more than a million Canadians living abroad by removing the provisions that electors cannot have resided outside of Canada for more than five years and must have an intent to return.
Debates in the last Parliament highlighted a fourth group of Canadians who have challenges when it comes to participating in elections. These are citizens who do not have the required identification. The previous government stopped the use of voter information cards as an allowable piece of ID to establish residency. This happened despite Elections Canada's observation that some four million Canadians do not possess a driver's licence. Canadians impacted most by the Conservatives' regressive law change included university students, indigenous peoples, and in some cases seniors who live in long-term retirement facilities.
We will restore voting rights to these Canadians and we will also restore the practice of vouching for identity and residence. This will help bring eligible voters back into our electoral process. Those who vouch for others would continue to be required to make a solemn declaration and would not be able to vouch for more than one person.
Conservatives may try to say that this would make it easier for non-citizens to vote, but that is simply not the case. In his 2011 compliance report for Elections Canada, Harry Neufeld, an independent elections expert, recommended “widening use of the Voter Information Card as a valid piece of address identification for all voters.”
To ensure that only Canadian citizens are able to vote, the bill would authorize the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship to provide the Chief Electoral Officer with information about permanent residents and foreign nationals living in Canada. This would help ensure that only Canadian citizens are included in the register of electors and would help to create a more accurate and up-to-date list of voters. The bill would also grant the commissioner of Elections Canada the ability to impose a financial penalty on individuals who vote when they are not able to do so.
Today Canadians are busier than ever. They work irregular hours. They do shift work. They travel for business and pleasure, and they have parenting or caregiver responsibilities that start before dawn and end late in the evening. As a result, more and more Canadians vote at advance polls. We would increase the hours during which these polls are open to provide more flexibility and enable more Canadians to participate in the electoral process.
The bill would restore the Chief Electoral Officer's authority to conduct public education and information activities to help inform Canadians about the voting process. Through the bill, we would empower young Canadians to pre-register for elections so that when they turn 18, they are automatically registered to vote. As well, the bill would make it easier to hire Canadians aged 16 to 18 as election officers, giving them an opportunity to get engaged earlier in the electoral process.
While we are making it easier for Canadians to vote, we are also making it more difficult for elections lawbreakers to evade punishment. The bill sanctions the powers of the Commissioner of Canada Elections and offers a wider range of remedies for enforcement.
Through the bill, the commissioner would again report to the Chief Electoral Officer and would have new powers to impose administrative monetary penalties for minor violations of the law, have the authority to lay charges, and be able to apply for a court order to compel testimony during investigation of election offences.
Budget 2018 would also provide $7.1 million to support the work of the Office of the Commissioner of Canada Elections. This funding would help ensure that the Canadian electoral process continues to uphold the highest standards of democracy.
In 2017, the Prime Minister expressly gave the Minister of Democratic Institutions a broad mandate to enhance the openness and fairness of Canada's public institutions. Part of that mandate is to deal with foreign influence and emerging technologies.
Last year, the member for Burlington, my predecessor and soon-to-be successor in the role of Minister of Democratic Institutions, asked the Communications Security Establishment to conduct a study on cyber-threats to our democratic processes. This first-of-its-kind public report found that there was no evidence of nation states interfering in the 2015 Canadian election, but that there has been an upward trend in cyber-threat activity against democratic processes globally.
We take that report seriously. It found that over a 12-month period, 13% of elections globally had some level of foreign interference. We recognize the seriousness of this threat. We cannot afford to ignore these threats and we have a responsibility to defend the integrity of our electoral system.
We are moving forward to protect our democratic institutions from cyber-threats and foreign interference. In budget 2018, the Government of Canada provided approximately $750 million for the creation of a new Canadian centre for cybersecurity. Budget 2018 also sets aside more than $100 million over the next five years for the creation of a national cybercrime coordination unit. These organizations will bring together expertise from across government, coordinate investigations, and protect and defend our government and democratic institutions from cyber-threats.
Bill C-76 takes a step forward in addressing potential manipulation of social media by prohibiting the malicious use of computers where there is an intent to obstruct, interrupt, or interfere with the lawful use of computer data during an election period.
Current provisions of the Canada Elections Act that deal with publishing false statements are, according to the Commissioner of Canada Elections, unenforceable. The bill before us would narrow the focus to information about criminal records and biographical information. A new provision would prohibit distribution of material intended to mislead the public as to its source.
Most importantly, we are closing the loophole that has previously allowed foreign entities to spend money in Canadian elections.
As a result of news reports earlier this year, Canadians are rightly concerned about the way private corporations use their personal information for political ends. I want to reassure Canadians that in Canada these corporations are already regulated under the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, PIPEDA, but that does not mean our work is done. Through this bill, we are requiring for the first time that political parties be transparent about the steps they are taking to protect Canadians' personal information.
I also hope that colleagues on the procedure and House affairs committee, PROC, will revisit their study on privacy and political parties and provide recommendations on the issue. It was less than a year ago that PROC took a look at this issue and recommended no changes, but I think all members would recognize that the ground has shifted on this issue and that it bears revisiting by PROC. PROC represents all parties, so it makes a great deal of sense for it to be the vehicle to do a deeper dive into this.
Some of the measures in this legislation may be familiar to members of the House, as they were introduced previously in Bill C-33. This underscores the breadth and depth of input and advice that has gone into the bill before us.
This legislation has also benefited from the input of the Minister of National Defence and the Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities. I would like to thank them for their work. I want to thank parliamentarians who contributed to this at PROC, and I also want to thank Elections Canada. Eighty-five per cent of the recommendations from Elections Canada after the last election were incorporated into the bill. The report's findings after the last election are very much at the heart of the bill. Again, I want to thank the members of PROC, who conducted a detailed analysis of the Chief Electoral Officer's report.
Our government is committed to strengthening Canada's democratic institutions. We are committed to maintaining the trust of Canadians in our democratic processes. Bill C-76 would advance that agenda, and I urge hon. members to move expeditiously on it so that it can be in place for the October 2019 general election.