Madam Speaker, it is a pleasure to finally have the opportunity to rise to speak to Bill C-19, if in the shadow of time allocation. I will get to aspects of the bill that I consider worthy and a number of provisions that I believe should be amended in committee, in a moment, but first I will address a number of the underlying issues that have affected the way this bill was mismanaged in its creation, as so many other pieces of legislation have been similarly in this Parliament.
The crux of the problem is not the COVID pandemic. The crux of the problem is the arrogance of the current government to approach virtually every practice and procedure as though it won a majority in 2019. The Liberals refuse to recognize the range of realities, most importantly the pragmatic humility a minority government must practise to govern effectively. The current Liberal government, as in the last Parliament, has ignored committee studies, reports and recommendations in the creation of legislation dealing with critically important issues, such as privacy, foreign affairs, the digital charter, regulating the Internet, medical assistance in dying, and now Bill C-19, an amendment to the Canada Elections Act, provisionally, for a possible general election in this pandemic, a pandemic that will last much longer because of the government's inability to properly procure vaccines and to accept Conservative advice when the pandemic first struck and at every stage since.
The Liberals, with selfish impatience, introduced Bill C-19 last December, not waiting for the completion of a long and thorough study on essential amendments to the Canada Elections Act to protect public health and democracy during a possible pandemic election. An interim report by the committee was, at the time, within days of being presented to the government. That report was pre-empted by Bill C-19, ignoring the suggestions of the exhaustive study and disrespecting not only opposition members on the committee and the many expert witnesses who testified during the study, but the Liberal chair and Liberal committee members, who had worked collegially with the opposition to develop comprehensive recommendations for such an important study.
The Liberals clearly intended then to rush the legislation through Parliament, as they have done with so many other flawed pieces of legislation from the beginning of the pandemic, but in this case the rush was not to help Canadians still in the grips of the pandemic, and it was not to prepare a plan for economic recovery to get Canadians back to work; it was in the political self-interest of preparing for the snap election they were thinking they might get away with. In doing so, they not only disregarded the work of parliamentarians, but wasted the valuable time of health officials and elections experts who appeared during the thorough procedure and House affairs committee study.
In doing so, they ignored the reality that an overwhelming majority of Canadians did not want then, and do not want now, a general election in a deepening pandemic crisis. If the Liberals had any doubts, that was surely driven home in the subsequent cycle of spiking infections and death across the country and the provincial elections conducted under pandemic conditions, most notably the profoundly disrupted Newfoundland and Labrador election.
The interim report of the committee contained extensive, reasoned advice based on the testimony of expert witnesses that would have improved Bill C-19 before it was tabled, but the final report of our committee, submitted to the government in February of this year, provided even more important advice. Most important, the committee advised the government and recommended unanimously, every Liberal member on the committee as well, that the federal government commit to not calling a federal election during the pandemic, unless defeated on a vote of confidence.
Further, Conservative members of the committee wrote a supplementary report, which reiterated the recommendation against holding a pandemic election and elaborated, noting that Bill C-19 was uninformed by the extensive content of the committee report and stating very clearly that the government has a moral obligation to refrain from triggering an election or orchestrating its own downfall, as the Prime Minister has already tried to do a number of times.
Because of the government's inability to manage its own legislative agenda, the bill before us has had precious few hours of debate.
A key element of Bill C-19 involves the change of the usual designation of an election day to be an election period of Saturday, Sunday and Monday, rather than just Monday, to provide more time for voting, social distancing and the precautions necessary to provide safe voting places. The bill also provides for the extension of voting hours of polls, if necessary to midnight, on any polling day, but not to exceed 28 hours for the three-day election period.
The bill also changes the maximum writ period to 53 days because of the many challenges anticipated for in-person voting or involving mail-in ballots. With regard to mail-in ballots, the bill allows electronic applications to be made with proper security protocols, of course, for mail-in ballots. They are very detailed provisions, which I believe would secure the safety of those ballots. There are also provisions for the safe casting of votes in institutions, in facilities where seniors and persons with disabilities reside.
I will support all of those provisions in the bill, on the condition that they expire automatically, completely and absolutely six months after the pandemic period is considered to have ended.
However, there are a number of elements in this legislation that I strongly oppose and believe should be amended. I believe they must be amended at committee, our procedure and House affairs committee, which was so ignored and so disrespected by the original tabling of this legislation in December.
First and foremost, there is a provision for counting mail-in ballots after the end of the official three-day election period. Given the new powers granted the Chief Electoral Officer for early mail-in ballots and extended poll hours, there is absolutely no reason, no excuse, for any ballots received after polls close on election day to be counted. Election day must be decision day.
As well, while I accept the extension of pandemic powers to the Chief Electoral Officer, I oppose the provision that would expand his determination of “satisfactory proof of the elector's identity and residence”. Pandemic protocols should not enable greater voter fraud than already exists in non-pandemic elections.
In conclusion, I want to remind all members of this House of the unanimous recommendation of the procedure and House affairs committee, each and every Liberal member included, that the federal government must commit to not calling a federal election during this continuing pandemic, unless it is defeated on a vote of confidence.