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Evidence of meeting #28 for Procedure and House Affairs in the 40th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was question.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

John Hollins  Former Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario, As an Individual

11:25 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Joe Preston

Thank you, Mr. Cuzner.

Mr. Lukiwski.

11:25 a.m.

Conservative

Tom Lukiwski Conservative Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre, SK

Thank you very much.

Thank you, Mr. Hollins, for appearing today.

I'd like to go over for a moment a few of the things that have been raised by Rodger and Marcel on the rejected ballots. You've identified the fact that probably—and I think you're quite correct—the reason there was such a high level of rejected or spoiled ballots is that people were there to vote in the general election and didn't really care about the referendum question. Therefore, they just left the ballots blank.

That obviously lends itself to the larger question as to whether or not referendums should be held in conjunction with general elections. We had a witness yesterday, Professor Boyer, who stated unequivocally—I'm not sure if you saw the testimony or heard it—that he believed referendums should not be held in conjunction with elections. He stated a number of reasons. One example he gave was what happened in 1976 in Saskatchewan. The provincial government, the Progressive Conservative government of the day, brought forward a referendum question on public financing of abortions. His interpretation—and I agree with him, and I was in Saskatchewan at the time—was that he believed the PC government of the day wanted to have this question on the ballot paper as a referendum question in an attempt to get people out to vote against public funding of abortions, and those people would more than likely have voted for the PC Party.

In other words—although he didn't say so in these words—I think the impression was that he felt that political parties might be able to use referendum questions to manipulate public opinion one way or the other politically. He felt that those two events should be separated. I'm wondering first if you have an opinion on that, or if you still believe that referendums should be held in conjunction with elections. I think that's one of the primary questions this committee is going to have to grapple with when we get down to discussing.

I'll be quite honest with you. My original thought process was that for cost savings, there is no reason for me to think otherwise than that the referendum should be held in conjunction with elections. I used to share exactly the same opinion as you just stated this morning. After Professor Boyer's submission yesterday, I'm starting to rethink my position. I think that's a big question that we're all going to have to come up with an answer to, whether referendums should be held in conjunction with general elections. You've stated that you think they should. Based on what I've told you about Professor Boyer's opinion, do you have any reason to doubt that your position is the one you want to stay with?

11:30 a.m.

Former Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario, As an Individual

John Hollins

Because I trust the political entity entirely, I don't know that I would ever suggest that it would take advantage of a situation like that.

I'm not convinced that they should be run at the same time, actually, because I think the waters become muddy; however, I don't know what the risk-reward ratio is. It will cost you more money to get a lesser turnout to get the decision, and it goes back to the political entity's asking, can we really move on a referendum initiative that gets a 35% turnout? In Ontario, that's what you're going to get municipally. If it wins by 50% of that, say, you're going to have a situation in which 20% of the population is going to make a decision on a referendum.

It's really a question of what the will of the political entity is when they go forward with the referendum to ask the question. In the States it's done very differently.

11:30 a.m.

Conservative

Tom Lukiwski Conservative Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre, SK

I have one last question, on expenses, but very quickly. I asked this question to Professor Boyer yesterday. What happens if you have a stand-alone referendum and only have, say, a 15% voter turnout, and the vote is split almost equally between yes and no? Let's say that 51% say yes to whatever the question is, which means that roughly 7.5% of the entire population is casting the winning opinion on a binding referendum.

Do you think there should be minimum turnout levels required before any referendum is binding?

11:30 a.m.

Former Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario, As an Individual

John Hollins

I think that would fly in the face of our right to not participate.

11:30 a.m.

Conservative

Tom Lukiwski Conservative Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre, SK

Professor Boyer basically said the same thing. He said that if people aren't interested, then those who are should have the ability to let their opinions be known.

11:30 a.m.

Former Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario, As an Individual

John Hollins

I guess the comparison would be with the question whether or not, if a candidate runs and doesn't get a certain percentage, you allow them to take their seat.

11:30 a.m.

Conservative

Tom Lukiwski Conservative Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre, SK

The last question is on contributions. Correct me if I'm wrong here, but I believe I heard you say that in Ontario during the last referendum, there were no limits on contributions or expenses by referendum committees.

11:30 a.m.

Former Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario, As an Individual

John Hollins

That's correct.

11:30 a.m.

Conservative

Tom Lukiwski Conservative Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre, SK

It goes back to a question I raised a few meetings ago with a previous witness, which we've discussed on a number of occasions since.

If a referendum question were held in conjunction with a provincial election—or a general election federally, for that matter—and if the question were one of some political sensitivity, similar to what happened in 1986 in Saskatchewan, there are currently federal expense limits that individuals can contribute to candidates and political parties—$1,100 per year. However, if there were no expense limits or contribution limits on referendum committees, it is conceivable to think that individuals, corporations, unions—political parties, for that matter—could contribute to a referendum committee that could spend untold dollars to promote a position on the referendum question that happened to be similar to the political position of a certain political party.

In fact, they could do indirectly what they're not allowed to do directly to influence voter intentions. Do you see any conflict in having a separate regime for contributions on a referendum from that for the political financing regime we have currently?

11:30 a.m.

Former Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario, As an Individual

John Hollins

In Ontario, definitely I do. The question was how you level the playing field, just as you say. If a yes campaign spends $50 million and the no campaign spends $100,000, what is the influence level? Is there one, or isn't there? I don't know. The people who make the rules have to weigh that when setting the rules up.

For instance, in Ontario, you had a double event, so what was the priority for the money? Was it the referendum or was it the political entity? The politicians stayed out for a reason.

11:30 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Joe Preston

Thank you, Mr. Lukiwski.

Madame DeBellefeuille.

11:30 a.m.

Bloc

Claude DeBellefeuille Bloc Beauharnois—Salaberry, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Mr. Lukiwski has already asked a lot of the questions I had. Mr. Hollins, let's talk about the 2007 referendum. Could you tell us how the inmates' right to vote issue was dealt with? Did they have the right to vote in the referendum and the election? How did it work in Ontario?

We want to know because the issue of inmates' right to vote in referendums is still not settled. We have a lot of questions about that. Based on your experience, could you tell us how it worked?

11:35 a.m.

Former Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario, As an Individual

John Hollins

In the Ontario election, everybody who was qualified to receive a regular ballot also received a referendum ballot. There was no differentiation whatsoever. So inmates who would vote normally would also get the second ballot. However, I should explain that in Ontario inmates vote using a proxy system; consequently, they empower someone to exercise their franchise on their behalf.

11:35 a.m.

Bloc

Claude DeBellefeuille Bloc Beauharnois—Salaberry, QC

Since we are trying to modernize the Referendum Act, would you recommend that we give inmates the right to vote in a referendum?

11:35 a.m.

Former Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario, As an Individual

John Hollins

I don't know that this is a question that I would deal with. If they have the right to vote in a general election, I don't know why they wouldn't on a referendum.

11:35 a.m.

Bloc

Claude DeBellefeuille Bloc Beauharnois—Salaberry, QC

I want to know what you think. You can give your opinion. If you do not want to, that is your prerogative.

Nevertheless, would it be appropriate, in accordance with certain values, to give inmates the right to vote in a federal referendum? Would you recommend that? No witness tells us what to do, we just want to hear your professional opinion.

11:35 a.m.

Former Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario, As an Individual

John Hollins

To reiterate, I don't know why you wouldn't give them the right to vote. If you're giving them the ballot to vote for members, I don't see why you wouldn't give them the right to vote in a referendum.

11:35 a.m.

Bloc

Claude DeBellefeuille Bloc Beauharnois—Salaberry, QC

I am afraid that I may have misunderstood what you said, because you were speaking quickly and the interpreter had a little trouble following you.

Could you tell me whether you had trouble separating referendum-related expenses from election-related expenses? Was that a problem you encountered, as Chief Electoral Officer?

11:35 a.m.

Former Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario, As an Individual

John Hollins

That did not prove to be a problem at all, because you had to register separately. Parties and constituency associations were not allowed to participate, so that there would be no duplication. A candidate wanted to become involved had to register separately. None did. But it was very clear how the process would be controlled, and the rules were different.

11:35 a.m.

Bloc

Claude DeBellefeuille Bloc Beauharnois—Salaberry, QC

Thank you.

11:35 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Joe Preston

Thank you very much.

Mr. Christopherson.

11:35 a.m.

NDP

David Christopherson NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

Thank you, Chair.

Welcome to Parliament Hill, sir. Your first two years at Queen's Park were my last two years at Queen's Park. It's good to see you here.

I'm going to ask for your opinion, off the top of your head. You referred to Australia. A lot of us still struggle with the notion of whether we should be forcing people to take their civil duties and whether doing so infringes on their rights or whether it is a part of being a citizen to guarantee that we can maintain those rights.

May I have your thoughts on that question just briefly, off the top of your head?

11:35 a.m.

Former Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario, As an Individual

John Hollins

It's going to be quite an opinion.

11:35 a.m.

NDP

David Christopherson NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

You're from Ontario, so we expect that.