Mr. Chairman, first I'd like to thank you for the invitation to testify before your committee.
The Canada Elections Act is one of the few federal statutes that is consulted and used by a large number of Canadians. Whenever elections are held, thousands of Canadians must be able to understand this legislation, which sets out the procedures for the registration of voters, the administration of the vote and the conduct of election campaigns.
The scale and scope of such an operation must not be underestimated: there were 66,146 polling stations in the election of May 2, 2011, including 1,669 mobile polling stations, and approximately 350,000 volunteers and temporary election officers participated in the process.
In my opinion, any amendments to the Canada Elections Act must reflect the values upon which Canadian society is founded and must flow from the fundamental principles that characterize a sound electoral democracy. One of those key principles is guaranteeing and promoting citizens’ right to vote.
During the 1980s, Canada took pride in the fact that the average proportion of citizens who participated in federal elections was 75%—a voter turnout rate far in excess of those reported in many western democracies, including the United States. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case: the average voter participation rate for the five federal elections held since the year 2000 is only 61.9%, which is not much higher than the participation rates for U.S. presidential elections. This is a shamefully low voter turnout rate. Any properly thought out reform of our electoral statutes and regulations must, first and foremost, seek to correct this situation.
The provisions of the bill extending the voting period at advance polling stations constitute a measure that meets this fundamental objective. Unfortunately, other measures, such as those concerning the use of voter information cards as proof of identity and the practice of one elector vouching for the identity of another, are ill advised. This last provision undoubtedly contravenes the provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Charter is unequivocal on this issue. It says: “Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote...” It has been clearly established in case law that a right guaranteed under the Charter can only be restricted insofar as an overriding public interest is demonstrated and, in that case, only insofar as the imposed restrictions are justified within the meaning of section 1 of the Charter and have a minimal adverse effect on a fundamental right enjoyed by Canadian citizens.
Banning, for specious reasons, these practices that have not so far been the subject of widespread complaints from candidates across Canada and which the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada considers essential for allowing thousands of Canadians to exercise their right to vote, does not meet the criterion of proportionality and is not consistent with the sense of ethics that must prevail when such matters relating to the very pillars of our democracy are being considered.
The second key principle is ensuring the fair and equitable nature of the electoral process. To ensure that the electoral process remains fair and equitable, the Canada Elections Act imposes spending limits on all who participate in election campaigns, including private individuals and groups who are independent of the candidates and parties. Bill C-23 does not call into question these basic provisions, the just and reasonable nature of which has been confirmed in decisions by the Supreme Court of Canada. However, this goal is undermined when ambiguous provisions, encouraging circumvention of the rules and undermining Elections Canada’s ability to verify and confirm that the practices adopted do not contravene the Act, are incorporated into the legislation. This is the case with section 376(3), which makes it possible to exclude from election expenses the commercial value of services provided to a registered party for the purpose of soliciting contributions from individuals who contributed at least $20 in the five years preceding the date of the vote.
I do not deny that it would be worthwhile for a party to solicit individuals who have previously supported a party or one of its candidates. However, if the cost of this activity is too high to fit under the expenditure ceiling, transparency should be exercised and the ceiling raised by a reasonable amount, rather than undermining Canadians’ confidence in our electoral system by adopting provisions that encourage reprehensible behaviour and imposing additional persnickety rules on our parties.
The third principle is that of bolstering the primacy of political parties in Canada’s political system.
Political parties play a vital role in our parliamentary democracy, in particular through the profound influence they have over access to the House of Commons. The erosion of Canadians’ confidence in political parties, as evinced, among other things, by how difficult it is for parties to recruit new members, does not bode well for the future. Although this phenomenon is only a partial reflection of current social trends that find expression in so many other ways, political parties are not helping their situation by refusing to conform to social standards that are perceived as normal requirements in an advanced society.
Bill C-23 would have made a useful contribution in this regard if provisions had been added to ensure that political parties were required to produce documents in support of their spending reports. Parties received more than $30 million in public funds in 2011. Also, political parties should be subject to rules concerning the protection and use of personal information. Such requirements are imposed on businesses, and rightfully so. No legitimate reason exists to exclude political parties and their associations from a similar requirement.
The final principle is that of boosting Canadians’ confidence in the integrity of the electoral process. In its work, the Royal Commission clearly identified the need for a mechanism that would allow the Chief Electoral Officer to issue interpretation notes and guidelines on the application of that act. Such a mechanism is included in the electoral legislation of many of the world’s leading democracies, and the resulting benefits are well documented. Consequently, Bill C-23’s establishment of such a mechanism is to be commended.
As to the detailed terms and conditions involved, I believe your committee would do well to examine how other democracies, such as the United Kingdom, for example, fared in their implementation of such provisions.
Bill C-23 fills another important gap in the existing legislation by adding provisions concerning elector calling services. Overall, the proposed measures are consistent with the recommendations of the groups of experts who studied this issue, particularly those formulated by the IRPP. You have already heard suggestions for improving the new regime, in particular with regard to the information retention period and the advisability of adding to the list information that must be kept, such as the telephone numbers that have been called. In any case, it is crucial that the mechanism concerning calling services be in force when the next election is held.
The proposed regime does not prevent a third party from signing an agreement with an elector calling service provider; it frames this activity. That being said, I think it would definitely be preferable for the cost of such a service to be expressly recognized in the definition of election advertising expenses.
In conclusion, I would like to say that Bill C-23 concerns several other fundamental aspects of our democratic regime, some of which I could not touch upon in the amount of time allotted to me. I would of course be pleased to discuss them during the question period, should you deem it appropriate to bring them up.