Thank you very much, members of the committee, for having me. I really appreciate the invitation to speak to these important issues.
I'm a professor of constitutional law and election law at the University of Ottawa, just down the road. I'm going to focus on what I think are four or five of the key take-aways in the bill. It's 349 pages, by my count, so I'm happy to discuss issues other than the ones I raise in my initial presentation.
The first one I want to flag, which Mr. Mayrand discussed, is the pre-writ spending limits. As of June 30 in an election year, there will be a spending limit, with the inflation factor, of about $1.5 million for political parties and $1 million for third parties. I think this is an extremely important and overdue amendment to the Elections Act. We've seen third parties and political parties from across the political spectrum—I think it's a non-partisan issue—using one of the large loopholes that exist in the Elections Act.
We have very tightly regulated spending during the election campaign period. That was found to be constitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada in a case called Harper. The obvious loophole was that spending rules were not applied in the pre-writ period, so you could simply spend millions of dollars, unregulated, uncapped, prior to the start of the official campaign. Third parties have increasingly been doing that in Canada, especially since the 2011 election, as have political parties, so having a pre-writ limit is extremely important.
If anything, I would have liked to see an even longer pre-writ period. I know there are constitutional concerns. The Harper case was about spending limits during the campaign period. This is pushing the constitutional envelope a little bit by putting in spending restrictions in the pre-writ period. The bill tries to deal with that by having it start only on June 30 rather than earlier, as occurs in some jurisdictions; changing the definition of “election advertising” to call it “partisan advertising” so that it will capture less advertising; and then also having quite generous, I would say, spending limits in terms of the total amount that's permitted in the pre-writ period. All those provisions in the act to try to manage the constitutional risk make sense to me, but I think that given the example we have in the United States and given the data we have about spending by third parties and political parties in recent Canadian elections, the bill could have been even more aggressive in pushing out a longer pre-writ period. I do think it's very necessary to have in the pre-writ period spending limits of the kind the bill has put in place.
I should say it would also apply to some activities beyond just advertising, which is important given that third parties are now doing many of the things we would traditionally understand political parties to have done in the past. There's been tons of evidence in the United States, in a number of recent election cycles, of their version of third parties doing things like Get Out The Vote, organizing campaign events, doing messaging—all the sorts of things that parties traditionally have done. I think that's an important feature of Bill C-76.
The second aspect of the bill that I'd like to discuss is the non-resident voting provision. Previously, you would lose your right to cast a ballot if you lived overseas for five or more years. The bill would get rid of that restriction. I also think that's a long overdue change and a really positive development for the more than one million Canadian citizens who may wish to exercise their right to vote. Even among those Canadians who are abroad for fewer than five years, there's been a small percentage voting. I think this will encourage parties and encourage citizens to be more engaged in the electoral process, and hopefully, will drive voter turnout up.
There is a Supreme Court case, which the committee will be aware of, Frank v. Canada. We are waiting to hear what the Supreme Court will say about the constitutionality of the five-year limit. Even if the court decides it's constitutional, it is still within the jurisdiction of Parliament to decide whether or not to get rid of the rule. Another feature of Bill C-76 that I applaud is expanding the right to vote to non-residents who are abroad for more than five years.
One area in which I'm a bit more critical of the bill is voter privacy. I paid great attention to Mr. Mayrand's comments. As you'll know, the bill requires parties simply to have policies and to address certain specific issues in those policies. Political parties do already have policies on privacy.
I would like to see provisions expanded so that parties will be obliged to actually follow specific rules, to not just have a policy on an issue but to meet certain standards, which the public and private sectors more generally do. Political parties are one of the only exceptions to PIPEDA and the Privacy Act. I think that is an anomaly that needs to be rectified, because parties, as you well know, now collect, use, and analyze enormous amounts of personally sensitive data.
In the earlier round of questions, there was a question about how it could be adapted to political parties. I think people should have a right to be notified if there is a breach of the rules. They should have a right to know what information a party holds about them.
Also, under very limited circumstances, I don't think political parties should be permitted to sell the data they collect. We want to facilitate the connection between citizens and parties. That's something we don't want to stop, but part of the trust mechanism there is that voters believe their data is going to be used for the political process, not for profit-making.
Second-last, on social media platforms, there is a new offence in the bill in terms of how social media platforms or advertising platforms generally should not be able to sell space to foreign entities. I think that's a very positive move. I would just draw the committee's attention to the current rules in the Elections Act that are imposed on TV broadcasters. They cannot charge more than the lowest basically available rate to any political party seeking to advertise. What this effectively means is that it gives political parties a right to have advertising time at a reasonable rate, but it also means that the same rate has to be charged to all political parties.
Political advertising is now happening to a great extent on Facebook. There is nothing in the current Elections Act or in Bill C-76 that would prevent Facebook, through what they call their “ad auction system”, from charging differential rates to different political parties. The current rule for broadcasters is in the Elections Act for a reason. There's no principled reason why that shouldn't also apply to social media advertisers, which may have commercial interests at heart when they're making decisions about their algorithms.
I would just conclude by saying that one of the other very positive features in the bill, which I don't think has gotten enough attention, is the 90% reimbursement for child care expenses for candidates. That is an important and quite practical measure to try to encourage a more diverse array of candidates in the political process.
Those are my initial comments. I look forward to your questions on any of those issues or the other matters in the bill.
Thank you very much.