Thank you, Mr. Chair.
I am really happy to be before this committee, which has been part of my professional life for close to 10 years. I am here today as an individual, so any views or comments that I may make as part of this appearance are my personal views only and do not represent the views of Elections Canada.
In my opinion, Bill C-76 manages to significantly modernize services to electors. It makes the electoral system more accessible and inclusive, and it improves the fairness of our system.
You will not be surprised that, consequently, I very much endorse the proposed legislation. Bill C-76 was informed by the feedback of electors, the experience of the 2015 election, and the experience of field officials, candidates, parties, which fed into my recommendations report of 2016, which was itself reviewed and the object of three reports by this committee. My point here is that much in the bill has already been extensively studied and generally endorsed by this committee.
I have heard there are new issues—issues that have emerged or become more acute since the various studies. The third party regime has become seen as overly exposed to foreign influence, as well as being somewhat unfair in the context of fixed-date elections. Foreign influence or interference in national elections in some countries suggests that Canada needs to be proactive. Social media and technology bring great value to public discourse and civic engagement, but as you all know, we are increasingly finding that they can be used to disinform and manipulate opinion and undermine confidence in our institutions.
A possible approach would be to set out clearly that parties must adhere to PIPEDA principles; provide an independent review, either by the Privacy Commissioner or an independent auditor; and provide for appropriate remedies for failing to adhere to the principles.
The third party regime also sees significant and very substantial, probably the most substantial, reform that is contained in Bill C-76. It expands the regime to include not only advertising but also partisan activities as well as election survey expenses, setting a limit of $350,000 during the writ period and $700,000 during the pre-writ period, excluding, in that case, issue advertising. It does require three reports to be filed by a third party. I'm not sure why this is needed. It seems to be a lot more than is required from candidates or any other participants in the electoral process. They must maintain a separate bank account to pay for their expenses. They are prohibited from using foreign funds and are subject to anti-collusion provisions to circumvent spending limits. Their returns must be audited, and the auditor must certify that no foreign funds were used.
What Bill C-76 does not do is put an effective restriction on the commingling of funds. Foreign money may be laundered through various Canadian entities to make it look Canadian—that's also an issue, to my mind. There's no limit on the source or amount of contributions except that they cannot be from foreign entities, of course.
A possible approach to addressing those concerns would be difficult to conceive in the context of Bill C-76. Designing a new system would require that we set up a system of contributions analogous to what exists for other political entities, yet it would be fraught by challenges in meeting the test of the charter. With the time being what it is, I am not sure this can be done effectively, but who knows? I am sharing that with the committee.
Foreign influence is another issue that is being addressed by Bill C-76, which does prohibit contributions by foreigners. Foreign third parties are forbidden to spend on advertising or partisan activities, including election surveys, during the pre-writ and writ periods. It prohibits the sale of electoral advertising to foreigners, and many of the new generic provisions would, of course, apply to foreigners.
What Bill C-76 does not do is prevent the circumvention of the prohibitions, especially relating to the flow of funds to Canadian entities. A possible approach here would be making sure that a solid anti-collusion provision is added to the act. Beyond that, we would need to look, I believe, at a coordinated international approach to limit the interference and prevent the interference of foreigners in national elections.
The last emerging issue I want to raise with this committee today is the one regarding social media platforms and technology. In my view, Bill C-76 does little regarding the abuses in this area, possibly because issues are much larger than electoral matters and may be better handled through other legislation. Also, it is a truly emerging issue that few countries have successfully regulated today. It is compounded by the fact that social media and technology have no frontiers. It adds to the challenge of regulating those activities.
Bill C-76 does not prevent disinformation, propaganda, or artificial promotion of pseudo-info through trolls and bots. Maybe that's something this committee should consider, or at least provide clarity in this regard. A possible approach would be to create a repository of all digital advertising related to an election. Make sure that platform owners are accountable for illegal use of their platforms, and—to my mind quite important—task an organization to undertake public education on how to assess the reliability of information that you see on the web or on various platforms. I think the more Canadians are aware of the issue and the traps of misinformation, the better they are at recognizing it and the better they are at exercising their judgment during the election.
Finally, I have a few other considerations. They're maybe not of significant importance, but I would like to raise them for the attention of the committee.
The first one is vouching. Bill C-76 does reintroduce vouching in our electoral system. Personally, I would have liked to see it extended to staff in seniors homes and long-term care facilities. I am struck by the Etobicoke case where a nurse, serving electors in a long-term care facility, out of her goodwill simply vouched for the electors who were present there and who had insufficient or inadequate ID or documentation. When the case proceeded before the court, all the judges who looked at it—the case went up to the Supreme Court—found that there was no leeway there. Since the nurse did not reside in the same polling division as the residents in the long-term care facilities, the ballots were void, yet there was no question about the eligibility of those electors.
I put that on the table for your consideration. I think the risks in those confined, closed residential establishments are very limited in terms of possible fraud. All the people can be tracked easily. The worst thing is that Elections Canada visits those long-term care facilities to establish who resides there during the election. It's unbelievable that two weeks later, we can't recognize those people. I leave that for your consideration.
The other issue that I'm not sure was an oversight but I thought was concurred in by this committee was the provision of a subsidy to candidates' official agents. I think quality official agents are difficult to find and difficult to retain. They bear the crux of the burden imposed by the act in terms of reporting and tracking expenses, and I feel very strongly that these people—who devote an exceptional number of hours, these days mostly as volunteers, for well beyond 36 days and in fact, sometimes off and on for a year easily—would greatly benefit from a small compensation for the service they provide, because they make such a contribution to you as candidates but also to the integrity of our system. Again, I thought this matter had been agreed to in committee. I proposed it in 2016, and I'm bringing it back again today as I have this occasion.
I know also that there is nothing in the bill on the leaders debate. My only point here is not suggesting it should be part of this bill at this point, but certainly time is pressing to address the issue if we are to have any independent framework set up for 2019.
In closing, the points that I made earlier this morning should not be seen as undermining the importance of Bill C-76, which is a sound piece of legislation that is squarely anchored in the core values underpinning free and fair elections. Like any draft legislation, it is susceptible to improvement through the work of parliamentarians. I hope, however, that the best does not become the enemy of the good, as we say, in the quest for improvement.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
I will be happy to take questions.