Thank you very much.
Thank you to the committee for the opportunity to testify before you today.
I am testifying here in my role as co-founder of Democracy Watch, which, if you are not aware, is a citizen advocacy group. We've been working since 1993 to make Canada the world's leading democracy, pushing for changes to require everyone in politics to be honest, ethical, open, and representative, and to prevent waste. A total of 190,000 people have signed up to send a letter or petition in one or another of our campaigns from across Canada.
Today, my submission is based largely, as Mr. Gunn mentioned, on earlier submissions made to the Special Committee on Electoral Reform.
Bill C-76 makes many good changes, reversing many of the unfair changes made by the 2014 so-called Fair Elections Act, but the Democracy Watch position is that the negative effects of many of the changes in that act were exaggerated. As a result, the reversal of those changes will likely have little overall effect on what actually happens in elections. Like the 2014 Fair Elections Act, Bill C-76 unfortunately doesn't live up to its name. It's called the elections modernization act, but like the Fair Elections Act, it allows many old-fashioned, unfair, and undemocratic election practices to continue, as follows:
Number one, of course, the vote-counting system doesn't count votes in a fair way, and usually produces false majority governments. It also doesn't allow voters to vote “none of the above”—a key option that voters should have, and already have in four provinces—and it doesn't fully fix election dates, as the U.K. has, to stop unfair snap election calls.
Number two, it continues to allow the baiting of voters with false promises in ads. The Canada Elections Act prohibits inducing voters to vote for anyone by—and this is the actual wording—“any pretence or contrivance”. However, the commissioner of Canada elections refuses to apply that measure to a blatantly false promise or false statement made during an election. A clearly worded “honest promises” requirement, with significant penalties, is clearly needed. It's the number one hot-button issue for voters: even if they vote for the party that wins, they don't get what they voted for because of blatantly false promises.
While clause 61 of the bill adds some specifics to the measures in sections 91 and 92 of the Canadian Elections Act concerning false statements about candidates, the measures actually significantly narrow the range of prohibited false statements. That is a move in the wrong direction. Dishonesty in elections should be broadly defined and discouraged. It's a fundamental voter rights issue. They have the right to an honest campaign so that they know what they're voting for honestly, and misleaders, as opposed to leaders, should be discouraged with significant penalties.
Related to that, the bill does not do nearly enough to stop the new form of false claims, secret false online election ads, including by foreigners. Bill C-76 trusts social media companies to self-regulate, only holding them accountable if they “knowingly” allow a foreign ad, but not saying anything at all in terms of their knowingly or in any other way allowing a false domestic ad. Again, clause 61 narrows the definition of “false statements”, but it still would be illegal to make a false statement about a candidate.
In terms of the “knowingly” standard, the social media companies will easily be able to come up with evidence that they didn't know an ad had been placed. It's not going to be enforceable. They'll get off every time, so that doesn't discourage them from allowing secret, false, online election ads by people in the country or foreigners.
Media and social media companies should be required to report all details about every election-related ad to Elections Canada during the six months leading up to an election, so that Elections Canada can check whether the ad is false, whether it exceeds the third party spending limits, and whether it is paid for by a foreigner. All those three things are illegal, but if Elections Canada can't see those ads, which they can't because they're micro-targeted, how are they going to enforce those laws against false and foreign-sponsored ads, and ads that exceed the third party spending limits?
Don't trust the social media companies to self-regulate in this area. Require them to report every ad to Elections Canada. During those six months, empower Elections Canada to order a clearly false or illegal ad because it's foreign or exceeds the spending limits to be deleted from a media and social media site and impose significant fines on the violators.
In terms of what the bill also does not address, annual donations are still too high. Bill C-50 doesn't do anything about this. As a result, the parties all rely on a small pool of large donors who donate thousands of dollars or more. That facilitates funnelling as SNC-Lavalin was caught doing. It also facilitates lobbyists bundling donations to buy influence. That's all undemocratic and unfair.
There are seven practices the bill does not address that should be switched to be overseen by Elections Canada or other watchdogs.
One is unfair nomination races. Elections Canada should be running all of them. The reform act has not changed anything. All the parties have handed back to party leaders the power to approve election candidates, sometimes with someone in their party headquarters' office as a screen.
Another is unfair leadership races. Elections Canada should be overseeing them.
Another is questionable auditing. Elections Canada should be auditing parties, candidates, and third parties.
Another is unfair election debates. Elections Canada or a commission should be running them with their rules. Hopefully a bill making that change will come soon, before the next election.
Another is biased election polling station supervision. The ruling party and second party choose those people and can force the returning officer to appoint whom they want. Elections Canada should be appointing all the polling station returning officers.
There is the questionable use of voter information. The bill does not extend the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, PIPEDA, to the parties. The law should be extended to the parties with the Privacy Commissioner doing enforcement.
Another is unfair government advertising. Hopefully there will be a bill coming on that as well with the Auditor General or Elections Canada empowered to stop any ads that are partisan in the six months leading up to an election, and a full prohibition on government ads during the three months before an election.
There is the third party spending limits area. There's no way to stop Canadian businesses and citizen groups receiving foreign money from entities that frees up other money they have to use for third party election advocacy activities, unless you're going to prohibit foreign-owned businesses in Canada and foreign contributions to citizen groups completely. This bill does go quite far in requiring the separate bank account to be set up. I think the problem with it is it's discrimination against citizen groups that take donations versus unions and corporations that are also third parties. It's very easy for them to shift money into this bank account, but a third party is going to have to do special fundraising to get money into that account if it's a citizen group. It's going to make it much more difficult for citizen groups. They are allowed to donate into the account from their own funds that they may have gathered throughout the year, obviously not foreign funds. I think the overall effect is going to make it much more difficult for citizen groups to gather any funds compared to unions or corporations.
The disclosure of the reports and the limits are all good as well, but you need a limit on government advertising as well to make it fair for everyone leading up to the pre-writ drop period and the election period. Overall, I don't see any reason to increase the third party limit during the election period. That's a bad idea. That's a move in an undemocratic direction because it would allow wealthier interests to spend more. The cost of online ads is much less than traditional advertising was when the limits were first set. Even though the new limit covers more expenses, including surveys and going door to door and things like that kind of outreach, I don't see a reason to increase the limit. I think it's a move in a bad direction. How was the limit chosen? How were all the limits chosen? Are they based on anything? Are they based on looking at what parties spent on ads in the pre-writ period in the 2015 election, before the 2011 election?
It's the same with third parties. Is it based on anything that's been reported to Elections Canada? I know that the figures in 2004 limiting third parties were arbitrary, but now we have some track record and I think it should be examined.
I'll just finish with this point. The limits as stated in the government's backgrounder are not the same as what's in the bill. I'm quite confused by huge discrepancies in the amounts. The pre-writ limit for party spending says $1.5 million in the backgrounder, but in the bill, it says $1.1 million. In the backgrounder, it says it's adjusted for 2019 figures based on inflation, which is 30% inflation which we don't have now. All the limits are the same. For third parties, there's a $300,000 gap between what it says in the bill and the backgrounder, and for a riding there's a $3,000 gap.