Mr. Speaker, I am rising today on Bill C-18, an act to suspend operation of the electoral boundaries readjustment process.
Mr. Speaker, you will know, having studied these questions, it is never a good time to adjust boundaries of sitting politicians. It is never a good time to do districting. It always causes problems and controversy. In the past these things were resolved in the House through political processes in which the powerful members of parties imposed solutions on the Chamber as they occasionally do in other aspects of debate.
Since 1964, as the government House leader has indicated, we have attempted to move toward an independent process for that. We have had an independent process. The process has actually, in my view, worked reasonably well. The problem has been the periodic interference of politicians with the operation of the process.
This motion asks the House to give its consent in principle to Bill C-18. That would be a contradiction. It is not possible to agree in principle with something entirely lacking in principles.
This bill is an indication of what is wrong with Parliament today and what is wrong with the operations of this place and explains why many citizens have such a jaded and cynical view of what transpires here.
We have a wide range of euphemisms in describing what we are about to embark on by adopting Bill C-18. The basic pitch for Bill C-18 is that we are prepared to bring the public into a consultation in order that we can have a better process for defining electoral boundaries.
What we have is an attempt to railroad for a long time the process for redistribution that is mandated by the Constitution and specifically by this bill, which serves only to suspend the existing process which is about to enter the public hearing phase. We are asked in effect to suspend the public's right to debate the boundaries for which we have already as a Parliament and as a government authorized the expenditure of millions of dollars so that we can turn that study over to the operations of a parliamentary commission dominated by politicians.
Doug Fisher, the former member of Parliament and widely respected columnist, noted in the Ottawa Sun on March 18:
It's ridiculous, even beyond irony, how quickly the newly-elected become owners of their ridings.
Just as an aside, I am as guilty of that as anyone, referring to my riding. Calgary West is not my riding. It is the riding I represent in the Parliament of Canada. There is a big difference between that and my riding. However, that is the talk and is the attitude most of us have here only a few months after being elected.
Mr. Fisher goes on:
In large part our costly decennial census is to establish where the people are so electoral constituencies can be adjusted to reflect: (1) the equality of each citizen's vote; (2) the total number of MPs in the next Parliament; and (3) the number of constituencies for most provinces (not all-some have "floors" against losses).
Some weeks ago the official redistribution process produced the new riding maps required by shifts revealed in the 1991 census. At once many MPs, most of them new, particularly Ontario Liberals, began to protest the riding changes. Of course, this means an attack on the enacted formula for increasing the number of MPs.
The chief justification for sticking with what we have is the presently popular one of saving money.
Yes, stalling redistribution would probably save $25 or $30 million in the short run-
That is an exaggeration. It is about one-tenth of that.
-but it offends the "rep by pop" principle and stacks up some already inordinately populous ridings and leaves others small and decreasing in numbers. The electors who must be done first, of course, are those in large cities and their suburbs.
That is Mr. Fisher's commentary. I am going to elaborate on it. It is reflective of what is wrong with Parliament today. It is very interesting how in question period and in debate, day after day a government member or government minister defending a particular position or a particular bill, no matter how ludicrous the argument, can receive not only an ovation from the side opposite but usually a standing ovation for the silliest of comments. Yet when something is brought in that affects the personal self-interest of members of Parliament, it is amazing how quickly and independently they can mobilize to get action. I am always amazed that whenever we raise questions here about issues like pay, the pension scam or the ridiculous tax-free unaccountable expense allowance, we get hoots and hollers from the other side and the independent voice rises up with all this concern.
The same is true with electoral boundaries. As soon as our own electoral fortunes are put in some jeopardy or our political plans for the future are threatened, government backbenchers can bring great pressure to bear on government members, but the rest of the time we run from committee to committee busy working, approving things, having the satisfaction of merely being present among the great men and women who form the cabinet, maybe even getting some photographs of ourselves for our householders where we can be seen with the leaders. As I say, when it concerns self-interest like electoral boundaries or pensions or some issue like this, boy does the voice of the independent member ever rise to the fore in a hurry.
This is why this is such an important issue for me and many members of my party. This is really the first time in this Parliament where members of our party are being asked to make a difficult decision between what is the right thing to do based on the principles that govern this country versus protecting our own narrow self-interest through getting together and having all party agreement on something.
Many of us in this party, and this will come out in debate and it is no different for me, are dramatically affected by the proposed changes. Many of us are unfavourably affected by the proposed changes. I am sure there are some who will even support stopping this process, and I respect that. But for the majority of us that is not a basis to interfere with a process that is independent and should be independent, is consultative and should be consultative, and by and large has been working and is necessary and mandated legally and constitutionally.
I say that is a very important issue for us. That is the reason we are going to oppose this bill. That is not to say that the process cannot be improved, not to say that there are not legitimate issues that the public wants addressed. What this party is looking for is some real commitment on the part of the other
members of the House, particularly the government, to show that it has some real plans to address the problems that it claims are behind its decision to suddenly try and suspend this process.
Let me spend a few minutes talking about some of those things. The government House leader has today provided a number of arguments for this particular bill and this particular course of action, as did my friend from the Bloc Quebecois. I want to comment on some of those things because I think it is important to say what could be improved and also to say where in very many of these instances the rationale for proceeding is simply not consistent with the actions that are being requested here.
First, there is the issue of public consultation. We, as members of Parliament, will be prepared to consult the public on a new process leading to new boundaries. As I already said, this bill blocks a public hearing process which is about to get under way and which is mandated by the bill. Some, not just myself as a member and other members, but private citizens have already contacted these commissions with the intention of making submissions. In the past it has been claimed that these boundaries are presented as a fait accompli. That is simply not true. It is true that the parameters of the act which are mandated under the Constitution are a fait accompli but the boundaries themselves are not a fait accompli.
If I have time I will discuss what kind of changes commissions are generally interested in looking at. In the last process I am told by officials of Elections Canada that 20 per cent of the proposed ridings were altered in that particular public hearing process.
The second point is that we are prepared to proceed on a non-partisan basis. I take the government at its word that there is certainly no question of the committee or politicians drawing the boundaries. Yes, they want to block the independent commission and set up their own study of the process but there is no thought that politicians themselves would redraw the boundaries. I accept that. I would be shocked to believe that any party in this House would propose such a thing.
It is interesting when we are supposed to be proceeding on this question, which is one of the questions of the fundamental rules of the game and of how electoral law operates, that the government is prepared to proceed with this bill and presumably with its entire agenda on this without the consent of one of the three recognized parties of the House. From that fact alone we have every reason, and I suggest the Bloc Quebecois also should have every reason, to be suspicious that this is in fact a non-partisan venture.
You will recall, Mr. Speaker, that one of the acts of the previous government that I supported was it changed a part of the formula in the Constitution for redistribution that had been put into the act in the 1970s which had special discriminatory measures against Alberta and to a lesser degree British Columbia. There was a formula that talked about different kinds of provinces and treated them differently. When the Conservative Party revisited the formula and revised it and did it in a way that limited the growth of the Commons, it did away with those discriminatory provisions. That was a formula instituted by a previous Liberal government.
The government says: "It has been 30 years and we have a long time desire to study the electoral process. Furthermore, this process has not been revised in some time". I cannot say that I am an expert on everything that has transpired with the bill since it was tabled in 1964 but just looking at a copy of it I can say that it is not the case that the bill has not been amended since 1964. There is a list in the back of the present publication of the bill by Elections Canada that describes or gives a list of amendments from 1964 to 1992.
Just glancing at this I see a list of about 25 or so amendments that have occurred over that period. I suspect some of them are very small, but by and large this is a process that has been functional except for the periodic interference of politicians.
If there was this desire to study this process, if this had been a pressing matter, why did this not come to the fore before the tabling of boundary proposals that were not particularly looked upon favourably by members of this House? Why did we not undertake that process before?
In 1985 we had debate over the formula. We changed the formula in the Constitution which mandates this process. At that time we did not do a comprehensive revision of the process. There was no debate on this issue. While we set these new boundaries in place in 1987 and elected MPs in them in 1988, there was never any study throughout that time.
I was here for a large part of that time. I do not remember any call on behalf of any number of members to have a parliamentary study into this before getting into the next process. I did a quick glance of my red book. I did not find any particular mention in the government's election plan of a desire to alter the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act. Last year we had the Lortie commission. We spent millions of dollars on that commission to look into all aspects of electoral law. It and the committee that studied that report deferred discussion on this set of issues.
As my friend from the Bloc mentioned, there is no agreement on those things in the Lortie report. The government has expressed some interest but it is not bound by the Lortie report. The Bloc is not bound by the Lortie report. We have strong objections to the Lortie report. We have spent millions of dollars having a royal commission study some of these questions and none of us are prepared to move on them. Why are we now
talking about instituting yet another study, this time by members of the House of Commons?
It is important to mention one fact here. We had a briefing by officials from Elections Canada on Friday. I would bring to the attention of the House that senior officials of Elections Canada said that far from this being an issue of discussion there had been no consultations with Elections Canada on this bill and that senior officials were not provided with a copy, a draft or otherwise until it was tabled in the House of Commons. That was only last Friday.
This is in sharp contrast with the repeated consultation detailed in the Chief Electoral Officer's report, the most recent report "Toward the 35th General Election", during previous electoral reform efforts, including for example Bill C-213 in 1991, Bill C-78 the Referendum Act and most recently Bill C-114. Members can see the details and the consultations that occurred with Elections Canada in adopting those courses of action.
Let us look at the issue of cost. This is the most interesting for me. The government with its $40 billion deficit is now concerned with the great costs that may be incurred in proceeding with a $2 million to $3 million completion of work already in progress.
The claim is we are going to save money by doing this. We have budgeted $7.8 million for this process of which more than half is already spent.
It is important to note that there is absolutely nothing in the course of action we are asked to take that could possibly save money. Even if we establish a parliamentary committee it will be travelling around the country studying these questions and racking up costs. Meanwhile people at Elections Canada will still be paid to prepare a revision to the process when it kicks in a second time. We are simply wiping out the $5 million that has been spent. We are incurring additional costs and time here in the House and we are ultimately going back to square one on some kind of electoral boundaries readjustment process.
There is a very outside chance, if we can ever get a sense of what precisely it is any party is actually proposing we change about this process, that we may get a better act or better boundaries. What is absolutely clear is that it will cost a lot more to proceed with this course of action.
When this bill was placed on the Order Paper on March 17, it contained the standard recommendation: "His Excellency the Governor General recommends to the House of Commons the appropriation of public revenue under the circumstances and in the manner and for the purposes set out in the measure entitled Bill C-18". In other words, we already recognized in tabling this bill that it will cost more money than we have budgeted, not less. It will cost more whether we come out at the other end with absolutely nothing or whether we approve the process or change it or anything. It will cost more money. The least costly action without doubt is to proceed in the manner we are already proceeding.
If we can get some commitment to improvements before we decide to flush $5 million down the toilet, I guess we would be prepared to look at that. In the absence of that, we see no reason in proceeding in this manner.
The government has talked about precedents, about previous suspensions of the process. I was here when that occurred in the 1985-87 period when we suspended the process. Ultimately the reason we suspended the process was the same and only reason we have today to suspend the process, because the public does not like the growth in the number of seats in the House of Commons.
In 1985 the government suspended the process for that reason and brought in a new amending formula under the Constitution to limit the growth of seats in the House of Commons. In the previous redistribution the seats were supposed to grow from 282 to 312. Under the act brought in by the former Conservative government we were limited to 295 and to much smaller growth in the future.
That may still be too much growth. Our party has offered the suggestion to the government that all parties get together to make a commitment to an amending formula that would permanently cap the growth of seats in the House of Commons. That could be done if we respect certain elements of the Constitution that require interprovincial agreement.
There are other requirements that would allow us to cap the growth of seats in the House of Commons and still respect the general principle of rep by pop, provided we could get agreement of the House and agreement of the Senate. If that were to be done to answer the one legitimate public demand out there at the moment, which is that we limit the growth of seats in the Commons, in all honesty it would be perfectly legitimate. The electoral boundaries adjustment commissions have no mandate to examine that question. They are simply to draw boundaries under the current formula and under the current calculations.
We can have these public hearings and it is going to surprise many people that what they think they are to talk about is not the purpose of the commission. The purpose of the commission is to change boundaries. It is a catch 22. Either we give a legitimate reason for doing it and react to public demand, or we admit that all we are concerned about is the boundaries. In fact we are concerned about them before the public has actually had any chance to speak its own mind on the issue.
I would point out that the government has an ancillary motion to the bill that looks to reviewing the issue. We will review the issue of number of seats. We will review the issue of operations. We will review the parameters of discussion and of commission deliberation on boundaries. We will review, review, review. All
the bill really does is suspend the process and suspend public input in the interim.
That would be very interesting since the government is a master of studies and reviews. We have 15 or 18 studies or reviews of government legislation. We are reviewing foreign policy. We are reviewing defence policy. We are reviewing social policy, unemployment insurance and welfare. We are reviewing tax policy. We are to review family trust. We are reviewing the GST. We are reviewing just about everything.
Would it not be interesting if we were to take the attitude that until we finish the review of unemployment insurance we will stop paying it; or, until we finish our review of foreign policy we will shut down our embassies and suspend their operations; or, until we review our defence policy we will tell our guys in Bosnia to take a holiday and enjoy the sights?
It is a very different aspect when it comes to being not just a review. We are very anxious to review these matters. I am sure members of the House affairs and procedures committee from this party would be all the more willing to review an important question like that one. Members who are concerned with parliamentary reform and electoral reform would be happy to study some of these questions. In the absence of any sense that this is going anywhere other than suspending the process, I do not think we will take a look at that.
I would also note that there has been some hint at it. We know the real reason is that there has been political outcry from certain members about the proposed boundaries. I would call on members of Parliament, particularly Liberal members of Parliament, to play a different role on this question. I appreciate there are severe pressures.
There are many members on the Liberal backbenches. Most of us in opposition are inexperienced members and are not aware of the process involved in these kinds of issues. Having been surprised, having tried to figure out how we were going to have some influence and suddenly having discovered that Parliament cannot vote down these proposals because the commission is independent, we demand that Parliament can the process.
I call on members of the Liberal frontbenches to educate their backbenchers or their MPs on exactly what the issues are. I noticed the government House leader did some of that today. He informed them-and it is very important to inform members, particularly some members who have spoken in the House-about the fact that this was not an option. We do not have the option of saying that we are not going to redistribute seats in the House of Commons. This is required by the Constitution and we have had a readjustment every census since Confederation. That is an important democratic protection.
It has its origins in the reform bill in Britain of 1832. For centuries we had virtually no redistribution in the House of Commons. We had ridings in Great Britain wherein there were two or three eligible voters. They were called rotten boroughs. Some members of the government are fond of quoting Edmund Burke who is sometimes called a conservative and proclaimed to be the father of modern conservatism. One speech Liberal members like to quote is the one in which he said he did not feel he had to represent his constituents; he was protecting something called the national interest. Of course he made most of these statements from the safety of a rotten borough because he could not get elected making statements like those.
I hope that is drawn to the attention of the frontbench so that it can provide some leadership on it that says we have a legitimate process in place, that we have already delayed it and that we should now get down to business. Our friends in the Bloc mentioned many objections today as did our friends in the government and others in the past. Many of the objections to the particular boundaries have nothing in common. What is good for myself and my riding may be bad for the person in the next riding. I said there is never going to be a good time to redraw boundaries. Other than keeping the seats pretty much as they are, there would never be any particular alignment of boundaries that would be satisfactory to the vast majority of members of Parliament. That is the one option, for reasons of protection of the public and the voter, the Constitution rules out.
I want to mention a serious concern about the intent of the act. It suspends the process for a period of 24 months, which would effectively mean it would be virtually impossible to foresee a situation where we had a redistribution prior to the next election. If there is not a redistribution prior to the next election which we expect in 1997-98, the first redistribution from the 1991 census would probably not occur until early in the next century, at which time we would likely already have the results of another census requiring redistribution.
If the bill for that reason is not in violation of the Constitution I suspect it is certainly in violation of the spirit of the Constitution and might be a very interesting reference to the Supreme Court. This has always been a question. I am not a constitutional lawyer. I would be more than happy to hear the interpretation and advice on this question from hon. members such as the hon. member for Vancouver Quadra. The Constitution requires Parliament to redistribute seats in the House of Commons and has always done so. What if it simply refused or undertook actions which amount to a refusal? What then would be the recourse of the population? Would it then be incumbent upon the Supreme
Court to redraw the boundaries for us? In that context I think the bill raises some very substantial difficulties.
I would also like to comment on the position taken by the Bloc Quebecois on this bill. It is most interesting, but I hope the Bloc will carefully reconsider its position and its support for this measure.
It is interesting to see how a party that claims to be a party of principle, that exists for the sake of Quebec's independence, for the sake of its own ridings and the ridings of Quebec in this Parliament, it is very interesting to see how that party could be concerned about the redistribution process and the possibility that existing ridings might change in the next election.
I think the Canadian public, especially in Quebec, will take a good look at the reasons for all this. The Bloc Quebecois claims to be concerned about the cost of government and the federal system, but they are prepared to support a plan that will most certainly increase those costs. The advantage of this plan is that ridings will not change in time for the next federal election.
I think this demonstrates a lack of confidence on the part of the Bloc Quebecois in its ability to achieve its goal, the independence of Quebec, before the next election.
Of course I realize that in the Bloc Quebecois, as in the Reform Party and the Liberal Party, there are members who for obvious reasons object to the proposals for electoral reform made by the present commissions.
We realize that. But I would ask the Bloc Quebecois to think twice about giving the power to change this process to commissions appointed by the government and to committees of this House where government members have a majority. Quite frankly, I think the Bloc should take a long, hard look at this plan.
I would also like to comment on what was said about electoral redistribution and representation by the Bloc Quebecois member who just spoke. For instance, in referring to the Magdalen Islands, he mentioned regional representation.
Mr. Speaker, you and I are very concerned about regional representation in this country. That is why we support a thorough and complete reform of the Canadian Senate. The real representation for Canada's less populated areas should be in that house. The Bloc Quebecois has consistently opposed such reform, and now it mentions the possibility of regional representation here in the House of Commons, which works on the principle of "rep by pop". I see a contradiction here as well, a policy for parliamentary reform which needs work, and I say this with respect, not only for the sake of the Parliament of Canada but perhaps also for the sake of the Parliament of an independent Quebec, if the Bloc is able to achieve its goals. From the Bloc's comments it is clear there are a lot of problems with their current position.
I see I only have a short amount of time left. I know my party has a number of people who have asked to speak to Bill C-18. We are aware from Elections Canada that the process of looking at these boundaries is going to continue until it clears both Houses of Parliament. In the meantime we would like to use our speeches to educate the public as to the opportunities that exist here and what exactly is the state of this law and this process.
Many members will be explaining how the changes that the commission has proposed affect them. We will be explaining it in open forum here to the public. Members of the Reform Party will certainly be free to say whether they like or do not like those changes and any proposals which they would take to the independent commissions and which they would urge the independent commissions and other citizens to look at. I think we will see very quickly the number of difficulties with politicians trying to direct such a process. I believe most of our members will be indicating that getting ourselves involved in this process without a clear plan is not the method to use.
I have asked a number of members of my party to indicate to the public how both politicians and constituents can contact Elections Canada and participate in the public hearings in their ridings. There is a process being set up now. Elections Canada is already incurring the costs of setting it up and we might as well make sure the public is aware of the opportunities. We can use this particular debate to do that.
This will indicate the kinds of things that the public really would want to see before we begin to intervene and change this process or incur further costs or further delays.
The main reason is to mention that the only reason most people would really want to see this process stopped is to agree that we limit the number of seats in the House of Commons. Canadians are dramatically overgoverned. I call on the government and the Bloc Quebecois to sit down with us and reach a formula very quickly that could lead to a permanent capping of the number of seats in the House of Commons.
We could introduce that through both Houses and that would suspend the process for reasons the public would support and then would allow us to get on with business in a way that would not only serve the public interest and would not have the extreme delays planned in this bill but would fulfil a legitimate public reason for doing so.
Let me finish by moving:
That the motion be amended by deleting all the words after the word "That" and substituting the following therefor:
Bill C-18, an act to suspend the operation of the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act, be not now read a second time but that it be read a second time this day six months hence.