Madam Speaker, I am very pleased to speak on Bill C-276 which calls for the government to consider allowing the registration of a political party only when the party nominates candidates in at least seven provinces that have in aggregate at least 50 per cent of the
population of all of the provinces and at least half of the electoral districts in each of those seven provinces.
The hon. member for Don Valley North raises the important issue of access to public funding by federal political parties and the registration process which primarily governs this access. Public funding of political parties has several important purposes, and I would like to mention two.
First, it is seen as a means to broaden the base of party finance. A broader financial base provides for greater financial stability which allows a political party to mount effective campaigns including access to the mass media. Second, it also helps to lessen a political party's dependence on large contributors. In this way it provides for a more level playing field for all political parties, thereby increasing electoral democracy and ensuring meaningful freedom of speech.
Although there is widespread agreement about the desirability of public funding for political parties, there has been much debate on the conditions for access to public funding. The most important of these conditions is the registration process.
The registration of political parties was introduced in 1970. Two key criteria for registration set out then and still in force today are that a political party must either have had 12 MPs when Parliament was dissolved or nominate 50 candidates by the 28th day before the election, nomination day. If either criteria is met, the political party gains access to public funding primarily in the form of income tax credits, partial reimbursement of electoral expenses and access to free broadcasting time.
The hon. member for Don Valley North in proposing stricter conditions for registration may be concerned that scarce public resources should not be spent on political parties that receive marginal or trivial voter support. Many of us in this House agree with this viewpoint. This is why we gave our support to private members' Bill C-243 by the member for Edmonton Southwest. It proposed that reimbursement of election spending for registered political parties be tied to voter support. Currently, reimbursement is tied to a proportion of the political party's electoral spending. This bill is now before the Senate.
The hon. member for Don Valley North may also be concerned about party stability in Canada and in promoting political parties that have a broad geographical base. This also is a laudable objective. However, I would not like to see this bill being interpreted as erecting barriers to new and emerging political parties, many of which may be regionally based.
In balancing the need for fiscal restraint and encouraging the promotion of national parties, we must not lose sight of the need to enhance access to the political system. There must be a balance between these often conflicting objectives.
It is worthwhile to point out that any reforms we consider should be assessed against the rights of individuals and groups to associate and speak freely. Major restrictions to these rights as represented in this bill would likely be challenged under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We must fine tune our reforms to ensure that the electoral rights of all Canadians are not restricted.
We should not forget the past work of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, the Lortie commission, and the all-party special House committee on electoral reform that studied the Lortie report in 1992 and 1993. It may be instructive to note that the Lortie report after undertaking an in depth study of the registration process concluded that the 50 candidate threshold should remain unchanged.
The commission noted that a political party, which nominates candidates in 50 constituencies would demonstrate serious intent to engage in the rigours of electoral competition at a level that indicates relatively broad appeal for its programs and ideas. Moreover, experience since 1974 shows that this level is neither unduly onerous nor lenient for registration. The report goes on to say that this threshold should continue to serve as a benchmark in determining which parties may be registered under the Canada Elections Act.
The all-party special committee agreed with the Lortie commission in this respect. However, time did not allow consideration of some of the Lortie commission's other recommendations on registration.
For example, the commission also recommended that a political party qualify for registration between elections following submission of a valid application that would include the declared support of 5,000 voters who are members in good standing of the party. This and other recommendations were to be considered at a future full scale review of the electoral legislation.
More recently, the chief electoral officer, in his annex to the 35th general election released in February 1996, stated his conclusion that the current provisions of the act should continue to remain unchanged. In his view, the 50 candidate threshold still provides a good balance allowing a good proportion of new parties to enter the system while excluding from the system parties that have declined.
The chief electoral officer based his conclusion in part on the work of F. Leslie Seidle of the Montreal Institute for Research on Public Policy. Mr. Seidle's research suggested that although there is room for further debate about the registration criteria, it is clear that the 50 candidate threshold has not been a roadblock to new parties.
He noted that although each of the last three national elections a handful of new parties have not met the registration requirements, several others did. For example, in 1993 six additional parties were registered. Two recently formed parties, the Reform Party and the Bloc Quebecois, now hold seats in this House. He also noted that the 50 candidate threshold served to exclude from the system parties that have declined. For example, of the six parties registered in 1974 two, the Social Credit and the Communists, are no longer registered.
In conclusion, I would like to congratulate and thank the hon. member for bringing the House's attention to the important issue of registration of political parties and its effect on our electoral system. In my view, more work needs to be done. Our approach to the issue must be comprehensive to ensure that all the impacts are adequately investigated before changes can be contemplated.