House of Commons Hansard #135 of the 35th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was events.


Tobacco ActGovernment Orders

1:25 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker

It being 1.30 p.m., the House will now proceed to the consideration of private members' business.

Parliament Of Canada ActPrivate Members' Business

1:25 p.m.


Elwin Hermanson Reform Kindersley—Lloydminster, SK

moved that Bill C-250, an act to amend the Parliament of Canada Act and the Canada Elections Act (confidence votes), be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure and privilege to lead off the debate on my private member's Bill C-250 which would fix the election date for federal elections in Canada.

Once again, Canadians are left wondering about the timing of the next election. After the three year anniversary of a government has passed the speculation begins in earnest about when the Prime Minister will call the next election.

Canada is one of the few democracies that still leaves it up to the government of the day to decide when to call an election. We feel that this represents a type of conflict of interest. In other words, the Prime Minister will time the election to whenever best suits his own political interests. Also, incumbency already has its own built-in advantages and that is well known.

Why should the timing of the election also be left to the government? We would not let the government arbitrarily set the conditions of an election such as where the electoral boundaries would be. Fixed elections dates would lessen the government's advantage and create a more accountable, representative and fair system.

Therefore I have proposed a bill that would cause federal elections to be held on a fixed date every four years unless the government was defeated by a vote of non-confidence. More specifically, if passed, the bill would cause a general election to be called on the third Monday in October every four years and would ensure that byelections occur promptly when vacancies occur between general elections.

Our Constitution does not contain many provisions regarding elections in Canada. Most election rules are by convention or by

federal statute. However, the charter provides that the House of Commons cannot continue longer than five years, except in time of war, invasion or insurrection, unless it has the support of at least two thirds of the members of the House of Commons.

The Constitution Act of 1867 also states that the House of Commons cannot continue longer than five years. Section 5 of the charter also states that there is to be a sitting of the House of Commons at least once every 12 months. These are some of the rules and parameters under which the House of Commons is required to operate.

As a result of these provisions there could be in some circumstances a Parliament that last for longer than five years, perhaps even closer to six years, although this has never happened and would really be stretching the limits of the Constitution a great deal.

In his book Election Law in Canada, ex Tory MP Patrick Boyer writes: "It is theoretically possible for an election to be delayed approximately nine months after the end of a five year term".

Although the Constitution sets out the maximum time limits for a Parliament there is no minimum time limit. That is a greater part of the problem we face in the country with the uncertainty of when elections will be held.

Federal elections in Canada can be called any time up to the end of that five year limit by the governor general on the advice of the Prime Minister or they can be called if Parliament is dissolved because the government lost a vote of confidence in the House.

Therefore a general election can be held at virtually any time during the government's mandate. This has led to problems of elections being held too frequently or not frequently enough. For majority governments it means they can hold out for as long as five years and for minority governments it means that another election can be called after just a few months in office.

A minority government or even one with a slim majority can implement one popular decision or even make a promise and then hold an election to try to gain a larger number of seats in the House. This would be done at great cost and expense to the country.

The lack of fixed election days has led to abuses and irregularities. For instance, many of the Liberal members here will remember the last two years of the Tory government. The Tories held on to power as long as they thought they dared. They had been re-elected in November 1988 but rather than calling the election in the fall of 1992, when I believe Canadians were ready for a federal election, they held on for almost a full year and went to the people in October 1993.

The Tory government of Grant Devine in Saskatchewan did the same thing, stretched out a mandate to the full five years, obviously realizing that it would not be re-elected by the people of Saskatchewan. Both the Mulroney and Devine Tories held on to power despite being hopelessly unpopular and even involved an alleged unsavoury and even possibly criminal activity.

The power to call elections has also backfired several time. I guess the most blatant example was when the voters of Ontario rejected the Liberal government of David Peterson because they thought that the timing of the election was based on what was best for it and not what was best for the citizens of Ontario.

There have also been abuses in terms of the timing of byelections. We do not have to go back very far to see a very blatant abuse of the timing of byelections because it was done by this very Liberal government that we have today. The byelection was the Ottawa-Vanier byelection that was held in February 1995. The candidates had to prepare for the campaign over the Christmas holiday period. Imagine that. In fact, the writ was dropped on December 28, 1994 for the election on February 13, 1995.

Obviously the government knew it was going to call a byelection. It had arranged the vacancy where the member who had held that seat was appointed to the Senate. All this happened very quickly and it was manipulated by the federal government in a very undemocratic and very arrogant manner. Candidates had to go door to door in the dead of winter. Obviously this favoured the incumbent party. In this case it happened to be the Liberals.

I am not making these examples solely on a partisan basis. Any political party in power, the way our election act of Parliament is set up, can place those same abuses of power on to the other political parties at a disadvantage.

In the Labrador byelection the seat sat empty from September 21, 1995 until the writ was dropped on February 7, 1996 for a March 25 election date. For Canadians and members who have not been in Labrador in February or March, it is extremely cold. It is a time of high snowfall, impassable roads, not the right time to call an election if one wants the democratic process to be properly undertaken. It was again another blatant attempt by the Liberals to use whatever advantages they could to hold on to a seat they believed to be safe. They did not want any other parties campaigning against them in an effective manner.

It may to some governments' benefit to hold the byelection in the summer when certain professional and labour groups are away on holidays, such as teachers and public servants. That too is an abuse of power. But the way our laws are written right now that is possible and has been used.

This would be a legal attempt to disenfranchise potentially hostile voters. Our election act should not allow that possibility. It may not ever happen but it certainly can happen the way the laws of

the land currently stand. Therefore we are asking this House to consider the idea that general elections and byelections be held at fixed intervals.

I have talked about the history that has led me to introduce Bill C-250, but what are the other benefits of having a system of fixed election terms? There is enhanced accountability. In conjunction with other reforms that we are proposing, such as free votes in the House of Commons, the use of referenda, citizens' initiatives, and the use of recall, this act would make Parliament more accountable to the Canadian electorate.

It would allow for better representation. It would reduce the threat of dissolution, which is a major factor used by the governing parties to keep their MPs in line. The result would be less party discipline and more independence for backbenchers.

Also because the act's provisions are related to byelections, voters in those constituencies would not be unrepresented for extended periods of time. The reason that the Prime Minister keeps the date to himself or herself regarding calling a federal election is not only to keep the opposition parties off guard but also to keep his own members in line.

Any time they would tend to want to represent their constituents, even if it were in opposition to the governing party's position, the government could say "We are going to call an election. We might call an election pretty soon. You will put yourself in a very vulnerable position. You better go with the flow, member, or else you may lose your seat or we may help you lose your seat when we call the next election".

With regard to byelections, the federal government can call it at the most opportune time for itself to win the byelection. If it is a seat that it knows it cannot win, a safe seat that belongs to another party, it can leave that seat unrepresented for an unduly long time, disenfranchising Canadians of the representation they are entitled to.

Another benefit of passing Bill C-250 would be the creation of greater fairness. It would remove the governing party's advantage of choosing the most opportune moment to call an election. The result would be a more level playing field for all political parties.

Any party and any politician who minimalizes this point does not truly respect the importance of the democratic process unfettered by government manipulation. I cannot emphasize that point enough. It is paramount to the democratic principles that we all adhere to. Any party or any politician who minimalizes this point does not truly respect the importance of the democratic process unfettered by government manipulation.

Another benefit of this bill would be more certainty. It would give the government reasonable and sufficient time to develop and implement its legislative agenda and would allow it to take some of the more difficult decisions.

This bill is not all weighted in favour of the opposition parties. A government needs a fair amount of time to implement its mandate. It tells the people that it wants to, for instance as the Liberals said, create jobs, jobs, jobs. Possibly in two years the government could say "We would like to have fulfilled that promise but we see an opportune time to call an election. Give us another mandate and we will finish the job".

Canadians want to see a measurable period of time in which a government can implement the mandate it was elected on. This way, a government can reasonably deliver on a mandate it received from the people.

Another benefit of Bill C-250 would be healthier, more open public debate. It would allow for more constructive debate in the House since opposition parties would know that the government has a fixed term.

Opposition parties would not be fighting the next election 18 months after the previous one. I noticed in the House in the first year or two we were looking at the government's record, its intentions. As we passed that 18 month mark, focus began to be that the government has completed perhaps the first half of its mandate. The government side becomes more political. The opposition side becomes more political and Canadians often take a back seat as a result of the focus on when the next election will be.

Fixed election dates would postpone some of the time that is wasted in posturing for the next election. That is a very good reason why this bill should be passed.

Finally, if Bill C-250 is passed it would be a cost efficient measure. It would allow political parties, election officials and candidates to better plan for elections. Therefore procedures could be streamlined and costs reduced.

The 1990s are a time of scarce resources and of demands for efficiency. This bill prepares Canada for the environment of the next century.

Bill C-250, an act to amend the Parliament of Canada Act and the Canada Elections Act (confidence votes) was first introduced on March 27, 1996. The key elements of the bill are as follows: Clause 1 provides that the maximum duration of a Parliament would be four years. A federal election would be held on October 20, 1997 and every four years thereafter on the third Monday of October.

Provision is also made in clause 1 for the House to continue beyond four years in the time of war, invasion or insurrection, so

long as such the continuation is not opposed by more than one-third of the members of the House.

Clause 1 of the bill also provides that no dissolution of Parliament can be sought except when the House adopts a non-confidence motion and the Governor General is satisfied that it is not possible for a government to be formed with has the confidence of the House.

Clause 1 also states that the Prime Minister must request the Governor General to dissolve Parliament. It is very important that the bill does not require the Governor General to accede to the Prime Minister's request.

Clause 2 of the bill specifically provides that these provisions do not alter or affect the power of the crown to prorogue or dissolve Parliament. Perhaps I should expand on that by saying that when we drafted the bill we were very careful to not infringe on the Constitution of the nation. This bill would not require a constitutional amendment.

If I had stated in the bill that the Governor General must accede to the Prime Minister's request to hold a general election, that would infringe on the power of the crown, and we were not prepared to introduce a bill that would necessitate an amendment to the Constitution. That is why we ask the Prime Minister merely to advise the Governor General of his desire to have an election held. Under the powers given to him under the Constitution, the Governor General will choose whether or not to abide by the Prime Minister's wishes.

Clause 3 of the bill provides that writs for byelections are to be issued within two months of a vacancy occurring in the House of Commons unless the vacancy occurs within two months of the date fixed for a general election. The byelections would be held on the third Monday of April or October except in the year prior to a general election.

Since I began to draft this bill over two years ago I have received a great deal of assistance and advice. I want to inform the House that I have been co-operating with Elections Canada and have incorporated many of its suggestions into my bill. This was not a hastily drafted bill but considerable time was spent consulting with those who knew what was required under the Constitution, what would best fit Canada's parliamentary system and what would best fit into the existing laws that must be agreed on.

I have also received a lot of encouragement and support from others. Many academics and journalists have commented extensively in support of a fixed election date. It was not planned by me but it is very interesting that on February 11 an article was written by Andrew Coyne that appeared in the Montreal Gazette . It made a case for a fixed election date in a very articulate and concise fashion. I encourage all members to read the article entitled ``Fixed Voting Date Would Lessen Government Advantage''. It is an excellent piece, reinforcing many of the arguments I made to the House in my opening address on Bill C-250.

All members of the House are invited to examine this bill and the surrounding issues. I do not come to this House with an attitude of arrogance. I do not come to this House with an attitude of "it's my way or the highway" or of "it's the Reform Party's way or let's not do anything at all".

This is an election year and the focus is on how the timing of elections is determined. It is an opportunity for us to seize the issue and engage in a healthy and vigorous debate. I urge members not to mindlessly reject this bill and also not to blindly accept all the proposals. I welcome and am open to amendments to the bill. I encourage members to discuss parts of the bill with me. Certainly members from various parties have argued the need for reform in the setting and calling of byelections. I know several Liberal members have called for that. There have been debates in the past by parties other than the Reform Party calling for fixed election dates.

There is a need for electoral reform in this area. Let us work together to achieve it. Let us see if we cannot, with an issue as sensitive as the calling of election dates, see some co-operation between among the political parties. Let us set aside some of the sparring that we do over the issues such as CPP, budgets and other issues that we disagree on, to see if we cannot provide a service for Canadians so that they would know when elections were going to be held, there would be some certainty, some continuity and some good reason behind when elections were called.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for this opportunity to address my bill. Unfortunately I have to catch a plane in just a couple of minutes and I will be leaving the House. Certainly it is not out of disrespect for those who will follow me to speak. I will certainly read all their comments in Hansard with great interest. Should they want to come and speak to me personally about any matter with regard to this bill I would be more than happy to do that.

Parliament Of Canada ActPrivate Members' Business

1:50 p.m.


Mauril Bélanger Liberal Ottawa—Vanier, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak on this private member's bill, Bill C-250, since it would bring about a major change to the regime by which general elections and byelections are called. Thus it would be worthwhile to take a few minutes to outline the current regime and to note its historical development.

Governments under our Canadian system of parliamentary democracy do not have a free rein in calling general elections. There is a constitutional constraint. Section 4 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides for a maximum duration of five years for Parliament, barring exceptional circumstances such as times of war or a national crisis. Within this constitutional limit, the conventions of responsible government make the Prime Minister personally responsible for tendering advice to the Governor

General as to when Parliament should be dissolved and the general election called.

The obvious exception to this practice is in the event that the governing party loses the support of the majority of members of the House of Commons. If this should occur, the governing party would be forced to seek the Governor General's advice which would include the possibility of Parliament's dissolution and a general election call.

Byelections occur within the life of an existing Parliament. When a vacancy occurs in the House of Commons the Speaker, once advised, sends a warrant to this effect to the Chief Electoral Officer. Under the Parliament of Canada Act the government is required to issue a writ advising of the date for the byelection. This writ must be issued within six months after the receipt by the Chief Electoral Officer of the warrant of the Speaker.

This regime has evolved over several hundred years of parliamentary practice. At its core is the relationship between the House of Commons and the executive branch of government. The cabinet is ultimately responsible to the House of Commons. The leadership provided by the cabinet drives the overall work of a parliamentary session. The cabinet has a key influence on the House's legislative agenda. The cabinet plays a pivotal role in controlling the time, regulating the business and to a large extent harnessing the energies of the House. It is within this overall context that Parliament is summoned and dissolved on the advice of the Prime Minister to the Governor General. The Prime Minister, although not always, usually exercises this responsibility after consulting members of his or her cabinet.

The House of Commons, on its part, is able to hold the cabinet accountable through its work. This includes subjecting the government to oversight and review through the House debates, question period, the work of parliamentary committees, the budget debates, and bills and resolutions introduced by private members, such as this one. The government cannot hold on to power after it has lost the support of the House of Commons.

There is another important dimension to this relationship. It concerns the role of the Prime Minister as primus inter pares or first among equals. He or she must be able to give direction to the government's policies and legislative agenda, to bring about cabinet solidarity and to foster cohesion among its caucus members. Without this authority the government's ability to obtain and maintain the support of the House could be at risk. The Prime Minister's power to advise on the call for a general election is one of many key elements in our parliamentary form of government which works to support the Prime Minister's pivotal leadership role.

Bill C-250 would create a hybrid system for calling general elections. Within the constitutional limits of section 4 of the charter, the bill would provide for a set term of four years for each Parliament. Elections would be held every four years on the third Monday of October. The bill also provides for exceptions to this rule. It does not purport to take away non-confidence votes from the House of Commons. This could still be done and an election called if required. As I understand it, the four year election clock would then be re-started at this point. Of course the four-year rule would apply only if there were no immediate national crisis.

This hybrid system would continue with respect to byelections. If required, Bill C-250 provides for two annual dates for byelections, on the third Monday of April and on the third Monday of October. There are exceptions to deal with unique situations.

My colleagues on the opposite side of the House have advanced three arguments in support of this hybrid system: first, that fixed dates for general elections would remove what they view as a built-in bias in favour of the governing party, namely, the ability to call a general election at a time most favourable to its interests; second, that a hybrid system for calling elections would be less costly to administer and organize; and third, that setting fixed dates for general elections would end needless House time wasted on election speculation and remove one of our favourite national pastimes.

We also heard criticism about the current regime for calling byelections, criticism that the period of time is too long between a vacancy being created and the calling of a byelection, thereby detrimentally affecting constituents, or criticism that this period of time is too short, a so-called snap byelection to favour the re-election of a member who has resigned in political difficulty.

The Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, known commonly as the Lortie commission, also heard these arguments in 1990 and 1992, but the commission did not recommend moving to a system of fixed dates for general elections or a hybrid system as is represented by Bill C-250.

The royal commission pointed to several drawbacks which it felt were persuasive. The commission emphasized that although fixed election terms are not uncommon in democracies, they are not the rule for parliamentary democracies. Rather, countries which have adopted fixed election terms are, as a rule, systems characterized by the separation of powers between the executive and the legislative branches of government. The United States is the best example of that.

The commission went on to note that unlike the U.S. executive branch of government, the Canadian Prime Minister and his or her

cabinet are held accountable to Parliament and exercise power only so long as the confidence of the House is maintained.

The commission indicated, as I did earlier, that the threat of a possible dissolution of the House by the Prime Minister assures his or her voice is the most influential in cabinet, as it should be, and also encourages the loyalty of caucus members toward government policies and legislation. The removal of this convention would undermine the role and responsibilities of the office of the Prime Minister and disrupt the balance between the legislative and executive branches of government.

The commission also questioned whether a hybrid system would in practice remove the perceived bias of the governing party in calling elections to suit its political agenda. It noted that a hybrid system could still allow any governing party to take steps to engineer its own defeat in the House, should this be judged to be in its own political interest.

Another concern was the commission's fear that fixed date elections might lead to lengthy and much more costly election campaigns. The commission pointed to the U.S. experience with fixed elections and long campaign periods. It noted the rising cost of U.S. presidential elections, which are often launched 18 months or more before election date. This was contrasted with the Canadian experience, which is a historic movement toward shorter campaigns, a longstanding tradition of not starting the campaign in earnest until the writs are issued, and the development of stringent election spending limits for candidates and political parties.

I would like to turn to the issue of whether fixed dates for elections would actually reduce the cost of election administration. It has been assumed that savings would materialize largely through better scheduling and planning of door to door enumeration to register voters, but we are in the process of moving away from this system. Members will recall that Bill C-63, which was passed by Parliament last December, provides for a permanent register of electors. The permanent register will provide for a continuous, up to date listing of electors to replace the cumbersome and costly system of door to door enumeration.

The more modern and efficient electoral system, which a permanent register will bring, will over the long term significantly reduce the cost of elections and thus largely remove the major cost disadvantage associated with calling elections at the discretion of the crown.

I would also like to talk to the issue of byelections. Bill C-63, which I noted earlier, also amended the Parliament of Canada Act to ensure that any writ calling for a byelection could not be issued for at least 11 days prior to the receipt of the Speaker's warrants. This was intended to address the opposition's long standing concerns about so-called snap byelections.

Also, if we examine this government's record to date with respect to the calling of byelections, we would find that all were held within six months of the vacancy occurring. The majority were actually held within three months. In my case, it was held exactly three months after the seat became vacant.

If we go back 10 years we would find that the average time period between the vacancy and polling day was approximately six months. So we are making progress in that sense.

I would also note that to save on administration costs, if more than one vacancy occurred within the period of time, the practice has tended to be to set aside one polling day to run a series of byelections across the country. This practice is, in large part, responsible for some of the longer-

Parliament Of Canada ActPrivate Members' Business

February 21st, 1997 / 2 p.m.


François Langlois Bloc Bellechasse, QC

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure for me to speak today to Bill C-250 introduced by the hon. member for Kindersley-Lloydminster. The purpose of this bill is to amend the Parliament of Canada Act and the Canada Elections Act in order to implement a system of fixed dates for general elections in Canada.

It is no easy task to draft or implement such a bill. Strictly speaking, it is not a constitutional matter affecting the Constitution of 1867, but it does seek to match differing components of a reality, to adapt certain rules under the congressional system to a parliamentary system.

Quite apart from the actual wording of Bill C-250, there is the principle involved. The principle of having fixed dates for elections is, in my opinion, a principle of equity between the various political parties in Canada. I consider it an anomaly of our system that a person, or a very small group of persons in the Prime Minister's office, can decide more or less four years after an election is held to call another one-this, of course, when there is a majority government.

We, the official opposition, have had to prepare for a general election that could have been held last fall, for an election that might be held this spring, and for another election that might be held this fall. It is up to the Prime Minister, who is the only one to make this decision, since his recommendation will be accepted by the Governor General.

This is going far beyond the major principles underlying the Constitution of Canada. Allow me to quote the first "whereas" of the 1867 British North America Act, which was renamed the Constitution Act, 1867. What does it say? It says: "Whereas the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick have expressed their Desire to be federally united into One Dominion

under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, with a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom".

Therefore, according to the original act, which gave us the system we know today, the Canadian Constitution must be based on the same principles as the United Kingdom's Constitution. This does not apply only to the written constitution, since Great Britain does not have one. It is more like a constitutional tradition, whereby people alternate between governing and being in opposition.

For some time now, elections in the United Kingdom have usually been held around the same date. In the past several years, the British government has called elections only after the constitutional five year mandate was over. However, the government could still lose a vote on a major issue in the House.

Mr. Major's government in Great Britain, which will soon come to the end of its five-year mandate, lost several votes in the House. No election was held during these five years. Every time, the government came back before the House to ask, despite the vote that was taken, despite the defeat of a government bill, whether the House would maintain its confidence in the government. Every time, the House maintained its confidence in the government, so there was no dissolution.

Once the hon. member for Ottawa-Vanier finishes with his behind-the-scenes representations, I will continue.

Parliament Of Canada ActPrivate Members' Business

2:05 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker

The hon. member for Bellechasse still has five minutes left.

Parliament Of Canada ActPrivate Members' Business

2:05 p.m.


François Langlois Bloc Bellechasse, QC

Mr. Speaker, I was talking about how things are done in Great Britain. Calling elections every five years became a tradition that then turned into a convention.

There is no need for a constitutional amendment or a statutory amendment. All that is required is a ministerial order, perhaps endorsed by a vote in the House of Commons, where the Prime Minister would announce, or have announced when Parliament convened in January 1994, that the next election would be held on the third Monday of October 1998.

Knowing this, all the parties would be on equal footing and could prepare accordingly. No party would have an unfair advantage over the others.

We saw, in 1993 in particular, what can come of an unfair advantage. We all recall the PC leadership race. Mrs. Campbell, who was elected leader of the Conservative Party, chose not to ask for the dissolution of Parliament during the summer of 1993, but rather to try to woo the voters, courtesy of the Canadian taxpayers. All summer long, she travelled throughout Canada with her ministers, all expenses paid by the taxpayers, to get the highest possible visibility. Of course, if she had known what the future held for her, she would probably have asked for the writ of election to be made out a lot sooner.

We also had to campaign during the summer, but our expenses were paid not by the taxpayers but by our own political party. The other political parties in this House had to do the same thing, meaning they had to follow the Prime Minister wherever she travelled and provide all the proper answers, but we had no control at all on the time the writ was to be made.

The writ of election was finally made out on September 8, 1993. That is when a new election campaign began. We could say that, from May 1993 to October 25, 1993, we were in a perpetual election campaign.

Obviously, something is not working.

Bill C-250 may not be the appropriate response, but I believe it deserves to be referred to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs for further study.

If Americans, for 210 years now, have been able to live with the fact that on the Tuesday of the first week of November, every two years for the House of Representatives and one third of the Senate, and every four years for the President, there is an election at a fixed date, if they have managed to do that with the results that can been seen, and knowing that it does not disrupt political life, we can examine, at least, how to blend both systems in such a way that will allow us to maintain responsible government as well as fairness for political parties during election campaigns.

Parliament Of Canada ActPrivate Members' Business

2:05 p.m.


Dick Harris Reform Prince George—Bulkley Valley, BC

Mr. Speaker, my colleague from Kindersley-Lloydminster has brought forward, as he has many times since coming to Parliament in 1993, a very logical and very well thought out and sensible bill, Bill C-250, which will provide for fixed elections to be held every four years. This is not a new idea. It is a new idea for Canada perhaps but in many other countries they have fixed elections. They work very well. As a matter of fact, one can find little fault with that formula. As a contrast I am going to outline some of the faults that we can find with the current formula what we operate under in Canada with regard to elections.

This bill also provides that byelections must be held within two months of a seat's becoming vacant in Canada. That again is very logical and sensible. Too often we have seen for one reason or another that a seat has become vacant and has been vacant for a considerable length of time before a byelection was held and most often until it was held most conveniently to the government of the day. In that time the people in that constituency have been without

representation in this House. That is not a good practice to have in Canada. After all, we are as MPs duty bound to ensure that our constituents are well represented in Parliament and therefore a seat should not remain vacant for a period of time longer than two months.

The other thing that is important about this bill is that this bill would be the first step to begin the process of shattering the near dictatorial powers which are enjoyed by a cabinet in our parliamentary system. As things now stand, and there is no difference in this Parliament with a Liberal cabinet, the Liberal cabinet sets the legislative agenda. The Liberal cabinet, as we have the case in this Parliament, also tells the Liberal backbenchers how to vote. That same Liberal cabinet, as in this government, also ensures the obedience of backbench members by doling out goodies to those same MPs if they simply do as they are told. These goodies can include committee chairs, trips abroad or parliamentary secretary positions.

While cabinet enjoys these powers, it also enjoys the powers of calling a general election when it chooses. This is very unusual when we stop to think about it. The governing party, the party with the majority in the House with all the power and all the resources, has the ability in this country to call an election when it is most advantageous to it.

Certainly incumbency has some benefits and brings some benefits with it but this is an extreme benefit for a sitting government, to be able to call an election whenever from a political point of view it is most advantageous to it.

Andrew Coyne pointed out in an article in the Ottawa Citizen : ``We would not trust the governing party alone to set electoral boundaries or to count votes. Yet it is fro some reason accepted as normal democratic procedure that the government of the day should time the election for its own purposes''. Those benefits are in every sense extreme and an impediment to true democracy in this country.

I want to touch on some other things because curtailing this power of the government and the cabinet should be only one step in our path to parliamentary reform. Canadians have been asking for greater accountability within their highest political institutions. Certainly the Canadian people are very cynical, very distrustful of politicians. It has been because there has been this profound lack of accountability within the highest level of government in the land.

Bill C-250 would help restore accountability but so would other measures such as freer votes, citizens' initiatives, referendums and recall. As members know, the electorate for the most part feels sort of left out of the democratic process. They feel that democracy occurs for them only once every four or five years as the government pleases. That is when they have a chance to cast their vote for the party that is representing what their greatest concerns are, or the party that they can associate with as having the same type of thinking. That only happens once every four or five years.

It is too often in this country-and we have seen it with this Liberal government-that a party will go out and campaign on certain issues and get the people's confidence. We saw it during the 1993 election in particular on the GST issue when the Liberal candidates went around the country and told people that they would scrap, kill and abolish the GST. The Prime Minister himself on radio talk shows and on television said he would kill the GST, that he hated it. Many of the current cabinet ministers have said the same thing. When they got in the position of government, they refused to fulfil the promises they made to the people of Canada. They said: "We never said that. If you had simply read our red book, you would have seen that we never said that".

Let us remember that Liberal candidates from all across the country talked to hundreds, possibly millions of Canadian voters and told them verbally that they were going to kill the GST. Yet they only printed 100,000 red books so how would the Canadian people know?

My point is that Canadians do not have an opportunity to hold the government accountable between elections. That is why we think referendums, citizens initiatives and recall should be part of parliamentary reform. Instituting some of the reforms I just mentioned would go a long way to restoring accountability in this place. They would allow Canadians to actively participate in the workings of their government, not just once every four years but all the time. As their representatives we should be committed to parliamentary reform in order to restore the confidence that we would like to have from the Canadian people.

Bill C-250 would also return a measure of fairness in our election campaigns. As it now stands, opposition parties must be prepared for an election virtually at any time. The opposition parties of course are at the mercy of the government and the shortening of the writ period to 37 days leaves them in even a more precarious position. Opposition parties have just over a month to get their message out and their campaigns up and running. The government has the advantage of knowing for months before an election is called exactly when the date will be.

Bill C-250, by introducing fixed election dates, would restore fairness to our electoral system by levelling the playing field. All parties would know that an election would be held every four years on the third Monday in October. Not only would Bill C-250 create fairness within our system, it would also produce some tremendous cost savings.

In closing, I ask that all members see the logic in this bill, do the right thing and support it.

Parliament Of Canada ActPrivate Members' Business

2:15 p.m.


Pat O'Brien Liberal London—Middlesex, ON

Mr. Speaker, in addressing this private members' bill, I would first like to turn to some of the comments from the Reform member opposite who just spoke. I will address three or four of his points and try to clarify what are some obvious misunderstandings.

The member spoke to the issue of accountability in government. I would remind him if he has not had the opportunity to study how the American system works that there the separation of the three branches of government virtually insulates the president from any accountability in the legislative branch whatsoever.

The president of the United States is never in the Congress except at their invitation. He is not, like the Prime Minister of Canada who is present daily in the House of Commons, in the legislative branch daily along with his ministers fielding questions from opposition parties.

We have in the parliamentary system the greatest possible degree of accountability of any democratic system in the world. For the member to raise that issue is simply for him to have a misunderstanding about our system and how accountable it is vis-à-vis the congressional system for example.

I was reaching to see the relevance of some of the member's comments, but I guess he tied them in just enough to stay on top. The Reform member brought the GST into the debate and the fact that our party had only printed 100,000 red books. He asked how could we expect Canadians to understand what we said in writing on the GST.

I welcome that comment and this is why. In January I held two town hall meetings in my riding. I knew this issue would come up, which it did. I shared with the people my own flyer which I distributed door to door in my own riding. It was a one page flyer, not a hundred page red book. It was a one page flyer which I personally took to their homes. The flyer spoke to the issue of the GST. It said that this party would harmonize the GST, that we would replace it with a tax that was fairer and simpler.

It is an absolute red herring for the member to comment that because we had a limited number of red books our electorate could not be expected to know our stand on the GST. Any responsible member and all the colleagues on my side of the House campaigned responsibly and took their own literature to the doors of the constituents they were seeking to represent. They took the constituents' questions at their doorsteps.

The Reform member also spoke to the issue that the opposition now has a very limited time to get its message across under the 36-day campaign period which has just been passed by the parties in the House of Commons. I would submit that if the opposition parties are relying strictly on the campaign period to explain their proposals to the people, their alternate visions of what the government should be in this country, then they are totally misunderstanding what the House of Commons is all about. They should be putting forth that message and those concepts day after day in the House of Commons.

I have been very disappointed to see how badly the Reform Party uses question period. It gets hung up on irrelevant issues. Day after day it fails to take maximum benefit of question period. There have been many days when I and other colleagues of mine on this side of the House would have loved to have had the opportunity to be in opposition just for a day. Then we could fire some more relevant questions which would liven up the debate. Question period has been pathetically used by the Reform Party and frankly the record speaks for itself. The toughest and most relevant questions have often come from the Liberal members, as our own ministers are well aware.

The Reform member failed to mention the fact that shortening the election campaign period to 36 days will save the Canadian taxpayers millions and millions of dollars. The creation of a permanent voters list will save millions and millions of dollars.

Maybe he does not know Canadian history but he failed to note that the 47-day campaign period goes back to the last century when leaders travelled by train, when we did not have the advantage of television, when we did not have jet travel. Everyone who has been involved in a federal election campaign knows that the public basically tunes in during the last 10 days or two weeks. The interest becomes higher at that point, so there is no need for a 47-day campaign.

To move to the issue of this private members' bill and to fixed dates for elections, I think it is a well intentioned but simplistic idea. This is not the United States. It is not a congressional system where we can fix the dates easily.

One idea I have not heard in this debate is that the Governor General of Canada does not have to grant the Prime Minister a dissolution. There is the right of the Governor General, which has been used in this country in the past but not without some controversy, to say: "I reject your reason for calling an election. I will not dissolve the House of Commons. If you are not prepared to carry on, I will call on another party to form the government". No one has brought that into this debate.

The idea that any government or any prime minister could frivolously, strictly for political advantage, call an unwarranted election simply does not bear scrutiny in a reading of Canadian history. I would invite the previous speaker to look up the King-Byng crisis if he does not know to what I refer. It has not been done lately by a governor general but it is a power that he does have and can use if he feels that there is a frivolous call for an election by a prime minister.

The system we have has served us very well for 130 years. It has been responsibly used by prime ministers of different political stripes. I would submit that we are not the United States. I am not anxious to see an Americanization of our system. Quite frankly, I think some of that has happened with our supreme court which I for one am not very excited about. I do not think we want to further Americanize our parliamentary system of government by these fixed dates for elections.

I come from a municipal government background. Fixed dates work well at the municipal level. However, that is not the case here at the federal level. I would submit that our system of leaving the responsibility to the prime minister and having that person and his party answer to the ultimate judge of the propriety of an election ought to be the Canadian electorate. They can very well determine if the election was warranted or not.

The system has served us very well for 130 years. I submit it will continue to serve us very well. While I know the bill by the member of the Reform Party is well-intentioned, I cannot support it.

Parliament Of Canada ActPrivate Members' Business

2:25 p.m.


Charlie Penson Reform Peace River, AB

Mr. Speaker, I see I do not have much time, but I am supportive of the bill that has been introduced by my colleague.

In my view, this is a non-partisan issue. I am surprised to hear that it has raised a few voices on the other side speaking against it. The last speaker has just said that municipal governments have used this system and it has worked well there. I suggest that it can work well in the federal Parliament as well.

I know that this has been a long-time interest of my colleague from Kindersley-Lloydminster. The theory is that fixed election dates introduce an element of fairness, more certainty, more cost effectiveness and more independence by the MPs.

We are all in favour of reform in a number of parliamentary areas to try to make MPs feel like they are more involved in the process, have more power in committees and have more free votes. I think that is what we are striving for. We are trying to represent our constituents to the best of our ability but sometimes the process has been in our way.

The previous member talked about the need to change the election time from 47 days to 36 days and about why that was necessary. That a system that was used when people travelled by train. I suggest that the system we are using today for elections that can be called by the Prime Minister at his whim is in the same category. We need to move forward. It introduces more certainty into the system. I would support it.

I would like to quote from an article in the Montreal Gazette by Andrew Coyne on February 11, 1997. It is interesting that he has raised the same issue. He is asking why the Prime Minister should go to the polls after a little more than three years. I will read the quote:

But I have a more fundamental question: why should it be up to him? Canada is one of the few democracies that still leaves it up to the government of the day to decide when elections should be called-

We would not trust the governing party alone to set electoral boundaries, or to count the votes. Yet it is accepted as normal democratic procedure that it should time the election to its own purposes at the zenith of its popularity-In most other democracies, elections are governed by a set timetable agreed upon and understood well in advance, rather than the Prime Minister's biorhythms.

This is popularly associated with presidential systems, like the United States and France, but there's no reason it could not apply to the parliamentary democracies as well: the existing five-year limit on the life of any Parliament, within which time new elections must be held, might be turned into a regular appointment.

He makes the argument why this could be case.

The provincial election is on in Alberta right now and the election date is March 11. In my part of the world that could be minus 35 or 40 Celsius. I know that the politicians out campaigning are having a bit of a difficult time let alone some of the people who are travelling to the meetings to hear their potential elected representatives. I suggest that in a country like Canada October would be a good time and I see every reason for supporting the idea of changing to fixed election dates.

I appreciate participating in this debate. I think that we should look at this as a non-partisan issue.

Parliament Of Canada ActPrivate Members' Business

2:25 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker

The hon. member for Peace River will have six minutes left if he wishes to use it the next time.

The time provided for the consideration of Private Members' Business has now expired and the item is dropped to the bottom of the order of precedence on the Order Paper.

The House stands adjourned until Monday, March 3, at 11 a.m.

(The House adjourned at 2.30 p.m.)