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.