Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak on Bill C-2 which is the first major overhaul of the Canada Elections Act since 1970. MPs are very interested in the minute details of the bill because it is one of the key rule books for the sport of politics and the business of politics.
I will put the bill's importance into some kind of context. The biggest single difference between Canadian rules in elections and U.S. rules in elections is the fact that we have reasonable campaign spending limits in Canada. In the U.S. spending limits are stratospheric. One does not have to be a billionaire like Donald Trump, Ross Perot, Steven Forbes or Oprah Winfrey to run an election campaign in Canada as one would have to be in the U.S. We do not have to spend most of our time as elected members of parliament sucking up to the political action committees of various lobby groups that have the power to raise money for our campaigns or to spend millions of dollars to defeat us over some narrow issue.
It is true that we are seeing a few Americanisms entering our process on a small scale. If the National Citizens' Coalition and the Reform Party had their way we would have even more. They want American style health care and American style politics to help them get it.
Let us be proud of the following point. It cost Barbara Boxer $22 million U.S. to win her senate seat in California. That amount and more will be spent by both Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani as they run for the vacant New York senate seat.
In comparison, I just received a letter from the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada saying that the spending limit in my riding for the next election will be around $61,000. With a few more golf tournaments and potluck suppers by the hundreds of supporters we have in my district we can raise that money easily over a four year period.
We have these spending limits in part because David Lewis and the NDP were foresighted enough make them part of their price for supporting the minority Liberal government in 1974.
U.S. style campaign financing makes running for office an impossibility for ordinary citizens like most of us in the House. It turns election volunteers into full time, paid professionals, running round-the-clock, round-the-calendar election campaigns. It reduces interest groups and social movements to buying and selling votes instead of trying to influence public policy with the strength of their research and the moral weight of their arguments.
One benchmark to assess change in the elections act should be whether a certain provision helps more ordinary citizens get involved in the electoral system. Then it is worthy of support.
Another benchmark is if the provision encourages us to concentrate in the public interest and the public good, rather than endless fundraising from special interests. Then it is worthy of our support.
There are many changes in the act that the NDP supports. We support the national riding limits on third party advertising and the requirement to identify their sponsors. We believe uncontrolled advertising would distort elections in favour of those groups which can afford million dollar ad campaigns at the expense of democracy. Without this clause we would have the U.S. style financing to which I referred.
We also support polling blackouts during the last 48 hours of the campaign. Poll results are capable of being manipulated and the parties involved need to be given sufficient time to respond to published findings so the public can get the whole story.
We support changing the voting hours in Saskatchewan. I guess folks in central Canada who never heard of my province do not know that we observe only central standard time throughout the year, but at least now we will not be voting later than B.C. as we did in the last federal election campaign.
We support the changes which do not automatically deregister parties and thereby force the sale of assets if that political party for one election could not muster a slate of at least 50 candidates.
We strongly support the increases in the federal political contribution tax credit limits for individuals. This is an inclusionary policy. It involves more people and is the first change since the NDP obtained these credits as part of a package to democratize election financing in Canada back in 1974, fully 25 years ago.
Another positive change is the fact that all candidates are now eligible for the return of the $1,000 nomination deposit once the appropriate election expense returns are filed with Elections Canada. Previously candidates needed to get 15% of the vote or they would lose their deposit.
Official agents can be fired and replaced if necessary during a campaign and nomination papers can now be filed electronically or by fax. My colleagues from Yukon, Churchill River, Saskatchewan and Churchill, Manitoba will certainly appreciate this change as their ridings are bigger than most European countries. Of course they do not have the roads to match, at least not until we have a national highway program.
For our urban friends, the right of access for candidates and their volunteers to campaign in condos and apartments is strengthened.
We also support the changes which make it administratively easier for political parties to merge. Unfortunately, for the Leader of the Opposition, it cannot be made politically any easier for him, at least not in this piece of legislation.
However, there are two changes which we oppose, and there are some glaring omissions. We cannot support the elimination of so-called “rural vouching”. People who live in the city often do not know their neighbours. We know that. However, folks who live in the country all know one another. They grew up together, went to school together, farm together, do business together and are usually related to one another.
If Georgina says that Kaye got left off the list because she does not live on the farm any more, then everyone will take her word for it because that is the way things are. Some people can tell a lie to a stranger, some people cannot, but it is just about impossible to get away with telling a fib to a DRO, a poll clerk and three or four party scrutineers from your home town; any or all of whom could easily catch you out.
The Ontario election used the federal permanent voters list instead of their own enumeration and advertised for revisions. Almost every voter in certain polls in Toronto had moved during the intervening two year period. I know we will find the same thing next time in places like downtown Vancouver and, in particular, Vancouver East. If we do not reintroduce some mandatory enumeration of polls with a high proportion of renters or tenants we may wind up with the American situation where only rich people and homeowners get around to registering and voting. That would be a shame, unfair and undemocratic.
The other provision I cannot support and my party cannot support relates to returning officers. They are now able to vote, which is okay, but they are still appointed by the government. This is significant because they hold the job until they die or the riding boundaries change. These positions should be awarded after a competition on the basis of merit. A whole new merit system would be quite a refreshing change in the House of Commons. It is the only way to maintain the appearance of neutrality, as well as the practice.
What is missing? There were several issues omitted from this review of the elections act, a number of which are very important to the New Democratic Party.
At our recent policy convention we adopted a paper on democratic reform which made a number of recommendations, including promoting a form of proportional representation as appropriate for our country. A system of proportional representation would contribute to the Canadian sense that the House of Commons belonged to them and would reduce regional frictions, resulting in a more dynamic and equitable democracy in Canada, which is another refreshing suggestion.
The government and the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs decided not to examine proportional representation, or PR as we call it, in spite of a very thorough presentation by my colleague, the member for Regina—Qu'Appelle, and a lot of interest around the table. Given the level of cynicism about politics these days it is a pretty grave omission.
People feel their vote does not count when the allocation of seats in parliament does not fairly reflect the distribution of the popular vote. A modified system of PR, where most of the seats in the commons were still constituency based but a portion were allocated under a regional or percentage basis under a PR system, could go some way toward relieving this imbalance. PR would overcome some of the arguments about regional or provincial representation made by some defenders of the unelected, undemocratic Senate.
We would like to see the idea of fixed election dates reviewed as well. Our convention and our party supports this. This would remove one of the advantages that an incumbent political party has over every other political party in the country.
Finally, the voting age has not been lowered in this version of the act. The Liberals have been trumpeting their so-called children's agenda. In my view, let the young people vote on the children's agenda. In fact, it would be interesting to see how often all party leaders volunteered to campaign in high schools if these students could actually vote.
Young people are thought responsible enough to drive at age 16. They can be held responsible for committing violent criminal acts in adult court. More than that, they will have to live with the long term implications of decisions taken by the parliament of today.
Unfortunately, they are taken seriously enough by other parties in the House, some of which have been known to offer kids a free bus trip, pizza and a bit of booze to skip school and wave the flag. I believe that young people will live up to the expectations we have of them and will not disappoint us.
Many support lowering the voting age to 16, including my colleague, the member for Kamloops, Thompson and Highland Valleys, as well as the New Democratic Youth of Canada, the Nova Scotia NDP and many other organizations around the country.
Finally, one thing we would like to see addressed, which was raised by my colleague from Palliser, is the use of a private person's likeness without permission in an advertisement during a campaign. This should not be allowed. We will work to see that this happens.
I am glad to hear the government House leader say that he is prepared to co-operate on these issues. This week we are celebrating co-operatives week and I am pleased to see that the government House leader will co-operate with all parties to make some changes to this very important act.