Mr. Speaker, I am pleased in turn to speak to Bill C-9 at this final stage.
I would like to indicate right away that our political formation will support this legislation, but without any great enthusiasm. I would even say that we do it out of pique, in a way, because we recognize that parliament must abide by the court decision in the Figueroa case.
We also recognize that there are in the current Canada Elections Act, resulting from the reform adopted in the last parliament, a number of mistakes, all in all minor, that could nevertheless have had some rather dramatic effects in certain respects.
There are problems of agreement between the two texts, of poor translation from English to French since this bill was obviously first drafted in English.
There are also a number of mistakes in the numbering of some subsections and paragraphs. Again, this may seem trivial at first sight, but on closer look this could have had in the last election effects that although not dramatic could certainly be described as prejudicial.
Basically we should correct these difficulties, these small problems, these technical mistakes as I call them, in the Canada Elections Act.
If some technical mistakes were introduced in the elections act, I think we have to recognize that it is simply because we have proceeded hastily—unwillingly, I may add—with the elections act reform in the last session of the last parliament.
We proceeded with too much haste and this haste was dictated to us by the government, whose motives were—we saw it later, but we had suspicions at the time—essentially political and partisan. The government wanted to campaign under the new act, and since the government party was planning an early election we had to pass the new elections act as quickly as possible.
We had to proceed hastily, which prevented us from doing the work as conscientiously as we wanted to or as we should have, and the main result was that we were unable to make substantive changes to the elections act.
There were certainly very interesting changes, which had the effect of improving the act or the Canadian electoral system. However the fact still remains that we should have certainly examined changes that were much more substantive, but with the limited time available we obviously were unable to do so.
I must tell the House that as representatives of the people of Quebec and Canada in this House we should be deeply troubled and concerned by the rate of participation in elections, which is constantly declining.
We were able to see, particularly during the last federal election, that the rate of participation was dramatically low. We were able to see, particularly during the last federal election, that the rate of participation was dramatically low in spite of all the efforts made by the chief electoral officer to inform Canadians and Quebecers of the procedure to be registered on the voters' list and to exercise their right to vote.
This drop in the rate of participation also occurred in spite of the many changes made to the act to make it easier to vote. In fact, it is possible to vote under almost all circumstances in Canada and abroad. Some would even say that the Canada Elections Act is written in such a way that makes it easy, and a few journalists demonstrated this in the last election, to vote fraudulently.
We facilitate as much as possible the exercise of people's right to vote. In spite of that the participation rate is getting lower at each election. As I said, as parliamentarians I think this worrisome trend in our democracy must be cause for great concern.
If people are losing interest in politics and in the election process, we must draw certain conclusions and make certain changes.
We must carry out a reform of parliament that takes the expectations of the people we represent into account. They must be absolutely convinced that what we are doing here is being done on their behalf, that we are representing them, that we are protecting their interests and that we have a real say.
There is cause for concern with regard to for what I would call the democratic drift that threatens the process of globalization we are going through and the negotiation of the FTAA in which parliamentarians are definitely not involved.
We do need to change our parliamentary system, and that includes an indepth reform of the Canadian electoral system.
When we examined Bill C-2, which was supposed to be one of the most major reviews of the Canada Elections Act, we could have made substantial changes. We agreed with those changes but for political and partisan reasons we did not make them. That resulted, as we know, in the participation rate during the last federal election being one of the lowest since 1867. We missed a unique opportunity to carry out an indepth reform.
We must recognize that since the beginning of this new parliament the government has been dragging its feet somewhat on parliamentary and electoral reform. With this bill we could have started afresh, but no, the government has chosen to make cosmetic changes, to correct some technical mistakes to which I alluded and to abide by the court's decision in the Figueroa case. I will come back to these two issues a little later.
I would like to talk briefly about what we could have done. I hope the government House leader is listening to what I am saying. I hope we will have the opportunity very soon, after the chief electoral officer tables his report or his recommendations following the last federal election, to review, amend and reform much more thoroughly the Canadian electoral system so that our fellow citizens will feel that this system is relevant to the decision making process.
We might examine the voting procedure and the representation system. We had a debate in the House some time ago and we discussed the possibility of striking an all party committee to look into all these issues. The government has unfortunately shown very little interest in the idea of even discussing a more thorough reform of the electoral system.
I was surprised to hear the government House leader say that we would have the opportunity to examine more thoroughly the issue of the electoral system once the chief electoral officer has stated his position on the subject. I must say that he missed an excellent opportunity of showing tangible interest in this when we debated a motion brought forward by the New Democratic Party.
We might examine the representation system. Would it be relevant or not to integrate into Canadian legislation an element of proportional representation in our electoral system? Should we adopt a purely proportional electoral system? Of course there are pros and cons. We have already had an opportunity to discuss this.
As for the advantages, there is the fact that it would eventually allow for a better representation of women and young people in parliament. As far as the electoral process is concerned, minority groups would be better represented, and election results would better reflect the various points of view and ideologies in society, including some of the more minority ones.
With a proportional representation component the system will avoid the distortions sometimes created by the first past the post system which makes it possible for a government to gather almost 100% of the power with only 40% of the votes. A proportional representation system would allow for better co-operation with the opposition and would encourage government to take into account the opinions of the opposition.
Of course, there are some disadvantages to such a system. We will have to take them into consideration when we consider the system so that the necessary corrective mechanisms can be put in place. Instability can result from pure proportional representation and sometimes from a system with a proportional representation component.
There is also the risk that a proportional representation component could also create two classes of members: those who have ridings and constituents to whom they are accountable and to whom they must provide services and those who are appointed from the party lists.
To whom are the members accountable? To the people who elect them or to the party who puts them on the ballot? Those are questions that still need to be asked if we at some later point come to question the appropriateness of integrating proportionality into the Canadian electoral system.
We could have examined the system of appointing returning officers, a system that gives Canada the image of a democracy that is somewhat behind the times, somewhat aging, somewhat archaic. I, an opposition MP, am not the only one who says so. Canada's chief electoral officer said the following when he appeared before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs on October 28:
—when I go out on the international scene I do not recommend that the Canadian system be emulated where it comes to the appointment of returning officers I clearly indicate, as I do in Canada, that the appointment of returning officers under the present system is an anachronism.
The Lortie commission, in volume I of its report at page 483, stated as follows:
A cornerstone of public confidence in any democratic system of representative government is an electoral process that is administered efficiently and an electoral law that is enforced impartially. Securing public trust requires that the election officials be independent of the government of the day and not subject to partisan influence.
It must be acknowledged that in the present system returning officers are appointed by the governor in council, that is to say the government. They are not appointed as the result of a call for nominations. They are not appointed as the result of an independent examination where they will be selected on their intrinsic abilities, their own qualifications. They are appointed as the government sees fit. They are appointed according to their political stripe.
In my opinion this is basically undemocratic and archaic in a democracy that claims to be modern. Returning officers need to be appointed by the chief electoral officer. They need to be dismissable by that same officer. They need to be appointed after a public call for nominations and selected in an independent process of examination of their ability to carry out their duties. They need to be answerable to the chief electoral officer.
I trust that we will eventually have an opportunity to address such an amendment. It is high time we brought this change in the Canada Electoral Act. It will be noted that all opposition parties agree with this and that the only one against it is the government, because incidentally it has the privilege of appointing returning officers.
I hope we will also have the opportunity to examine the whole issue of political party financing, which is a basic issue in a democracy. In a democracy it is one person, one vote; not one dollar but one vote.
It is important that we consider the facts. This government has been elected on a platform of honesty and integrity and of condemnation of the previous Progressive Conservative government for its spending and mistakes, but experience has shown that, with the present government there is sometimes a very strong link between contributors to the Liberal Party of Canada and people who are awarded contracts by the Liberal government.
It is strange and surprising. This patronage system where contracts are awarded to contributors to political parties is a remnant of the past.
That system should be influenced only by those who are entitled to vote on polling day. If the influence must also express itself with a monetary contribution, those who are entitled to vote on polling day should be the only ones to be able to exercise that influence in between elections and during election campaigns by giving money to political parties. Only the voters should have the right to finance Canadian political parties.
That is what we have in Quebec: financing of the political parties by the public. Quebec's party financing system is held up around the world as one of the most modern systems, since we can be absolutely sure of its probity because only voters can contribute.
Members on the other side might tell me “Yes, but it is well known that this legislation encourages people to circumvent the law, since businesses may well contribute to a party through an individual”. The Quebec election act clearly prohibits this. Penalties are therefore imposed for contravening not only the letter but also the spirit of the law.
The Quebec election act also provides for a cap on election contributions. In Canada the people watching us and the people in the gallery will be perhaps surprised to know that there is absolutely no ceiling. A company can give any amount to a political party. There is no limit to contributions in Canada. There are limits to election expenses but not to contributions. In Quebec contributions are limited to $3,000 per voter. There are therefore two components to public funding: the contribution ceiling and a clear definition of who can contribute, that is voters only.
At the very least we might have expected that the federal government would agree to set a limit, a ceiling, for contributions if it did not want to set very strict limits on the source of the contributions, but even that is too much to ask it. Why would the government deny itself generous contributions when it can count on them year after year? The major banks give the party in power tens of thousands of dollars. It would certainly not deprive itself of this manna falling in its lap which it generously repays, as the facts indicate.
We would also have the opportunity perhaps to consider, or we might have had the opportunity if we had made the effort to really do so last time, incentives to increase the proportion of women involved in the electoral process and consequently taking part in public affairs and the political process.
France has just passed legislation requiring half the assembly to comprise women, which will mean that half the assembly will comprise women. Some of the Scandinavian countries have established legislation setting a minimum for the proportion of women in their legislatures.
There could be this sort of legislative incentive or financial incentives to encourage political parties to promote the entry of women into politics, which might encourage them to increase the number of women candidates in the running at elections. I want to point out in this regard that it was the government House leader himself who, during the review of Bill C-2 introduced in the last parliament, urged members of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to propose such an amendment to the Canada Elections Act. At the time the hon. member for Longueuil presented an amendment, but it was subsequently rejected by the government.
Where is the consistency when the government House leader asks members of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to propose measures to increase the number of women involved in the political process, only to then have the government defeat an amendment to this effect? There is a lack of consistency and there is a problem in terms of real political will to make substantial amendments to the Canada Elections Act.
We also raised a number of lesser issues such as the tax credits for contributions to political parties. The policy currently followed by the government is fundamentally discriminatory because the tax credit program is unfair to low income taxpayers making contributions to political parties.
If a low income taxpayer makes a contribution to a political party, chances are that the tax receipt which he gets will make absolutely no difference. If his income is not taxable, his tax receipt is absolutely worthless.
What is the value of a contribution by a low income taxpayer who takes the trouble to donate part of his savings to a political party and to make a financial contribution to the exercise of democracy? The state generously rewards those who make handsome contributions and have sufficient income to claim a tax credit but does not encourage in any way low income earners who wish to take part in the electoral process by making contributions to political parties.
We raised this inequity but the government refused to remedy it. The elections act contains another inequity. It was acknowledged by everyone in committee, even the Liberal members, yet they refused to make any changes to the elections act relating to the participation of self-employed workers in an election campaign.
If I am a self-employed carpenter with my own company the elections act does not allow me to work for one candidate or another, for example to make lawn signs, because that would be considered a contribution or a campaign expense.
There is something abnormal about treating the self-employed differently from any other citizens when they want to take part in the electoral process. If a carpenter working for a company does the work, this is allowed provided he does so as a volunteer. Yet if a self-employed carpenter wants to do the same in order to be part of the electoral process on behalf of one or another candidate, he is not allowed to do so because this would be considered a contribution or a campaign expense.
Clearly there are flaws in the Canada Elections Act. Certain features must be completely overhauled. The government has shown no interest in moving ahead with this until now. I hope that it will demonstrate a much more open attitude in the future, considering the fact that the public's interest in politics is now declining.
We must take note of this and have the courage to make the decisions required under the circumstances so that the electoral system the political system and the parliamentary system better respond to the expectations of the people we wish and claim to represent in the House.
Let us now get back to the central features of the bill under consideration. First, Figueroa forces the government to reduce the number of candidates that a party must nominate in order to have its name appear on the ballot.
Obviously this has no impact on the 50 candidates that a party must have nominated in a general election to qualify for tax benefits, financial benefits, from the government. Now, however, only 12 candidates will be required in order for the party's name to appear on the ballot.
Obviously there is a rationale behind this. The rules used were those that apply in the House, which require that in order to have party standing a party must have at least 12 members. Similarly a minimum of 12 candidates is required for a political party to have its name appear on the ballot. Fine. This is a formula whose value we can certainly recognize and accept.
This being said, it must also be recognized, as pointed out by Canadian Alliance members, that for all intents and purposes we are creating a new category of recognized political party. Of course this is not what the wording of the bill says, but this is what it means. Political parties that can have their names on ballots and those that run a number of additional candidates may be entitled to the benefits enjoyed by the government.
It must also be understood that this new provision, which seeks to comply with the court ruling in the Figueroa case, has one major flaw regarding byelections. A political party can be created between two general elections and be recognized by the public as such, but under the rule just proposed by the government that political party will not be allowed to put its name on the ballot. This is under the ruling of the court itself a violation of the rights of citizens to be informed of the party being represented by the candidate running for office.
We have a prime example of this in the case of a member now sitting in the House. In 1990, when the hon. member for Laurier—Sainte-Marie became the first Bloc Quebecois member to get himself elected, no one in Quebec would have challenged the fact that the Bloc Quebecois was a political force, a political party in the making but a political party nevertheless.
The rules that prevailed at the time did not allow the current leader of the Bloc Quebecois, the hon. member for Laurier—Sainte-Marie, to put the name of his political party on the ballots. However, under the government's proposed rules, he would still have been in the same position because his party would not previously have had 12 candidates running in a general election.
I proposed an amendment to the government House leader that could have corrected this discrepancy. It must be understood that this discrepancy leaves the government open to new legal challenges, which will again be very costly for taxpayers and which it again risks losing. According to the words of the judge in Figueroa, the voter's right to be fully informed of a candidate's political affiliation must be maintained. This applies in a byelection as well.
What I proposed point blank to the government House leader was that a party be officially recognized as a political party as soon as it agrees to present 50 candidates at the next general election. Naturally the reply was “Yes, but what if it does not present 50?” The elections act must provide a way for the government to recover the money it would have given this party. Provision must be made for this, of course.
However this would at least mean that this party's candidate could put the name of his or her party on the ballot in the meantime. The advantage of this proposal was that different categories of parties would not be created and the discrepancy that will remain in the elections act after Bill C-9 is passed would have been removed.
There is also another provision that is somewhat disturbing to us. Before dealing with it I would simply like to say concerning the proposal we made that members of parliament will have understood well what I said, that is that the government House leader rejected this proposal out of hand, saying “You know, this goes beyond the scope of this bill” and so on. The result was the same: the government refused to consider a substantive proposal from the opposition. This is probably because simply it had not come up with the idea itself, as seems to be its way of running things since 1993.
I was going to say there is another provision in clause 2 that seems unacceptable to me. It is the one aimed at ensuring that when the chief electoral officer wants to test new voting systems, and in this case we are thinking more particularly about electronic voting, he will not be able to proceed without the prior approval of the procedure and House affairs committee which has to examine all matters related to the Canada Elections Act.
The government, after a Liberal senator woke up and said “They forgot to include the Senate”, said “Yes, this is true. Oops, the Senate has not been included. We should also ask the approval of the Senate committee responsible for electoral issues”.
When an unelected institution demands to be given a voice we realize how outdated the Canadian political system is. Maybe we would have agreed, and we moved an amendment to that effect but it was defeated by the government, that the Senate could express its views. There is something of a paradox here when the approval of an unelected house is required for a proposal of the chief electoral officer on the exercise of the right to vote.
Once again the government's argument has been that as long as the Canadian constitution has not been amended in order to reform or abolish the Senate both houses have to be included in any legislative process.
This is not a legislative process but a consultation process. The chief electoral officer needs the approval of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. This is not a legislative process in any sense. We are talking about consultation.
We might have agreed to let the Senate express its views, but that is a far cry from giving it the right to approve a proposal by the chief electoral officer who is responsible for the implementation of the elections act and who is very knowledgeable about our electoral system and the exercise of the right to vote. He would have to present his proposal for approval by senators who are not elected but appointed by the government of the day.
The government's desire to include the Senate committee in this provision of the bill is certainly questionable because this is not about a legislative process. We are talking about consultation on whether the chief electoral officer should go ahead.
Bill C-9, which we are considering, also raises a number of questions relating to the possibility for an independent candidate to have access to the revised electoral list.
Questions were raised and some are still unanswered. There are still many reservations about the bill. I think the government, if it has clear answers, did not give them to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. Maybe there was once again too much haste because several members came out of the committee process with unanswered questions and concerns.
According to several of us, every candidate in an election, no matter whether he or she is associated with a political party or independent, must be on a level playing field and have the same tools as any other candidate. In this regard there are obviously unanswered questions in Bill C-9.
I can hear the government House leader saying “No, no”. As I said before, if the government had clear answers on the question, it neglected—I will put this politely—to give them to members of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, because some members still had some concerns after the minister appeared before the committee.
Obviously for the government, we disagree, because we have missed the point. For the government the failure to understand always lies with the other party. It is always the opposition which has failed to understand. This is perhaps an indication of one of the problems we have in the Canadian parliamentary system, one which makes us think about the changes that should be made. That is another matter entirely.
In conclusion, since we indicated our willingness to vote in favour of the proposed legislation from the start, we might at least have expected the government to demonstrate a certain degree of openness to our proposals, given that we showed openness by indicating from the start that we were going to vote in favour of this legislation.
In the case of Bill C-2 the government was completely unreceptive to any substantial amendment that might come from opposition members, particularly Bloc Quebecois members since, as I said, we indicated that we were going to support the legislation proposed by the government.
Outside the Liberal Party there is apparently no salvation. If a party other than the Liberal Party makes a substantial proposal, and we have seen this in the past, not in connection with this bill, that proposal can only be a bad one. Regardless of how positive and worth while it might be, it absolutely must be rejected.
I see this as evidence of this government's narrow mindedness and arrogance once again. It attaches little importance to members of the opposition, although they were elected just as democratically as the members of the government, and any differing views expressed in the House.
In closing, to give credit where credit is due, despite the reservations I have just been expressing, I must thank all those who made consideration of Bill C-9 possible.
I would like to particularly thank and congratulate the committee members and the MPs from our party and others who have expressed their views in the House on Bill C-9. I also want to thank those who appeared before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs and the committee staff who provided us with a great deal of support in our consideration of this bill.
I also want to thank all those who were involved in the drafting of this legislation, the Privy Council staff, Michael Pierce, Ms. Mondou and their team; the people at Department of justice; and of course those at Elections Canada.
Again I thank the staffs of our party and other parties who made a contribution. I would be remiss in not noting the contributions of my own staff, particularly Patric Frigon, for so much support in my consideration of this bill.
I will conclude on that note, with the comment that I hope the government will learn something from the speed with which we put electoral reform through in the last parliament, which now obliges us to make changes, cosmetic ones in some cases because of that excessive haste. I also hope we will be able if the opportunity arises, and I hope the House leader is open to this, to carry out an indepth reform of the Canada Elections Act to bring it in line with the expectations of our fellow citizens.