I know he is a Tory MLA now, but notwithstanding that, we still liked him anyway.
While the court ruled the provisions in question unconstitutional, it suspended the judgment for a period of 12 months in order to allow Parliament time to amend the legislation. That is what we have before us today. Thus, if no legislative amendment is made by June 27, 2004, the 50 candidate rule will cease to have any effect, leaving a large void in the act.
It also means that it would be fairly easy for any group, if we do not do anything that is, to register as a political party and abuse the tax credits that are designed to assist true political parties. Of course, we do not want any group to fraudulently claim it is a political party only to get money from the taxpayers of Canada. That is why it is imperative that we act, and act quickly, to respond and ensure that the Canada Elections Act remains operational after June 27, 2004, to prevent any misuse of the system. The Supreme Court decision has left a gap and it is our duty to fill that gap while respecting the court's decision.
Before reviewing the key elements of the proposed legislation, let me take a moment to highlight the potential implications of the Figueroa decision, flowing from its impact on party registration.
Obviously, removing the candidate threshold in accordance with the ruling may well result in an increase in the number of registered parties. In theory, an increase in the number of parties could have an impact on the reimbursement of election expenses and other benefits.
However, parties must sustain a minimum level of voter support, that is to say 5% of the vote in the ridings in which they endorse a candidate, or 2% of the vote nationally, which is what we call the McCLelland amendment, in order to receive that allowance.
That particular provision is still valid because it provides us with some protection by not allowing a person to get money from taxpayers by simply creating a political party, running as a candidate and thereby drawing money from the tax system. Again, I give credit to the member who proposed that amendment at that time because it is very beneficial.
I would like to clarify that the Supreme Court did not rule on this issue, the McCLelland amendment or other issues like that, nor did it pronounce itself on any other requirements in the act. As a matter of fact, it specifically indicated that the decision did not mean that other thresholds in the act were unconstitutional. I believe that is quite clear.
The real risk is that there could be a number of groups calling themselves political parties and seeking registration simply for the sake of getting access to the tax credit system. They would only wish to get money from the taxpayers of Canada while not participating, save nominally if at all, in the democratic process.
The concern is that groups, including advocacy groups, could register as parties simply by fielding a paper candidate and complying with reporting requirements. These groups would then be able to issue tax receipts for contributions made to them, even though they have no intention of acting as a party nor even any intention of electing anyone. Not only is this objectionable as a matter of principle, it could well have considerable negative financial impacts. It is something we must address to ensure that the system is not misused.
Taking no action would leave our electoral system weaker and our fiscal regime vulnerable to abuse. Moreover, not legislating to comply with the court's decision could well mean that judicial intervention would be required after June 27, 2004, to either extend the suspension period--with no assurance of course that the court would grant it--or to provide guidance to the Chief Electoral Officer on the applicable rules from that day forward. We must be clear.
The absence of a timely legislative response would result in uncertainty as to the rules for party registration and may mean that at some point we would not have in place a fully operational electoral system, at least from the financial aspect.
Doing nothing is certainly not an option. It is incumbent on us as members of this House to do everything possible to avoid that.
The bill responds in a way that strikes an appropriate balance between fairness to parties on one hand and the need to preserve the integrity of the electoral system on the other, while of course, respecting the Supreme Court decision, which is what this does.
The bill consists of two key pillars: party registration and accountability provisions, and anti-abuse measures
We cannot have candidate requirements any more, except one. Anything beyond that, the court has ruled that we cannot do that. We cannot do 12 nor 11; we cannot do 9. We can do one because of course, if we do not run a candidate or put a name on the ballot, we are not a political party. We may be many things, but we are not that.
The second element concerns the series of anti-abuse measures. I want to touch on those two things before ending.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court indicated that candidate thresholds were problematic, leaving little for manoeuvre.
As I said, Bill C-51 would replace the 50 candidate threshold with a single candidate requirement. In other words, someone would have to run, but 12 candidates would not have to run because the Supreme Court has ruled that is not proper. We may regret it and we may think many things, but it is done and it was a unanimous Supreme Court decision, not that it changes much. However, we must respect it.
At the same time, the bill would add further registration requirements and other measures to ensure that parties seeking to register have a genuine interest in electoral competition.
First, The bill would, for the first time, add a definition of a political party in the act. Pursuant to that definition, a party would be required to have as one of its fundamental purposes the participation in public affairs through running and supporting one or more of its members as candidates. We cannot say a quantity of candidates because quantifying candidates has been ruled to be unconstitutional.
Second, the minimum number of party members would be increased from 100 to 250. A signed statement would be required from those members stating that they are members of the party and support its registration. If a political party is anything, it is a group of people. So, 250 was the number that we put in as identifying that critical mass of people. Some would argue that is still not a high threshold, but it is a bit higher than what we had before. We had 100 multiplied by several ridings, but we cannot multiply by several ridings any more so we have 250 overall.
Parties would be required to have three officers, other than the party leader, who would provide their signed consent to the act. In other words, to be a political party, there must be a total of four officers at least with hopefully many more.
With the removal of the 50 candidate rule, parties would be able to register at byelections. With a single candidate requirement, there is no logical need to allow registration only during a general election. If a party were only to have one candidate in a general election, and if there were one, two, or three byelections, why could a new party not be registered then? If we are going to respect the court's decision, we must allow registration at byelections. If a party were to fail to run a single candidate in a general election, it would automatically be de-registered.
The bill would also reduce from 12 candidates to 1 the threshold for party identification on the ballot. The court did not rule on that, but the fact is that if a party needs only one candidate to be a political party, why would it need 12 to have its name on the ballot? That provision has to go for reasons of logic if nothing else.
Overall, the party registration requirements would ensure that registered parties are genuine participants in the process.
In the few minutes I have left, I want to touch briefly on the anti-abuse measures. That is what we are left with now to identify political parties and to ensure that they do not do anything false, while at the same time, not creating anti-abuse measures that are so intrusive that the institutions cannot be created at all. So again we strike a balance.
First, the bill would include a new false statement offence for knowingly making false statements in relation to the registration of a party. The leader of a party is required to provide a declaration in this regard. In addition to the individual penalties attached to making a false statement, the provision would allow parties to be refused registration or even de-registered for making false statements.
Second, there would be a ban on the solicitation or receipt of contributions by a political party simply for the purpose of redirecting those contributions to a third party. In other words, if a political party is falsely created only as a front to feed money elsewhere, that would ban the solicitation of funds for that purpose.
A third measure would increase the powers of the Commissioner of Elections Canada who is responsible for enforcement of compliance under the act. Where the commissioner has reasonable suspicion that the party is not legitimate, for all the reasons I said, he could require the party to provide information to satisfy him.
Should the party fail to do so, the commissioner could apply for judicial deregistration of a party. It is of little good to identify that something fraudulent has gone on and then have to go through a six month court process to rectify it after one taxation year has gone by and after the taxpayers of Canada have been defrauded of a large amount of money. Therefore, we must give the commissioner the authority to do things rather quickly.
Further, when an application for deregistration is pending, the right of a party to issue tax receipts would be suspended. Judicial deregistration would also be available as part of the criminal sentencing process. In addition to deregistration, the judge could order the liquidation of the party's assets if it did all these things wrong. In other words, if that money was obtained fraudulently and used to buy goods for the party, then surely, the assets could be liquidated, because those funds belong to the taxpayers of Canada.
Finally, individuals, including party officers, could be held civilly responsible if convicted of offences related to or leading to financial abuse and they could be ordered to make restitution to the public purse. If someone creates a false entity to defraud the taxpayers of Canada, the officers could be held responsible personally for doing harm to the Canadian taxpayers.
Hon. members will see that this is what I consider a measured and balanced response. It is what we are proposing.
For these reasons I encourage all members to pass this bill. We could refer it to committee for an in-depth study, but it ought, of course, to be passed fairly promptly in order to meet the Supreme Court deadline.
I thank all my parliamentary colleagues in advance for their contribution to this debate today.