Mr. Speaker, I appreciate having an opportunity to speak to Bill C-24 which seeks to improve Canada's federal political financing procedures and to make the system fairer and more transparent.
When I first heard of the bill I questioned why we were going here and what needed to be revised? Certainly I would embrace the opportunity to hear opinions on all sides of this subject.
Canadians are justly proud of our system of democratic government that has been built up with so much care and effort over the years. Canadians value the transparency and the fairness of our electoral system that permits them to select members of Parliament who will represent them as well as express their views on important issues of the day.
I have had a very unique personal experience. I have been in public life since 1988 and that was at the same time that my brother-in-law became part of the American democratic system. There have been marked differences that I have been able to follow on a very up front and personal basis.
Canadians are gratified by the fact that Canada has become a watchword for openness and honesty, which has made it a model for many new democracies around the world. Most of us in the House would agree that our political process, including our electoral system, has in fact served us quite well.
However, as we know, democracy is a work in progress and it must change periodically to keep pace with the developments in our very dynamic society. This means that from time to time we must fine tune some of the elements so that they can continue to do the best job of serving Canadians.
For example, in recent years, some Canadians have expressed concerns about the way we finance electoral campaigns. They have told us that allowing well-to-do individuals, corporations and trade unions to make large donations to federal candidates carries along with it the danger that such a practice could allow some people and some groups to exercise undue influence over the deliberations of government and the political process. I should add that this is a perception and not a reality.
Still, as the members in the House know all too well, perception is important in politics. We must address these concerns, since if left unanswered they could undermine the confidence of Canadians in the fairness of government and in the justness of our political process.
This is precisely what the bill seeks to do. The reforms contained in the bill would go a long way toward strengthening public trust in our electoral system by renewing and improving the way we finance elections and bring greater transparency to the system.
I would like to take few moments to discuss some of the features contained in the bill and how they would achieve these noble goals.
Let us look at disclosure. As the government House leader stated when he first introduced the bill, the government has consulted experts, stakeholders, provincial authorities, and ordinary Canadians as to how they thought the current system was working and what would need to be added to it or changed in order to improve it.
We received a number of extremely valuable suggestions. One thing people told us time and time again was that they needed more information on how the electoral system was funded, where the funds come from, and how the money was used. The bill seeks to address this concern by means of a number of provisions designed to increase the transparency of our electoral financing system.
For example, it proposes to expand disclosure provisions so that Canadians could know exactly who is giving money to candidates and to parties, and how much they are receiving. It is clear that this is badly needed.
Currently only candidates and political parties are required to disclose the sources and the amounts of the contributions they receive to the Chief Electoral Officer. Even a casual observer of our political system would have to conclude that this is not adequate, since it omits some key players in the political process.
We must fill in these gaps with our knowledge by expanding this list to include other important participants.
With this in mind, the bill before us today contains provisions that would strengthen disclosure provisions and extend them to all political participants, including electoral district associations, leadership contestants and nomination contestants.
As part of this, all political participants would in the future be required to report contributions and expenses to the Chief Electoral Officer who would disclose the names and the addresses of those giving more than $200. Upon registration with the Chief Electoral Officer, leadership contestants would be required to disclose the amounts and the sources of contributions received prior to the date of registration.
In each of the four weeks immediately preceding a leadership convention candidates would have to submit information on amounts as well as sources of donations. Six months following the leadership contest they would have to submit information on all contributions received as well as expenses incurred to the Chief Electoral Officer.
Nomination contestants would also have to disclose amounts and sources of contributions as well as expenses incurred four months following the nomination contest, and if an election takes place during that period, four months after the election.
Electoral district associations would report contributions and expenses on an annual basis. They would also be allowed to issue tax receipts for contributions in between elections. As we can see, these new provisions would dramatically expand the information available to Canadians on how the system is funded and in doing so would go a long way toward enhancing public confidence in the integrity of our political system.
We looked at limiting where contributions come from. Better disclosure cannot by itself allay all the fears that large political donations may bring and may lead to a perception of undue political influence. That is why the bill would prohibit corporate and union donations, and would limit the amount individuals could contribute.
Only individuals would be able to make financial contributions to registered parties, and to leadership and nomination contestants. Contributions by individuals would be limited to $10,000 each year to registered parties and their electoral district association candidates and nomination contestants.
There is certainly room for debate in this area. Having been in public life since 1988 I can clearly and unequivocally state that nobody, no individual or corporation, has ever given me a $10,000 donation, so I think there is room for debate as to whether that is an appropriate limit for individuals.
During a leadership campaign individual contributions to a contestant of a registered party would be limited to $10,000. One small exception to this would be that corporations, unions and associations would be able to contribute a maximum of $1,000 in total to a party's candidates, nomination contestants and electoral district associations. Heavy penalties such as large fines and possible jail time would be levied to those organizations that try to get around this limit by telling employees to make contributions on their behalf. As we can see, these are fairly strong measures.
Prohibition of corporate and union contributions to political parties is not new. It was done in Quebec in 1977 and more recently it was done in Manitoba. It has been tried successfully in a number of other countries as well.
During the consultative process one of the strongest messages that came through was the need for a level playing field at the nomination level. This was a concern particularly expressed by women candidates. Pursuant to the bill, spending limits should be imposed at the nomination level, which would be the entry level for contestants, and sometimes the toughest fight any candidate will ever wage.
There is a greater need for fair competition among contestants. Taken together these changes would go a long way toward increasing the transparency of our electoral system as well as ensuring that Canadians could have confidence in that system.
However, one issue remains, namely how we maintain adequate levels of funding for a political system. It is clear that the virtual elimination of political contributions by corporations and unions, and the placing of limits on large individual contributions would certainly impact the ability of parties and candidates to fund election campaigns, something none of us would care to do.
To offset such a possible unintended impact the bill proposes to make up for the fall off in private contributions by increasing the currently existing financial assistance by the Government of Canada to parties and to candidates.
Such measures would include: increasing the percentage of election expenses reimbursed to parties from the current 22.5% to 50%, making polling eligible for reimbursement, raising the ceiling for expenses accordingly, lowering the threshold to qualify for reimbursement from 15% to 10% to allow more candidates to have their expenses reimbursed following an election, and providing registered parties with a quarterly allowance based on the percentage of votes gained in the last general election. This would work out annually to $1.50 per vote received in the previous general election.
I would encourage all members of this House to have a fulsome debate and I look forward to debating the bill when it returns from committee.