Mr. Speaker, first I would like to thank the member for Regina—Qu'Appelle and the New Democratic Party for giving us an opportunity to debate an extremely important issue. I am referring to the motion put forward by the New Democratic Party, which reads:
That this House call upon the government to hold a referendum within one year to determine whether Canadians wish to replace the current electoral system with a system of proportional representation and, if so, to appoint a commission to consult Canadians on the preferred model of proportional representation and the process of implementation, with an implementation date no later than July 1, 2006.
As I mentioned, this gives us an opportunity to discuss in this House an issue that is extremely important to Quebec and the Bloc Quebecois. In 1998, I chaired a Bloc Quebecois working group on citizenship and democracy. We addressed the topic of electoral systems, more specifically proportional representation, but also other approaches such as a double ballot system.
We looked at this with the aim of improving our democratic life and ensuring each citizen of Quebec full citizenship—not just legal citizenship, but true citizenship—and more control over their democratic institutions. In this context, it is clear that proportional representation is an extremely interesting possibility. I will come back to this.
This debate is not new. Earlier, the government representative said it was premature. In Quebec, we have been discussing electoral systems, more specifically proportional representation, for 40 years. René Lévesque set up a commission, there was a discussion paper, and Robert Burns was put in charge of the consultation.
In the end, it all fell through because of the political realities in Quebec. Nonetheless, a lot was achieved. René Lévesque defended the idea of having proportional features in our electoral system in order to improve democracy through greater representation.
This has gone on for 40 years now. Just recently, the Parti Quebecois government struck a committee to study the reform of its democratic institutions, chaired by Claude Béland. It undertook a broad consultation process, as well as holding the Estates general on the reform of democratic institutions. The first recommendation in the Béland committee's report, “La participation citoyenne au coeur des institutions démocratiques québécoises”, bears a strange resemblance to the motion before us now.
That recommendation read as follows:
That the government note the public's very strong desire for a review of the current voting system, and give Quebeckers the option of adopting by referendum, before the mid-point of the next government mandate, regional proportional representation:
They then went on to propose a system.
So there is nothing new about this debate. It is not premature, but rather something that has been around for 40 years. It is high time some progress was made. The Liberal government of new Quebec premier Charest has made a commitment to follow up, at least in part, on the report tabled by the steering committee on the reform of democratic institutions.
Clearly, the Bloc Quebecois reflections relate to our option, that is the sovereignty of Quebec. For us, reform of the voting system in Quebec is an occasion to not only improve democratic life in Quebec but also to steer Quebec toward the full realization of its potential as a nation, that is toward sovereignty. We are therefore defending this concept, while proposing a certain number of mechanisms, to which I shall return later.
The NDP has taken the initiative of this debate within a Canadian framework and we will, of course, be bringing our own perspective into that debate, that is defending the interests of Quebec. We have never had any ideas about taking the initiative to reform Canada; we want out. Neither do we want to prevent Canada from improving its democratic life and a number of its policies.
In fact, we have never hesitated to support reforms or motions, whether from the government or from the opposition, that were aimed at improving the living conditions not only of Quebeckers, but of Canadians as well.
It is in that context that we are taking part in this debate. We believe indeed that changing the electoral system at the national level could improve democracy and give a stronger voice to Quebeckers, even within the present federalist system. This will be the thrust of our speeches.
There are certainly a number of aspects to consider. For example, the recent re-drawing of electoral boundaries, which has been and is still being forced upon us, does not meet the objectives stated in the NDP motion. In the case of Quebec, for example, its relative political clout is reduced with the new boundaries.
It is clear that, should there be a change to make our electoral system proportional or something along these lines, the Bloc Quebecois would defend Quebec's interests in ensuring that Quebec's political clout would not be reduced by such a reform the same way it was reduced with the re-drawing of electoral boundaries. I would remind members that we will have 308 seats, including 75 from Quebec, which is certainly less than the proportion of the population that Quebec represents, especially in light of the fact—and I will come back to this—that we are a nation within the Canadian framework and that Quebec's specificity has to be recognized. I should have said that it “should have been” recognized because we know full well that this is impossible within the current federal framework. This is why we promote the sovereignist option. Quebec achieving sovereignty would solve this problem once and for all.
We have to move toward reform. It is an important issue for Quebecers, but also for all Canadians.
We have to remember what democracy is all about. I think everyone would agree that the best definition is the one used by Abraham Lincoln. He said “Democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for the people”. It is an all-encompassing definition, because it is not only the government “of the people”, or the government “by the people”, or the government “for the people”. To have democracy, all three elements are required.
Of course, this definition clearly sets democracy apart from the other forms of government that have existed throughout history, such as monarchy, oligarchy and plutocracy. Not only that, but it also includes the three elements essential to democracy.
Let us consider the first element, the government of the people. What people are we talking about here? The white male majority? I doubt that is still what is meant by this nowadays. Are we talking about the Canadian people, which does not recognize the existence within its own borders of various nations? And not only of the Quebec nation, but also of the Acadian nation and the first nations.
Civil society knows better. In fact, planning is underway for a social forum of the peoples or nations of Canada to be held in Montreal, in June of 2004. Civil society, even in Canada, recognizes the existence of several nations within the political entity called Canada.
Therefore, while reforming the voting system, we would have to take that into consideration and not treat all of the provinces the same way, especially those, like Quebec and the Quebec people, which are the cradle of a nation.
Now, we know that a people is made up of varying interests and that this is enriched by it. I often hear politicians run down so called pressure groups, and the concept of civil society. But civil society—people organized in various groups or associations—is a necessary part of democracy. There can be no real democracy without civil society; I am thinking about countries like Haiti for example.
The people must be able to organize in unions, in community groups. To democratize political life, the organization of civil society must be promoted. Obviously, this must not be done at the cost of the power each citizen must have in a democracy. Indeed, one vote must carry the same weight as another vote.
In this context, it seems to me that proportional representation, or rather electoral reform to ensure proportional representation, be it through elements of proportional representation or any other formula, improves public involvement and that of the various groups and individuals that make up the public. It advances democracy. The proportional system does provide for a better representation of the various schools of thought within the population. It allows these groups to have hope, and in our case, to have one or more representatives in the National Assembly or in the House of Commons.
In the current system, the first past the post system, third parties have virtually no chance of being represented. This turns people off politics, resulting in a portion of the population preferring to advocate their chosen options through groups other than political parties. We can see it. It is clear to everyone. There is currently a certain disparagement of partisan politics, because it is obvious that a whole series of concerns are not being reflected in this House. Why would individuals or groups bother getting involved in politics if they believe they do not stand a chance to ever be represented in the House of Commons?
Consequently, proportional representation and improved representation in this House will ensure that the entire population has more control over our democracy. This also means that we must find out who the voters are. This is particularly true at the federal level. Voter turnout has declined with each election. I could give the figures I have here on voter turnout.
For example, in 1988, 75% of the electorate voted in the federal election. In 1993, voter turnout declined to 69%. In 1997, it was 67%. Finally, in 2000, it was 61%. As politicians and supporters of democracy, it is impossible not to be affected by these figures. To a large extent, this disinterest stems from the fact that various political movements in Canada and Quebec do not feel they will ever be represented in the House, given the current electoral system.
Furthermore, democracy is a means to resolve our conflicts, in terms of the public. We must not deny the existence of diverging interests within our societies. Democracy gives us a way to avoid confrontation, including violent confrontation, through a process that allows the majority to choose from a number of options. But our democracy must be sound to properly fulfill this function.
Abraham Lincoln said, in relation to democracy, that it is the government of the people, but also by the people. It is important to understand that if we want the people to be represented, we need, as I said earlier, a democracy that represents the overall interests of Canadians and Quebeckers. This, however, is not enough.
We must also consider that, within this democracy we share, there is not only this representative democracy in which the political parties play an essential role, but there is also participatory democracy. Once again, this participatory democracy imposes a certain number of conditions. One of these conditions—and this is true in nearly all the industrialized countries except for Canada—is the decentralization of powers.
What we have here is an aberration that has been going on since the second world war, if not longer. The federal government is taking on increasing responsibilities. We have spoken of this many times. The fiscal imbalance makes this possible. Since Ottawa has more money than it needs to fulfill its responsibilities, it uses this money to interfere in provincial jurisdictions, especially those of Quebec.
It is clear that for Canada, perhaps, this does not pose a problem in the political sense, since the Canadian nation views the federal government as its government, and therefore, it is the responsibility of the federal government to build the Canadian nation. Unfortunately, this is to the detriment of Quebec, the Quebec nation in fact, because this nation is not recognized with Confederation, within the Canadian federation.
Nevertheless, even in countries where issues of nationhood do not arise, power has been decentralized towards the regions.
I think that the future prime minister's speeches are eloquent on this topic, when he talks about intervening directly with municipalities. This is quite the opposite of what is happening in the industrialized countries.
Local development must also be encouraged; in a participatory democracy, the institutions themselves must be democratized. MPs have an extremely important role to play. Even the future prime minister admits that the House of Commons currently suffers from a democratic deficit.
With proportional representation, the role of the member of Parliament changes and becomes more highly valued. This would be another element in the democratization of institutions, which is necessary in order to have true government by the people.
Finally, there must also be government for the people. That means that democracy is an essential value and that the fight for it must never stop, because democracy is not something that is given to us once and for all. For example, members will recall the coup d'état in Chile in 1973, against President Allende, who had been democratically elected. Many of us were afraid, when President Lula of Brazil was elected, that certain foreign powers, who shall remain nameless, would intervene in the electoral process. That did not happen, and so much the better.
Democracy is not something one is given once and keeps forever. It is something that we must fight to preserve. It is more than a mere value; it is also a means. We must ensure that democracy is used to meet the objectives we have set for ourselves as a society. This requires a plurality of views.
Looking at the Liberal Party of Canada, there are a number of MPs sitting under the Liberal banner who should be in another political party, because of our first past the post system. This was evident during some of the debates on certain fundamental values: they are conservative. They ought to be in a party that reflects their ideas, which are more conservative than those of the bulk of the Liberal cabinet.
But since they realize they likely have no chance at all of getting elected as members of another party, they prefer to wear the Liberal label, which gives them the chance to get elected in their ridings. As a result of this, the nature of this Parliament is distorted.
I knew Jean-Claude Malépart well. He was the member for Laurier—Sainte-Marie and died of cancer. Our leader took over his riding, thereby becoming the first sovereignist MP from Quebec. Mr. Malépart used to say that, basically, he espoused the ideas of the NDP, but realized that if he ran under the NDP banner in Quebec—that being before the Bloc Quebecois came into existence—he would not have much chance of getting elected. He told me he was essentially a social democrat, but was obliged to run under the Liberal banner if he wanted to have any chance of getting elected.
I feel that this is an illustration of the distortion that results from the first past the post system. In order for us to have a government for the people, the House of Commons must be representative of all interests, in order to democratically decide, with a majority, what our objectives as a society should be.
In closing, I will just state that proportionality is a societal choice. It is the choice in the majority of the 53 most stable democracies. Of these, 25 have opted for proportional representation, in whole or in part, and only 15 plurality, while another 13 have a combination of the two.
We are the exception, not the rule. A broad debate is necessary. I think that the NDP's proposal paves the way for such a debate. For democracy to be improved, each vote has to carry the same weight, electoral results have to reflect the different currents of Canadian and Quebec society as closely as possible, the quality of our democratic life has to be improved and there has to be better representation. Proportional representation, through the parties' responsibility of putting together lists, will foster the representation of women and ethnic minorities in this House.
For us, it is essential—and I will end on this—to maintain a balance between regional and local representation. We think there should be discussions about this system. That is what we have proposed for Quebec. The important link between members and the regions, between members and local communities, should be taken into account. Now all sorts of approaches are possible.
I think the New Democratic Party's motion allows us to have this important debate. It is in that context that we will be voting in favour of the motion.