Mr. Speaker, I was rather hoping there would be enough time for me to ask some further questions because the minister really did not answer my question, although he seemed quite happy to roll over and play dead for the Supreme Court of Canada, as if this place does not matter.
This is supposed to be the supreme legislative body in the whole country. We represent the people of Canada. We are supposed to be making the rules, not the Supreme Court. We had agreement from parties that they would drop the legal challenge and accept 12 as the number for a registered party. There is no excuse for it. It was pigheadedness and it wasted probably millions of taxpayer dollars fighting that in court.
The minister should be ashamed because he at the time did not support the amendment.
The minister claimed he sent the bill to committee before second reading because he wanted us to give it serious consideration and see what amendments we should make to make it workable and so on. Well, it was a complete sham.
We sent the bill to committee. The very first day that it appeared in committee it was ready for clause by clause. All the talk by the government about dealing with the democratic deficit is just nonsense. The very minister who is supposed to be in charge of dealing with the democratic deficit in this place, with his very first bill to committee, tried to rush it through so fast we could hardly see it go through the room.
We got to committee to discuss the bill. The minister appeared as a witness. One of my first questions to him was, had he made any of the parties affected by the bill aware of its existence. I do not have time to look in the exact transcript, but his answer was along the lines, of to his knowledge, no, the parties affected by the bill had not even been told of its existence. This was a bill that was to go through committee at super speed, go through the House at super speed and the people who would be affected by it did not even know it existed.
Right after the minister appeared as a witness, we on the official opposition side tried to get permission from the committee to bring forward other witnesses. The Liberals on committee tried to go straight to clause by clause with no witnesses, even though they had just heard that the parties affected by the bill did not even know it existed.
It was only after the official opposition threatened to filibuster the committee that an agreement was reached to have some witnesses, and then we only got two. They were not even going to agree to have the chief electoral officer appear. The person who had to administer the bill would not be a witness. It was only after the official opposition insisted that we got the chief electoral officer and Mr. Miguel Figueroa of the Communist Party who was the entity which got us into this pickle in the first place.
A few days later at committee we had those two witnesses before us. Of course Mr. Figueroa was completely surprised by the phone call he received him to appear before committee because, as the minister admitted, he had no idea that the bill even existed.
When I made some phone calls to some of the other parties, they did not know either. It was a huge surprise to them. Unfortunately, they were not given the courtesy of appearing before the committee, but we did hear from Mr. Figueroa and the chief electoral officer.
During the testimony given by the chief electoral officer, he mentioned a part of the bill that disturbed him a great deal. It was the part of the bill that would require him to make judgments about the appropriateness of a platform or policies advanced by political parties before he could deem it appropriate to register a particular party.
As Mr. Kingsley quite properly pointed out, it is entirely inappropriate for a non-partisan chief electoral officer to be making such judgments or to be put in the position of having to even consider making such judgments. He requested that the committee remove those sections of the bill. In fact he had even brought legal counsel with him who had taken the time to draft amendments which would achieve that goal so that we would not have to think about that and do it within the committee structure itself.
After some discussion about that possibility, Mr. Figueroa came forward to be a witness. He also expressed similar concerns about the bill and supported the amendments proposed by Mr. Kingsley.
Both the chief electoral officer and Mr. Figueroa suggested that instead of rushing the bill through committee, as we were doing, we should spend a little time to get it right. This is what is so appalling about the situation. The minister just stood not five minutes ago and said that the bill was not perfect. Yet he had told us we were taking it to committee before second reading so we could get it perfect. Once it got there, he was not interested in having us do anything with it. It is an extremely frustrating situation because we could have made the bill into good legislation that truly would have dealt with the problem and fixed it once and for all.
Frankly, the bill going through this place is no better than the pickle we were in before the bill was introduced. Yet we are between a rock and a hard place because we have to pass the bill before the end of next week. If we do not, the Canada Elections Act falls apart in June.
Because many sections of the Canada Elections Act are affected by the Supreme Court judgment in this case, the act will cease to function on what I think is June 27 of this year. We obviously have to pass this before the end of next week to keep the act intact. Otherwise we cannot go to an election, and I know the government wants to do that. What a nasty position we are in.
The government, in its haste, thought it could get this bill through the House really quickly, without amendments. It has tried to persuade us to put it through because the Canada Elections Act will fall apart. Frankly, it would have gone through the House a lot more quickly if the Liberals had been willing to listen to the amendments and suggestions that were brought to them. If they had been willing to hear a few more witnesses and if they had been truly willing to address the democratic deficit, as the minister keeps saying he wants to, we could have fixed the bill, got it perfect and it would have already been passed.
In committee I asked the chief electoral officer a question about of the Supreme Court ruling. Members will recall the Supreme Court ruled that sections of the elections act requiring the 50 candidate rule, that is a party to be registered must have 50 candidates in an election, were unconstitutional. My question to the chief electoral officer was that if an election was called in the spring, even if this bill had been passed, the Supreme Court had stayed the effect of its ruling until June 27.
Again the chief electoral officer is in another pickle because he has to work under an electoral law that has been deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada, and does not become fixed until June. How will he rule on the registration of parties over the next few months? Does he rule using the defective law that has been ruled unconstitutional or does he rule based on good will, that is with the knowledge that this other bill will be coming down the pike, which will fix the problem?
How would you like to be in that position, Mr. Speaker, where you do not know whether to apply an unconstitutional law and try to enforce it or to apply a law that does not even exist yet and which you know will fix the problem? It is a horrible predicament for the chief electoral officer. Again, we could have fixed it in committee. We had the opportunity to properly amend the bill and the act, to fix it, and the minister was not interested.
The government would have us believe that this bill is simply about the definition and registration of political parties in Canada. As I have mentioned, the truth is it only exists due to a Supreme Court ruling that came about because of the meanspirited oppression of small parties by the government opposite. Bill C-3 is designed to put the government into compliance with a unanimous decision of the Supreme Court of Canada. It was handed down on June 27, 2003.
It is important to note that it was a unanimous decision. There was no hesitation in terms of the Supreme Court ruling that what the government was trying to do with its 50 candidate rule was completely anti-democratic and unconstitutional.
The court ruled that the 50 candidate threshold for registration of a political party was unconstitutional and that fact had been obvious to just about everyone except the government. Maybe it really knew, but it wanted to keep that rule in place as long as it possibly could to prevent competition from smaller parties. That rule greatly affected us in the early days of the growth of the Reform Party.
As the House knows, I am one of the original members of Parliament elected under the Reform banner. In 1992 and 1993, as we were building for a possible 1993 election, we knew we would be penalized greatly. We knew we would not even to have our name on the ballot if we could not get 50 candidates to run across the country. I know the Bloc also was being targeted at the time because there was a growth of the Bloc in Quebec and it perhaps would not be able to get 50 candidates on the ballot either. That was an attempt by the established parties to prevent any threat from the growth of a smaller party that may affect them.
Luckily, we were able to build support regardless and irrespective of the 50 candidate rule and that is why we are in the House today as official opposition and perhaps now about to take the government benches in the next couple of months.
I guess the real shocker for the government was when the Supreme Court of Canada struck down sections of the Elections Act. However, instead of saying that perhaps the number 12 or some other number would be satisfactory, it said that one person constituted a party. The government was complaining when the court in Ontario ruled that two persons was a party. That was the basis, I believe, for the amendment that was being proposed today by the NDP. In Ontario the government, after having had the chance to accept the 12 candidate rule, which it rejected, had an opportunity to accept a two candidate rule from the Ontario court ruling, but no. Pigheaded as it was, on it went spending other people's money to challenge it in court until it ended up with a one candidate rule. What a ridiculous situation we find ourselves in that one person constitutes a political party. I guess they reap what they sow.
What the government is trying to do in Bill C-3, which was formerly Bill C-51 prior to prorogation, is to provide some additional conditions for registration of a party to try to get around the potential problems that can occur if just anyone walks in off the street and registers as a political party in order to get all the benefits of tax receipts for donations and rebates if they run an election, and so on.
The government has tried to increase the amount of bureaucracy that goes along with registering a party to counter this thing that only one person constitutes a party. One of the bits of bureaucracy it has put in there is the one I just mentioned a few minutes ago, which requires the Chief Electoral Officer to determine whether or not a party is a political entity based on its platform and its policies.
To try to deal with the problem that way is really inappropriate. I feel that it is a real pity that the government is proceeding with this. The Chief Electoral Officer warned that his office could be open to a legal challenge, to lawsuits, because of rulings he makes under clauses of the bill. Someone who is dissatisfied with a ruling that he has made will obviously take it to court and we may end up mired in years and years of court challenges again, all the way to the Supreme Court, based on this ridiculous clause that the Chief Electoral Officer should be partisan in some way and make judgments about political parties coming for registration.
The bill also requires that the party must have three officers, in addition to its leader, must have appointed a chief agent and an auditor, and must have a total of 250 electors who are members of the party. Those electors must sign declarations confirming their support.
The leader of the Communist Party, who started the original legal challenge, when he came before the committee as a witness, asked us if we would consider lowering that threshold of 250 members down to 125. His argument I think from memory was based on just the logistics of trying to get people across the country to sign declarations and that it would be a lot easier if it were a smaller number.
I do not have any strong feelings about that particular aspect but I did want to get it on the record because it was presented by a witness to the committee.
In addition to the various requirements for registration, part of the ruling by the Supreme Court was that the assets of a suspended party no longer needed to be liquidated and paid to the Receiver General. When we think about that, what an evil provision that was in the previous part of the Elections Act. If a party could not run 50 candidates in a general election it was required to sell all of its assets and turn them over to the Receiver General.
That was a mean-spirited type of law that was aimed clearly at the Reform Party of Canada and the Bloc Quebecois in 1992-93 to try to take away their ability to fight a subsequent election if they were not able to get 50 candidates in that 1993 election. What a mean-spirited attempt to keep control right there on the government side.
Luckily, the Supreme Court saw through that mean-spirited attempt to suppress smaller parties and eliminated that. Small parties no longer need to sell off all their assets and turn them over to the Receiver General if they cannot run 50 candidates in an election.
I should point out that we on this side of the House have consistently supported a lower registration threshold. As I mentioned, I have tried consistently, in my role as critic for these electoral issues over the last decade, to get the government to accept the number 12 as being the appropriate number but without success to date. Perhaps when we come back here after an election and I am the minister, we will actually get it done, but we will see whether that actually happens.
I would like to give a bit of history about the way the registration of political parties does work under the Canada Elections Act. The registration process was first advocated in 1966 by the commission on election expenses, known as the Barbeau committee. It concluded that political parties should be recognized as legal entities to encourage the development of the democratic system.
It is interesting that before 1966, the Communist Party, and anybody who just wanted to get a few people together and call themselves a political party, actually did not even need to register anyway. That is an interesting observation. It is only since 1966 that it has been necessary.
In 1970, rules for the registration of political parties were introduced in the Canada Elections Act and political parties that fulfilled certain administrative requirements were admitted. In 1974, the Election Expenses Act introduced spending limits for registered political parties and candidates.
That leads me into an interesting sidebar which is the spending by third parties. We are currently waiting for another ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada which I think will shake the government once again because it deals with spending by third parties. I have no doubt that members are well aware that the present leader of our party was involved in the challenge by the National Citizens' Coalition of the government's right to control the spending of third parties.
I would confidently predict that the Supreme Court will strike down that part of the Elections Act. It has been struck down at every other court level. It has been struck down three times in Alberta and twice I believe in British Columbia. It has been struck down in Ontario and it is going the way of the dodo. When that happens, what a mess it will make of the Elections Act because it will blow wide open all the controls on expenses that we as candidates have during an election campaign. I am not sure how many of my colleagues are ready for that eventuality, but we will be faced with a situation where the cap will be blown right off the top of our expenditure limitations.
I am pleased to have had the opportunity to speak today at third reading of Bill C-3. I look forward to answering any questions that come my way.