House of Commons Hansard #94 of the 38th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was officers.


Canada Elections ActPrivate Members' Business

11 a.m.


Michel Guimond Bloc Charlevoix—Montmorency, QC

moved that Bill C-312, an act to amend the Canada Elections Act (appointment of returning officers), be read a second time and referred to a committee.

Canada Elections ActPrivate Members' Business

11:05 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Marcel Proulx)

Before beginning private members’ business, I have a statement to make concerning the provisions of Bill C-312, an act to amend the Canada Elections Act (appointment of returning officers).

As with all private members’ bills, the Chair has examined this bill to determine whether its provisions would require a royal recommendation and thus prevent the Chair from putting the question to a vote at third reading.

This bill proposes to alter the manner in which returning officers are appointed. Presently, section 24 of the Canada Elections Act gives the governor in council the authority to appoint 308 returning officers at pleasure. Bill C-312 proposes that appointments be made by the Chief Electoral Officer following an open competitive process for a term of 10 years.

This initiative already has been the focus of some commentary regarding the financial initiative of the Crown. Specifically, on April 11, 2005, during the take note debate on the Standing Orders, the member for Roberval—Lac-Saint-Jean argued that the need for a royal recommendation is being interpreted much more strictly now than in the past, and that this particular bill does not entail any new or additional spending authorization. Indeed, he claimed that in the 2nd session of the 36th Parliament similar initiatives were proposed as amendments to Bill C-2, an act respecting the election of members to the House of Commons, without any procedural objections being raised regarding an infringement on the financial initiative of the Crown.

As to the matter of a stricter enforcement of the royal recommendation requirements, I would reply that the Chair is taking its responsibilities under Standing Order 94 very seriously. This is primarily due to the fact that all items of private members’ business are now votable. Previously, they were not.

At that time, if a private members’ bill appeared to require a royal recommendation but was not subject to a vote, then there was less of an obligation on the Speaker to inform the House of the exigencies of Standing Order 79(2), that is, the rules pertaining to the introduction of a royal recommendation.

I remind the House that on November 18, 2004, I alerted members to this situation. As I mentioned on page 1554 of Hansard , as the House has not yet begun to debate items of private members' business I felt that it would be of assistance to alert hon. members to the important impact that the requirement for a royal recommendation may have on their bills.

The standing orders leave no doubt that the House cannot be asked to decide on the motion for third reading of a bill requiring the expenditure of public funds unless proper notice of a royal recommendation has been given.

Should members have any concerns about the provisions of individual bills in this regard, it would be prudent for them to raise such concerns well before the third reading stage is reached.

It has been the practice in this Parliament for the Chair to raise concerns about private members’ bills at the commencement of second reading debate so that submissions may be made before a decision is taken by the House at second reading.

In this particular case, Bill C-312 contains some provisions which caused the Chair to pause and consider its impact on the financial initiative of the Crown. As most members know, bills which involve new or additional spending for a distinct purpose must be recommended by the Crown. The royal recommendation is also required where a bill alters the appropriation of public revenue “under the circumstances, in the manner and for the purposes set out” in the bill. What this means is that a royal recommendation is required not only in the case where more money is being appropriated, but also in the case where the authorization to spend for a specific purpose is being significantly altered.

Bill C-312 transfers the power to appoint returning officers from the governor in council to the Chief Electoral Officer. Normally, the power to appoint includes the authority to pay. The transfer of this authority would appear to affect the manner in which spending was being authorized and so would appear to infringe on the financial initiative of the Crown. However, a closer reading of the Canada Elections Act seems to indicate that the authority to pay remains with the Governor in Council. Subsection 542(1) of the act states:

On the recommendation of the Chief Electoral Officer, the governor in council may make a tariff fixing or providing for the determination of fees, costs, allowances and expenses to be paid and allowed to returning officers and other persons employed at or in relation to elections under this act.

Therefore, it appears that the bill is solely transferring the power of appointment without transferring the authority to remunerate returning officers. If this is the case, there is no infringement on the financial initiative of the Crown.

Bill C-312 contains two other provisions which appear to involve spending. It is proposed that returning officers are to be appointed by means of an open competition. Although this will involve the spending of public monies, it appears to the Chair that this would be an operational expense of the Chief Electoral Officer that would be within the annual appropriations provided to his office.

Another provision fixes the appointment period for a returning officer at 10 years whereas it is presently at pleasure. This is not an infringement on the financial initiative of the Crown as it does not increase the public spending but only the identity of the persons to be paid over a 10 year period, that is, there would be fewer changes, if any, in the roster of returning officers during this period but the same number of returning officers in any event.

As with other bills, the Chair would seek short submissions from members on these specific points prior to the resumption of debate on second reading. In this way, the reasoning behind the decisions of the Chair in regards to the financial initiative of the Crown may be better understood, and the decisions will be dealt with in a timely manner. I believe that in the long run, the House will be well-served by this approach.

The Chair appreciates the patience of all members. The issues which are being raised on a series of bills in private members’ business touch on some of the fundamental concepts of our system of parliamentary government. It behoves us all to ensure that this process is conducted in a rational fashion so that decisions are consistent, and well-understood.

Canada Elections ActPrivate Members' Business

11:15 a.m.


Michel Guimond Bloc Charlevoix—Montmorency, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to my Bill C-312 on the appointment of returning officers.

First, I should point out that, while I am the one in charge of this issue right now, a review of the appointment process for returning officers has been a concern of the members of the Bloc Québécois, particularly since 1993. I would go as far as to say that it was already a concern after the first round, from 1990 to 1993.

Particularly since 1993, we in the Bloc Québécois have had the opportunity to lament this process, an attitude shared by many of our colleagues from the Conservative Party and the NDP, in our private discussions. I also remember discussions with some colleagues from the Liberal Party at the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, where they agreed that the process for the appointment of returning officers was totally archaic and outdated.

Suffice to quote a recent statement of the hon. member for Edmonton—Mill Woods—Beaumont, I believe, who is now sitting as an independent. I do not have the clipping in front of me, but recently, about 10 days ago, he described the current process as archaic.

Canada boasts about giving lessons in democracy around the world. Chief Electoral Officer Kingsley often goes on conference tours. Members of this House travel to emerging democracies to supervise elections. We boast about being a model of democracy, we are so proud but, on the face of it, the process is flawed from the start because returning officers are not all fully and totally independent, which they should be in order to be able to play their role effectively.

That is why this bill is intended to clean up our political practices in the appointment of returning officers. Under the current system, the appointments are made by the governor in council or the government.

We can see that there are currently 308 filled returning officer positions across Canada. There are also 10 or so vacant ones, I might point out, while an election could be called within a week or two. On May 5, Chief Electoral Officer Kingsley told the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs that he was very concerned about 10 such positions still being vacant at this time.

So, upon examination, we see that the appointees have one thing in common. Directly or indirectly, they have been involved with the Liberal Party of Canada. They are friends of the government, former organizers of the governing Liberal Party. We have seen this first-hand; they are former Liberal Party candidates who were defeated. They would have us believe that, through divine intervention, they have suddenly become non-partisan overnight; they have forgotten their years as Liberal Party supporters and, now, they have become the guardians of democracy and the selection process by which our future parliamentarians will be chosen.

This bill proposes an open and transparent process where positions, based on pre-established selection criteria, would be posted in newspapers. Ultimately, the most qualified people would be appointed as returning officers.

There will be opposition to this from the start. I can already hear people saying that this cannot work and that it is impossible to make it work. I would submit that this process has been used in Quebec since 1980.

Some people in the House are tired of hearing about the situation in Quebec with regard to returning officers. When Quebec does something well, the immediate reaction is to say that it is no good and that it would not work. I am sorry, but since 1980, Quebec's returning officers have been selected according to an open and transparent process, using newspaper advertisements. Anyone can apply and there is no doubt about how they are appointed.

An open and transparent process where positions would be advertised in newspapers would support the free and democratic election of the people's representatives, in other words, the members.

Under this bill introduced by the Bloc Québécois, the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada could supervise the appointment of returning officers himself. However, I must clarify that we do not want the Chief Electoral Officer to make the appointments. His role would be to supervise the appointment of returning officers, who would be selected based on their competence, merit and qualifications to fulfill such duties. The bill introduced by the Bloc would give the Chief Electoral Officer powers similar to the ones his Quebec counterpart has had since 1980, as I mentioned earlier.

Quebec's electoral system is known around the world for its effectiveness and its democratic transparency. Again, a Quebec institution is showing its know-how. By passing this bill, the House of Commons would eliminate once and for all the ambiguity that undermines the authority of the Chief Electoral Officer in his relationship with returning officers. Under the current system, returning officers feel that they are accountable to the party in office, that is to those who appointed them, and not to the Chief Electoral Officer, who is the guardian of the democratic process.

I have been a member of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs since 2000. My colleague from Verchères—Les Patriotes was our party's chief whip at that time. On several occasions, we complained about irregularities in the electoral process, but the Chief Electoral Officer, Mr. Kingsley, responded that he had to work with the returning officers who were appointed because he did not have the authority to fire them since he was not the one who had appointed them. Indeed, only the person who hires them has the right to fire them. This rule does not exist anywhere else in the area of labour relations or staffing. I know since I worked in that area for 16 years before becoming a member of Parliament. However, in this case, only the person who hires has the right to fire. The Chief Electoral Officer himself would like nothing better than to have the authority to make these appointments.

I do not have much time, but I would like to mention a few examples. At the last election, out of the 75 Bloc Québécois candidates in Quebec, 54 succeeded in getting elected. We did an inventory of some of the problems experienced at the last election. We had conducted the same exercise following the 2000, the 1997 and the 1993 elections. The problems that surface at every election are the same. This means that the existing system does not work. Citizens cannot be assured that returning officers are competent.

I will just mention one small example that occurred in my riding. At the last election, in Baie-Saint-Paul, which is located in the Charlevoix region, the returning officer did not have enough ballots for the advance polls. The act was amended regarding people who vote in advance polls.

Unlike before, in order to vote in advance, it is no longer necessary for a person to mention the reason why he or she will not be able to vote on election day. That requirement no longer exists. Some people think it still does, but it is no longer necessary to say why you will not be available. You simply have to say that you want to vote in advance. Of course, you have to identify yourself and provide some ID.

In Baie-Saint-Paul, before the June 28, 2004 election, from six to ten people went to vote in advance, because they were not going to be able to vote on June 28, either because they would be out of town or for some personal reason. Would you believe that these people were not able to cast their ballots, because the returning officer did not have enough ballots? This is as bad as it gets.

We discovered that there were returning officers in many ridings who either did not know the Canada Elections Act at all, or who did not know it well. I should also mention that the training provided to poll clerks and deputy returning officers is totally inadequate. It includes reading some manuals and watching a video cassette without any explanations.

It seems that June 28 is only a few days after June 24, which is la Fête nationale du Québec. The returning officer wanted the training to be on the evenings of June 23 and 24. While I do not wish to cite specific cases, I can say that this was in your very own riding, Mr. Speaker, Hull—Aylmer. In that riding, the returning officer, a good Liberal probably, wanted to train the deputy returning officers on the evenings of June 23 and 24, that is right in the midst of the Quebec national holiday celebrations. I am sure that you will agree with me that this is totally unacceptable. In another riding, it was discovered that the returning officer was the president of the Liberal association for the riding. It is time somebody woke up. This is Earth calling. The returning officer is the president of the Liberal riding association in Ahuntsic. Then one could raise the problem election staff had in getting appointments to see the returning officer. Or his refusal to provide a copy of the other candidates' nomination papers, although it is written in black and white in the law that each candidate is entitled to see the nomination papers of the other candidates.

Poll clerks have to be of the other party, that is the party that got the second highest number of votes in the last election, but in Beauce the returning officer mentioned to the director of the Bloc Québécois organization that the substitute clerks absolutely had to be Liberals. In yet another riding, the returning officer hired a poll clerk unable to read or write.

I am getting the sign that my time is nearly up. I am almost tempted to seek unanimous consent to continue until question period, because I have a whole lot of cases I could give. Since the member for Gatineau has just arrived, I would add that the returning officer wants to give training on the evenings of June 23 and 24. This goes for Gatineau as well as Hull—Aylmer, and no doubt a good Liberal has been appointed returning officer for Gatineau.

In conclusion, given the horror stories such as those—all chapter and verse—not to mention the others I will spare you concerning polls that were inaccessible, poorly equipped, poorly adapted to the purpose, which I could talk about until tomorrow—I am sure that my colleagues will vote in favour of Bill C-312.

Canada Elections ActPrivate Members' Business

11:30 a.m.


Françoise Boivin Liberal Gatineau, QC

Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to sit on the same committee as my colleague for Montmorency—Charlevoix—Haute-Côte-Nord. I am often party to his very enthusiastic discourse. I congratulate him on it, especially since this bill is one I have no real objection to. I am proud to rise today to say so.

The Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs had the pleasure of hearing from the Chief Electoral Officer. We must not get too carried away on this point. People's reputations are at stake. Perhaps that does not disturb my Bloc colleagues, although I would find it unfortunate. I do not think that the bill of the member for Montmorency—Charlevoix—Haute-Côte-Nord aims necessarily at character assassination, to use the very unfortunate anglophone expression. I have always tried to stand by this principle in the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.

There are people involved. The appointment process was initiated long before I arrived. That said, some of these people are competent and work tirelessly for fairly low pay.

I have a question for my colleague from Montmorency—Charlevoix—Haute-Côte-Nord. How does he interpret the Chief Electoral Officer's response to us that he would, in the end, keep almost all of the incumbent returning officers if he had the authority to hire or dismiss them? Can my colleague tell us today, from the analysis the Bloc appears to have done, how many of the 301 returning officers appointed in the 2004 election and of the 308 appointed in the following one he considers incompetent? Care must be taken to draw the line between transparency and competence. Having worked in labour law, like my colleague, I am trying to protect this principle.

There are very competent returning officers, although the process by which they are appointed may be open to criticism. I repeat here that I support transparency, but I do not want people who devote heart and soul to the job to be attacked. How many returning officers are considered incompetent, if figures are in fact available? Is the hon. member for Montmorency—Charlevoix—Haute-Côte-Nord reassured that the Chief Electoral Officer would confirm most of the returning officers in their positions were such a bill passed?

Canada Elections ActPrivate Members' Business

11:30 a.m.


Michel Guimond Bloc Charlevoix—Montmorency, QC

Mr. Speaker, of course, I am not able to provide the member with statistics on the 308 returning officers. However, I challenge her to tell me how many former or current candidates or members of the Bloc Québécois have been appointed to the position at the federal level until now. I am pleased to hear a colleague say that it is probably a matter of competence. In fact, the issue here is whether or not one owns a membership card of the Liberal Party.

Mr. Kingsley said that he would probably appoint all returning officers once again. So be it. However, I would be curious to see how he would react if he had the authority to appoint them and some cases were explained to him. Mr. Kingsley would be asked if it is normal that, in the riding of Honoré-Mercier, votes were cast in a seniors' home, where there was a scabies epidemic. Does a competent person act like that?

Let us not forget that the goal remains the free expression of the citizens' democratic choice. The returning officer is nothing more than the fiduciary of the citizens' democratic exercise. When I think that there was not enough ballots! In the riding of Verchères—Les Patriotes, people had to take the ferryboat to go voting. Does this help the election? I could give the example of 2000 in Saint-Laurent, on the Île-d'Orléans. I am the one who brought the returning officer and his assistant, Ms. Davidson, to the polling station. The vote was held in a hockey players' locker room, where they were six polling booths. One was able to see for whom the person in the next polling booth was voting. Is this free exercise? That is totally unacceptable. We need to clean up the process.

Canada Elections ActPrivate Members' Business

11:35 a.m.

Saint Boniface Manitoba


Raymond Simard LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Deputy Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, it gives me great pleasure today to speak at second reading of Bill C-312, an act to amend the Canada Elections Act (appointment of returning officers).

In this debate, allow me to stress how important the neutral administration of elections is to me.

For our electoral system to be perceived as truly fair and democratic, the individuals who run it must not only be honest, but also be perceived as free from partisan considerations.

In Canada, we enjoy an excellent electoral system which has proven itself over the years. Our system has been equipped with the necessary checks and balances for ensuring healthy electoral administration.

On election night, after the votes have been counted, Canadians take pride in the fact that our systems works, without having any serious doubt about the integrity of the process.

In some countries, that is not always the case. Doubt over possible political interference often mars the results and affects the legitimacy of the elected members.

It is in the context of good electoral administration that I want to address the bill under consideration. The bill amends the process for the appointment of returning officers, the local electoral administrators in every riding. The current process of appointment by the governor in council has a long history in Canada.

Although in the past being appointed returning officer was viewed as a political reward, the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing noted in 1991 that this attitude had changed over the years. The Lortie commission attributed this change in political culture to a real recognition by the parties of the need to ensure the proper functioning of elections at the local level.

The governing party, and every other party, has an interest in ensuring that the people chosen to run the election at the local level are competent, honest and impartial.

Some would say that the appearance of impartiality is just as important as being impartial in order for our voters to have confidence in our electoral system. That is perfectly fair. In Canada, that confidence rests on a solid exemplary tradition.

I am not aware of any specific instance in our modern electoral history where a returning officer has shown any bias, thereby influencing the outcome of an election. This is the result of a healthy democratic culture and of all the checks and balances in the Canada Elections Act, as I said earlier.

First, there are specific statutory prohibitions on partisanship, along with penalties including imprisonment. In my opinion, this constitutes a major deterrent for all returning officers who might consider assuming their responsibilities for partisan purposes. I am convinced that Elections Canada, when it trains new returning officers, carries out its duty to advise new recruits of this violation of the Canada Elections Act.

Second, it is important to note, too, that a returning officer's office is staffed by elections officers, who are appointed by the returning officer from a list of names submitted by candidates from different political parties. For example, the revising agents are appointed from a list of names submitted by the political parties whose candidates came first and second respectively in that riding in the last election.

This requirement ensures that the activities of election officers will be subject to mutual surveillance, in what is a fundamentally adversarial process.

Third, I recently read with interest the report of the Chief Electoral Officer on the 38th general election regarding the creation of field liaison officers for that election. The Chief Electoral Officer indicated that these field liaison officers, who were appointed by his office, were responsible for, among other things, providing the returning officers with functional leadership, identifying problems at the electoral district level and helping the returning officers resolve them, apparently by providing coaching and personal assistance.

The Chief Electoral Officer also mentioned that, over the 36-day election period, field liaison officers identified a total of 164 risks and problems; all were resolved promptly by the Elections Canada executive committee. In my opinion, this innovation seems to ensure even tighter surveillance by Elections Canada of the actions of returning officers within each electoral district.

With increased surveillance, the likelihood of partisanship seems to be minimized. My comment on this recent innovation to Elections Canada leads me to my next point: my opinion on the need to change how returning officers are currently appointed.

As far as I am concerned, the system has proven itself.

The Lortie commission report made it quite clear that the appointment of returning officers by the governor in council “allows the selection of candidates having experience in the organization of federal elections at the local level who care about the democratic process”.

No doubt there are ways to improve our system, but we have to be careful not to sacrifice a level of experience essential to the proper functioning of elections, in order to improve already satisfactory impartiality.

This experience can be found not among electors having no experience in the field, but rather among people who have knocked on doors and who have a practical experience of the electoral activities at the local level.

I am sure that after participating in an election only a year ago, all of my colleagues will agree that somebody who has no other experience of the polling station than that of an elector who only has to wait in line for five minutes, take a ballot paper, go in the booth to mark it and place it in the box after, cannot understand the skills required of a returning officer.

This is the person who will be responsible for choosing and training the returning officers in the riding, rather than asking somebody who has worked as a candidate representative during the 14 hours or so that the polling station is open.

To conclude, I would like to reiterate that the efficiency of our electoral administration is of the utmost importance.

It is essential that we thoroughly consider each and every change we might want to make to a system that works, in order to avoid any unexpected negative effects.

In this regard, I am afraid the suggested alternative is not really an improvement, although it might seem to be one on paper.

For this reason, I will not be supporting the bill.

Canada Elections ActPrivate Members' Business

11:40 a.m.


Scott Reid Conservative Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, ON

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the member for Montmorency—Charlevoix—Haute-Côte-Nord for his excellent bill.

This is a very good bill. The proposed bill brings to a conclusion a process of gradual improvement to our electoral law which has made the electoral law of Canada, in most respects, one of the most admired in the world and deservedly one of the most admired in the world.

I want to run through some of the things that I think are good about our current law. The hon. parliamentary secretary has already run through some of these things as well, but I will add to his list.

It seems to me that the various abuses that used to be practised by parties of all stripes in elections have gradually been stripped away by various measures we have adopted over the past century. It started with the secret ballot, which eliminated the possibility of watching voters and then bribing them and paying them off afterwards, and the introduction of counterfoils, which ensured that ballots could not be placed in the hand of a voter by an outside agent already marked. That was an important innovation. The presence of scrutineers from all candidates ensured that improperly marked ballots could be set aside and that properly marked ballots could not be set aside as if they were improperly marked.

The ability to engage in judicial recounts where there were close elections was an important feature we had that was very positive in our country. The presence in every polling location of a deputy returning officer and the poll clerk, appointed by the two parties that did the best in that riding in the previous election, ensured that funny business could be kept to a minimum or, in fact, virtually eliminated. Having run in two elections, I can say that this part of the system functioned very well indeed.

I should note as well that the Chief Electoral Officer of the country is appointed essentially until the age of 65 and can only be replaced for essentially the abuse of his office. That also is a good system that works well.

It seems odd to me, therefore, that with our Chief Electoral Officer selected in the proper manner and every other person, right down to the scrutineers, deputy returning officers and poll clerks, elected in the correct manner or chosen in a manner that is not subject to abuse, we have one position that remains essentially a patronage appointment, an order in council appointment, one which is always held by the party in power at the time, it being of course the returning officer for each riding. This bill seeks to remedy that situation. I think it is an excellent idea.

The question of whether or not returning officers have ever acted in a partisan manner or in an abusive manner is not the problem. I think it does occur from time to time but in general, that is not the problem. The problem of confidence however is widespread. My hon. colleague, the member for Montmorency—Charlevoix—Haute-Côte-Nord, pointed to a number of spectacular examples, but I can think of a few examples that have come to my own attention. In fact, a few have occurred in my own riding in the last election where I thought that things could have been done a great deal better had someone with a greater and more impressive set of professional skills been put in place. Let me give some examples of this.

The improper labelling of many hundreds, possibly thousands, of voter cards, so that the cards were sent to people, advising them to vote in the wrong riding. This occurred and many cases were brought to my attention. In some cases, people were told to vote in an advanced poll in one riding and in an election day poll in another riding. This was not just from my own riding, but also in some of the surrounding ridings. I know this because people came and said that they were confused. They were told to vote in my riding although they did not live in it, or, they were told to vote outside the riding even though they did live in it.

The improper location of polling stations was a huge problem in my own constituency. In one case a polling location was located in a spot where people living in a place called White Lake in the northeast corner of my constituency could not vote in the proposed location without leaving the riding and engaging in an hour-long drive to re-enter the riding.

There was a road connecting the polling station with the location where the residents were voting. The trouble is that the road, which is called the California Trail, is a little less impressive than its name suggests. It is actually a snowmobile trail and impassable in summer. This would have been known by someone who had proper local knowledge. However, because it was a partisan appointment made at the last second, the returning officer did not know. She had to go out and investigate, and get to know the back roads of the riding. We had a problem, which she in all fairness tried to correct when it was drawn to her attention. These are some of the examples.

I have another example from my own constituency during the last election. At one location in the riding, where many people went to vote because it was the traditional spot where they had voted, they found that they were not on the list because their cards had been labelled incorrectly. The returning officer, despite warnings from my official agent, had not provided adequate forms at that polling station to allow people to sign in. When the forms ran out, the deputy returning officer at the station was unable to sign people in.

Some of the voters were so upset at being told that they effectively were being deprived of their franchise they blockaded the entrance to the polling station. This had the consequence that other people could not vote. The police were called in to open up the voting station. In the meantime, the situation was resolved only because my campaign people went out and printed up some of the necessary forms to allow people to continue voting. We then had to bill Elections Canada for that and it reimbursed us, but that should not have happened. There are many other examples and I am just providing a few of the ones that have come to my attention.

Therefore, I think there are a number of solutions that would occur simply because we would have professional people working at this key job instead of the political appointees we now have.

I want to draw to the attention of the sponsor of the bill to three minor problems that I see with this very good legislation. First, it seems to me that there ought to be something in the bill that allows for an appointment on very short notice, if someone, for example, a returning officer, who does not meet the residence requirements laid out in the bill should for example fall ill or otherwise become unable to carry out his or her functions within the period immediately preceding a potential election or during a writ period. I think that could be added in. I suspect that the sponsor of the bill would be very sympathetic toward that.

Second, it seems to me that there might be merit to having a review of the conduct of each returning officer conducted after each election with each of the candidates who participated in the election, or their official agents could send in some of form of review sheet to the Chief Electoral Officer, so that the Chief Electoral Officer could sift through and see whether or not the returning officer in each of the ridings was performing up to scratch.

Finally, in subclause 24(4) of the new bill there is a suggestion that returning officers positions become vacant if the returning officer dies, resigns or ceases to reside in the electoral district. It seems to me that these people could move from the electoral district to an adjoining electoral district where they could still conduct their affairs as returning officers without losing their position, given that the bill anticipates in an earlier section that someone can be a returning officer if they are domiciled in an adjacent electoral district but able to perform the functions of a returning officer as satisfactorily as if they were domiciled in the electoral district for which their appointment was made. It seems to me that this slight change would allow them a little more freedom of movement without losing their office and without in any way harming the general intent of the bill.

I will conclude by pointing out that the general tone of this proposed law is very much in keeping with the direction in which the Conservative Party is moving. I want to read from one of the policies of the Conservative Party. Policy No. 6 states:

A Conservative Government will ensure that senior officers such as the Auditor General, Chief Electoral Officer, Comptroller General, Ethics Commissioner, Information Commissioner, and Privacy Commissioner will be appointed by Parliament and report to it.

The idea of ensuring that non-parliamentary and government control is removed over appointments of importance to the functioning of our democracy and of the openness for our system is very important to the Conservative Party. The bill, as I say, fits in with our policy.

This is an excellent law. I would hope that sometime within the next year a Conservative government will be able to introduce and follow through on a version of this legislation.

Canada Elections ActPrivate Members' Business

11:50 a.m.


Ed Broadbent NDP Ottawa Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am rising to support this bill introduced by my colleague from the Bloc. Its principle has been long supported by my party.

As has already been said, we have now what is really a legacy from a political past that has been much too much under the control of partisan decision making. One of the great progressive tendencies since the 19th century, as a matter of fact, not only in Canada but in England and other developed democracies, has been to professionalize a lot of the activity that was once totally under the control of partisan politics.

This, in terms of the administration of our elections, is one of the few remaining anomalies in this democratization process and it is time we got rid of it.

I must say I was surprised by what the parliamentary secretary was saying. I do not know if he was speaking as a private individual or for the government on this matter. He was saying that there is really no need to change because there has not been some colossal fiasco. To say the least, that is not very good reasoning.

We have made all kinds of other changes in the past because we believe that a public function, which should be transparent and accountable, almost by definition has to be devoid of partisan political control. Because if something goes wrong, then it is too easy to blame the fact partisan political activity led to the fault in the first place. It is such an obvious change that is due to be made to our system. The Chief Electoral Officer himself has called for professionalizing this and taking these decisions away from partisan politicians.

As someone who has run in eight elections, seven in my hometown of Oshawa and one more recently here in Ottawa, I have not run into difficulties in the electoral process itself, but as our Bloc colleague has pointed out, with our Conservative colleague following suit, there have been a number of problems associated with a decision making process that is less than fully professionalized.

Even if incompetence has been revealed, it has not been due to the fact that a Liberal has appointed a Liberal or a Conservative has appointed a Conservative but because the person was incompetent. That in itself is reason to professionalize the whole process: to make it public, to have stated criteria for the job, and to have men and women apply for the job and have someone quite independent of the government of the day making the decision about the hiring, and subsequently, if that is necessary, the firing.

I will conclude my brief comments by saying that the New Democrats strongly support this measure. Since his party has talked about the democratic deficit, we remain astonished at this point that our Liberal colleague is not supporting this bill. Three parties in the House have spoken for it. I hope that when the vote takes place a substantial majority of the members of the House of Commons will vote for it.

Canada Elections ActPrivate Members' Business

11:55 a.m.


Stéphane Bergeron Bloc Verchères—Les Patriotes, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak in my turn to the bill put forward by my colleague, which seeks to enable the Chief Electoral Officer to appoint or to remove returning officers following an open and transparent process which will have made it possible to assess the competence, the merit and the skills to fulfill their duties of the people to be appointed.

I think there is no issue, topic or theme which allows us to discover more clearly the extent to which the current government is showing bad faith and duplicity in its pretense of wanting to reform the democratic institutions in such a way as to make them more valid or acceptable in the eyes of our fellow citizens who, for some years, have been exhibiting an increasing level of cynicism towards political institutions.

This government has taken upon itself to reform a number of things at the parliamentary level. The current Prime Minister, when he was barely running for the leadership of his party, was already floating the idea of parliamentary reform aimed at giving more powers to members of Parliament. He announced a plan to give MPs the power to appoint judges so as to avoid partisan appointments. We now find out that on this issue, he stubbornly follows the example of his predecessor and want to retain partisan appointments to returning officers positions.

We know very well that this government is desperately trying to separate itself from its Siamese twin, that is, the previous Chrétien government, which we are learning bit by bit was steeped in scandal, corruption and nepotism. It is understandable under the circumstances that the present government is anxious to do all it can to detach itself, separate itself, differentiate itself, from the previous government.

Yet these two are true Siamese twins, and cannot be separated because they share a number of vital organs. Some key players in the previous government are in the present one, and not just on the back benches either. They are in the ministerial seats.

As I said, this matter of returning officers gives us a clearer picture of the duplicity and bad faith of this government. I will give an example of something that happened quite recently in my riding of Verchères—Les Patriotes. Unfortunately, the woman who was appointed returning officer before the 1997 election recently passed away. I will take this opportunity to express my condolences to her family. When I learned of this—and moreover I was not notified but had to seek the information out myself—I took action immediately, given the imminence of a federal election. I went to see the deputy house leader to tell him that the returning officer in my riding had died and to ask whether he wanted me to provide names of highly qualified candidates who could assume those duties. To my great surprise, he announced to me that he had already submitted a name to Cabinet and that the matter would be settled shortly. In fact, the nomination took place just a few days ago.

In answer to the parliamentary secretary or to the member for Gatineau, nobody has ever said in this House, even on our side, that all returning officers were incompetent. Some are quite competent indeed. What we are saying though is that we do not necessarily choose the most competent ones because there are no call for nominations, we are not getting all the possible candidates for the position and friends of members of the government party are the ones being asked. It is nothing but cronyism, patronage and partisan politics.

The parliamentary secretary was saying earlier that the best experience one could have was to have been a candidate representative for a whole election day, from the opening of polls until the counting of ballots at the end of the day, saying that this was a real experience.

It is of course a fine experience, but the returning officers should not all have gotten their experience on the same side. Otherwise, if this side has a tendency to foster bad habits in its election workers, odds are that these bad habits will be found in all the returning officers.

It is, of course, a relevant experience that has to be taken into consideration. However, we have to be able to choose—from among all of those who have had such an experience, no matter which party they worked for—the ones who are most competent for the position.

In his report following the 37th general election, the Chief Electoral Officer recommended, among other things, that returning officers be appointed by the Chief Electoral Officer based on merit, that new returning officers be appointed for a 10 year renewable term and that the Chief Electoral Officer have the authority to dismiss returning officers on grounds of incompetence or unsatisfactory performance. Following the 38th general election, he reiterated this recommendation. This is nothing new; the Lortie commission recommended the same thing back in 1990. I might add for the benefit of the parliamentary secretary that, on this issue, the commission said one thing and then the opposite. The Chief Electoral Officer had made the same recommendation following the 35th and 36th general elections. It did not just occur to him out of the blue that this would be a good idea. Based on his extensive experience, he came to the conclusion, especially now, that such a change was necessary.

I remember hearing the Chief Electoral Officer say that, in discussions with some of his foreign counterparts, he was embarrassed to mention how returning officers are appointed in Canada. Understandably so, because this country, Canada, which boasts about being a model of democracy for the entire world, still has a few skeletons in its closet in this respect.

As a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, when I meet colleagues from around the world, I have some difficulty telling them with a straight face that our senators are appointed by the Prime Minister, and not elected. While most are extremely competent and acting in good faith, the fact remains that senators are appointed on a partisan basis. The same is true of returning officers.

The parliamentary secretary said earlier that there had never been any problems, except minor glitches here and there. We could, however, list a number of serious problems that the Chief Electoral Officer himself raised before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs on October 26. He said, and this is no minor matter:

I know of about 10 cases of insubordination, three problems involving conflict of interest, about 14 problems of incompetence, some 10 cases involving a lack of computer skills, which is a different area.

—a returning officer hired 10 members of her family, which is a violation of the ethics code. ... a returning officer kept his position in an association despite the fact that this created a conflict of interests... a returning officer put himself in a conflict of interest by agreeing to work in the riding office of a provincial member of the legislature.

One of them told me that if I was not pleased, he was going to resign in the middle of the election. That is insubordination.

That is what the Chief Returning Officer said. He also said:

—I received two letters of resignation from two returning officers. One told me that he had informed his local party association before the people there asked him to resign. The other one told me that he had informed the local association and that it had identified two possible successors and was going to review their candidacy further. He also said that he had defined the roles and responsibilities of a returning officer for the association, so that it could appoint an appropriate candidate.

Appropriate under what criteria? Those of the riding association? It makes no sense. That is scandalous.

I conclude with another case the Chief Electoral Officer reported:

—a returning officer... accepted nomination papers without checking a single name, because he did not want to be late for an appointment. In the case of all other candidates, all 100 signatures were checked.

While, as the member for Gatineau has said, we cannot conclude that all returning officers are incompetent or partisan, it appears that a number of them are.

A stop must be put to that situation and people hired following a transparent and open public competition, where people's experience, competence and ability to do the job can be assessed. Let us put an end to this system of nepotism and modernize Canada's electoral system.

Canada Elections ActPrivate Members' Business

12:05 p.m.

Peterborough Ontario


Peter Adams LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak on Bill C-312 which proposes an amendment to the Canada Elections Act to establish a new process for the appointment of returning officers.

Returning officers are currently appointed by the governor in council under section 24 of the act and those appointments are tabled before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.

The proposed amendment would transfer that power to the Chief Electoral Officer. I want to make it clear now that I do not support the amendment, principally for two reasons.

First, I am concerned about the erosion of power of the House of Commons itself, particularly in the electoral process and I am not convinced that increasing professionalization of our system helps the electoral process at the riding level.

Second, I want to make the point that I do not believe the case has been proven, that there are in fact sufficient reasons or causes for this very important change. It should be studied very carefully, as we usually do in this place, before we jump from one situation which at least we know to another situation which we do not know.

As members of the House understand more than anyone else, because we have all been candidates in elections, returning officers play an essential and invaluable role in our electoral system. They are on the very front lines at election time and no electoral process would be successful without the essential contributions of these people.

As set out in the act, returning officers are responsible under the general direction of the Chief Electoral Officer for the preparation and conduct of an election in his or her electoral district. Behind the scenes in every election there are literally thousands of election workers and returning officers are responsible for coordinating the activities of these workers.

There is no question that the demands on returning officers are tremendous and require a broad range of abilities, including material, human and financial resources management, contract negotiations, public and media relations and office automation, to name but a few. I would mention another, which is knowledge of the local region of the riding that is concerned, knowledge not simply of the political process in general but of the political process as it functions, let us say in a very large rural area or in a concentrated urban area.

Returning officers are not left on their own to carry out these tasks. They are not simply appointed and then left there. The Chief Electoral Officer of Elections Canada provides them with training and access to a wide range of materials and software. I have heard that our Chief Electoral Officer is very proud of his training programs and I have no doubt our returning officers are fully prepared to assume their responsibilities.

My colleague from the Bloc mentioned the view of this from overseas. I would argue that in the vast majority of countries in the world, it is not possible to professionalize positions of this type, particularly to professionalize them so people have these jobs for years and years and can work with volunteers and the limited resources in those countries. It is in those countries that they admire the way we train our returning officers to work with volunteers.

I will go back to my point about the need has yet to be demonstrated. In my personal experience, and it is the riding of Peterborough where I have the greatest experience, I have been active in politics provincially and federally for a good number of years so I have known a number of returning officers. They are highly qualified and do excellent work. To my knowledge, there have been very few cases over the years where these individuals have been unable to carry out their responsibilities, with the backing of Elections Canada as I described.

While I have worked with other electoral officers provincially, in my case federally, the person concerned was appointed before my time. We are talking about partisan appointments, appointed long before my time. My riding was a Conservative riding for many years before it became the Liberal riding, which it is today and which it will remain.

There are very few documented problems of inadequate performance by returning officers. I would argue that the numbers, and we have heard a few examples here, would be no less if these people were in some way professionally appointed. To have them appointed by somebody in Ottawa who is not answerable to the House of Commons and to know the situation in Peterborough, or in Saint Boniface or wherever else really strikes me as a tendency which members of the House should be working against rather than in favour of giving some authority out into the regions.

Another point that has been made, apart from the alleged concerns about general incompetence which has not been demonstrated, is that somehow these individuals are exercising partisan views simply because they are appointed by the governor in council. As I have mentioned, the appointments are tabled with procedure and House affairs. The House of Commons deals with these things rather than some individual who is appointed for life to the position of chief electoral officer.

Canada Elections ActPrivate Members' Business

12:15 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Marcel Proulx)

The time provided for the consideration of private members' business has now expired, and the item is dropped to the bottom of the order of precedence on the order paper.

The House proceeded to the consideration of Bill C-9, an act to establish the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec, as reported with amendments from the committee.

Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec ActGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

Ottawa—Vanier Ontario


Mauril Bélanger Liberalfor the Minister of the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec and Minister responsible for the Francophonie

moved that the bill as amended be concurred in.

Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec ActGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Marcel Proulx)

Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?

Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec ActGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

Some hon. members


Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec ActGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

Some hon. members


Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec ActGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Marcel Proulx)

All those in favour of the motion will please say yea.

Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec ActGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

Some hon. members


Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec ActGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Marcel Proulx)

All those opposed will please say nay.

Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec ActGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

Some hon. members


Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec ActGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Marcel Proulx)

In my opinion the nays have it.

And more than five members having risen:

Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec ActGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Marcel Proulx)

Call in the members.

And the bells having rung.

Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec ActGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Marcel Proulx)

At the request of the chief government whip, the vote is deferred until the end of government orders tomorrow.

The House resumed from April 6, 2005, consideration of the motion that Bill C-23, an act to establish the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development and to amend and repeal certain related Acts, be read the third time and passed.

Department of Human Resources and Skills Development ActGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

The Speaker

The hon. member for Saint-Maurice—Champlain has 18 minutes remaining.