Mr. Speaker, it is a delight to be back in the House of Commons after the summer recess and to see you, Sir, looking so well.
I am pleased to rise to speak to the bill today. As the official opposition House leader mentioned when the bill was first tabled in the House, the official opposition supports the bill in general but we do have some concerns in regard to ensuring that the objectives of the bill are properly met within the proper constitutional framework of the House of Commons and our relationship with the Crown, and also in regard to taking full advantage of some of the opportunities that the government House leader has mentioned to ensure that the efficiency, the cost containment, the decline in cynicism, and the representativeness of candidates and such, which are potentially the promise of this bill, are actually fulfilled.
Let us start with the first section of the bill, which would amend section 56.1 of the Canada Elections Act. It states, as has been noted:
(1) Nothing in this section affects the powers of the Governor General, including the power to dissolve Parliament at the Governor General's discretion.
We have had a question from a colleague of mine and an answer from the government House leader with respect to what defines a vote of confidence and therefore a lack of confidence, a vote of non-confidence, and he has responded very broadly that it is not just money, that it might be war or some other thing that the government thinks is very important. That is the very type of looseness that can create uncertainty and can, I think, create instability in the House, uncertainty in the public mind and a frustration of the objective of the legislation, which is otherwise quite appropriate. We are not voting against the bill, but we will be looking in committee to get some constitutional definition around what we are talking about.
People looked at the election in Germany in 2005. Many people reported at the time that it was their opinion that then Chancellor Schroeder manipulated the defeat of his own government to cause an election at a time that he thought was advantageous, so I think we are going to want to look at what role the courts may well have on this, what role the Governor General has, how much discretion is actually there, and what has happened to that royal prerogative over time, through disuse or whatever. It is an important thing for our constitutional democracy. In committee we will have to get a firm grip on it and in a way which I think does the basic work that has not yet been done to interpret the impact of the bill.
Looking more generally at the bill, I think the government House leader is correct in saying that we have a building practice in this country, an experience, of fixed election dates. Not only has my province of British Columbia had fixed date legislation, but it has had an election with a fixed date. I must agree that this has worked out as well or better than anyone who had some misgivings about it could have thought. It did bring predictability.
It has actually demonstrated to many other provincial jurisdictions in the country that this is something that should be part of their democratic reform package. We have heard that Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Quebec are looking at this as a way to go. It may well be that this is just a trend, that as with medicare in Saskatchewan, it has been tested in the provinces and its time has come federally, but of course we must always look to those examples for their experience and what we might do better with this legislation as it goes forward.
In December 2005, the Institute for Research on Public Policy did an exhaustive study of parliamentary democracies and democracies similar to Canada's and what sort of election timing legislation and rules they followed. It found that only 11 out of the 40 democracies similar to Canada's have unfixed dates such as Canada does.
Globally, the trend is certainly toward that. I think we should be taking it very seriously. Certainly, therefore, we should not put up any blinders to suggest that we have always done it a certain way and therefore we simply cannot change it. Others have changed it and it is working well. There are lessons we can learn from that. That will be very much a part of this debate and the committee work.
Certainly the efficiency argument has some real merit if this is really used responsibly. In the planning of committee work, public policy development, legislative approval and bureaucratic implementation, if we take advantage of this certainty, not to simply become lame ducks during the last year but to in fact plan efficiently right up to the date the election campaign starts, then there is real potential for efficiency to be achieved from that predictability.
We know that certainly in law and legal principles, and in criminal law in particular, certainty is absolutely critical as a basic tenet of the criminal law of Canada. We know that in business certainty and predictability are often even more important than the particular taxation rule or regulatory rule. Business has to know what is coming to properly prepare. I think the work of the House of Commons and the Government of Canada can benefit from that as well if it is properly planned.
The fairness issue is a good one. The government House leader raised it. In our discussions of how we develop public policy, we must always, in the House and, frankly, in government, look to the fairness, not just from our own subjective point of view but also from the view of the public. I think we have had experiences in Canadian parliamentary democracy, if not federally then provincially, in which the public has decided that the early calling of an election is unfair and inappropriate. We saw that in Ontario some 15 years ago, when the government that called for an early race paid for it through the public's feeling that it was unfair.
That transparency, that level playing field, that coming to a place like Ottawa to the House of Commons with a firm mandate and a majority government to work to a certain schedule and to fulfill that obligation to the public, all of that, I think, is something that should be emphasized.
That fairness will help erode cynicism. I think we in this House are all too painfully aware that the public is cynical. We are constantly under pressure, and an appropriate pressure, from the public, our constituents, to deal with the cynicism that perhaps the best interests of individual Canadians are not always looked after in the House. We have to do everything we can to break down that cynicism. If this is properly implemented, I think this can help do that.
Of course, if we increase fairness, transparency and planning and if we reduce cynicism, that should lead to greater voter turnout. That is one of the most important indicia of the health of a our democracy, which slipped a bit in 2004. It went up again in 2006, but we are still far below what I would see as a healthy voter participation in our democratic process. I think that is important.
Of course the date that has been suggested, that of the third Monday in October, helps with voter turnout with respect to the seasons. At that time we do not have a lot of perhaps retired and senior citizens holidaying in the southern United States to avoid the cold weather, and we do not have students out of university or people who are away during the summer and are not available to vote or take part in the whole civic engagement. That could all be very positive.
I understand and appreciate that voting in February or January in Vancouver is no problem at all. In fact, we had a very great time with the weather in the lower mainland during the last election, but I do appreciate that other parts of the country, including Niagara, that wonderful temperate area during certain months of the year, could benefit in voter turnout from not having to face harsh winter weather conditions.
The early fall date I think is an interesting one. Ontario has picked something similar. B.C. went for a late spring date and there is some consideration in British Columbia of moving it to the fall. I think there is some real purpose behind that. For one thing, the lead-up, the period of the campaign, would be at the end of the summer. Rather than suspending the parliamentary session in mid-session, that is helpful. It is also helpful with the predictability of planning courses in high schools and universities around civics for seniors, community groups and new immigrants, courses around electoral responsibility and the democratic process. The predictability in putting those types of civil exercises into a predictable annual rotation is probably helpful with turnout as well.
The question of representativeness of candidates is an important one. We know that we struggle in this country, and certainly in the House, to have the appropriate representation of women, for instance, which is of course far below the pro rata size of the population. I believe it is 21% in the House and I know that all of our parties struggle with it. I think we have to struggle together as a House of Commons and look to the legislation to ensure that as it is finalized and implemented--and it may be amended--it takes advantage of whatever opportunity a fixed date can provide for forward planning, for organizing someone's professional or family life, for fundraising, and for the whole nomination process of candidates to ensure that this increases the representativeness of the House by gender and as well as to properly reflect the indigenous, the multicultural and the linguistic duality and the multiplicity of this country. That could be an important thing.
One of the problems that we all must be aware of and has been spoken of often is the further Americanization of the Canadian political situation. I think what we have to do is look to this legislation to ensure that this does not happen--the fixed date may actually help if we do it properly--and that there is a shorter campaign period.
The government House leader mentioned, and I think correctly, that electoral officials can plan better with a fixed date. A lot of the work they might have to do during an election could actually be done before the campaign starts, so the campaign could be shorter. With appropriate campaign and political financing laws, I think that could be very helpful. It is something we want to pay very careful attention to: ensuring that the campaign period is limited and that the political financing laws are aligned with that to stop the great expense and lame duck or never-ending practice of the American political process.
There is another issue that I think we should look at just briefly and then perhaps in more detail in debate in committee. We should look at how federal election fixed dates, if we are indeed going ahead in that direction, fit in with other levels of government and their electoral dates. There is a possibility there, if we can align through intergovernmental discussion. For instance, Ontario will have municipal elections this fall and then provincial elections in 2007. As well, Lord knows, we are going to have the American presidential election in the fall of 2008, and then, as set out in this legislation, a federal election in the fall of 2009.
Is there some way we can annualize our civics courses, our public education, so that we are both avoiding overlapping elections, which frankly can exhaust the public, and also taking advantage of every year having a swing through, a reminder, a refresher or mock elections and such in our schools, universities, colleges and communities to really heighten people's awareness of the issues and of the importance of their democratic participation?
Finally, I would put the aspect of democratic reform in a broader context. We have political financing reform that was brought in by the former Liberal government. The accountability act takes further steps in political finance legislation. It has not been completed yet but it is certainly in play, and political financing is a big part of the electoral framework.
Another aspect is election timing, and we are addressing that today. Another aspect is the voting procedure and looking at different systems, or combined systems, than simply the first past the post system. We know that many democratic parliaments in the world operate on different voter systems. We know the Law Commission of Canada has come out with a very detailed report recommending a mixed proportional system.
British Columbia had a very engaged citizens' assembly process to look at a potential change. It got almost 68% of the vote on a plebiscite issue, but not the 60% needed. There are numerous jurisdictions across the country, I believe six in all, looking at different voter processes. That is another piece of it.
Finally is the public engagement part of representative democracy, and that is absolutely critical. Democracy is always on a spectrum between participation and direct representativeness. We have to get that balance right, but it is only healthy if our representative democracy is responsive to the participatory engagement of our population. As a fourth level of electoral reform, this is something that, as a House, I hope we will consider very carefully.