This week, I changed much of the tech behind this site. If you see anything that looks like a bug, please let me know!

House of Commons Hansard #47 of the 39th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was elections.

Topics

RepentignyVacancy

September 18th, 2006 / 11:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Liberal Peter Milliken

It is my duty to inform this House that a vacancy has occurred in the House of Commons for the electoral district of Repentigny, in the province of Quebec, by reason of the death of our hon. colleague, Mr. Benoît Sauvageau.

Pursuant to subsection 28(1) of the Parliament of Canada Act I have addressed on Tuesday, September 5, 2006, a warrant to the Chief Electoral Officer for the issue of a writ for the election of a member to fill the vacancy.

Message from the Senate

11:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Liberal Peter Milliken

I have the honour to inform the House that a message has been received from the Senate informing this House that the Senate has passed the following public bill to which the concurrence of this House is desired:

Bill S-202, an act to repeal legislation that has not come into force within ten years of receiving royal assent.

It being 11:05 a.m., the House will now proceed to the consideration of private members' business as listed on today's Order Paper.

Food and Drugs ActPrivate Members' Business

11:05 a.m.

Liberal

Tom Wappel Liberal Scarborough Southwest, ON

moved that Bill C-283, An Act to amend the Food and Drugs Act (food labelling), be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Mr. Speaker, since 1989, I have been working to provide consumers with information from which they can make more informed food choices. Today I will go to bat again for Canadian consumers by proposing modest but sorely needed measures to ensure they have important health-related information about many of the processed and restaurant foods we eat every day in this country.

Diet-related disease is steadily straining our health care services and, if unchecked, will create staggering demands on our future capacity to fund public health care and become an unnecessary drag on our economic growth which also limits our capacity to finance health care.

The need to better address preventable chronic, non-communicable diseases has been acknowledged in three consecutive Liberal speeches from the throne. The Liberal, Conservative and NDP provincial governments all agreed with the federal government on the need to tackle diet-related and other chronic diseases in the communiqué of the September 2004 first ministers conference on health care and four recent communiqués of the federal-provincial-territorial ministers of health.

Diet-related disease is an urgent public health problem in this country. Heart disease, stroke, certain forms of cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis and dental health all have links to diet that are well recognized by scientists. For instance, the diet-related cases of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and certain forms of cancer costs the Canadian economy $6.6 billion annually due to health care costs and lost productivity.

Diet-related risk factors for disease shorten the average Canadian's healthy life expectancy by nearly five years and prematurely ends the lives of tens of thousands of Canadians every year, to say nothing of the pain and suffering these preventable diseases inflict upon victims and their families.

These days, precious few Canadians grow, prepare or even cook their own food any more. It is unthinkable that we should be eating food without knowing its contents. When the Liberal Party formed government we promulgated mandatory nutrition labelling regulations for most prepackaged foods, which the media dubbed the gold standard, globally. However when it comes to ingredient information on processed food and nutrition information on labels of fresh cut meat and restaurant menus, Canadian law and industry practices are little better than any other country and much worse than many.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada estimates that those new labels that were passed will reap $5 billion in benefits to the economy as a whole from reduced health care costs and increased productivity over the next two decades. These benefits are 20 times the cost to the industry of modifying food labels. Canadians should not pass up an opportunity to save the health care system more than $2 billion over the next two decades.

Bill C-238 can be implemented even less expensively than the new nutrition labelling regulations because it only requires nutrition information for a small number of national chain restaurants that typically have standardized menus. Many chains have already done the analysis. Plus, my bill permits meat packers to use common, government-approved nutrition databases and it only requires readily available ingredient composition data on processed food labels.

Nearly 30 groups, collectively representing over two million Canadians, support the measures in the bill. In the past two years, support for one or more of the three components of Bill C-283 has been articulated in expert reports published by the Canadian population health initiative of the Canadian Institute for Health Information; two reports of the U.S. Institute of Medicine, an expert body upon which Health Canada often relies for scientific advice; the chief medical officer of health for Ontario; a call for action by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada; an editorial in the Canadian Journal of Public Health of the Canadian Public Health Association; an advocacy statement of the British Columbia Healthy Living Alliance; and a report commissioned by the British Columbia Cancer Agency and the Canadian Cancer Society of British Columbia and Yukon.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency initiated consultations on a proposal to establish a watered down form of my proposal requiring percentage ingredient disclosures on products that, for instance, promote blueberry pancakes which, in fact, contain little or no blueberries. The fact that the CFIA abruptly discontinued consultations on even that modest proposal illustrates the need for Parliament to step in.

By introducing Bill C-283 I am seeking to achieve three objectives: first, to close a loophole in the new nutrition labelling regulations for packers of fresh meat, poultry and seafood; second, to extend a simplified nutrition disclosure requirement to large chain restaurant menus and menu boards; and third, add a requirement that multi-ingredient processed foods disclose the amount of key ingredients, especially for ingredients that are the subject of marketing claims or for ingredients that are known by the scientific community to have protective or causative effects on major disease risks. In short, it facilitates informed purchasing decisions, not uninformed or increasingly ill-informed food purchases.

Statistics Canada says that Canadians spend about 30% of their food budgets on restaurant meals. McDonald's restaurants alone claim to serve an average of three million Canadians every day. Plainly, it is no longer an occasional treat to eat at restaurants but rather a central feature of daily life in Canada and yet we rarely see any nutrition information on restaurant menus or menu boards.

It became clear to me and some of my colleagues that the costs of even chemical analysis would be less than a penny on the price of enough food to feed a family of four in a typical faster food restaurants and cheaper by half to calculate such information from existing databases.

Some industry efforts, though encouraging, are not really effective, whether by accident or design. For instance, McDonald's restaurants now provide nutrition information on the back or the underside of tray liners. Imagine, on the back or the underside, for heaven's sake, instead of on the menu boards where the information could actually be used by consumers before they make their purchases, or even on the front of the liner so they could read about what they are eating to help them make more informed choices for their next meal.

Some restaurant owners made the outlandish argument that menus would have to be modified to accommodate every conceivable special order that a consumer could make, such as extra sauce, pickles on the side, with or without cheese, shared orders, et cetera. However, menus at Subway, White Spot and Extreme Pizza, companies that emphasize made to order foods, found a way to report at least some useful nutritional information to consumers, despite the alleged difficulties. Without such information, even trained nutritionists consistently err in estimating calorie counts from physical appearance only.

My bill also proposes to mandate that manufacturers of processed foods show on labels the percentage by weight of key ingredients. This information will help consumers choose more nutritious products, say, products with more fruits or less added sugars. Requiring this information will also help protect consumers against deceptive ingredient claims by unscrupulous manufacturers that tout the presence of appealing ingredients, like vegetables or whole grains, but actually put very little of those ingredients in the product.

Percentage ingredient labelling rules are in effect in Thailand, the European Union, New Zealand and Australia. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency acknowledged the need to establish percentage ingredient labelling requirements. However the CFIA's now dormant proposal leaves open many avenues for consumer deception about ingredient composition and fails to require disclosures that would effectively aid consumers in selecting more nutritious products. My bill does not suffer from the same defects.

Health Canada and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada have already done a thorough job of demonstrating the need for nutrition labelling on prepackaged foods, in the regulatory impact analysis that accompanied the amendments to the food and drug regulations promulgated in January 2003. An exemption for fresh meat, poultry and seafood appears to have been granted in response to claims by several industry associations in 2000 that it would take four to five years to generate nationally representative nutrition data tables for various cuts of meat and species of seafood.

For years, Health Canada and various Canadian industry associations have published such data. Six years have passed. Bill C-283 would provide all parties yet another two years to refine their data in any ways necessary. Without such nutrition information, how many Canadians would know that a three ounce serving of trimmed, broiled top round beef steak has only about one gram of saturated fat while a three ounce serving of trimmed, broiled shoulder blade pork steak has four grams of saturated fat, a full four ounce difference in saturated fat content between two cuts of meat the same size, a difference that is not evident from visual inspection or even taste?

The House may recall that in a previous Parliament, a Conservative member who is now a minister of the Crown, the Minister of Veterans Affairs, spoke very favourably about an earlier version of this bill. He said:

What the member is attempting to do would be very difficult to argue against...We are concerned with the health of Canadians. They have a right to know what they are eating. It would serve the purposes of a lot of people in Canada if we could find a way to adopt this legislation. Details have to be fleshed out in committee. We support moving Bill C-398 on to the next logical step.

I hope all members of the Conservative government will demonstrate the same good sense as that hon. member. I hope members will not prevent Canadians from getting the vital nutrition information they sorely need to make healthy food choices for their families and themselves.

The scientific basis for requiring that this information be provided to consumers is tried and true. The scientific consensus is that Canadians should consume more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and beans, and less sodium, added sugar, saturated and trans fat and, for most of us, fewer calories.

By now, I think and hope, the food industry has seen the writing on the wall. I urge my friends on both sides of the House to ensure that this writing ends up where it should be and where it can do the most good: on the food labels and the menu boards. I urge them to support this bill by sending it to the health committee for in depth study with a view to improving the bill for the benefit of all Canadians.

Food and Drugs ActPrivate Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia Manitoba

Conservative

Steven Fletcher ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health

Mr. Speaker, I wonder if the member could explain how a bill of this nature could be enforced. There are jurisdictional issues and inspection issues and there is a very large cost associated with that type of enforcement. I wonder if the member could comment on this aspect of the bill.

Food and Drugs ActPrivate Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Tom Wappel Liberal Scarborough Southwest, ON

Mr. Speaker, the Canadian government is charged with the responsibility of ensuring the health of Canadians. There are many ways in which the health of Canadians is monitored and services are delivered to Canadians. Many of them of course involve regulations that need to be enforced. There are already labels for prepackaged foods and there are serious penalties for breaching these labels. However, clearly what occurs many times is that consumers themselves will notify the appropriate government agency if they happen to notice that something is not properly labelled or if information is missing. Inspectors will then take a look at that. As with the Income Tax Act, where we do not have enough people to examine everybody's income tax return, there are spot checks, spot audits and spot examinations. This is how it works.

As for the claim that this would be terribly, terribly expensive, that is simply not true. Already we have menu boards, so instead of a large picture of a “big mac” there could be a smaller picture of a big mac, and right beside the price we could put “700 calories as shown”. That is all that needs to be done. This does not involve a lot of costs, particularly for chain restaurants that do not have a lot of changeover in their menus. There is some nuance in the bill to allow for those restaurants that do have some changeover.

Any of these problems can also be examined in depth in committee by bringing expert witnesses before committee to answer these questions.

Food and Drugs ActPrivate Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Liberal Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, I want to congratulate the member for raising this issue that is near and dear to my heart as well.

There are some elements of the right to know, to make informed decisions. There is the obligation to inform. There is also the obligation to be correct in that disclosure, which apparently is not the case.

Could the member advise the House if he is aware of exactly who is against this legislation and why?

Food and Drugs ActPrivate Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Tom Wappel Liberal Scarborough Southwest, ON

Mr. Speaker, there are two ways of looking at it. It is almost impossible to be against giving consumers more information. That is like being against motherhood. I guess the objection would be to the method by which I am attempting to deliver that information. As I said in my speech, the objection from the restaurant industry is that restaurants cannot possibly think of all the permutations and combinations that a customer might order on a pizza, for example, or on a Harvey's hamburger, as it is touted that we can have our hamburger the way we like it.

The answer is that the idea is not to make it difficult for people to sell food to consumers or difficult for consumers to eat it. We would simply say that a standard hamburger is 400 calories and add-ons are extra. Then it should be obvious to consumers that if they buy a hamburger with a bun it is 400 calories, and if the consumer wants to put a slice of cheese on it, there are going to be more calories. At least the consumer would have some idea. For supersized fries, it would be 700 or 800 calories, with three or four grams of fat or whatever the case may be.

This would be just enough to give consumers the information they need. The two main arguments are that it is impossible to do, which is nonsense, and second, that it is too costly. All of the studies have shown that it is not too costly. Clearly, the prepackaged nutritional labelling regulations that came into force in 2003 are in effect and have not bankrupted the industry or led to skyrocketing food costs.

Food and Drugs ActPrivate Members' Business

11:25 a.m.

Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia Manitoba

Conservative

Steven Fletcher ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health

Mr. Speaker, we are here today to discuss a private member's bill, Bill C-283. Bill C-283 proposes amendments to the Food and Drugs Act that would make nutrition labelling mandatory on raw single ingredient meat, meat byproducts, poultry meat, poultry meat byproducts, and marine and freshwater animal products. Products would be exempted if the sales are below a certain amount, provided the label contains no nutrition or health claims. For simplicity, let me refer to these products as raw single ingredient animal products.

Bill C-283 would also require that for foods sold for immediate consumption, information on calories, the amounts of sodium and the sum of saturated and trans fats per serving be provided on the printed menu. If the menu options are set out only on a menu board, only the number of calories would have to be indicated on the board, and the sodium and fat nutrition information would have to be provided to customers upon request. When food is sold in two or more flavours or in bulk or buffet formats, the nutrition information would be required to appear beside the name of the food on the receptacle from which the product is sold in bulk or buffet format, beside the name of each flavour or beside the general name of the food as appropriate.

I note that Bill C-283 proposes to require the same nutrition information for raw single ingredient animal products that is required for prepackaged foods under the regulations published by Health Canada in January 2003, which came into effect in December of 2005. These regulations exempt raw single ingredient unground meats, meat byproducts, poultry meats, poultry meat byproducts, and marine and freshwater animal products from carrying a nutrition facts table unless nutrition or health claims are made for them.

These exemptions were included because of the lack of representative data on the nutrition composition for these products that takes into account the sources of variability, such as season, species, feed or trim level. Lack of such data presents a risk of mandating the provision of inaccurate information to consumers.

Since nutrition labelling is mandated on comparable products that are prepared in processing plants, such as raw seasoned meats, it is expected that major cuts of raw single ingredient meat and poultry meat that are packaged in plants will be voluntarily labelled if satisfactory data is available.

In regard to the proposal in Bill C-283 to require certain nutrition information on printed menus, menu boards and adjacent to food for immediate consumption sold in bulk or buffet formats, I note that the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association recently developed voluntary guidelines for providing nutrition information to consumers. This voluntary program will provide consumers with nutrient values that are consistent with the core nutritional label information required for packaged foods and will include calories, fats, such as saturated and trans fats and so on, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, including fibres and sugars, and protein content of standard menu items.

Since the February 2005 launch of the nutrition information program, more than 25 of the major restaurant chains, representing about 40% of all chain establishments, have committed to implementing these guidelines. Many of these chains have already completed this process and are already providing nutritional information to their customers. The guidelines state that nutrition information be made readily available to restaurant consumers through in-store brochures or pamphlets and that the availability of the nutrition brochure will be predominantly displayed on menus, menu boards and such vehicles as takeout and home delivery packages.

In general, the chains that are making progress in implementing the voluntary guidelines are the larger firms who have some access to the expertise required to do so and these appear to be the target of Bill C-283.

The voluntary program has the potential to provide consumers with the important nutritional information without the need for new legislation which would be expensive and burdensome to implement. The voluntary guidelines may provide consumers with information that goes beyond the requirements of Bill C-283 while avoiding the need for complex and costly governmental regulatory and enforcement programs. It would therefore seem prudent to allow the voluntary program time to work and to assess its effectiveness.

Bill C-283 proposes to exempt persons whose establishments or vending machine business has a total revenue of less than $10 million from the sale of food including income from all subsidiaries and franchises. The intention may be that the bill would only apply to those chains with standardized menus and highly controlled production facilities, since these are the minimal conditions for providing reliable nutritional information. However, the bill would also apply to hotel chains, many of which have independent restaurants with their own menus and with more variable conditions of production.

A further concern is the fact that at present restaurants and food service establishments typically fall under provincial jurisdiction and inspection is the responsibility of the provinces. Consequently, there would be a need for consultation with the provinces and territories. Bill C-283 would create heavy additional inspection requirements either for the provinces, if they agree to undertake the work, or for the federal inspectors and laboratories if they do not. No federal inspection system currently exists at the restaurant level which represents thousands of establishments across Canada.

Finally, Bill C-283 contains exemptions based on the dollar volume of sales. It proposes exempting from its requirements for raw single ingredient meat, poultry, or marine and freshwater animal products, persons with gross annual revenue of less than $500,000 from the sale of the same food, provided no nutrition or health claims are made for the product. It also proposes to exempt from its requirements food sold for immediate consumption by persons whose establishment or vending machine business has a total annual revenue of less than $10 million from the sale of food including income from all subsidiaries and franchises. This introduces an economic aspect totally absent from the Food and Drugs Act which would need to be assessed.

The government recognizes the importance of nutritional labelling in assisting Canadians to make healthy and informed choices about the foods they eat. This is why Health Canada introduced improved nutritional labelling regulations which became mandatory on most prepackaged foods in December 2005.

Health Canada is also currently working with industry and other stakeholders to find practical ways to develop reliable nutritional information for consumers about specific meat cuts and to determine the best means to assist consumers in making informed choices when eating away from home.

The government remains committed to helping Canadians continue to maintain and improve their health. I commend the intent of Bill C-283 in this regard; however, a number of initiatives are already underway which address the intent of Bill C-283 as I have already described. These initiatives should be allowed to bear fruit without the need of potentially costly and burdensome legislated requirements. Those are my remarks and I look forward to continue this very interesting debate.

Food and Drugs ActPrivate Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

Bloc

Christiane Gagnon Bloc Québec, QC

Mr. Speaker, I rise today as the Bloc Québécois health critic to address this important issue .

The hon. member for Scarborough Southwest is introducing Bill C-283, An Act to amend the Food and Drugs Act (food labelling). The health of Canadians is important to him. He has been working on this for 10 years now. His efforts have been fruitful since Health Canada announced the recommendations on nutritional labelling in 2000. A number of these recommendations were based on his studies and bills he introduced in this House.

Since December 12, 2005, we have been able to read nutritional information to make more informed decisions about the food we eat. There are now tables that list 13 nutrients. This informs the consumer on the amount of calories, fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, fibre, sugar, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron in their food. This additional information can now be found on every product we buy. Canada's Food Guide to Healthy Eating, gives us supplemental information on the best nutritional value available.

This bill raises a number of questions. We support the principle behind it, which is to better inform consumers about what they are eating and to go beyond that.

However, the bill before us contains measures that raise some questions. It seeks to subject meats, poultry and raw seafood to current labelling standards. It requires restaurants and food services to post selected nutritional information. It also makes it mandatory to list the percentage of each ingredient in a food, particularly any fruits, vegetables or grains emphasized on the packaging. We know that food consumption habits change: people are eating in restaurants and buying variety packs more often.

This bill is not new; this is the third time it has been introduced. In March 2004, it was referred to committee, and my colleague from Hochelaga—who was then the health critic—led the adoption of a motion to hold a round table on the bill so that industry and health experts could discuss it and offer some recommendations. However, the 2004 election prevented the consultation from taking place, so we got no recommendations and no report. This is why we support the bill. It would enable us to get a lot more information to help clarify the elements targeted by this bill.

As you know, the Bloc Québécois has always demanded greater transparency in food labelling. On the basis of the principle that consumers have the right to know what they are buying, I cannot oppose a bill that would enable them to better manage their food choices.

I would like to point out, however, that certain questions remain regarding some of the details and provisions of this bill. This remains an important issue, nonetheless, which is why I hope this bill will pass the second reading stage and be referred to the Standing Committee on Health. That committee will then be in a position to examine the provisions of the bill more carefully and recommend the appropriate amendments.

Given the federal government's constitutional responsibilities, the committee must give this bill priority, in order to ensure that we have all the necessary information about the issues in question.

The committee also looks at the whole issue of obesity and therefore nutrition. Accordingly, this bill could play a role in this desire to provide the public with better nourishment and more information about the quality of the food we eat.

I will now review each of the provisions contained in this bill and express some reservations about them. These issues could, of course, be examined more closely in committee.

First, as for the general intent of the bill, I would remind the House how important it is to fight against unhealthy eating. Food labeling cannot change everything and the fight against unhealthy eating must be part of a more comprehensive approach focussing on education. As we all know, however, nutrition education is a matter of provincial and territorial jurisdiction.

Giving consumers more information certainly could not hurt, but it is difficult to gauge the exact impact of such a measure. Furthermore, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada believes firmly in the effectiveness of such a measure, as demonstrated by its "Health Check" campaign, through which foods that meet certain criteria are identified with a special symbol.

Questions remain regarding the application of proposed regulations on meat, poultry and raw seafood. I wonder whether it is possible to measure the nutritional value of each piece. Many factors are at play, such as how the animal is fed, the cut, and fat content, among others.

Yes, it would be hard to ask every butcher to calculate the nutritional value of every cut of meat being prepared. However, the statistics already exist and certainly it would be possible to find a happy medium without requiring the butcher to conduct in-depth analyses.

The purpose of all this is to give the consumer more information and I am convinced that is possible. This will certainly be discussed in committee.

The provision in this bill requiring that the percentage of ingredients used in food products be indicated does not seem an insurmountable problem. However, at the round table meeting, industry representatives said they are worried that such a measure will only open the door to violating intellectual property. Further consideration must be given to see what provisions could be implemented to respond to their concerns. Other countries have already passed such legislation, namely Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Thailand and the nations of the European Union. We could look at their legislation and see how it could apply here and how their industry sectors have dealt with the new legislation in effect there.

Finally, perhaps the most controversial measure in this bill is requiring restaurants and food services to post nutritional information on their menus.

In this regard, I would like to point out that voluntary disclosure measures have never worked very well. The case of tobacco shows us that industry is always capable of adapting to such measures even if they opposed them at the outset.

However, we must also question whether or not certain restaurants will be able to comply with such regulations. Can the corner snack bar or the trendy restaurant that changes its menu every day implement these measures?

In this regard, we must not ignore the interests of restaurant owners. Once again, I am anxious to find out how our committee can make some improvements.

We know that poor nutrition is a far-reaching problem that exerts tremendous pressure on the Quebec and Canadian health care systems. Thus, it is important to determine how more comprehensive labelling rules could help fight the problem of poor nutrition.

Before closing, and given the member's knowledge of nutritional labelling, I would also like to point out that it would have been important for this member to take one more issue into account in this bill.That is the issue of mandatory labelling for GMOs, a policy not yet adopted by Canada. The committee should also study what could be done about GMO labelling.

Along the same lines, consumers are not always able to identify products containing real milk products. The committee should examine this aspect as well.

Food and Drugs ActPrivate Members' Business

11:40 a.m.

NDP

Penny Priddy NDP Surrey North, BC

Mr. Speaker, I rise to support Bill C-283 passing at second reading and moving to committee, and I have five points that I would like to make about it.

First, in today's environment many people are more concerned about what they put into their bodies. In many ways it is a more educated consumer group, although not in large numbers perhaps. However, a growing consumer group is concerned about the food it eats. More important, this group is concerned about what its children and families eat. For that reason we have to move in this direction. Although there has been some progress, the public is asking for more.

My second point is about health. As a result of the uncontrolled environment in which we live, we see more illnesses, some of which are triggered by food. In this case I think it truly can be a matter of life and death. We have seen the kinds of allergies that have developed. Everybody knows about peanuts. Does everybody think to ask whether foods are cooked in peanut oil? We are seeing food allergies that we would not have seen 10 years ago because our environment is changing.

As others have said, we spend about 30% of our food dollars on meals outside of our homes. We do not know what is in that food, but we need to have that opportunity. We need to be very conscious of it, as we are with the foods we bring into our homes. The bill may raise awareness about that.

For instance, my colleague from Winnipeg Centre has spoken very articulately about the effect of trans fats on health. We see a little more voluntary disclosure of trans fats on packages. However, when people eat out, they want to know if there are trans fats in the food. For health reasons, for personal reasons or for preventative reasons, they may choose not to eat that particular food.

It is the same thing with sodium. I will not repeat all the diseases that my colleague from Scarborough Southwest raised. With the increasing number of young people with high blood pressure, they need to know the amount of sodium in the products they eat both at home and outside it.

The third point is we have a right to know what food we are putting in our bodies and what we are feeding our families. It is not a privilege; it is a right. While there may be parts of the bill we need to debate and while there may be things that need to be changed, I am more than happy to move it to committee in order to help us have an exchange of ideas. Those diseases, particularly diabetes and high blood pressure of which we see more and more in younger people, reflect the need to be very conscious of what we eat when we are out. We know that children and teenagers are eating out a lot. Just the other day a physician told me that a 12-year-old had been diagnosed a type 2 diabetes. We know the effect of some of those foods.

The fourth point is education. We need more consumer education about this. We need to find clear, easy ways to do that, bearing in mind that not everybody has the same literacy rate. We need to have good consumer education.

My last point is poverty. The legislation will not affect many people because they cannot afford to make the healthy choices of fruits and grains, choices that other people can make. These people will continue to go to fast food restaurants because the food is less expensive. These foods are high in carbohydrates and other ingredients, but that is all they can afford. This will not address that in the same way.

In review, the issues are the current environment, health, rights, education and poverty. I am happy to pass this on to the health committee. We can review the legislation from other countries and look at how it has been implemented. I agree that voluntary agreement on almost any issue does not always have a success rate as high as we might like it to be. All these concerns can be addressed by the panel.

Food and Drugs ActPrivate Members' Business

11:50 a.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Liberal Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, I again want to congratulate the hon. member for yet again raising the bill. He has championed the bill for number of years. He has done it in a way in which he presents to the House an important national priority, a health priority.

I would like to quote the member from his speech. He says, “Diet-related disease is an urgent public health problem in this country. Heart disease, stroke, certain forms of cancer, diabetes, osteoperosis and dental health all have links to diet that are well recognized by scientists. For instance, the diet-related cases of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and certain forms of cancer cost the Canadian economy $6.6 billion annually, due to health care costs and lost productivity. Diet-related risk factors for disease shorten the average Canadian's healthy life expectancy by nearly five years, and prematurely ends of the lives of tens of thousands of Canadians every year—to say nothing of the pain, and suffering these preventable diseases inflict on victims and their families”.

This is an important health issue and I believe it is a national priority.

I want to quote from the American Journal of Public Health, September 2006. The article is entitled “Attacking the obesity epidemic”. The first paragraph states:

Sixty-four percent of American adults are either overweight or obese, and the obesity epidemic shows few signs of weakening. Although the precise number of deaths attributable to obesity is difficult to estimate, obesity is clearly a major cause of preventable death. Not surprisingly, improving the healthfulness of American diet has become a national health priority.

It is a national priority in the United States. Apparently it is not a national priority in Canada.

I listened intently to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health. He spent most of his time reading to us some of the elements of the bill. I was hoping there would be some cognitive words about the health value.

I have often thought that the measure of success of a country is not an economic measure. It is a measure of the health and the well-being of its people.

How is it that we do not recognize this as a national priority? We have ample evidence that producers of the products, which would require such labelling, have not been fully truthful with consumers or have not provided any information, have not recognized their obligation to fully inform.

Canadians have a right to know what they are consuming. I believe it should relate to all products which are consumed. As a matter of fact, right now I think beverage alcohol is the only consumer product that can harm one if misused, but does not warn one of that fact. I hope we will have an opportunity to debate that bill later on in this Parliament.

However, this is along the same lines. I know what the producers will say, that it is too expensive to do this or that they cannot do it because a pizza could have two servings of pepperoni and how would they calculate these things.

I thought the member was very cogent to suggest that even if we deal with something as basic as a hamburger, we know what the base product is. It is a hamburger and here are the number of calories in it.

Today Canadians are becoming more cognitive about their nutrition. However, when we look at the figures, it is very clear that Canadians do not know how much they can hurt themselves even if they are generally aware. There has to be a caution. We are talking about the health and the well-being of Canadians.

Let me go back to the report in the American Journal of Public Health on attacking the obesity epidemic. I thought the conclusions that were reached were very relevant to this debate as well.

It says:

As a response to the increased prevalence of overweight and obesity, which has been linked with the greater consumption of foods prepared outside the home, legislation has been proposed at both federal and state levels that would require the provision of nutritional information for restaurant food items.

The study shows that for a number of items consumers vastly underestimated the calorie levels, fat, saturated fat and sodium levels. On average, less helpful items were underestimated by more than 600 calories. With just one restaurant meal per week, an extra 30,000 calories a year would be added to a person's diet. These unaccounted calories could cause weight gain of approximately nine pounds annually. Holding all other factors constant, over several years the degree of underestimation could cause significant weight gain. Given substantial differences between expected and objective values, these findings indicate that inclusion of nutritional information on menus offers information that would be beneficial to consumers.

In this research study just this month the United States has clearly shown that this is a health issue. It is a health issue which does touch on the health and well-being of Canadians, on their personal health, our health care costs and Canadians' productivity, as the member laid out so eloquently in this speech.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health, for some odd reason, seems to think that we have a voluntary program and that it is working. It is not working. This issue has been on the table before Parliament for years. Why is it that the parliamentary secretary has to talk on a partisan basis as to how we keep items off the agenda which are not our own items when he should be representing the wisdom of Health Canada? What is Health Canada saying about this? I did not hear references to how Health Canada responded to the suggestion that there should be nutritional labelling.

If it is not a matter of protecting and promoting the health and well-being of Canadians, then the bill should not be here, but that is clearly not the case. It is about time that Parliament looked objectively at the facts with regard to issues like this which affect the health and well-being of Canadians. Now is the time for action. This bill should pass at second reading. I hope it will go to committee in order that informed witnesses can make their arguments on all sides. It is important.

It is not just enough that the parliamentary secretary should thank us for bringing it up and that he will keep it in mind. The parliamentary secretary should have said, “Let us have a look at this. There is some good evidence here. There is also some good argument on the other side. We are prepared to send it to committee, to debate it and to hear from witnesses so that Parliament can make informed decisions on the health and well-being of Canadians”.

Food and Drugs ActPrivate Members' Business

11:55 a.m.

Conservative

Rob Merrifield Conservative Yellowhead, AB

Mr. Speaker, it is a privilege for me to speak to the bill from my colleague from Scarborough Southwest, the member who has brought the bill before the House. He has actually had the bill in committee before and it has been discussed many times. I do not think anyone in the chamber would argue with the intent of the bill, that individuals in Canada should be able to have the information they need.

Before I get into my deliberations, I must take exception to my hon. colleague who just spoke. The member said that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health made partisan comments in his speech. I do not believe the parliamentary secretary's comments were partisan at all. I would suggest that if my hon. colleague really intended to do something about this issue, he was in a majority government for 13 years and could have actually dealt with the issue of labelling far sooner than by way of a private member's bill. I find it rich that we got those comments from my hon. colleague across the way.

Let us talk about the actual private member's bill that is before us as it flows into what the health committee is doing at the present time. The committee is involved in a study on childhood obesity. We understand from StatsCanada that 26% of the children across this country are obese or overweight. This is reflected not only in our children but also in our adults. We have a very serious problem in this country. It is an epidemic that we have to address.

The argument is not with the intent of the bill. The argument might be whether this is the right vehicle. Is the problem in society that Canadians do not know what they are eating, or is the problem that they are choosing to eat the wrong things? Canadians know that they should move away from their computers and television sets and be more physically active and eat healthier diets. Is the issue a matter of knowledge or a matter of choice and making the wrong choices?

I like the idea of this private member's bill for the aspect that it certainly allows members the opportunity to raise awareness of the issue. That is a very positive thing. We are going to continue that in the health committee as we address childhood obesity. The committee will be hearing witnesses from across the country and discerning some of the blocks that can be moved with respect to what we can do at the federal level to address the obesity problem.

Many of us in the chamber are very concerned about the health care system. The baby boomers are getting into their older years and they are starting to consume a tremendous number of health care dollars. We realize the pressure they will put on our health care system will be significant over the next 30 years. The pressure really has not started yet. It will start within the next decade and will intensify toward 2040-41. Then the pressure will not be relieved, but only will slow down.

If obese children start having heart and stroke disease, cancer and diabetic problems they will be hitting the health care system at the same time. Even from a demographic perspective we have to address obesity in our country as aggressively as we possibly can. We need to raise awareness and let the population understand the battle that we are in so that Canadians can discern for themselves and as a nation what can be done collectively to address our health care problems.

Many lives can be saved by addressing the problem. Canadians can live healthier lives. The health care system can be saved a tremendous amount of money as the population takes responsibility.

We are arguing whether this bill is the right way to proceed. Do we have to legislate every part of our society so that people understand that they are eating the right foods? One of the problems I have with this bill is the labelling aspect. If a label is not accurate, then it is a misleading label.

This comes from my agricultural side. A food item has a certain molecular composition of fats. For example, if a french fry is fried in palm oil, it is 50% saturated fat. If a french fry is fried in soybean oil, it is 20% saturated fat. If it is fried in canola oil, it is 7% saturated fat. These are the kinds of things that change the molecular composition of the fat content of a french fry.

The genetics of an animal will also change the amount of fat that is in a certain ingredient. A good example would be certain cuts of beef. The amount of feed or the type of feed that the animal was fed and the age of the animal impact on the amount of calories in the product that an individual consumes.

We have to give accurate information. If we do not give accurate information, then we would be providing misleading information. I suggest that many things in this bill would lead to misleading and clumsy information. If the bill goes to committee, we will address it as aggressively as possible. At the present time, I believe that legislating this sort of thing is not the direction in which we need to go. We need to inform the population about how to address obesity. This is the direction I applaud and I will push for this as aggressively as I possibly can. I do not believe this is the vehicle we should be using at the present time.

Food and Drugs ActPrivate Members' Business

Noon

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Bill Blaikie

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

Canada Elections ActGovernment Orders

12:05 p.m.

Niagara Falls Ontario

Conservative

Rob Nicholson ConservativeLeader of the Government in the House of Commons and Minister for Democratic Reform

moved that Bill C-16, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to Bill C-16, fixed date elections. I am also pleased to be standing here in my capacity as Minister for Democratic Reform. It is something that very much interests me and I am delighted to hold this particular portfolio.

I am absolutely convinced, since going back to my days at Queen's University where I studied the parliamentary system and the different legislatures around the world, that the British parliamentary system as adapted by Canada is the best system in the world. It has a tradition that goes back centuries. Some legislatures can point to a history of years and in some cases even decades. We can go back centuries of the British parliamentary system having provided effective, secure and stable government for people around the world. I believe we are very lucky to have it. However we have adapted it to ourselves and that is what is important. It is important to realize that no system, not even the best system in the world, is static; it must change.

In Britain alone, from the times of the Magna Carta, there were huge changes over the years to the system, all adapting and making the system a better one. The Constitution of 1688 is a good example of a break from the past but nonetheless an important change.

We too in Canada have made huge improvements to the parliamentary system in our short history. I think back to the 1800s when various Canadian provinces developed the concept of responsible government. Responsible government meant that the governor was taking his direction from the legislature. This was a huge step forward. Everyone recognizes that made government fairer, more democratic and improved the system that we had. Some of the changes are large and some are incremental but they are all moving in the right direction. We only have to look back to the last century to some of the changes that were made in Canada, such as the extension of the voting franchise.

If we were to go back a little over 100 years ago we would see that voting in our system of government was confined. It used to be confined just to property owners. It was extended to adult males and into the 20th century that changed. I remember this point being brought home to me during the election of 1984. I visited a senior citizens home operated by the region of Niagara where I met an elderly woman. I, like all new candidates, shook hands and said hello to everyone. This woman stopped me and said that she wanted me to know that she had voted Conservative in every single election since the Conservatives gave her the right to vote. It took me aback. I said to her that it must give her a good feeling to know that she has always been right, as indeed she has been.

Another Conservative prime minister, John George Diefenbaker, continued to extend that franchise to Canadians when he extended the voting rights to aboriginal Canadians. I think everyone at that time and since has realized that these are the steps we must take to make our system more democratic and more fair.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to talk about another change in our electoral system, one that I think will improve it, Bill C-16, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act, which would provide fixed date elections.

I will begin with a description of the current process for calling elections and discuss some of the difficulties associated with it. This will be followed by a discussion of the many advantages that we will have when we adopt this legislation, as I hope this House does.

Currently it is the prerogative of the prime minister, whose government has not lost the confidence of the House of Commons, to determine what he or she regards as a propitious time for an election to renew the government's mandate. It could be three years into a majority government, which is what we saw in the year 2000 when the government felt it was to its advantage to call a snap election to get another mandate. I also could go back to the early nineties when another government, with which I am very familiar, decided not to go in 1992 but waited until 1993. That particular Parliament lasted almost five years. There is quite a bit of leeway.

When the prime minister, under the current system, requests the dissolution of the House, the governor general, unless there are unusual circumstances, agrees and the country finds itself in an election. What we have is a situation where the prime minister is able to choose the date of the election, not based necessarily on the best interests of the country but on the best interests of his or her political party. I believe Bill C-16 would address those concerns.

Before going into the details of the bill I would like to discuss the key advantages of a fixed date election. Fixed date elections would provide for greater fairness in election campaigns, greater transparency and predictability.

Canada Elections ActGovernment Orders

12:10 p.m.

An hon. member

Greater fairness, yes.

Canada Elections ActGovernment Orders

12:10 p.m.

Conservative

Rob Nicholson Conservative Niagara Falls, ON

Transparency and accountability. The President of the Treasury Board knows all about that and how important that is. This is what we want.

There would be improved governance, I believe higher voter turnout rates and it would assist in attracting qualified candidates to public life.

Let me discuss the issue of fairness. Fixed date elections would help to level the playing field for general elections. The timing of the general election would be known to everyone. Since the date of the next election would be known to all political parties, they would have equal opportunities to make preparations for the upcoming election campaign. Instead of the governing party having the advantage of determining when the next election will take place and being the single party that may know for up to several months when it will occur, all parties would be on an equal footing.

That has to be of particular interest to opposition parties that have not had the opportunity to call an election. Every party would know when the election will take place and would be able to make the appropriate plans.

Another key advantage of fixed date elections is that this measure would provide transparency as to when general elections would be held. Rather than decisions about general elections being made behind closed doors, general elections would be public knowledge. Instead of the prime minister and a small group of advisers being the only ones who know when the country will move into the next general election, once this bill is passed, all Canadians will have that knowledge, which makes it fair.

I said that it would improve governance and I think it would. For example, fixed date elections would provide for improved administration of the electoral machinery by Elections Canada. The Chief Electoral Officer, in a majority situation, would know with certainty when the next election would occur and would be able to plan accordingly. This would certainly give greater efficiency to the work of Elections Canada and, quite frankly, would save money. All of us know the situation where Elections Canada is trying to make a reasonable guess as to when the election will be called, scrambling to rent space and come up with locations for voting. All these things cost money. It seems to me that this would save money if we knew with certainty when the election would be called.

Another good reason for this bill is that I believe we would have higher voter turnouts. We are suggesting that the elections be held on the third Monday in October, except when the government loses the confidence of the House. That is a time when the weather in most parts of the country is generally the most favourable. Indeed, in my riding of Niagara Falls it is pretty well still summer. I appreciate that it is at the southern end of the country and it is not quite the same for others, but nonetheless the weather is still pretty reasonable in October.

Canadians would be able to plan in advance. Those who are thinking of taking a vacation or who might be outside of their constituencies can make plans to get their votes in when they know with some certainty. That is not the case if they are out of the country or visiting somewhere and the election gets called. Those things pose some difficulty. For those individuals who know well in advance when the election is coming, this is a step in the right direction.

This is not just important to the people who are voting. How about candidates? All of us know people who want to or are prepared to get into public life but who want to know when the election is. Right now we do not have a particularly good idea. It could be three years, as it was in the year 2000, or it could be five years, as it was in 1993. This can be very difficult for candidates. People have other lives and they want to know with some certainty when they will be called upon to put their name forward. It would help to attract candidates to the next election.

Let me give some of the details of the bill. Legislation providing for fixed date elections has to be structured to meet certain constitutional realities of responsible government. They include the requirement that the government have the confidence of the House of Commons and we respect the Queen and the Governor General's constitutional power to dissolve Parliament. The bill before us was drafted carefully to ensure that these constitutional requirements continue to be respected. The bill does not in any way change the requirement that the government must maintain the confidence of the House of Commons. Moreover, all the conventions regarding the loss of confidence remain intact.

In particular, the prime minister's prerogative to advise the Governor General on the dissolution of Parliament is retained to allow him or her to advise dissolution in the event of a loss of confidence. Moreover, the bill states explicitly that the powers of the Governor General remain unchanged, including the power to dissolve Parliament at the Governor General's discretion.

We looked at other legislation across Canada when we were putting this together and the bill is very similar to legislation that is in British Columbia, Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador. It should be noted that the legislation in those provinces is working.

Canada Elections ActGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

John Baird

Passed very quickly too.

Canada Elections ActGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

Conservative

Rob Nicholson Conservative Niagara Falls, ON

That's right. The President of the Treasury Board knows all about this having served, with distinction I might add, in the Ontario legislature. It works.

For those who think this is too much or have some problems with this, all they have to do is look at the experience. For instance, British Columbia had its first fixed day election on May 17, 2005, and it went well. The election in Ontario will be on October 4, 2007 and in Newfoundland and Labrador it will be on October 9, 2007. In British Columbia there was no suggestion that it had a lame duck government, as that expression is sometimes used. It worked well and people were able to plan with certainty.

I will now talk about the mechanics of the bill. The bill provides that the date for the next general election would be on Monday, October 19, 2009. Of course this would be the date only if the government is able to retain the confidence of the House of Commons until that time. For example, if on tomorrow's ways and means motion on softwood lumber the government were to be defeated, a general election would be held according to normal practice. However a subsequent election would be scheduled for the third Monday in October in the fourth calendar year after the next election. It moves depending on when the election takes place and that is the normal model that would be established by the bill.

General elections would occur on the third Monday in October in the fourth calendar year following the previous general election. However, in brief, we chose that date because it was the date that was most likely to maximize voter turnout and to be the least likely to conflict with cultural or religious holidays or with elections in other jurisdictions. We looked at it very carefully to ensure this was a date that could work.

This raises an additional feature of the bill that I want to bring to the House's attention which provides for an alternate election date in the event of a conflict with a date of religious or cultural significance or an election in another jurisdiction. In the current system the date of the general election is chosen by the government so it is rare that a polling date comes into conflict with either a cultural or religious holiday.

However, with the introduction of this, there is some possibility in the future that the stipulated election date will occasionally be the same day as a day of cultural or religious significance or of an election in another jurisdiction. The Ontario act, that we had a look at along with the others, allows some variation and some slight movement to accommodate that.

We are proposing the same thing. The bill would empower the Chief Electoral Officer to recommend an alternate polling day to the governor in council should he or she find that a polling day is not suitable for that purpose. The alternate day would be either the Tuesday or the Monday following the Monday that would otherwise be the polling day. Allowing alternate polling days to be held on the following Tuesday or Monday is consistent with the current practice of course of holding elections on a Monday or a Tuesday.

Some opposition members have indicated that this bill is illusory in that the Prime Minister can call an election at any point up until the fixed date for the election, but that is not how our system of responsible government actually works. The Prime Minister has to retain his prerogative to advise dissolution to allow for situations when the government loses the confidence of the House. That has to be there. This is a fundamental principle of our system of responsible government.

Moreover, if the bill were to indicate that the Prime Minister could only advise dissolution in the event of a loss of confidence, it would have to then define confidence and the dissolution of the House of Commons would then be justiciable in the courts, something that we do not want. We do not want the courts to decide what is a confidence measure and what is not.

In conclusion, this bill providing for fixed election dates is an idea whose time has come. I remember recently, I believe in June, there was a poll taken and 78% of Canadians supported this particular idea. It is good to note that the third week in October is already citizenship week in Canada. It is a time when we celebrate what it means to be a Canadian. That is another reason for putting it at that particular time. Of course, fundamental to being a Canadian citizen is our civic responsibility and duty to vote.

This legislation provides greater fairness, increased transparency and predictability, improved policy planning, increased voter turnout, and will help to attract the best qualified Canadians to public life. I hope that my colleagues will join with us in the House to pass this important piece of legislation.

Canada Elections ActGovernment Orders

12:20 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Liberal Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, I listened intently to the government House leader in regard to this bill. I was a little disappointed that he did not address some of the arguments that would tend to indicate that this is not all win-win. There are some risk elements. For instance, there is simply the aspect that, as is the case in the United States with its fixed election dates, the year before the election is spent electioneering and in fact governance does not occur during that last year. It is very likely that the Government of Canada would not be productive and, therefore, responsible government would not be present during a very long period of time. I am not sure that Canadians are ready for this.

The member indicated that a poll had been taken of Canadians. I am not sure that Canadians were given all the information they needed to make an informed decision and I think that is also important.

My question to the government House leader really has to do with the fundamentals. He referred to the Prime Minister being able to go to the Governor General and recommend an election. He gave some examples from the 1990s. The government House leader should, and I hope he will, confirm to the House and to Canadians that in fact that royal prerogative for the Prime Minister to recommend to the Governor General to dissolve Parliament without the condition of having lost confidence of the House will still exist under this legislation.

Therefore, a fixed election date is only providing a recommended date in the absence of a loss of confidence in the House or at the discretion of the Prime Minister to go to the Governor General, as has been the tradition in the past, to recommend the dissolution of Parliament. I think that has occurred in all of history except in one case where someone else was asked to form a government and an election in fact was called.

To be open and transparent with Canadians, will the government House leader clearly state that the royal prerogative, which entails the Prime Minister going to the Governor General to call an election even if a confidence vote is not lost, will stay in place and there will still be an election when the Prime Minister chooses it?

Canada Elections ActGovernment Orders

12:25 p.m.

Conservative

Rob Nicholson Conservative Niagara Falls, ON

Mr. Speaker, the hon. member covered a number of different areas and one of them I believe was disadvantages. I hope this means he is not going to oppose this bill. It is fair enough to have some questions, but I really hope this bill will receive his support.

He said there would be electioneering in the last year before the election and nothing would get done. It seems to me it would be the contrary. If a committee were trying to make a report and plan its time, those members would know exactly when that report would need to be done. It is very challenging with our present system because an election could be held after three years, four years or five years. A committee could be doing good work, but its members do not know whether to undertake a new study or whether they should make plans for the fall because they are in the dark. They do not know when an election will be called. It seems to me this would be a huge improvement in terms of organizing time.

I looked at what happened in British Columbia. My colleague the chief government whip is nodding his head. Things unfolded as they should have. There was a normal campaign as we might expect. We are in public life. We are always ready for elections. We are always keeping an eye on that sort of thing. It seems to me that knowing an election will be held in four years would allow more things to get done.

My colleague asked about the polling. The poll was taken in June. The hon. member could probably take this up with Ipsos-Reid because this was their poll. This is a well-known national polling organization, and I have every reason to believe this was a fair poll. I have no evidence to the contrary. The hon. member might want to take this up with them. They found over three-quarters of Canadians liked the idea of taking some discretion away.

The hon. member mentioned the Prime Minister. I do not know who he is talking about. I can tell him about this Prime Minister. This Prime Minister will live by the law and spirt of this particular piece of legislation. He and this government are driving this democratic reform.

This legislation does not involve just fixed dates for elections. The Senate tenure bill is an important piece of legislation. These are all steps in the right direction, but again, they do not remove the royal prerogative. I was asked this question by one of the members of the opposition quite some time ago. I assured him that the royal prerogative with respect to dissolution remains. This bill is an expression of how the House intends to conduct itself.

I hope the hon. member will do the right thing and give his support, and help move this legislation to committee.

Canada Elections ActGovernment Orders

12:25 p.m.

NDP

Joe Comartin NDP Windsor—Tecumseh, ON

Mr. Speaker, I have always wanted to acknowledge the fact that my friend is a graduate of the law school that I went to. However, I am not sure it really helped him a lot in his political career in terms of where he has ended up.

The NDP are in support of this bill and I think he is aware of that. We do have reservations around the minority government situation and the ongoing reservation of the royal prerogative in those circumstances. In particular, our concern is that a prime minister or a cabinet of the day could manipulate, if I can put it that way, the political agenda by way of designating any number of votes as being confidence votes, knowing that at some point they will provoke the combined opposition to vote against a bill.

I wonder if my colleague's government has given any thought to limiting that government power to specified areas, that is, only certain types of bills. I would suggest, because of historical precedence, that these should be money bills and that only money bills should be designated as confidence motions. All others would simply be regular votes and therefore would not provoke or justify the calling of an election if the vote failed against the government.

Canada Elections ActGovernment Orders

12:30 p.m.

Conservative

Rob Nicholson Conservative Niagara Falls, ON

Mr. Speaker, it seems to me that I pointed out the problem. If we started defining what constitutes confidence in our parliamentary system, we would be open to this then being challenged in the courts. I presume that all hon. members do not want to have the courts determining something like the confidence measure that is a part of our parliamentary system. It has been around for hundreds of years. It has changed slightly over the years, but everyone understands it to be one of those things that are important for a government to do its job.

The hon. member says it might be just limited to money bills. I could not disagree with him more. If this country put before Parliament measures to confirm that Canada will be at war, would that not be an awful lot more important than some spending in a particular government department? To my mind it would be, and of course that would be a confidence measure.

We should look at the softwood lumber agreement. It is an agreement between two countries involving the three largest provinces in Canada. It is vital to the lumber industry. When it first came to a vote in Parliament, I said that it was not an agreement; it was a miracle what the minister was able to put together. Nonetheless, it is extremely important and yes, that is a confidence measure.

The member should not always think that what is important is in terms of dollars and cents. It goes far beyond that. That is why we worded the bill the way we have.

Canada Elections ActGovernment Orders

12:30 p.m.

Liberal

Stephen Owen Liberal Vancouver Quadra, BC

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.

Canada Elections ActGovernment Orders

12:45 p.m.

Conservative

Jay Hill Conservative Prince George—Peace River, BC

Mr. Speaker, I appreciated the comments made by my colleague for Vancouver Quadra on this important legislation.

Already in the debate this morning, there has been some discussion and questions from opposition in regard to the legislation. I thought the government House leader did an excellent job of explaining the rationale for the legislation and why we believe, in the Conservative Party of Canada, that all members of Parliament would want to support it as our Parliament and parliamentary institutions continue to evolve. It is an important step forward.

My question deals with the prime minister's prerogative to note that he and his government perhaps have lost confidence of the House, therefore precipitating an election. There were some questions about why we would still need that and what would constitute loss of confidence in this place. I believe the government House leader did a pretty good job of explaining why that is necessary.

We certainly do not want the courts to muck about and define what is or is not a confidence motion for our Parliament. However, I would suggest to my hon. colleague for Vancouver Quadra that if we get this legislation in place, there will be public pressure, both on the opposition in a minority situation and on the prime minister and the government, to very clearly explain to Canadians why an election would be necessary.

Once there is a fixed election date in front of Canadians and they are anticipating and planning for an election, in this particular case on Monday, October 19, 2009, if confidence is lost in this chamber and the Prime Minister is required, under our system of government, to go to the Governor General and have her call an election, I think there will be increased pressure to explain to Canadians why we could not wait until that fixed election date. That is a good thing, because it would provide, at least I hope, for much greater stability in Parliament and in the nation.

Canada Elections ActGovernment Orders

12:50 p.m.

Liberal

Stephen Owen Liberal Vancouver Quadra, BC

Mr. Speaker, there are a number of ways of looking at this question. I quite agree that during a minority parliament if a vote were lost by the government in the House, there would be a very rigorous public and political debate over whether that constituted confidence or not. This would happen probably before the vote as well as after the vote, if the government lost.

It will be a political context. The Governor General will of course be thinking very carefully about this legislation, what the spirit of it is, what her constitutional responsibilities are, what historical practice has been and what the public debate and political debate has been. I do not have any doubt about that.

We have another situation and there is an uncertainty there. I think one of the useful things that the committee can do is to look at whether there are some defining points. Are there some, not rigid formula that the courts will interpret and must be followed, objective criteria that can give some direction to the political and public debate and the Governor General's consideration?

An additional problem is not where there is a minority government, but where there is a majority government, as was the case in Germany last year. Despite there being no issue of confidence and the government having a majority, the prime minister still has the prerogative. The Governor General, under this legislation, would still have the prerogative to dissolve parliament and call an election. That is another challenge for members to think through to ensure we get it right so we do not hobble or cement an advantage now, which many people see as being an unfairness.

Let us make sure that the objective that is before us is properly met in the most effective way.