Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak in the House to Bill C-16, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act. The intent of the bill is to attempt to establish fixed election dates at the federal level of government in Canada.
Allow me at the outset to clearly state that I am very much in favour of the principle of fixed election dates and view the implementation of such an amendment as a major step forward for Canada's parliamentary system. Having indicated my support for this principle, I must, however, note that the bill certainly falls short of its stated goal.
Although it refers to fixed election dates, a more accurate description would be the most probable election dates.
As members here have noted during the debate, the role of the Governor General and the attendant royal prerogative remain in place.
Therefore, the bill would designate a date in October four years away as the date of the next election but , within our parliamentary system, a government can fall on matters of confidence, particularly financial issues, and this would invalidate the so-called fixed election date for that particular Parliament.
The passage of Bill C-16 is, however, a significant change to our electoral system and one that is long overdue.
We are currently in the midst of our second minority Parliament. While many will argue that minority governments tend to be more accountable to voters due to their vulnerability, there is clearly a significant element of political instability that exists during these mandates.
However, it is important to note that in our parliamentary system, in its current manifestation, this uncertainty is always present to some degree, regardless of whether it is a minority or a majority government.
Any sitting prime minister has significant powers of persuasion over members of the government and Parliament itself, not least of which is the ability to ask the Governor General to dissolve Parliament and call a general election. This certainly affords the prime minister considerable leverage but, in many respects, removes from elected members of Parliament the freedom that is in the best interests of voters, their country and our democratic system of government.
In establishing fixed election dates, the ability of the prime minister to call an election at will would be severely curtailed, at least in principle. Outside of the defeat of the government on a treasury bill, it would have to be a very sound matter of confidence that would see a government risk the political implications of ending a mandate prior to the fixed election date.
The parliamentary tradition of an election call following the defeat of a government treasury bill would remain in place but this would be the only practical condition beyond reproach that would warrant a premature dissolution of Parliament. On matters of policy outside the realm of fiscal issues, it would be more likely than at present for a Parliament to continue, even if a government measure were to be defeated.
The practice of designating bills as confidence matters is quite simply a means of exerting influence over government members and even opposition parties fearful of a general election It is rarely the case that the integrity or validity of a government actually rests with the passage of these so-called non-treasury confidence matters.
Once again, I believe members would be better placed to serve their constituents more effectively if they could avoid the constant threat of a general election simply because a matter is deemed to be a confidence issue. In other words, there would be a greater sincerity in trying to make Parliament work without the automatic move to a general election.
I suggest this, not only for reasons of political stability but for freer expression by members of Parliament and to facilitate more effective representation.
We all realize that general elections are extremely expensive and it is particularly dismaying and wasteful that they can occur without a truly justifiable reason. How many of us, along with our fellow Canadians, abhor the traditional spending spree that has accompanied the period just before a government decides that the time is right for a general election?
Whether true or not, the point is that public money should not be used to attempt to influence voting practices. These practices are wasteful and not sound public policy. It is difficult for political parties in power to resist the temptation to pursue these strategic spending initiatives all the while denying what is often the obvious reality of a pre-writ period.
The reality of fixed election dates would make it much more difficult in terms of political realities for governments to embark on pre-writ spending sprees. The fact that a specific election date is fast approaching would lay waste to any denials associated with the motivation for these kinds of announcements.
Similarly, in implementing fixed election dates we would be effectively ending the practice of allowing parties in power, or even opposition parties in a minority Parliament, to simply choose the best time politically for their members to face the electorate.
Often the timing that best suits a political party may not be the most conducive for voters. The last general election was a campaign that took place over the holiday season with an election day in the midst of the coldest month of the year. Although this election was one that resulted from the defeat of the government on a treasury issue, the timing was certainly not popular.
Once again, fixed election dates would eliminate the ability of elections being called for reasons of political expediency at times which serve the interests of a political party. Having elections take place in the third week of October recognizes the reality of Canada's climate and the challenges that other times create for both candidates and voters.
October elections are also much more realistic in terms of practical considerations associated with voters' calendars. Most people are back at work and school and few are on vacation. This would be most beneficial in terms of encouraging voter turnout as people are available to exercise their franchise.
Similarly, fixed election dates would encourage the candidacies of many more Canadians who would otherwise be reticent to seek elected office due to issues like their current employment situations and the realities of family life. Knowing when an election is going to take place removes this uncertainty and would allow for concrete planning to take place.
The benefits of fixed election dates are recognized by most of the traditional developed democracies. In fact, studies indicate that 75% of these countries now operate on fixed election dates.
There are those who will argue that fixed election dates undermine the traditions of our parliamentary system. I would suggest that our parliamentary system is one that needs to evolve and one that is strong enough to undergo these changes.
Many parliamentary systems are based on the British system as is ours. If we look to the situation in the United Kingdom, there are many changes that have taken place and many that are under consideration. In fact, the devolved Parliaments of Scotland and Wales operate with fixed election dates.
I would suggest that this is the first step on the path of democratic renewal. By allowing for greater political stability, more effective representation and less politically expedient elections, we will be helping to restore the confidence of Canadians in our democratic institutions. Indeed, this is what I would call a significant first step in the process of democratic renewal.
The province of British Columbia has spent considerable time attempting to pursue democratic renewal and in fact led the way recently with its first fixed election date campaign. It is time for the federal government to do so as well.
The bill is only the beginning of the process of democratic reform. By taking this step, we are signalling to Canadians that we are serious about democratic renewal. I would maintain that this first step is but part of a process that will encourage Canadians to become involved in democratic renewal aimed at restoring public confidence in our political institutions and encouraging greater involvement by voters in the conduct of the federal government.
I encourage all members to join with me in supporting Bill C-16 and in continuing the process of democratic renewal in this country.