Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-18. Of course, if all members of the House had done their job when Bill C-31 was before the committee, we would not be in this position.
The parliamentary secretary spoke about the fact that the NDP opposed Bill C-31 simply because it was concerned about homeless people. There are a couple of things I would like to say about that. I am sure the parliamentary secretary could not possibly be suggesting that homeless people should not vote. We know that homelessness is a rising crisis in this country and that there are increasing numbers of homeless people in Canada. I would be very surprised to hear members of the House say that homeless people should be disenfranchised.
I point to the preliminary report of the UN special rapporteur, Miloon Kothari, that was released on October 22. It talked about the fact that Canada has a crisis in housing. We have a national crisis that is in an emergency situation. We know that independent sources are talking about increasing homelessness. We know homeless people often do not have identification that would allow them to vote.
Members of the Bloc are suggesting that somehow the New Democrats are not in favour of integrity in the voting system and that is absolute nonsense. The member for Vancouver East had a very concrete suggestion, one that has been used in Vancouver East, which was the use of statutory declarations for people who showed up with no identification and were not on the voters list.
NDPers are certainly very conscious of maintaining the integrity of the voting system and of ensuring there is no fraud, but I am also very aware that the Chief Electoral Officer also indicated that fraud is by no means rampant in this country. One wonders, when we attempt to use a sledgehammer on a small isolated problem, what the overall intent is.
When the parliamentary secretary answered a question I asked him about what this particular bill before us was going to do for people who were going to be disenfranchised, living in transient shelters and homeless, he indicated that the quote I read was actually not a quote of his from Bill C-18 when in fact it was his response to Bill C-18 amendments proposed by the Senate.
When the former Bill C-31 came back to the House for further review and consideration, I want to point out to members that New Democrats not only identified problems with that bill, and I am going to talk about some of them, but they also proposed solutions. They were concerned about rural voters in small communities. We talked about them being in small isolated communities. Not all rural communities are small and isolated, but we were certainly conscious of the fact that other community members could be disenfranchised.
On June 18, in response to amendments to Bill C-31 proposed by the Senate, the parliamentary secretary said:
What we are trying to do, by presenting a bill that will give increased and expanded voting opportunities for all Canada, is attempt to raise the level of voter turnout.
What we actually did with Bill C-31, in effect, is disenfranchise nearly a million rural voters. When those kinds of comments are made, one wonders if homelessness was considered as well.
The parliamentary secretary went on to say again on June 18, 2007, regarding amendments to Bill C-31 from the Senate:
I think there is no greater fraud that could be perpetrated on Canadians than that of an individual voting in a federal or provincial election who pretends to be someone that he or she is not.
Surely, there is also a fraud in disenfranchising voters. People have talked about section 3 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. When we pass legislation that says Canadians will not be allowed to vote because of where they live in rural Canada, surely that is perpetrating a fraud.
On that very same day of June 18, in response to Bill C-31 amendments from the Senate, the Minister for Democratic Reform said:
As I have mentioned on other occasions, this bill makes a number of changes to the electoral process that will reduce the opportunity for electoral fraud, improve the accuracy of the national register and the lists of electors, facilitate communication with the electorate and improve the administration of elections. These are changes that will be of benefit to all parties, to all candidates, and to all Canadians because it will make our electoral system, and in turn our democracy, stronger.
The Minister for Democratic Reform was supporting a piece of legislation that was actually going to make sure that some Canadians could not vote. How is that possibly in keeping with provisions for making our democracy stronger? In fact, in the government's rush to reduce a virtually non-existent fraud problem, it has actually made sure that well over a million Canadians will not be able to vote.
The bill attempts to correct that. If we are going to correct a piece of flawed legislation, I would argue that we need to correct all of the issues that were identified when Bill C-31 came forward initially.
Often in the House, we hear people talking about accountability, transparency, and fiscal responsibility. Bill C-31 was before the House and the Conservatives, the Liberals and the Bloc pushed it through despite some very strong reservations identified by New Democrats, and solutions suggested as well I might add. Now we are in the process of fixing a flawed piece of legislation at what cost to taxpayers.
We have a responsibility when legislation comes before the House. I have heard members say that not every piece of legislation is perfect and we have to do what we can do to get things through the House. However, when we do things hastily and without adequate consideration for broad ranging impact, we end up not only delaying the process, but we end up spending far more money than we needed to spend in the first place.
When the government brought in Bill C-18 to fix the problem of disenfranchised rural voters, it was not fixing the problems with respect to people who perhaps were homeless or living on low incomes. Does that mean we will have to bring another bill back before the House, at great expense to taxpayers, in order to fix a problem that should have been fixed when Bill C-31 was originally before the House?
I heard the parliamentary secretary speak about the fact that the primary reason that New Democrats opposed the original bill was because of our great concern for homeless people. We are absolutely concerned about people who are homeless. Whether it is their right to vote, their right to adequate shelter, and everything in between like health care, liveable wages, adequate education, we are concerned. I am very proud as a New Democrat to stand up and speak about these things in the House.
New Democrats identified a number of issues in Bill C-31 which are not being addressed in Bill C-18 and are still going to continue to be a problem.
We talked about the fact that the bill would result in thousands of individuals not being able to exercise their right to vote because of a lack of proper identification due to poverty, illness, disability or having no stable address. This also included people who were temporarily housed in transition shelters. We put forward a recommendation around the statutory declaration as an alternate means of identification for an elector to prove his or her identity.
We also talked about the fact that there were some serious problems with the vouching system. With the vouching system, one person can vouch only for one voter.
Sometimes, for example, there may be someone who lives in a riding and works a lot with people who are homeless, some of the street workers, who often have daily contact with people who are homeless. That person would only be able to vouch for one of those people who he or she works with on a regular basis. We were arguing that using that vouching system is a legitimate way to say that someone should be able to prove who they are and that one should be able to vouch for more than one person. That seems perfectly reasonable.
Surely, if one's credentials are good enough to vouch for one person, they should be good enough to vouch for five, six or ten people. What difference does it make?
I want to highlight the fact again that when New Democrats were speaking about the problems with Bill C-31, which have not been fixed in Bill C-18, they were identifying more than homelessness as an issue. The member for Vancouver East, in a very good speech that outlined a number of the problems and potential solutions, said:
What is being offered as the main solution to this problem is a voter identification system. In looking at the bill and knowing where this came from at committee, we want to express some of our concerns about what may be the unintended consequences of the ID system on voters. In particular, we are concerned about how this would impact low income people, people who live in small remote communities and aboriginal people who do not have the necessary ID outlined in the bill.
Clearly, the member for Vancouver East, who is a very experienced member of the House and has been a tireless advocate for homeless people, was also talking about people who are not only homeless but who lived in small and remote communities and aboriginal people.
Therefore, I think that is a very good example of how New Democrats talked about issues that included the homeless and others. Further on in her speech she talked about a solution. She said:
However, I have looked at this carefully and have talked to lawyers in my community who have been involved in providing assistance around statutory declarations for voters with no ID, and they are very concerned, as I am, about what this provision will mean. At present, it is acceptable for a voter to make a statutory declaration along with a person in the community who can identify the voter. In the downtown east side, it has often been a street worker, someone who knows many of the people in the community, who vouches for the individual. Under the new bill, [Bill C-31], this would no longer be allowed.
Bill C-18, which is before the House, does not take into account that provision that would have prevented the disenfranchisement of a number of people in our communities. The member went on to say:
We are prepared to see this bill go to committee. The government has said that it is willing to look at amendments--
We, of course, know that what happened is neither the government, nor the Liberals, nor the Bloc supported some of the amendments that the NDP put forward. This is the important part. The member also said:
--to ensure that by dealing with voter fraud, we are not at the same time unintentionally disenfranchising people who have a right to vote, who want to vote and who are voting legitimately, but would be precluded from doing so by these new provisions.
We have seen the first round of people who will be disenfranchised by Bill C-31.
I talked a bit about the vouching system and how extremely complicated it is in terms of the fact that we have one person who can vouch only for one person.
The member for Ottawa Centre, again a tireless defender of democratic reform and people's right to vote, in his speech against Bill C-31, and this is prescient, identified some problems that could occur. He said, “I would hate to see unintended consequences that would do the same here”. In this context he was referring to some problems that happened in the civil rights movement in the United States where people were, some would argue, intentionally disenfranchised and there were court challenges that resulted from that. He said:
We have seen laws in this country that have done that. I refer to B.C. and its so-called section 80, whereby people were not able to get on the voters list until the actual day of the election simply because of a flawed enumeration system. It is important to acknowledge, with the way the bill is presently written, that a charter challenge could happen.
The member for Ottawa Centre spoke about the fact that there could be unintended consequences of the bill and what do we see but over one million voters in Canada not able to vote because of this very deeply flawed bill.
The member goes on to talk about solutions. People in the House have said that New Democrats only oppose things, not propose things. That is wrong. We talked about the fact that enumeration, which has been cancelled, would have been a very good way to ensure that we had the best possible electoral list so that people would be accurately reflected on that voters list. It would certainly ease voting when it comes to voting day. That would have been one solution, along with the use of statutory declarations.
One of the members referred to the fact that New Democrats are not doing anything on democratic reform. Again, that is absolute utter nonsense because we know the previous member, Ed Broadbent, with whom I was very proud to serve as a member of the New Democrat caucus, presented a very detailed plan on democratic reform. Part of that plan dealt with corporate lobbyists. When we talk about democratic reform, we had the member for Winnipeg Centre yesterday pointing out the fact that measures to deal with corporate lobbyists under the Accountability Act still have not been put in place.
The member for Winnipeg Centre has been tireless in talking about ethics and accountability in this House.
We have a government that ran on a platform of accountability and so-called clean government and now we have a situation of Conservative corporate lobbyists who, because of the Conservatives' failure to enact certain provisions of Bill C-2, the Accountability Act, they have pretty much a free licence these days.