Mr. Speaker, we are at third reading of this important bill now and I would like to begin by recounting how we have come to this place.
The recommendations for amendments to the Canada Elections Act emanate from the report of the Chief Electoral Officer following the January 2006 election. That is normal, of course, as he reports on the activities of elections and points out any failings or any improvements that may be made in the election process.
He produced that report and of course we went on to consider it in committee. The committee report went to the government and this bill is the answer, which falls very much in line with both the Chief Electoral Officer's report and the report of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to the government. This will bring into force, for the most part, the recommended amendments from the Chief Electoral Officer.
The notion of the integrity of our elections is absolutely critical to our democracy, just as it is anywhere else in the world. It is interesting that Canadians are asked to monitor and help establish electoral commissions and the rules and procedures for elections in many newly democratizing countries.
In just the last few years, in the Ukraine there was major Canada Corps participation. Canadian teams of electoral monitors and advisers have been involved in the Palestinian authority and in Afghanistan. There was a team of Canadian officials in Bangladesh preparing for the election that should have taken place last month but has been delayed because of disruptions in that country.
The point is that we are seen as a country that has a sound electoral system. We must, as our first responsibility to our democratic condition, ensure that this integrity continues and is improved wherever it can be. The amendments to this act mainly deal with the identification of the voter.
I had the privilege of going with a Canadian team in 1990 to Nicaragua to monitor an extremely contentious election. Members might recall that it was a time when the Nicaraguans were in the middle of the civil war with the Contra rebels. It was a very dangerous time, yet the Sandinista government was submitting itself to free and fair elections, which is the standard we use.
I recall being up in the Honduran-Nicaraguan mountains in the northwest of the country checking out small voting stations, one a broken down old schoolhouse in the mountains, where there were literally hundreds of people lined up in the very hot sun. Many had walked for many hours to be able to exercise their right to vote.
There was one very poignant moment. One woman had walked for two hours, lined up for two hours, got to the front of the line, and did not have proper identification. She was heading back, another four hours both ways, to her village to get her voter card. That was the importance she placed on going through that electoral process. It also reflected the seriousness with which the Nicaraguan electoral commission, under the direction, guidance or advice of Canadian officials, was taking the integrity of the process.
When we have an international standard that we are often asked to advise on and monitor, the question is this: is an election free and fair? Of course free means the right of all adult citizens to vote in an election, but fair means that it has integrity, that there are no opportunities to stuff ballot boxes or for people to disguise their identities and vote improperly. That integrity is absolutely critical if we are going to ask our citizens to come forward and put their trust in the electoral and democratic system. Therefore, free and fair is an immensely important point.
We know that in the U.S. presidential elections in 2000 confusion was caused in Florida when voting machines were found not to be operating properly. There were irregularities. That cast a pall over the election, which I think many Americans to this day have not recovered from in terms of the feeling of unfairness that the vote may well have gone the other way had there not been those irregularities.
Let us look at the process under Bill C-31. It is not perfect. It probably never will be, but it is a reasonable advance in ensuring the integrity of that vote. For instance, there are improvements for access for the disabled. There are more convenient locations for the advance polls.
The access of candidates and officials to gated communities is clarified. The candidates' access to malls, privately owned public spaces, has been clarified. This is immensely important for any of us who have been candidates. Increasingly we are not going to meet people by knocking on doors but by going to malls, so this is important.
Also, there is an increased effort with the outreach provisions to get electoral officials to people unable to get to the polls.
I think these are immensely important improvements in that we must make sure our citizens have adequate access, but we must be vigilant against any irregularities.
What we have done in the committee, both in receiving the Chief Electoral Officer's report and considering it ourselves and in considering the government's response in Bill C-31, is to turn our attention to whether we were putting barriers in the way for people. They may be in remote communities, in aboriginal villages or in the inner cities. They may be living in shelters or they may be homeless. I think that all members of the committee from all parties were very seriously attending to the question. How can we ensure to the greatest extent possible, without risking the integrity of the system, that these people have access to vote? I think this was probably the toughest situation that all of us had to face.
We charged the Chief Electoral Officer to do a number of things. One was to ensure that areas of low enumeration and low participation were identified and targeted with extra resources to attempt to ensure access to identification and the voting process.
In regard to remote aboriginal villages, we heard evidence of people having difficulty providing adequate identification, so we also charged the Chief Electoral Officer to, first of all, recognize the aboriginal status card, which has a picture on it. It does not always have the address, but that card would be one of the recognized pieces of identification, as well as a letter from the band manager if the address was not on it, confirming that person's residence in that reserve area or wherever the person might live.
Those are reasonable attempts to deal with this tension between freedom and security: security in the system and freedom to vote. It is immensely important that we not drop our bar of the integrity of the system below that which we expect, advise on and monitor in other countries during their electoral processes.
We have an extremely important role. We have heard evidence from representatives of student groups and from people who work in the downtown east side of Vancouver, for instance, where the homeless or people in shelters have difficulty getting the adequate identification to secure their vote. The way we deal with the balance between integrity and freedom is not by lowering the bar so low that it could be open to abuse and therefore to lowering our citizens' belief in the integrity of the system. If they do not believe in it, they are not going to use it, and voting rates are going to continue to plummet.
We are concerned. I think we should express our concerns not by dropping our standards, but rather by redoubling our efforts through our electoral commission and the Chief Electoral Officer to get to those areas, to get to those people where there is evidence of low participation.
More broadly, as we talk about the Elections Act in this country we must attend to the issue of electoral reform, and we are in some parts of the country, in some provinces. We simply cannot continue to have dropping participation rates and fractured minority governments that do not properly represent the majority of the people in this country.
We must have some reform that will not do away with out constituency-based, first past the post system, but that at least will apply some adequate level of participation and proportionality so that the number of seats in the House represents in some better proportion than it does now the percentage of the vote achieved.
We have had some good experience with that, both in this country and abroad. In 2004, in the throne speech of the former Liberal government, with the encouragement of the NDP, I must say, we put forth the objective of studying electoral reform. A special committee of the House was to look into this. It was one of the processes that was cut short by the unnecessary election, if I may say so, of January 2006.
However, there we are and here we are, and what are we going to do about it? I would suggest that we charge the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs with this as the appropriate venue and place for this to be considered very carefully.
The government, through the Prime Minister, announced two or three weeks ago that in fact there was going to be a communication, a consultation, with Canadians over issues of electoral reform, Senate reform, decorum in this House, which is a very important issue, and public engagement. That is a bit curious, because for most of those topics, except for electoral reform, although that was started and stopped, the government has already put bills forward. It seems to me to be a bit backward to start a consultation process after bills on parliamentary reform have already been presented to the House.
Be that as it may, let us look at the quality of what was suggested. A $900,000 tender is being put out to a polling firm and an as yet unknown think tank to hold, across the country, a few consultations that are being called deliberative. Something can be called deliberative without it being anything close to deliberative if there is not the proper information brought forward, if there is not the time taken to advise people and have them well informed on the issues, the options and the different models, and then have a true conversation and a set of recommendations.
This is happening now in the province of Ontario with its citizens' assembly, which is very much patterned after the citizens' assembly process in British Columbia and which before the last B.C. election identified an alternative form of electoral process. That assembly process was deliberative. It went for about a year and a half. It was a widely representative group of about 178 people.
In fact, at the same time as the last election, the referendum was held on whether we would stay with the first past the post system or move to this new electoral forum recommended by the citizens' assembly, a single transferable vote system.that is quite complicated. Of the people voting in that election, 58% voted in favour of that change from our current system. The threshold was set at 60%, which is very high, but when we think that there was 58% represented, that is a very, very significant desire for change, certainly by a majority of the people.
We are watching that. It will come forward again for a vote in a referendum at the next B.C. provincial election in three years, so we will see where that goes. We also will see where Ontario goes.
Federally, quite apart from having polling companies and think tanks do some kind of quick, superficial testing of the atmosphere across the country, we want to look at it in an extremely in-depth way with a lot of consultation. Let me advise the House that in fact that process to a great extent has already happened.
The Law Commission of Canada in 2004 published a massive study. The Law Commission legislation charges that independent public commission to look into whether the laws of Canada properly conform to the social reality and the needs of the people. The Law Commission probably carried out one of the most in-depth research jobs, first of all, on voting systems in other democratic countries compared to Canada, and also looked at the different models that were going forward. It recommended on balance that we add an element of proportionality, not to do away with our current system but to add an element of proportionality to it. I commend this report to all members of the House. It is on the Law Commission of Canada website.
I commend all members of Parliament to do it quickly because as they may recall, the government, in its fall economic update, announced that it would basically eliminate the budget for the Law Commission of Canada, so it may lose its website as of April 1. Canadians may have less of an opportunity to see that fine work, that reasoning, that research, and the consultation which the commission is charged by its statute to undergo. It is extremely thoughtful and that is the way we should go forward.
There is nothing wrong with polling. There is nothing wrong with some deliberative discussions across the country with a think tank, but the place where these issues should be decided and studied, and where the consultation with Canadians should take place is through the House and the members of the House and, in particular, either a special committee or the procedure and House affairs committee of the House because that is our responsibility.
Second, we should be looking to the statutorily independent expert Law Commission of Canada for the fine work it has done and build on it, rather than simply ignore it.
Those are my remarks. I am speaking in favour of the bill at third reading, but I must conclude by reinforcing the observation of the committee that there are pockets of citizens in this country who do not have easy access. They face barriers in being able to exercise their right to vote and those include often aboriginal communities, but remote communities and people, often homeless, in inner cities.
We must redouble our efforts, through our electoral commission and Chief Electoral Office to ensure that those areas are targeted and the right to vote is brought to those people in an as accessible and effective way as possible.