That a message be sent to the Senate to acquaint Their Honours that this House disagrees with the amendment made by the Senate to Bill C-16, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act.
Mr. Speaker, it is with more than a little frustration that I rise today to debate an amendment to Bill C-16. Let me be clear from the outset, the government supports, in fact initiated Bill C-16 for fixed date elections, but the government opposes the amendment made by the Senate to Bill C-16. It is unnecessary and it weakens the original legislation.
For more than a century, people from all over the world have looked to Canada as a model of freedom and responsible government. In fact, members of my own family took refuge here after fleeing repression.
They were seeking freedom, hope and opportunity. They were attracted by a country where they had a say, where political leaders were accountable to them and where government was responsive, effective and stable.
Just as John Diefenbaker said more than six decades ago, for those people, and for all Canadians, “Parliament is more than procedure; it is the custodian of the nation's freedom”.
In Canada our government has its roots in the British parliamentary system. In our short history we have adapted those ancient traditions to make them more relevant to the Canadian experience. We have made reasonable incremental changes that make government better for Canadians.
As Nova Scotia prepares for 250th anniversary celebrations of Canada's first democracy next year, many of us reflect on the impact that responsible government has had on our country. It was a step forward in making government more accountable, fairer and more democratic.
Over the years, our system has been modified to ensure that the government is listening to the people it serves. Bill C-16 represents only the most recent changes. It aims to strengthen our democracy by improving responsibility, transparency and equity.
It establishes fixed dates for elections every four years on the third Monday in October. Fixed dates take the guesswork out of the electoral process and level the playing field for the Chief Electoral Officer, for political parties and, more important, for voters.
Our government does not believe that the governing party should be permitted to time an election to exploit conditions favourable to its re-election. Bill C-16 would put an end to governance according to poll results. It would prevent snap elections such as those called by Jean Chrétien in 1997 and 2000, which predictably resulted in record low turnouts. In both cases the vote was seen to have been called for the sole purpose of capitalizing on political circumstance on a calculation of partisan interest.
Bill C-16 would eliminate situations where decisions on election timing would be based on best interests of a political party rather than the best interests of Canadians. The bill would empower governments and parliamentary committees to set out their agenda well in advance with certainty.
All the parties agree that, above all, elections belong to the people. We believe that by getting more Canadians to participate in the election process, Bill C-16 will make it possible to strengthen our democracy.
Passage of this legislation will allow citizens to plan to participate in their nation's electoral process. That participation is the bedrock upon which our democracy is built.
Bill C-16 was passed in the House of Commons without amendments. It was debated very thoroughly in the House of Commons and also in the committee on procedure and house affairs. It was passed in the House of Commons and was sent to the Senate where it was examined in detail by the Senate's committee on legal and constitutional affairs. After a detailed period of scrutiny and a detailed process, that committee supported the passage of the bill without any amendments.
Various expert witnesses have appeared before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs and the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs. These two committees have extensively examined the bill.
No party in the House of Commons suggested an amendment to this legislation. Neither the House committee nor the Senate committee felt it was necessary to amend Bill C-16. Therefore, it is somewhat surprising that at the very last minute an amendment was passed which has never been subject to any detailed scrutiny.
One has to wonder why the amendment was never presented for debate in committee. Perhaps there, reasoned examination would have pointed out the obvious flaws. The Leader of the Opposition supported Bill C-16 without amendment, yet he was not able to persuade Liberal senators to follow suit. He could not get that job done either.
I will turn my attention to the proposed amendment.
The proposed amendment to Bill C-16 would change the existing provision of the bill that would allow the Chief Electoral Officer to recommend a change to the polling day in the event of a conflict such as a provincial election or a day of cultural or religious significance.
This existing provision would allow the Chief Electoral Officer to recommend to the governor in council that the polling day be either the following day or a week later.
The proposed amendment would alter the bill so that it would explicitly allow the Chief Electoral Officer to recommend a change in the polling day in the event of a federal, provincial or municipal referendum. It is my contention that the proposed amendment weakens the original intent of the bill, the bill that was endorsed by all parties in the House of Commons.
Instead of safeguarding election dates for manipulation, the amendment would make it easier for governing parties to manipulate election dates. If the amendment were to be adopted, it would open the door to a prime minister putting off a scheduled election by calling a referendum on the same day. With the amendment, a national election would be cancelled because of a municipal referendum. I find it difficult to imagine any situation where a municipal referendum would be so important that it would result in a date of a federal election being cancelled, but the statute would provide for exactly that to happen.
We on this side of the House do not believe democracy or accountability in government is strengthened or enhanced in any way when a referendum to build a hockey arena in small town Ontario could cancel the date of a national election. The original legislation was drafted with enough flexibility to avoid conflicts in a limited variety of situations, but that should be as limited as possible. The amendment to which we object expands, not limits, the potential for fixed dates to be altered.
Under Bill C-16, neither the prime minister of the day nor the mayor of a small town could change the fixed election date.
In short, the amendment is unnecessary. The original bill has built in flexibility for the Chief Electoral Officer to adjust an election date in the event of a legitimate conflict.
Second, we believe the Liberal amendment weakens the original legislation by making the date of elections more vulnerable to manipulation, not surprising from a party that engaged in this kind of manipulation so regularly in the past.
Today I urge all members of the legislature to join with the government to oppose this unnecessary amendment and to oppose it in short order. Let us send the Senate a message. Let us tell senators that pointless amendments to important legislation are not acceptable to the House or to the Canadian people.
Had the amendment not been sloppily attached by the Senate at the very last possible moment, fixed dates for elections would be the law right now. Unfortunately, the unelected Liberal Senate and its continuing campaign against democratic reform blocked it. Consider the irony. The elected House of Commons passes a bill to fix dates for elections. Then an unelected Liberal dominated Senate passed an amendment to water down the law, without even committee consideration of that amendment, and, by doing so, prevented the democratic reform bill from becoming law.
The Senate telling members of the House of Commons how elections should work is an irony. Let us urge it to reconsider its amendment quickly so Bill C-16 could be in place in time for the next federal election.
As I said, Bill C-16 was passed in the House of Commons without amendments. The Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs also supported passing this legislation without amendments.
It has undergone heavy scrutiny and has been found to be acceptable, but today we have been asked to consider an amendment that has not been examined in any detail. We are being asked to debate a frivolous amendment that is designed to frustrate the government's agenda of democratic reform. An amendment of this sort feeds public cynicism and erodes the accountability that Bill C-16 seeks to foster in government.
The kind of procedural manoeuvring being employed by the Senate to hold up the passage of Bill C-16 brings to mind the game playing that has left Bill S-4, the bill for Senate term limits, languishing in that place for an unbelievable 328 days so far.
Bill S-4 is legislation that proposes to limit Senate terms to eight years. It was sent to the Senate for consideration on May 30, 2006. That is when it was introduced there.
Last spring, the Special Senate Committee on Senate Reform examined Bill S-4. That committee held extensive hearings on the matter.
In October of last year it reported its findings, which supported the government's incremental approach to Senate reform. Despite that endorsement, Bill S-4 is now the subject of a second round of hearings by a Senate standing committee, a committee that is duplicating the efforts of the earlier special committee.
The Leader of the Opposition said he supports the proposal for Senate term limits. He said he hopes Bill S-4 will pass. Yet, he cannot convince Liberal senators to follow suit.
Once again, the Leader of the Opposition cannot get the job done.
Just as I did last week, I will use this opportunity to once again ask the members of the official opposition to urge their colleagues in the Senate to put an end to this game playing, stop thwarting constructive change and get on with the job Canadians want and expect them to do.
Bill C-16 represents an important step in the modernization of our political process. It is a reasonable step that would make government more accountable and more transparent. For these reasons, it should be passed without amendment.
The government opposes the Senate amendment and urges all members of the House to advise the Senate that Bill C-16 should be restored.