Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to speak to Bill C-16.
I want to start my comments by recognizing my predecessor, Mr. Ed Broadbent, who brought forward an ethics package before the last election. The ethics package he proposed was to clean up politics and some of the ways we might do that.
Interestingly enough, one of the proposals Mr. Broadbent put forward in his ethics package was for fixed date elections. The NDP is happy to support Bill C-16 because our party put the initiative on the table. It was an initiative we took to propose ideas rather than just oppose ideas. That is very important. I believe our role as responsible parliamentarians is not just to oppose, which is certainly necessary when in opposition, but also to propose. We felt it was very important to propose fixed date elections. Of course we support Bill C-16 since it was an NDP proposal before the last election. This is not something that we proposed in the midst of an election. It is something we actually presented to the last Parliament because we thought it was very important.
Mr. Broadbent also had in his ethics package, which our party was happy to put front and centre in the last Parliament, his ideas to clean up politics and the need to deal with things like floor crossing. Floor crossing is still rampant in this place and it must be dealt with.
The idea of fixed date elections is very important to the NDP. It is a good idea. There were consultations with people who have fought for fair elections, people in the large community of democratic reform. Fair Vote Canada is non-partisan and many parties are represented in that body. Mr. Segal, Mr. Axworthy and Mr. Broadbent are involved. I am not sure if any of the Bloc members have signed on with Fair Vote Canada, but I encourage them to do so. They may want to look at Fair Vote Canada's ideas and tenets that all votes should be fair votes and that the system be fair. Part of that is fixed date elections.
When the bill was before committee we proposed amendments to it to clarify things like confidence. We put those ideas forward as something to consider.
Bill C-16 is not long. It does not deal with constitutional change. We thought that was reasonable. Mr. Broadbent put forward the same proposals, that we did not need to open the Constitution to make this kind of change, which in effect is a practice in what we are doing. It still gives Parliament the option of removing confidence from the governing party which would then trigger an election.
We believe that this was a pragmatic and reasonable thing to do. We had seen the abuse by governments before that would use the date of an election simply to make sure that it had the upper hand on the other parties. In the end what the government was doing was trying to have the upper hand on Canadians. We saw that as a manipulation of the government's responsibility and power. If the government thought it might be favourable to call an election, it would do the polling. The government would probably do cross-tabulation, where a couple of ideas are taken from different regions and put together to make sure that the government would win a majority. Inevitably, the cash would be distributed throughout the land and would fall off wagons everywhere. Money would be given to areas where the government of the day needed to shore up support.
This is clearly anti-democratic.The fact that a governing party can manipulate the date of an election for its own benefit is anti-democratic. Sadly, that has been the case with previous governments. It happened in the last majority Parliament. The Liberals saw an opportune time and called an election in order to get another majority.
In the bill we should not only address fixed date elections, but also the way in which the votes are counted. It is important to note that in the majority governments of Mr. Chrétien, notwithstanding that he had the most votes, a disproportionate number of seats were allotted to his government.
I say that not just to point to Mr. Chrétien and the Liberal Party. The same thing happened at the provincial level. I can think of the NDP winning a certain percentage of the vote and a disproportionate number of seats. Therefore, it is not about partisanship but it is a reflection of the people's will.
The fact that a fixed date election was something we could do without opening up the Constitution was fair. It is a little different than what we will be debating later today, Bill C-43, which is the idea that we can have plebiscites on who should represent citizens in the Senate and still skirt the Constitution.
I think we have pretty much tested the limits of how far we can skirt or go around the Constitution and practice with Bill C-16. I know that members of all parties agreed that Bill C-16 made sense, that we did not need to open up the Constitution. I would challenge that, though, on Bill C-43 which we will be debating later.
Juxtaposed to Bill C-16, when we look at having plebiscites to have people decide which person they want representing them in the Senate and then go to the Prime Minister, and then the person would be appointed, it skirts the Constitution a little too far. In fact, it says that is about as far as they will go because they do not want to touch the Constitution.
The Constitution is not a suggestion list. It is a fundamental foundation of how our country is to operate. I would suggest that Bill C-16 is a practice in terms of how the government could operate in setting an election date versus the bill we will be debating later, Bill C-43, which actually goes too far in terms of avoiding the Constitution simply because they do not want to get into the muck of a constitutional debate.
If we are serious about real, democratic reform and Senate reform, then we need to address it and not run from it. Bill C-16 gave us the opportunity to take away the potential abuse of governments to use an election date for their own political partisan advance.
When we looked at the act we proposed amendments and the Bloc proposed some amendments. We have heard some dates from Bloc members for the fixed election date. However, I concur with other members who suggested that having it in the spring was not doable and having it at certain times in the fall was not doable.
The timing we came up with is perfectly reasonable to compromise in terms of meeting the needs of all Canadians from coast to coast to coast, be it those who live in rural areas or in the north. I think the timing of having it in the fall makes perfect sense, particularly for our farming communities that need time to bring in the crop and the harvest. Having an election after that is what we have in front of us.
I want to turn my attention now to the amendment that came from the Senate. As my colleague from Winnipeg Centre suggested, we do take issue with the author of this amendment and where it comes from. However, it is important to look at the amendment. It is not a long amendment. It simply brings up a point that, quite frankly, was not debated extensively in committee. It was to take a look at the religious significance of a provincial or municipal election, or a federal, provincial or a municipal referendum, and that the chief electoral officer may change the date of the fixed election.
Therefore, it still ascribes to the chief electoral officer the fact that he or she must follow the actual fixed election date calender generally but if these circumstances occur, there is the option that he or she may, not must, change the date.
Particularly for my friends in the Bloc, I would like to think of a circumstance where there is a referendum at the provincial level. Quebec has had this experience more than any other province in Canada. Would it make sense to actually have a fixed date for a federal election set, and at the same time there is a provincial referendum? As we know, a referendum in Quebec often does not just take the attention of Quebeckers. It often takes the attention of the whole country, as it should. It is about the federation itself.
It is reasonable for the chief electoral officer to look at the election date and, if he or she sees a conflict, he or she may decide that we should not have a federal election on the same date as, for example a referendum in Quebec on something as potent as whether Quebec remains in the federation. That is an example of why we should look at this.
This amendment would not change the spirit of the bill. It is simply a what-if scenario. As I have already mentioned and underlined, it would give the chief electoral officer an option. As an officer of Parliament, the chief electoral officer has certain key responsibilities, one being that he or she is accountable to Parliament and must abide by legislation of Parliament.
Bill C-16 , which is in front of us, has been agreed to and passed. The chief electoral officer would need to abide by it as a responsible officer of Parliament. It would simply provide the chief electoral office with the opportunity, if there is a conflict, to deal with it.
As my colleague from Winnipeg Centre said, notwithstanding that we have some problems with the messenger, although we will not shoot the messenger, in this case the Senate having sent it to us, the message is something that we certainly can live with. For that reason, we will quietly support the amendment. It is common sense but it could probably have been done by giving the authority to the chief electoral officer at another time. However, it is in front of us now and that is why it is important to acknowledge it and take a position on it now.
I want to move now to what the bill will mean, when it is passed, in terms of Canadians' confidence in our electoral system. Many more things need to be done in terms of real democratic reform to ensure every vote counts. I submit that at this point in the history of our country we do not have a system where every vote counts. However, at least this will be an opportunity to let Canadians know that, in this case, the next election will be in 2009.
We only need to look at the past couple of weeks where, sadly, the discussions and discourse in the House and around the country have been all about whether there will be an election, yes or no, and whether the government is in a position to get its elusive majority.
On the weekend, CBC had an interesting comedic overview of that. A skit was conducted as a sports broadcast and people were doing a comedy of what it is like when discussing politics. One asked, “Jim, do you think there is going to be an election?” The other responded no and they decided to discuss it the next day. They would act out the following day and have a commentary on whether there was going to be an election.
It is certainly an interesting conversation for some of us but for most Canadians it is an incredible waste of time, not to mention ink, airwaves and electricity. We should be spending our time talking about what we can do in Parliament, not speculating about when the election will be.
Canadians did not send us here to talk about when the next election will be and it is incumbent upon all of us to keep that in mind. When I go door to door and talk to my constituents about what concerns them, it is not about when the next election will be. When they do ask me whether there will be an election, I respond that 2009 is what is in that legislation and that as far as I am concerned that is when the next election will be.
That is why it is incredibly important that we support this bill and that it goes through as quickly as possible. Therefore, I do not think it is plausible or possible to support the government's motion to send the bill back to the Senate and get into that game of Ping-Pong. We need to pass the bill now so Canadians know there is a bill that has a fixed date for elections and that any manipulations or strategic moves by the government will be seen as just that because its own act will be in front of us saying that the next election is in 2009.
The bill is important because it gives us predictability and the government would not be able to manipulate the calendar. Canadians would know that, notwithstanding all the conversations that people have had in the political chattering classes, the next election will be in 2009. The whole gamesmanship of deciding when the time has come to get a majority would be put aside and we could get on to issues that matter, like the environment, the prosperity gap and ensuring that Canadians' health system will be there for them when they need it.
At the end of the day those are the issues that matter to Canadians, not whether the government can pull the plug, call an election and get a majority to do whatever it plans to do. I have some concerns about what the present government would do if it had a majority but I will not go down that path.
I was on the committee studying Bill C-16 and we looked at other jurisdictions. Ontario now has fixed date elections and it has been the practice in many other countries. Some people had concerns that this would mirror the American political model. I would allay their fears because we have other jurisdictions in Europe and elsewhere with Westminster traditions that have fixed date elections and it works for them.
When we do have fixed date elections we need to ensure there is no manipulation of the public purse. What I mean by that is if we had taken the suggestion of the Bloc to have fixed date elections in the spring, we could have seen the government come out with a budget with all sorts of goodies, which kind of sounds familiar, like the last budget we saw here to possibly manipulate citizens so it could get a favourable return on its investment, in other words, a majority government. Having the fixed date election in the fall makes sense.
Some work should be done on when political parties are allowed to spend money in order that we do not have a largesse of spending that benefits one party or another, whichever has the most cash in the bank so to speak. We also do not want perpetual elections like some people were concerned about with this legislation. That just requires us being responsible as parliamentarians
As my colleague from Winnipeg Centre just mentioned, we need to look at election expenses and the rules around election expenses and we need to tighten that up. My colleague put forward amendments to Bill C-2 to tighten that up so people would not have an advantage of playing around with finances to benefit them. When we get this bill passed, and I hope it is sooner rather than later, we will need to keep our eye on that. As with any legislation, once the legislation is passed, it inevitably changes the way things are done. We will need to look at the effects the bill might have on things like election expenses.
We hope people will not get into the habit spending a lot of money before a writ as well as during a writ because they know an election is coming, or we have candidates who are playing around with loopholes in the Election Expenses Act, like loans from someone with deep pockets and who owns a fairly large multinational corporation. We saw that in certain leadership contests where they did not pay back the loan and it is no problem. We must plug that loophole but there are others, people who own car dealerships, et cetera.
Work still needs to be done to make things fairer but this bill is a good start. Canadians will now know exactly when the next election will be. We need to focus on the bill, on what it sets out to do and on what all Canadians believe it should do, which is to give us a fixed election date. The government would no longer be able to play around and try to orchestrate its own defeat. We have responsible work being done in the House and taking away the government's ability to manipulate the date of an election will bring more fairness to the system.
We will talk at another time about what we can do in terms of reforming our democratic system but this is the first start. The NDP is proud that the government adopted our idea and we support it fully.