moved that Bill C-55, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act (expanded voting opportunities) and to make a consequential amendment to the Referendum Act, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to open debate today on the expanded voting opportunities bill.
The right to vote is our most precious and fundamental right. Each year about 150,000 people become new Canadian citizens. Most have come to our nation in search of freedom and they find that when they achieve Canadian citizenship, the right to vote, among the many rights and privileges they are conferred, is the most treasured privilege and duty that they do acquire.
Public participation in the political process, by exercising one's right to vote, is the cornerstone of our democracy. Voting validates the position of a responsible and accountable government. Of all forms of civic engagement, voting is perhaps the simplest and most important. By deciding to vote, Canadians have a say in what happens to their country.
By the very act of voting, they are playing an active role in the future of their country and their community, first by reflecting on the decision they must make and then by the decision itself. It is precisely for this undertaking that many people become citizens.
A deeper community and civic commitment is built on this foundation. It may lead to the creation of a minor hockey league for children, the organization of a tree-planting project or the cleaning of a ravine.
Unfortunately, voter participation in elections has been in decline over the years. In 1958, 79.4% of Canadians voted in that year's general election. However, that fell to 69% of eligible voters by 1993 and by 2004 only 60.5% of eligible voters cast a ballot.
Unfortunately, young people voted at even lower rates than previous generations. In fact, in the 2000 election, only about 25% of eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 24 bothered to vote.
It is undeniable that fewer people are going to the polls in Canada, yet we know that the one true method for citizens to hold their governments to account is through the ballot box. When voter turnout declines, it means that fewer people are holding their governments to account. The result is that our democratic system suffers.
We on this side of the House want to change the current situation. We want to see more people engaged in the political process and we want more people to vote.
A study led by Elections Canada indicates that many Canadians have trouble finding the time to go vote. Generally speaking, between work, studies and family, they do not have enough time to make it to the polls. I know that, on voting day, many people get up in the morning with the intention of voting, but because they have to work extra hours or because their kids have a minor hockey game that night, they do not find the time to exercise their right to vote.
At the same time, Canadians indicated that they appreciate the convenience of advance voting, and more and more voters are taking advantage of the opportunity to vote at advance polling stations. Indeed, voter turnout at advance polling stations nearly doubled between the 1997 election and the 2006 election.
Furthermore, the European example has shown that opening polling stations on Sundays leads to greater voter turnout. For instance, in the French presidential election held Sunday, May 6, voter turnout was 85%.
Therefore on May 9, 2007, we introduced the bill that we are debating today, Bill C-55, to increase voter turnout by giving Canadians more opportunities to vote.
The bill, which is part of our agenda to strengthen accountability and democracy in Canada, adds two advanced polling dates. One is on Sunday, the eighth day before election day, and the other is on Sunday, the day before election day.
The Sunday before election day will be a special advance poll. All polling stations used for the general voting day will be open on the last advanced polling day, not just a limited number of stations used for any other advanced polling days.
That means that Canadians will now have the choice of voting on election day, which is a Monday, or on Sunday, the day before election day or earlier at four other advanced polls.
This will mean all Canadians will have an opportunity to vote at an advanced poll right in their own neighbourhood on a Sunday which for many is a day without work or school commitments. This will make it easier for Canadians to vote.
With this increased convenience, we hope that families will bring their children with them when they go to vote, helping them to appreciate from an early age the civic duty and opportunity to cast a vote and to understand what it means to be a citizen in a free and democratic country.
These are lessons that if well taught last a lifetime, build stronger communities and make a brighter future for Canada. We know that engaging more Canadians in the electoral process through increasing voter turnout is good for our democracy and good for our country.
It is not just the government who is saying this. The expanded voting opportunities bill has also received the endorsement of academics and interested groups across Canada. For example, a group called Apathy is Boring, which aims at increasing youth voter participation, welcomes the bill. It said:
Apathy is Boring applauds the Expanded Voting Opportunities Bill, which makes a small but critical change to polling days. Accessibility is key to voter participation, and this bill will help ensure accessibility especially among young people.
Keith Archer, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary, said, “My view is that this legislation is a thoughtful and constructive response to the decline in voter participation in Canadian federal elections, and is aligned with the evident growth in the desire of Canadians to avail themselves of the opportunity to vote in advanced polls...the government is to be applauded for introducing this legislation”.
Leslie Seidle, a senior research associate at the Institute for Research on Public Policy, said, “It ought to encourage more people to go to the polls by offering them additional time on what is a non-working day for most.
These comments show that the expanded voting opportunities bill is a modern, realistic and effective way to increase voter turnout in Canada. However, the bill is just one piece of our agenda to strengthen accountability and democracy in Canada.
Since coming into power, this government has made many efforts to develop concrete measures for democratic reform. One of these legislative measures, tabled in Parliament by this government, was Bill C-4 which led to a review of the rules governing the registration of a political party. And just before Christmas, we passed the Federal Accountability Act, which provides for new strict rules governing campaign financing. Loans by unions and businesses will be prohibited as will be anonymous contributions and trust funds, and the maximum annual donation to a political party is now $1,100.
These two legislative initiatives will help restore the confidence of citizens in the democratic process.
Next we introduced Bill C-16 to establish fixed dates for elections. The bill sets the third Monday in October, four calendar years after each election, as the date of the next general election. Under the legislation, which is now law, the date of the next general election will be October 19, 2009.
Fixed date elections take the guesswork out of the electoral process and level the playing field for the Chief Electoral Officer, for political parties and, most importantly, for voters. They also encourage participation in the democratic process by allowing Canadians to plan to participate in their nation's electoral process.
I am very proud to announce that Bill C-16 has received royal assent despite all the efforts of the unelected Liberal senators to block implementation of the democratic reform proposed by our government.
Next we introduced Bill C-43, the Senate Appointment Consultations Act. With this bill we have acted to strengthen accountability with legislation that gives Canadians a say in who they want representing them in the Senate.
The proposed Senate appointment consultations act recognizes that it is the citizens of the country, not big money or backroom boys, who are best qualified to choose who should speak for them in the Senate. The Senate appointment consultations bill is currently being debated at second reading and we are anxious to see passage of this groundbreaking legislation.
That brings me to Bill S-4, the legislation that proposes to limit Senate terms to eight years instead of the current 45 years.
Today just happens to be the first birthday of the bill to limit the terms of senators. It has been delayed and obstructed by the Liberal Senate for a full year now. Remarkably, even though the Leader of the Opposition says he supports term limits for senators, Bill S-4 has been ensnared in procedural limbo since May 30, 2006, thanks to Liberal senators bent on obstructing and delaying any meaningful democratic reform.
We hope the Liberal senators will give the House of Commons a chance to actually deal with this bill one day.
As you can see, these legislative measures, including Bill C-31, which provides for the improvement of the integrity of the electoral process, as well as all the other bills tabled last week, are modern, realistic and effective and will strengthen our democracy and restore the confidence of Canadians in our democratic institutions.
The bill on expanded voting opportunities provides Canadian workers with more opportunities to vote so that they can make their government accountable. This is an effective means of ensuring an increase in voter turnout and strengthening democracy in Canada.
Unless we check declining voter turnout, we run the risk of having an increasing number of Canadians becoming disengaged from their government.
The way public affairs are conducted could become less democratic and less responsible.
For democracy to work, it must be the property of all, not just a place for narrow interests to pursue their own agenda. That is why it is important for more Canadians to participate in the democratic process. Voter participation is fundamental to the health of our democratic institutions.
Canada's new government is doing all it can to encourage citizens to participate in the democratic process.
This modern, realistic and effective legislative measure represents a new stage in the ambitious action plan that our government has developed to improve democratic institutions and to strengthen the vitality of democracy in Canada.
For all these reasons, I urge all members of the House to support the expanded voting opportunities bill.