Mr. Speaker, I am pleased on this Friday to take part in the debate on Bill C-55. When a bill has to do with exercising our democratic right to vote, it is very important to participate in the debate. Some speakers have already talked about this bill, and I join with my Bloc Québécois colleagues in saying that we support the bill in principle. However, we do have some reservations, because Bill C-55 will not eliminate the problem of low voter turnout for federal elections.
This bill amends the Canada Elections Act and aims essentially to improve voter turnout. Quite simply, Bill C-55 would add two days of advance polling. As I said, in and of itself, this measure is a good thing, because it would give people more opportunities to get to polling stations. But it is not the answer.
Personally, probably like the members of this House, I do not believe there is any one way to help improve voting. Still, Bill C-55 is a bit like sugar pie: you have to like it. It may not be the answer, though. I will have some proposals from the Bloc Québécois to present. They will no doubt be very interesting, and we may be able to play with them and draft possible bills.
The Bloc Québécois supports this bill in principle, because our party has long been concerned about the decline in voter turnout, particularly among young people.
I have some statistics from a time before I was even born. In the early 1960s—shortly before I was born—the voter turnout for federal elections was close to 80%. It is interesting to note that at one time the vast majority of people exercised their right to vote.
We all know about the epic battles that have been fought to enable people to exercise their right to vote. Consider women, who, after quite some time, managed to get the right to vote in Canada and Quebec—even later in Quebec than in Canada. Even today, in other countries, people are forced to fight for the right to vote. And I mean fight physically. Some people have to go to war to bring democracy to their country. I have seen places where armed guards had to supervise polling stations so that people could vote. So we in Canada are pretty lucky to have the right to vote. Our democracy enables people to choose who will represent them at various levels of government. Unfortunately, there are still places in the world where people cannot do that.
There was a time when a great majority of people exercised their right to vote. In my speech, I will refer to some statistics to show that unfortunately, little by little, people have been losing interest. Now, as I was saying, there is no one way to generate interest in the democratic process. There are a lot of solutions that would boost voter turnout to an acceptable level, if not as high as the levels of the 1950s and 1960s.
Typically, in the 1970s and 1980s, voter participation rates were over 70%. Since 1993, which was not that long ago, voter turnout has fallen to less than 70%. In 2004, only 60.9% of eligible voters cast a ballot. That is 20% less than in the 1950s and 1960s.
In the last federal election, participation rates climbed to 65%. Was that mere chance, or was it the result of the work of the Chief Electoral Officer and Elections Canada? I have to say that they did work very hard. I am asking because we do not really know exactly what happened in 2006 that brought out 5% more voters than in 2004. Still, it is good news, and I hope that we are seeing a trend toward higher voter turnout even though for some time now, voter participation has, unfortunately, been dropping.
I am thinking about the United States or France. At one point, only about 50% of people exercised their right to vote. Imagine that 50% of people did not choose their government because they refused to vote. I am reminded of the second-last French election, when in the second round, people found themselves stuck with—I say that because it is my personal opinion, but also that of many French people—Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far right Front National, who made it to the second round.
We can imagine how worried some people were at the idea of such a person leading a country as powerful as France.
I am also thinking of the United States. When George Bush was elected, voter turnout was only about 50%. A lot of Americans say that this is not who they wanted to be president. If these people did not vote, it is harder to then criticize and say that the person representing them is a problem, since they did not make an effort to exercise their right to vote.
Perhaps people should make more of an effort. But the politicians must also make it easier, so that they can go and vote. Sometimes it is the opposite. There are places or times where it is made more difficult for some types of people. I will have the time to explain this during my speech.
As I was saying, we must recognize that for a few years, the Chief Electoral Officer and Elections Canada have been trying to make it easier for voters. For example, it is very interesting that it is now possible to vote every day during federal elections, which many voters still do not know.
From the moment we could do so, our organization—I am referring not only to the Bloc Québécois, but also to my riding of Richmond—Arthabaska—has always made an effort to get the word out about this flexible system, which definitely allows more people to exercise their right to vote. Not everyone works 9 to 5 these days. There are all kinds of work schedules, including weekends, evenings, nights. My brother, for example, has been working nights for years. Certain jobs require workers to ply their trade through the night.
It is not always easy to find time in one's schedule, even though it only takes a few minutes to go out to vote. I think more people need to be made aware of the possibility of voting throughout an entire federal election campaign. People need to know that if they must be away and cannot exercise their right to vote on election day or at advance polls, they can vote at any time. There is now even a system in place that allows people to vote by mail. I know some people who had to leave the country and had the opportunity to vote by mail.
Perhaps one day we will even be able to vote by Internet. We must be careful, however, not to open the door to certain kinds of fraud. I know for a fact that people can now vote by mail, even if they cannot be here for the entire election campaign. To do so, they need only be Canadian citizens and indicate their intention to exercise the right to vote. This is another way that people can vote and exercise this democratic right.
In addition, we are trying to improve access to polling stations for the elderly and those persons with physical limitations. Earlier, I mentioned that we sometimes put up obstacles. That is not done in bad faith, of course. There are some individuals who would definitely like to be able to vote but cannot do so even with mobile polling stations, even with advance polls, and even if political parties often organize transportation for these individuals. From time to time, there are exceptions. Unfortunately, some voters have to travel a few kilometres to vote, and that is just not manageable for them. They have certain limitations and there is no mobile polling station that goes to where these individuals live. Some improvements could probably still be made in this area. I do not think that we are pushing the idea that everyone should have clerks and secretaries come to their homes so they can vote and place their ballots in the box. However, some improvements could most definitely be made. We are also trying to make it easier for youth, especially students, to vote.
I stood for election the first time in 2000. That was not so long ago—just seven years ago. At the time, it was extremely difficult for some students who wanted to vote to cast a ballot. That was fairly recently, as I mentioned. When an election is held during the school year, students can vote in their host riding. However, they are usually on the voters list in the riding where their principal residence is located, which is often their parents' residence. A person cannot vote in two different places; you must choose where you wish to vote based on where you are at the time of the election. It is possible to vote according to the address of the parental home which, when you are a student, is usually your main residence. When in the middle of a school term, it is also possible to vote where you are studying.
In our area, we have the CEGEP of Victoriaville. It makes a lot of sense that students come there from other towns or even other areas. We also have a unique furniture and woodworking school in Victoriaville, where people from other parts of Canada come to study. These people have to be able to exercise their right to vote. It is very complicated. A system was established in 2000, which was described by many as bungled, whereby students would show up to vote, but they were not at the right polling station and had not received their voters cards, so they would be told that they were not registered.
Accommodations can always be made, but people end up getting frustrated and turning back without voting—that is what these files are all about—and various solutions are sought. As I said, in 2000, many students experienced difficulties. We have to look at that very carefully, since it is tougher to ensure adequate turnout among young voters.
It would be a very good idea to have polling stations in educational institutions, as we do in retirement homes and other places such as hospitals, where mobile polling stations can be set up. Taking that approach would certainly solve the problem at the CEGEP of Victoriaville, which I described a moment ago. I have had discussions with officials at Elections Canada who are considering doing just that. That would be great news.
Young voter turnout is a concern: the turnout rate for eligible voters under 24 is half that of those 58 and over. A series of statistics show that much work does indeed need to be done with young voters to improve turnout. Among the 21-24 year olds—it is in fact 21½ to 24—the turnout for federal elections is a mere 35%. Among the 25-29, it goes up to 46%. Among the 30-37, it is 49%. Then, it jumps to 58% for the 38-47, which is incidentally my age group. It reaches 67% among the 48-57.
The age group with a rather high turnout is that of the 58 to 67 year olds, with 75% of them voting in federal elections. As I said earlier, some people among those aged 68 or more have more limitations, making it harder for them to vote, and this results in a somewhat lower percentage for that group. However, older people have developed this habit of voting because it is important and no one can ever deprive them of that right. I am pleased to see these people react in this fashion. Among those aged 68 or more, the turnout in federal elections is still an impressive 71%.
However, contrary to what we may think, it is not that young people are not politicized. We have to be careful and realize that it is not all young people who do not care about politics. It is not true that they do not want to hear anything and that they do not understand. That is not how I see things. They may be cynical and disenchanted about politics in general, or politicians in particular, but their concerns have everything to do with politics. One simply has to visit a CEGEP or an organization with young people and talk to them to realize that they know very well what is going on, not only at the national level, but also on the international scene. I am thinking about young people's concerns regarding the environment, globalization and social justice. These are issues in which young people are not only interested but also involved.
Again, one simply has to visit a CEGEP. Earlier, I referred to the Victoriaville CEGEP, which I attended. I go back there regularly for various meetings, and I see how young people are aware of the world that surrounds them and of the challenges that it poses.
Today, a lot more young people are involved in numerous causes, including, for example, international aid and the protection of forests and waterways. All kinds of organizations have been created in our region to protect the environment. In the Bois-Francs region, recycling and salvaging have long been taken to heart. Consequently, many young people are aware of this cause, and I am very proud of that.
Being interested in politics does not necessarily lead youth to exercise their right to vote. Why not? Some people will say that it does not change anything. One can protest all one wants, get out to vote or do all kinds of things, in the long run, it does not change anything, because it is more of the same old, same old: politicians make promises that they cannot keep once they are elected. Examples come from the top down, and this is perhaps where work has to be done, by the government and the other parties.
In fact, to reach youth, not only does one have to speak their language, but one must also address and consider their concerns. It is also necessary to speak the truth and avoid saying just about anything only to get a vote. Indeed, one should not promise all kinds of things without keeping one's promises, although, unfortunately, this is still the case, even today.
Let us remember all these recent political scandals. Let us consider the sponsorship scandal. Young people and their elders are still telling us about it. In face of such results, they wonder why they should vote or bother to trust people who created all kinds of schemes to get money or votes. The effect of such wrongdoing is that the reputation of all politicians is tarnished because some individuals decided to use a program for thoroughly partisan purposes.
There is also the sense that politicians are in ivory towers making grand speeches. I am making one today. We have great ideas, but what really happens at the end of the day? I think I can generalize because it is not just young people who get this feeling. For those people, what can a government really do to directly solve their problems? Of course when we receive people in our offices, we as members know that we manage to help a number of them. We do not help them all. In many cases, we manage to get a resource directly from the government that we are affiliated with, the federal government, in order to help people. And often—and this is what I ask of my employees—my staff manages to direct people to the right place where they can get help in resolving their problems. For these people, not only is visiting a member's office interesting, but it allows them to resolve many problems.
What is the Conservative government doing now when it comes to the Kyoto protocol and summer jobs? There was an uprising over summer jobs. I call this an uprising because there was outrage, especially in Quebec, when the former summer career placements program became Canada summer jobs. All of this makes people increasingly cynical.
Nonetheless, I hope this will encourage people to go out and vote instead of saying it is not worth it. In my opinion, if something like the Kyoto protocol matters to someone, then it is very important that they exercise their right to vote to express their opinion. As everyone knows, the Kyoto protocol matters to the vast majority of Quebeckers.
Bill C-55 will not solve all the voter turnout problems. We could talk about this for a long time to come.
It is a step forward. It provides another opportunity for people to exercise their right to vote. However, we have to come up with other solutions. For example, the government could keep its election promises on the fiscal imbalance. Then people would say progress is being made, that something is happening, that politics yield results and that their vote matters, it counts and it is significant.