Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to the Bloc motion in the House today which is expressing confidence in Elections Canada and the Commissioner of Canada Elections.
I know that Canadians from coast to coast to coast are well aware of the important role that Elections Canada plays here in what we openly call a fair and democratic process. Canadians are well aware of the fact that Elections Canada plays a critical role not only in general elections but in byelections, in referenda, and certainly in the administering of the political provisions of the Canada Elections Act. Part of its role is to monitor compliance and to enforce electoral legislation. That is a role that Canadians feel confident that Elections Canada is able to perform to a very high standard.
In the event that one thinks that is just something that comes from Canadians and politicians, we are also known on the international stage for the good work that Elections Canada does and in fact there was a report after the 2006 election that talked about the role of Elections Canada and generally on the conduct of elections in Canada.
The report was done under the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, also referred as ODIHR. Part of its role is to assist participating states to ensure full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, to abide by the rule of law, to promote principles of democracy, and to build, strengthen and protect democratic institutions as well as promote tolerance throughout society.
Certainly, one of the ways that we protect democratic institutions is to ensure that political parties that engage in the political process follow the rules. That is a very important part of ensuring a democratic process that people respect and have confidence in.
The ODIHR website talks about the fact that it coordinates and organizes the deployment of thousands of observers every year to assess whether elections in the OSCE area are in line with national legislation and international standards. The office's democratization activities include the following thematic areas: rule of law, civil society, freedom of movement and gender equality.
The ODIHR sent an election assessment mission to the parliamentary elections in Canada on January 23, 2006 and of course there was an extensive report. I want to touch on a couple of points that highlight the fact that not only nationally but internationally Elections Canada is well respected for its ability to conduct elections and to enforce legislation.
The election assessment mission met with officials, candidates and representatives of civil society in order to get an overview of the election process and of specific legislative and administrative issues, and of course there were many things that it looked at but I want to quote specifically from its executive summary. It said:
The legal framework, especially the Canada Elections Act, provides a sound basis for the conduct of democratic elections. However, consideration should be given to enhance the right of domestic non-partisan and international observers to observe all stages of the electoral process, in order for the relevant legislation to be in line with OSCE commitments. In addition, the mechanism for appointment of Returning Officers who are in effect appointed by the party in government, as well as a review of legal provisions that limit the rights of non-citizens to participate in the campaign, could be considered.
The elections were administered by the Chief Electoral Officer and Elections Canada in a professional manner and according to procedures which enjoy the overall trust of candidates and voters.
So, this assessment was a fairly sound endorsement of the credibility of Elections Canada and it had the support not only of the political parties and their representatives but also of non-government organizations. Further on in the report it talked about the fact that:
Interlocutors from political parties stated that election officers’ positions are no longer deemed as relevant as in the past due to the overall high level of confidence in Elections Canada.
It went on and said that it was consistent with the existing high level of overall confidence in Elections Canada.
We have here an international body, independent observers, who talk about the importance of Elections Canada's work, about the overall trust and confidence that Canadians have in it, that it is an important process, that it is fair and transparent.
It recommends a few minor changes, including the ability of international observers to participate in the process, but, overall, I this international assessment gives a high mark to Elections Canada in the performance of its duties.
The Bloc motion, in asking this House to state its confidence in Elections Canada and the commissioner, is well placed. I would anticipate that the members in this House would have little difficulty in supporting that motion of confidence.
I want to turn to another matter and this is partly what was raised in this overview of what the international agency could look at. One of the things that it talked about was gender equality. I would argue that it is quite unfortunate that what we are not debating today are some issues around gender equality. What we are not debating today in this House is cleaning up politics by demanding changes in ethics and accountability.
This is from a paper that Ed Broadbent, the former member from Ottawa Centre, put together. Part of the reason we are having this discussion is that there still are problems with ethics and accountability, whether real or perceived, and the fact that we have Elections Canada alleging that the Conservative Party conspired to construct a scheme in an attempt to exceed the central campaign spending limit in the last federal election and that devising such a scheme is illegal is an issue.
I want to turn briefly to this good document that Ed Broadbent put together. Unfortunately, he put it together prior to the last election in 2006. It looked like we were going to have some movement from the then Liberal government but at the last minute it backed out of the agreement to move forward with this. Under the Conservative government we have seen no move to actually look at serious, open, transparent electoral reform.
I want to touch on a couple of points in this paper because part of the reason we are having this conversation in the House today is because of that lack of trust. Mr. Broadbent put forward some very concrete suggestions and I will not go through them all but I want to highlight a couple of them. He said that Canadians were demanding changes in ethics and in accountability. He said that they wanted a strong Canada resting on ethically based, democratic institutions and that they wanted honesty, fairness and transparency to be the rule, not the exception in political life.
I certainly know from being in my riding of Nanaimo—Cowichan which, unfortunately, is one of those 67 ridings where these allegations took place. Many people are very disappointed that this kind of activity would take place here today in Canada. They call on all political parties to ensure that kind of action does not tarnish the perception that Canada has a very good electoral system.
In this paper, Mr. Broadbent talked about a number of issues, one being democratic accountability for MPs. We know that the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore has a private member's bill saying that when a member chooses to no longer represent the political party for which he or she was elected, that person would sit as an independent, at the least, and, at the best possible scenario, the person would resign his or her seat which would trigger a byelection so the people in the riding would have a choice as to who will represent them. If someone ran for one particular party and, for whatever reason, the person abdicated that position, he or she should go back to the electorate to give them a choice about who should represent them.
He talked about fixed election dates, for which we now have legislation, and that is certainly progress. He talked about transparent leadership contests. One of the recommendations is that we should set spending limits and transparency conditions on leadership contests with political parties. We recently had a Liberal leadership contest. I am sure in the years to come we will have other party leadership contests. That would be a very important statement and commitment that political parties could make to ensuring transparency, openness and accountability within a party process.
He talked about electoral reform, which is something New Democrats have talked about for a number of years. The first past the post system does not reflect how the voters voted. It unfairly eliminates some people's choice. There are any number of reports that have talked about the importance of electoral reform.
I want to quote a bit from this paper, which states:
Ninety percent of the world's democracies, including Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, Ireland and Wales have abandoned or significantly modified the pre-democratic British system that still prevails in Ottawa. As the Canadian Law Commission recommended and five provinces seem to agree, fairness means we need a mixed electoral system that combines individual constituency-based MPs with proportional representation. The global evidence is clear: only such a system would positively redress the existing imbalance in the House of Commons in gender, ethnic, ideological and regional voting preferences.
I will touch on that again in a moment when I talk about the lack of gender representation in the House.
The report goes on to also talk about ending unregulated lobbying. The accountability act took some very small steps, but we know there is certainly more work that needs to be done around lobbying. It states:
Unregulated lobbying and political cronyism must end: We need tougher laws requiring disclosure of fees and expenditures of lobbyists. We also need to make illegal the acceptance of contingency or profit-based fees.
New Democrats, led by the member for Winnipeg Centre, certainly have talked about the very real and urgent need to make sure that lobbyists do not have unfair access to government.
On ethical appointments, again, we have pushed hard for changes in the appointment process. We see that cronyism continues. The report states:
Government appointments: Unfair and unethical patronage practice must stop in the appointments of thousands of officials to federal agencies, boards, commissions and Crown Corporations. The New Democratic Party proposes that the government develop skills and competence-related criteria for all government appointments, that these criteria be publicly released and that committees scrutinize appointments.
This would seem like a reasonable step to make sure that we are getting the best possible candidates for some of these very important appointments. We would look forward to further discussions in terms of changing this political patronage that abounds in this country.
On access to information, I know that over these last two years probably many members in this House have struggled to get information out of the government. What we have seen is delay after delay. Some of us have been forced into filing complaints because we cannot get access to information, but then we will get hundreds of pages that are blanked out. I might add that we get charged for the hundreds of page that are blanked out.
That is not what the Conservative government ran on. When we are talking about accountability, transparency and ethical behaviour, we would expect that the mandate should be to provide as much information as possible to Canadians, not to delete as much information as possible.
On access to information, there were a couple of key points that Mr. Broadbent raised as part of his ethics and accountability package. He said in regard to access to information that we should extend the act to “Crown corporations and agencies previously excluded”; make “ministers of the Crown, their exempt staffs and officers of parliament subject to the Act”; bring “Cabinet confidences under the Act”; establish “the principles that records be provided without unreasonable barriers as to time and cost” and provide “a government institution with the discretion to provide them free of charge to users who request them in the public interest”.
We see a number of areas where we are simply failing to provide to Canadians the open and transparent government they expect. They do not expect to have to jump through so many hoops to get very simple information.
I had a case around the gold digger clause. It involved a veteran who served his country. The so-called gold digger clause was an archaic piece of legislation back in the early 1900s. There is no good reason why that particular clause has not been eliminated.
When we attempted to get information such as briefing notes, documents or whatever, we got the runaround for weeks and weeks on end. Finally, were told that the information had been moved into the Privy Council Office where it was no longer available to us. Mostly, this piece of information affects older men and their new spouses.
Some of them are getting to the age where they simply are running out of time to deal with it. Instead, it has been stall, denial, delay in terms of getting the simplest of answers about whether the government is considering changing that legislation.
It also saddens me today because there are many other issues we should be debating in the House of Commons. Over the last several months, one forestry-related company after another has closed in my riding. Hundreds of jobs have been lost over the last six months. That should be the topic of conversation in the House, not whether the Conservatives allegedly tried to spend more money nationally than they were entitled to spend. That should not be the topic of conversation here.
We should be talking about a national forestry strategy. We should be talking about the fact that communities are reeling from closures. We heard today in the House about another auto plant closing down. We heard about another plant in Listowel closing down. A pulp and paper mill in my riding is in serious trouble because of the number of sawmill closures in the riding.
I will quote from an article in the Vancouver Sun on Saturday, April 12. The headline reads “Mill closures force firm to get sawdust from U.S.”. It says:
Catalyst's search for fibre south of the border comes at a time when coastal mills are shutting down and timber companies are selling their logs by the bargeload to the Americans.
Catalyst needs sawdust to make a short-fibre pulp at its Elk Falls mill near Campbell River. But there are no longer enough lumber mills on the West Coast producing sawdust. Since 2002, at least 21 coastal mills have closed.
Campbell River is not in my riding, but there is a mill in Crofton.
The article goes on to say:
B.C. exported half a million cubic metres of logs from Crown lands in 2007, according to the Ministry of Forests. Private land exports are even higher. TimbertWest alone shipped 489,000 cubic metres of logs to the U.S., and 521,000 cubic metres to Japan.
Later on in the article it states:
—the fibre crisis for pulp companies is a direct consequence of the decline in importance of the coastal sawmilling sector.
From that article one might presume that there are actually no trees left to cut. That is simply not true. Our coastal forestry sector is reeling from a lack of a comprehensive strategy. The provincial government certainly has a role to play here, but so does the federal government.
We call on the House to not spend its time talking about schemes and lack of trust in the political process, but instead spend its time talking about some of the real issues that are facing our communities such as rising gas prices, lack of housing, lack of child care, or waiting lists in health care.
I want to talk about the Ladysmith sawmill that closed indefinitely, and I will quote from an article in the Ladysmith Chronicle of April 22, 2008:
Economic downturn in the U.S. and the resulting forest industry crisis in Canada has claimed yet another island mill.
Forty people were told they're out of work Friday when Western Forest Products announced the indefinite closure of their last production line at the Ladysmith sawmill.
Those 40 are in addition to the 110 who were laid off earlier.
The articles goes on to talk about what people will to replace these jobs. It states:
—with the state of the forest industry being what it is, “the chances of these people finding jobs in the industry is nil.”
“There's a ton of frustration.”
Anybody who has been paying attention to the economics in the United States would know that what happens there will have an impact on us in Canada, particularly for provinces like British Columbia, which has a significant trade relationship with the United States. It is like the train at the end of the tunnel that everybody has seen coming forever, but we have done nothing about it. Instead, hundreds of jobs have been lost in my riding. We heard today thousands of jobs have been lost in other ridings.
I fully support the Bloc motion around expressing confidence in Elections Canada and in the commissioner. I hope that when the House finishes voting on this motion today, it could turn its attention to some of the very serious manufacturing and forestry sector job losses facing our country and deal with some of the serious issues that really impact people in their communities each and every day.
A lot of what we are talking about today simply is not on the agenda of people who are struggling about whether they are going to be able to pay their rent.