I am also pleased to announce that the NDP will support the bill so that it can go to committee. It raises some valid points, and I would like to discuss them in greater depth.
But I am well aware that anything to do with electoral reform is far from being the most appealing topic. It is not going to grab media attention or put catchy headlines on the front page of the paper tomorrow. But procedural issues are at the root of the democratic system.
I do not promise a colourful speech, but I still believe that the debate today is very interesting and will be able to hold our attention.
Bill C-424 proposes two very different things. But both are trying to better identify and prevent potential breaches of the Canada Elections Act.
Let me explain the situation.
The bill amends paragraphs 500(5)(a) and 500(5)(b), which provide for penalties for specific offences. The offences are: obstructing or delaying the electoral process; offering or accepting a bribe; compelling or intimidating a person to vote or refrain from voting for a particular candidate; acting as an election officer without being one; wilfully making a false declaration; exceeding or evading election advertising expense limits; disclosing the vote of a voter one has helped; intentionally and prematurely spoiling an advance ballot; wilfully failing to declare a candidate elected and finally, wilfully conducting election advertising using government means of transmission.
You will agree with me that these are not choirboy pranks. These are serious offences that undeniably require a degree of premeditation. The word “wilfully” regularly occurs in the list I have just read out, and with good reason. If you show up at a polling station with a baseball bat in order to prevent people from voting, it is not by mistake.
I will now go over the list of people who are liable for the penalties in the act. It is important to name them. They include individuals, voters, election officers, including returning officers, polling companies, candidates, registered associations, party leaders and political parties in general.
All the offences covered by the harsher penalties have to do with wrongdoing that would undermine the legitimacy of the democratic process in Canada.
In an election, there are two types of people. First, there are those to whom the legislation applies, such as candidates, riding associations, leadership candidates, official agents and all those who act directly on behalf of Elections Canada, such as returning officers. Second, there are thousands of volunteers who want to be involved in the electoral process. Those people are indispensable. They are the most valuable resources in an election. The penalties do not apply to volunteers who, unintentionally, make a mistake on an official document or who are not able to apply the legislation to the letter because they do not know it. We need volunteers for our democratic process to work, but they must not be threatened with an election act that could come down hard on them at the slightest error. Those people are protected. The legislation is strict, but it makes a lot of sense and it is applied sensibly.
So the penalties under the legislation only apply to the first category, meaning those who have clear responsibilities set out in the act and who are required to be familiar with the Canada Elections Act.
For the people listening, I will explain that the Canada Elections Act is a document that sets out exactly how to run an election. It is complicated, thorough and constantly being tweaked. The act is also a global benchmark we can be proud of. Representatives of other governments around the world consult it and draw from it. This tweaking is what we are looking at right now.
Ever since Canada came into being, we have learned from our mistakes. Fraud has occurred in the past, and we have always tried to adjust as a result. We need to crack down on fraud and fight it in the future.
Since 1992, precisely 68 violations of the Canada Elections Act have led to convictions. Obviously, they vary in seriousness.
Despite everything, we should acknowledge that these violations are occasional phenomena that are rarely successful.
No one is saying that Canada's electoral legitimacy is seriously at risk. The violations that have been punished are serious but isolated. However, I repeat that higher fines may help deter people from breaking the law. There will always be people ready to cheat and violate the electoral process to get what they want. It is too bad, but I am delighted that these incidents remain infrequent.
There have been 68 convicted violations in 20 years, in six federal elections and one referendum. Think about it. There have been six general elections in over 300 ridings, but only 68 convicted violations, which does not mean that we should ignore them, but that we need to look at all ways to crack down on the culprits. That is our job as legislators. As I said last week, too many countries around the world are victims of democratic processes that lack transparency. Canada is still a symbol of democratic transparency and stability. Despite everything we have lost recently, at least we still have that.
At this time, the fines set out in the legislation are not completely absurd, but almost. We are dealing with so-called cerebral offences, and the maximum fine varies between $2,000 and $5,000. Everyone here agrees that this threat is not very effective. It is not unlike the requirement to own $4,000 worth of “lands or tenements held in franc-alleu or in roture” in order to be a senator in this country.
The NDP would like the penalties imposed for violating the Canada Elections Act to be a far greater deterrent. Increasing monetary penalties related to violations of the Canada Elections Act is a valid means of trying to prevent such violations. For the NDP, this is acceptable, but hardly revolutionary.
We are talking about premeditated fraud committed by organized individuals using sophisticated means to break the law. At the same time, these offences seriously undermine not only the legitimacy of the democratic process, but also our own legitimacy as the elected representatives of the Canadian public. It is important to note that Bill C-424 does not create any new offences. It merely increases fines.
I would like to move on to what is new in this bill. It gives the Chief Electoral Officer the authority to contest the election of a candidate if he or she notes any irregularities in the electoral process.
At present, only a Canadian voter in his own riding or a candidate can file a complaint with the Chief Electoral Officer in order to initiate an investigation.
The problem is that this restriction slows down the process. As I mentioned earlier, the Elections Act is a rather complex piece of legislation. We cannot seriously expect all Canadians to know it inside out. Someone might witness an irregularity, but would not notice it for lack of experience.
We must remember that the act governs electoral conduct down to the minutest detail. The act is well written and, I will say it again, no one expects every Canadian to readily understand its ramifications and consequences. That was never the intention and that is quite all right.
Take, for example, the robocall scandal, which is still being investigated. It took hundreds, even thousands of complaints to Elections Canada before it became apparent that there was a global and coordinated problem. And that was almost one year after the election.
I do not claim to implicitly know the possible consequences of granting the power of contestation to the Chief Electoral Officer. This amendment to the Elections Act is perhaps a good thing. Rather, it most definitely is. However, we must seek the advice of those who are better informed about such matters.
I want to point out that, to our knowledge, the Chief Electoral Officer himself has never asked for this power. After every general election, Elections Canada prepares a list of recommendations to improve the Elections Act. The changes made by Bill C-424, regarding the powers given to the Chief Electoral Officer, are not the result of a specific request by the Chief Electoral Officer.
That is why the NDP is in favour of referring this bill to committee in order to hear from all the necessary witnesses, such as representatives from Elections Canada. They will be able to share with us their analyses and their recommendations. I hope my colleagues from the other parties will support this initiative.
The Chief Electoral Officer is responsible for enforcing electoral legislation. If he or his staff witness an offence, he should have the legislative tools to act if he has concerns about any aspect of the legitimacy of any election. This would be a rare occurrence—extremely rare. If the Chief Electoral Officer already had this power, that does not mean he would already have used it. However, being the independent and impartial expert that he is, he might notice things that someone with less experience would miss entirely.
Giving the Chief Electoral Officer this power does not bother me. It is a valid question worth pursuing in committee. The hon. member for Beauséjour sees a gap in the legislation that he wants to close pre-emptively. Let us see what the experts have to say about it.
In closing, this bill seeks to deter electoral violations through fines increased tenfold, and to anticipate a possible situation of abuse that may very well never happen.
I support Bill C-424 at second reading to refer it to committee. I am curious to hear what the witnesses will have to say about this.