Mr. Speaker, since I am opening the debate today for my party, I would like to provide some background for the people who are watching us. There must be quite a lot of them this Friday morning.
In 2006, during the Liberal Party of Canada leadership race, some of the candidates took out campaign loans that they have never been able to repay in full. In so doing, they violated the Canada Elections Act.
The public will understand that those unpaid debts represent, in a sense, illegal loans. The money was used. So it represents an unfair advantage, even if the candidates were defeated or withdrew from the race.
In an election campaign, every penny counts. Everything is recorded, measured and filed. That is the surest way to be certain the electoral process is absolutely transparent and is not usurped by elements that have too great a vested interest or are too wealthy.
We can see this in a number of other countries in the world: money and power often coincide and sometimes are simply indistinguishable. Plutocracy, mafia states, tax havens and the rest are more the rule than the exception. When Canadians find themselves looking at governments like those, they shrug their shoulders and dream of Westminster parliamentarianism, as unshakable and incorruptible as the Rock of Gibraltar.
We have confidence in our democracy. Just as well, because the world is already dark enough.
Bill C-21 is one more step we are taking to make sure our system continues to be incorruptible and reliable.
Certainly, in the case of the four unsuccessful candidates for the Liberal leadership, none of it has anything to do with the forces of darkness. It is simply a case of biting off more than they could chew. The candidates borrowed more than they could repay.
When it came time to clamp down on those abuses, no one really knew what to do. I note that these events date from 2006. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. There have been two leaders, who have seen their party’s fortunes decline with each election. The Liberal Party has found itself, little by little, packed into the back of the House.
There is still no resolution in sight.
Recently, the Ontario Superior Court delivered a judgment convicting the four individuals at fault. The judgment says there was a violation of the Canada Elections Act, and the guilty parties have to pay a fine of $1,000 or serve a custodial sentence of three months.
I want to say immediately that I have some reservations about the seriousness of the crime, because we do have to be honest with the public, who may not have followed the case closely. The embarrassment these four candidates have experienced has been widely exploited by the Conservative Party in its never-ending war of blind hatred for the Liberal Party.
The debts of these four candidates would have been repaid long since if the rules had not been tightened just at the right time by the government, which for once demonstrated Machiavellian skill. What a surprise. Ordinarily, its big, finely orchestrated schemes are about as airtight as a Zeppelin on fire.
Political game-playing has therefore played a big role in dragging this situation out beyond all reason. Officially, Bill C-21 is an attempt to prevent abuses like this from happening again, but let us be frank: everyone was very happy to be able to heap scorn on the guilty parties for as long as possible.
Personally, I find that cruel and stupid. But in politics, it is all a game of tug-of-war. Everyone loves a good fight. Leave your flank exposed and you will be knifed. These malicious rules are so widely accepted that even the victim applauds.
It is malicious, but apparently we must accept it and make the best of it.
Fine. And so I have the honour of announcing a first. I rise today to support the government’s bill. Surprise.
I hold no illusions as to the motives that have prompted the Conservatives to tighten the party financing rules, nor do I believe that this is a particularly brilliant effort at legislating, but what can you do? It is a sort of a step in the right direction.
If my enthusiasm seems a little lukewarm, it is because I see all too well the childish political games hiding behind this bill. This is the fifth attempt the Conservative government has made since it came to power to reform party financing. It has dragged the process out long enough to entrench the offence and prevent it from being resolved.
The Chief Electoral Officer has said that any offence under the Canada Elections Act relating to financing is very difficult to punish properly. Today, we are seeing that ourselves for the umpteenth time. It all dates back to 2006, before the Conservatives came to power. The Chief Electoral Officer has even told me, and it is very clear, that the law as it is now written is “not only overly complex, it’s incoherent and ineffective”.
And we have the evidence of that as well. Eight years later, nothing has been done. The Chief Electoral Officer has repeatedly asked Parliament to resolve the many problems associated with the law regarding loans.
As my colleague the parliamentary secretary said just now, one of the biggest changes proposed in Bill C-21 would amend the limit on donations by individuals during leadership races. At present, because of the way the system is designed, people may contribute only once per leadership race. Under the proposed changes, those limits would apply on an annual basis.
These are probably the changes that will help the people who still have debts at present the most.
Again, as my colleague said earlier, Ms. Findlay, who took part in the Liberal leadership convention, has even said that under the new changes proposed by Bill C-21, she would be able to pay off her campaign debt in three days. That would in fact be surprising, given that it has been several years since those loans were taken out.
We believe it is important to make changes to this act, because everyone is calling for them. We know it is badly designed, it is badly formulated, and it generates a host of problems when it comes to political financing.
The Conservative Party can feign indignation at the Chief Electoral Officer if it likes and call for the act to be enforced, but everyone knows that at the end of the day, they are very happy to be able to torture the four guilty parties and use that back door to strip their old adversaries of all possible merit while they are down.
We believe it is very important for these changes to be made as quickly as possible and for the little political games to end. There is a lot of talk about that leadership convention in particular, because the debts incurred are still enormous. But still, they are not the only ones. We are talking about 80 candidates, 21 of them Conservatives, who still have debts they have not paid off because the law was too badly designed. The law regarding political loans really has to be changed.
There are several points in Bill C-21 that need to be examined. We in the NDP have decided to support the bill so it can be sent to committee, so we can look at each of those points properly, and so we can go ahead and make changes that are not just desirable, but absolutely necessary, because as it now stands, this act is not satisfactory. That is why I recommend that our party support this bill at second reading.