Mr. Speaker, this is the first time I have risen to speak in 2014. Allow me, respectfully, to wish you a good year, in the hope that our democratic institutions will increase in value, which has absolutely not been the case in previous years.
The motion we are discussing this morning could be an excellent way to get back on track.
I would also like to wish an excellent year to my fellow MPs and to all Canadians and Quebeckers, who I hope might once again be proud of their politicians because of the quality of the debates that we engage in throughout this new year.
When I was elected in 2011, I was determined to improve our democracy. I still am. The desire to change the way politics is done continues to drive my political involvement. It is not so easy to change things in this honourable institution, Canada's Parliament, but I am not one to give up on my goals so quickly.
The subject we are discussing this morning is quite the paradox between tradition and the need to modernize our political institution.
Hon. members also know that I am a teacher by profession and that engaging young people in public debate is one of my priorities. I, like many others, was disappointed to see that voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds in the 2011 federal election was 39%, which was well below the national voter turnout of 59%. That is not a spectacular number either, but it is far better.
There are likely a number of reasons for this that deserve our attention. In my riding, Trois-Rivières, I was surprised to learn that political debate seems undesirable at the university, where student associations—NDP, Conservative, Liberal, PQ, whatever the political stripe—do not seem to be welcome.
How are we supposed to engage young people and prepare a new generation of active citizens when political debate is considered suspect or dangerous? I must admit that I have a problem with that attitude and the fact that many public places are not open to political debate.
Now that the opportunity is here to explore this issue, I am very pleased to speak to Motion No. 428 on electronic petitions moved by my colleague, the member for Burnaby—Douglas.
Mr. Speaker, like the vast majority of us, you have a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a YouTube channel and a website. I know because I checked.
All of these digital tools are useful in helping us accomplish some of our work as parliamentarians. They allow us to share our ideas, our values and our vision for the Canada of tomorrow. Much of our work and that of our assistants is visible on social media.
I have, at times, had the pleasure of working with the longest-serving member of the House, the member for Bas-Richelieu—Nicolet—Bécancour. He told me that when he began his career, he did not have any of these tools, not even a cell phone. Today, politicians would be at a loss without these tools. As time moved on, we adapted to new technology and the purpose it can serve. I believe there is more to be done.
These platforms serve as more than just a means of spreading our political message and doing politics. We also need social media and the Internet to communicate with all of our constituents, all of the groups that wish to be in contact with us and those interested in the debates taking place in our democracy. We use digital media every day in order to speak with our constituents, no matter which party we belong to or what our ideas are.
In just a few short years, democracy has gone online. Long speeches in the public square are becoming increasingly rare. Even more rare is an entire town or community gathering together to listen to us. The relationship between parliamentarians and constituents has been transformed and there is no going back. The town square is virtual now, and we need to keep up with the times if we want to connect with the people we claim to serve.
My colleague's motion acknowledges that transformation and sheds some light on the issue. The idea is that if we, as parliamentarians, can make frequent use of digital tools to share our thoughts, why is the public not also able to use technology to connect with us?
In other words, we are constantly reaching out, trying to convince them of our ideas, but they cannot influence our debates or our agenda by taking advantage of progress in electronic communications.
It is almost hypocritical of us, and we need to try to change that. That is exactly what this motion is about. What my colleague is proposing in this motion is quite simple. He is proposing that the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs recommend changes to the Standing Orders so as to establish an electronic petitioning system in Canada, while maintaining the existing paper-based petition system. The committee would present a report to the House sometime in the next year. Among other things, the member's motion recommends that the committee consider the possibility of holding debates in the House of Commons, similar to take note debates, once a certain threshold of signatures is reached. For example, 50,000 signatures on an electronic petition is a considerable number. I think it is a rather serious problem if members do not feel that an issue with such support must be addressed. In addition, five members of Parliament would have to agree to sponsor or support the petition in question.
Electronic petitioning systems are nothing new. An increasing number of democracies are embracing this new way of doing things to revitalize the relationship between the work of parliamentarians and constituents. Need I remind members that our Parliament does not always have a good reputation and that our institution has been harshly criticized by Canadians? The Senate scandals and the Conservative government's inability to address the related issues are fueling people's cynicism about both chambers of Parliament. I am confident that any initiative that would reaffirm and restore Canadians' trust in our work is a step forward, a step in the right direction for our democracy.
As I was saying, electronic petitioning systems are nothing new. They are already in use in Quebec and the United Kingdom, and the results are quite promising. We would do well to take a closer look at them. In the British system, for example, petitions supported by at least 100,000 signatures trigger a debate. However, this new way of doing things has not made any significant changes to procedures or the rigour of the work. Members do not have to be concerned that our agenda will be disrupted by the tabling of a huge number of petitions. Although electronic petitions with over 50,000 signatures are not unheard of, they all draw attention to important issues.
According to an Angus Reid poll, this motion already has support from a wide range of stakeholder groups and 81% of the population. We are talking about 81%. In what survey will you find more than 80% of Canadians and Quebeckers agreeing on an issue? It is clear that Canadians and Quebeckers want to see our systems modernized. This reflects their growing expectation that the House of Commons pay more attention to movements of opinion across the entire country.
I have two examples. First, I want to talk about Marie-Hélène Dubé, a Quebec woman who decided to start a national petition after her third reoccurrence of thyroid cancer. Her petition calls on the federal government to amend section 12 of the Employment Insurance Act, which is 40 years old, to ensure that people with serious illnesses can receive more than 15 weeks of benefits, which is what they receive now. As we speak, this national petition has collected around 430,000 signatures.
I would also like to talk about Sylvie Therrien's online petition. Ms. Dubé developed a rather onerous technique that means people have to sign the paper version of the petition and print it, so that it can be submitted in the House. Ms. Therrien, who had a different experience, also has thousands of signatures on her petition, but unfortunately, it cannot be submitted to the House.
In conclusion, I want to quickly say that this is a tangible measure that will have a clear and demonstrable impact on the way issues that are important to Canadians are represented in parliamentary debates. This proposal would also be a proactive way to combat the widespread discontent with respect to Canadian democracy and many of its institutions, including the Senate.
Therefore, I fully support my colleague's motion. I hope that in 2014, the Canadian Parliament can join the 21st century and agree to hear from the people of this country through electronic petitions.