Mr. Speaker, we cannot forget the context in which we are debating Bill C-23, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and other Acts and to make consequential amendments to certain Acts, here in the House.
This bill comes after a long wait. It took the government two long years to introduce this bill, as though it cost the government a great deal to do so. This long wait was then followed by a suspicious haste to rush the bill through, to speed up the parliamentary process, as though the government had something to hide. It wants to rush through a 252-page bill that has to do with electoral democracy.
The current context also includes the fact that the Prime Minister has chosen a Minister of State for Democratic Reform, the minister sponsoring this bill, who just happens to be the member who has attacked Elections Canada, an honourable and essential institution, more than anyone else in the history of Canada. This is a member who has spent the past few years defending the indefensible every time the Conservative Party has been involved in shady schemes. This is a minister who, in just the last few days, has accused Elections Canada of bias, without any evidence whatsoever. This is a minister who falsely said that he had consulted the Chief Electoral Officer on this bill, forcing the Chief Electoral Officer to set the record straight.
This bill comes at a time when the ethics of this government and the Conservatives Party are being called into question by many troubling facts.
We remember the in-and-out scandal, when the Conservative Party, having finally admitted to election overspending and to submitting inflated election returns, had no choice but to pay the maximum fine under the Elections Act.
We remember the Peter Penashue scandal, when the former Conservative minister had to resign his seat due to wide-scale election overspending.
We know that Conservative MPs from Saint Boniface and Selkirk—Interlake both entered into a compliance agreement with Elections Canada.
We know that the MP for Peterborough was kicked out of the Conservative caucus and is facing charges under the Elections Act.
We remember the worst of these scandals, the fraudulent election robocalls scandal, where Federal Court Judge Richard Mosley noted that electoral fraud did occur during the 41st general election. Justice Mosley stated:
I am satisfied, however, that the most likely source of the information used to make the misleading calls was the CIMS database maintained and controlled by the [Conservative Party of Canada].
Let us look at that scandal for a moment. According to the Federal Court, the Conservative Party database was the most likely source of the fraudulent calls that were made to mislead voters and keep them from voting in the 2011 election.
What should an honest political party do under such circumstances? It should alert the police so that it can be determined who, in the party or otherwise, used the database for fraudulent purposes.
If the party does not do that, if the Conservatives do not do that, is it because someone in the party already knows the truth and does not want it to come to light?
The Conservative Party has stood in the way of the search for the truth in this sordid affair. Under the pretext that the judge had not determined with 100% certainty that the Conservative Party database had indeed been misused, the party declared itself innocent and refused to launch any kind of investigation. The party does not really seem to want to find out what happened.
What is worse, the Conservatives' election workers completely refused to speak with investigators about the mystery fraudulent telephone calls in Guelph. Too bad if the guilty parties, the fraudsters, are still at large. Too bad, or all the better, if the Conservative war room's real goal is to protect those who are guilty. The party clearly wanted to protect them or it would have acted differently.
That is why we are legitimately suspicious about the government and the Conservative Party, which is finally coming forward with a bill that set outs the rules that this government would like to see govern the next federal election in the fall of 2015.
If the government wants to dispel the suspicion surrounding its electoral honesty, why does the minister's bill ignore the main recommendation made by the Chief Electoral Officer, which received strong support from the Commissioner of Canada Elections, namely to facilitate investigations and the ability to uncover election fraud?
This is what that recommendation says:
In order to make the enforcement of the Canada Elections Act more effective, it is recommended that the Commissioner of Canada Elections be given the power to apply to a judge for an order to compel any person to provide information that is relevant to an investigation. ...the inability to compel testimony is one of the most significant obstacles to effective enforcement of the Act. The Chief Electoral Officer strongly recommends that this power be given to the Commissioner to facilitate and accelerate the manner in which allegations are investigated. [...]
The Commissioner of Canada Elections strongly supports this recommendation.
The minister rejected this recommendation and is refusing to give the commissioner the power to apply to a judge for an order to compel any persons to provide information that is relevant to an investigation. Why? Is the minister satisfied with the current situation? Is he trying to protect reluctant witnesses? Is he pleased or reassured that proper investigations are being impeded today, as was described in the 2012-13 annual report of the Commissioner of Canada Elections? The following is a quote from the report:
...investigators often face reluctant witnesses. Frequently, key individuals will simply refuse to be interviewed or they will initially accept, only to later decline. In some cases, they will participate in interviews but will provide only partial information and incomplete answers, often citing a faulty recollection of events or the inability to retrieve key documents. In other cases, a potential witness will profess a complete willingness to cooperate, but the process will take time – resulting in information being provided slowly and in an incomplete fashion. Under the legislative regime as it currently exists, potential witnesses (e.g. candidates, official agents, representatives of political parties) do not have any obligation to cooperate with or assist investigators.
In a CBC interview on February 8, this past weekend, the Chief Electoral Officer said that the investigation into fraudulent calls was impeded by the fact that it was difficult to obtain witnesses' co-operation:
Many people [in that investigation] refused to talk to the commissioner even if they were not suspects. I'm afraid to say this is happening more and more in files investigated by the commissioner.
He is constantly confronted with this obstacle.
Can the minister confirm that his bill protects witnesses who refuse to co-operate with the justice system? Why is there this protection? Is this related to the robocall scandal?
Indeed, the bill would eliminate the limitation period for offences that require intent. That means that the commissioner can go back in time to catch deliberate lawbreakers. However, the Conservatives refuse to give the Commissioner of Canada Elections the authority to go to a judge to compel testimony from witnesses to election crimes. Is it because it would blow open the robocalls investigations?
The minister argues that witnesses are already required to testify in court once formal allegations have been made, but everybody can see the problem with this argument. If the Commissioner of Canada Elections cannot get witnesses to co-operate during the investigation phase, the crucial step during which evidence is sought, how can the commissioner obtain the evidence required to make such formal allegations? The minister points out that the commissioner can already seek a warrant to obtain documents from a judge, but what the commissioner needs, as much or more than documents, is witness co-operation.
The minister says that his bill introduces a new penalty for those who obstruct an investigation or provide inaccurate information to investigators. However, obstructing is not the same thing as refusing to speak or co-operate. The minister very craftily straddles that line.
Furthermore, the minister states that the elections commissioner currently has all of the same investigatory powers as police officers. However, what the Chief Electoral Officer or the Commissioner of Canada Elections are asking for is a power that the police do not have but the Commissioner of Competition already has, and that is the power to apply to a judge for an order to compel any person to provide information that is relevant to an investigation. The question the minister must answer is, why does his bill not provide the Commissioner of Canada Elections with the power already held by the Commissioner of Competition under section 11 of the Competition Act? Will the minister answer this simple question?