Mr. Speaker, I am proud to rise today to debate Bill C-23, the fair elections act, which would make it easier to vote and harder to break the law. It is a bill that would close loopholes to big money and give law enforcement sharper teeth, a longer reach, and a freer hand. This bill is another step in the proud legacy of Canadian democracy. Step by step and generation by generation, Canadians have fine-tuned their electoral practices and procedures to make our system more representative, more responsible, and fairer.
I am delighted today to discuss the steps our government is proposing to improve the fairness of Canada's elections and how the rules are enforced. The fair elections act is a comprehensive bill designed to protect the integrity of federal elections in Canada by making the rules clearer, by reducing the influence of big money, and by giving real strength to the authorities that enforce the rules.
This bill would assure Canadian citizens that their votes count. Their votes and their contributions will not be nullified by the actions of cheaters who try to take advantage of loopholes in rules. The contributions of ordinary citizens will also not be diluted by the presence of big money from special interests or individuals who have been able to funnel great wealth into political campaign financing through existing loopholes.
Let me emphasize this. The bill before us would strengthen the penalties against those who abuse the system. When Canadians are cheated out of their votes through fraudulent acts or the system is abused when votes that had no right to be cast are counted, the integrity of democracy itself is put into question. Sadly, we have seen too many incidents in which that integrity and the strength of the foundation have been questioned.
The fundamental right of a citizen is the right to vote. One might even call it a responsibility to vote, or a duty to vote. It is a right, a responsibility, and a duty that was earned in blood during the world wars and during the constant vigilance to maintain freedom and the rule of law in the decades since then.
However, the voter turnout numbers tell us a different story. A generation ago, a large majority of voters went to the polls. In 1988, for example, 75% of eligible voters cast their ballots, or about 4 out of 5 voters. In the most recent election, in 2011, that number had dropped to 61%, or about 3 out of 5 voters. Most troubling is the decline in voter turnout for youth aged 18 to 24.
The bill before us introduces a series of amendments designed to restore confidence in the electoral system and provide voters with the assurance that their votes will count. It would introduce a response to changes in technology that have provided challenges that previous generations did not face, but which, if left unacknowledged, could undermine confidence in the integrity of our electoral system. This bill would give enforcement powers that send clear signals that cheating the system will not be tolerated.
Let me provide the House with an overview of what this bill contains. I will leave it for my colleagues to provide further information on the precise details.
Broadly speaking, this bill would bring fairness to Canada's federal election in eight areas.
First, it would protect voters from rogue calls and political impostors. There have been serious allegations that telephone and telemarketing technologies have been abused in past elections, and we are taking steps to put a halt to the practice. The bill would establish a mandatory public registry, administered by the CRTC, for those who want to use robocall technology. At the same time, it would provide prison time for those who abuse the technology, including those who impersonate election officials. It would increase penalties for those who deceive people out of their votes, plain and simple.
Second, this bill would give law enforcement sharper teeth, a longer reach, and a freer hand. By sharper teeth, I mean that it would allow the commissioner of elections to seek tougher penalties for existing offences. A longer reach means empowering the commissioner with more than a dozen new offences to combat big money, rogue calls, and fraudulent voting. A freer hand means that the commissioner would have full independence, with control of his or her staff and investigations, and a fixed term of seven years.
Third, this bill would keep big money out of politics. It would prevent the use of loans to evade donation rules, and it would allow parties to fund democratic outreach with small increases in spending limits while imposing tougher audits and penalties to enforce those limits. It would make it easier for small donors to contribute more to democracy through the front door and harder for illegal big money to sneak in through the back door.
Fourth, the bill before us would crack down on voter fraud. It would prohibit the use of vouching and voter identification cards as replacements for acceptable identification papers. Elections Canada has found irregularities in the use of vouching and a high rate of inaccuracy in the National Register of Electors, which is used to create the voter information cards. I think my colleague earlier made this very clear with the example of his own personal situation. The bill would put a stop to the potential for these irregularities.
Fifth, the measures in the bill would make the rules easy to follow. Members on all sides of the House have complained that the current rules can be unclear. Complicated rules lead to unintentional breaches and intimidate everyday people from taking a more active part in democracy. The bill would make the rules for elections clearer, predictable, and easy to follow. In a fashion similar to the service provided by Revenue Canada, parties would have the right to advance rulings and interpretations from Elections Canada, which would keep a registry of interpretations and provide consultation with and notice to parties before changing any of these interpretations.
Sixth, the bill would enable the system to respect democratic election results. When members of Parliament and the Chief Electoral Officer disagree on an item on an MP's election expense return, the act would make it clear that MPs are able to present the disputed case in the courts before they are deemed ineligible to sit and vote as an MP.
Seventh, the bill would uphold free speech by repealing the ban on the premature transmission of election results. In the Internet age, this is as much a reflection of reality as anything else.
Finally, the bill before us would bring better service to voters, while focusing Elections Canada advertising on the basics of voting: where, when, and what ID to bring. It would explicitly require Elections Canada to inform voters with disabilities of the extra provisions available to help them vote.
Those are eight key areas in which we can build the democratic ideals that our country is known for around the world; the ideals that our soldiers in two world wars and since then have so sacrificed for.
I have served on the international human rights subcommittee of this House and listened to the testimonies of victims of various regimes in other countries that our freedom, democracy, and human rights are a big part of what makes Canada great.
Many people from across the political spectrum have underscored the importance of reforming our electoral laws and restoring confidence in Canada's democracy. I am confident they agree with me that these reforms are needed before Canadians return to the polls next year.
In fact, the bill would implement 38 of the recommendations that the Chief Electoral Officer made in his report on the 40th general election, which was tabled in 2010.
I urge hon. members—