Mr. Speaker, I would like to orient my remarks in the following way: first, to briefly situate why there was so much concern when the bill was initially tabled in early February and in the months leading up to major concessions by the minister, not the minor or modest amendments that he just referred to; second, to outline what those amendments were that constitute a major victory for civil society and the opposition in making a bad bill less bad; and, finally, to go through 10 points about what still remains in the bill that makes it a bad bill unworthy of the support of this House.
On the first point, it has to be said that from the beginning, our worry was that the dozens of new provisions and changes in the bill created a tapestry that, in the result, whether or not by intention, would favour one party in the next election and lock into place a series of principles that were not themselves fair, despite the name of the act, the “fair elections act”. There was no better sign for those well aware of what the government is capable of and of the bill itself than the fact that on April 10 two very highly respected Progressive Conservatives joined in signing a statement about their concerns and about why the bill should actually be killed. Those persons were David Crombie and Allan Gregg.
This legislation is a blatant attempt by the Harper government to stack the deck in favour of the Conservatives in the next federal election.
These are two extremely knowledgeable members of Canadian society, one of them a former mayor of Toronto and a former Progressive Conservative minister and the other a deeply connected pollster and marketing person. Both these men knew what the current government was capable of. They read the bill, they understood it, and they used very strong language. “Stack the deck” is something that clearly suggests an effort to create an unfair elections act, the opposite of the title of the bill, the “fair elections act”.
With pressure from all sides—from civil society, from a vigorous opposition effort, from academics speaking out, and, I have no doubt, from a certain number of Conservative backbenchers who, either as a matter of principle or as a matter of feeling the pressure, weighed in—a number of major concessions were announced by the minister and indeed delivered upon in amendments at the procedure and House affairs committee.
I will list them. By listing them, I hope I convey how major they are and how the government was forced off of some elements that were at the very heart of the effort to “stack the deck”.
First, there was a fundraising exemption. Parties would be allowed to exempt from their campaign expenses all the costs of contacting previous donors from the last five years in order to raise more money from them. All the costs associated with that would not have to go into campaign costs. All kinds of reasons were given as to why this was a huge, unlimited exemption to the campaign caps at election time. That was removed.
Second, the government added to the original bill, Bill C-23, the fact that central poll supervisors would henceforth be de facto appointed by the first-place party's candidate or the first-place party going into the next election.
The central poll supervisor is in many ways the most important person at any given poll. The fact that this would unbalance the existing system—which unfortunately is already politicized, in that the deputy returning officer and the poll clerk are each appointed by the first-place and second-place parties respectively—was something that produced major concern. There was no logic as to why this should be the case. That was removed in one of the so-called modest amendments of the minister, but it is an amendment that I nonetheless would prefer to characterize as a major concession.
We have just had an exchange where the minister acknowledges that vouching for identity in and of itself is no longer part of Bill C-23 and remains so, but vouching for an address, which is the absolute key problem that had occurred when the vouching provisions of the Canada Elections Act were removed, has been restored.
That was not a modest amendment. That was a major victory for civil society and for the many witnesses who took the time and trouble to explain to Conservative members at the procedure and House affairs committee, to the media, and ultimately to the minister why the elimination of the current vouching provisions in the Canada Elections Act were deeply unfair and disenfranchising.
Fourth, there was a bordering on ludicrous limit on how long calling service providers and others had to keep data with respect to voter contact in the new voter contact registry. When Bill C-23 was initially introduced, it was to be only one year, which is barely enough time for information to come out in some context that there is a problem needing investigation. The minister caved with respect to the keeping of scripts and audio records. That was increased from one year to three years.
Many other problems remain with this voter contact registry system. I would call this a modest amendment, but nonetheless a significant one.
Fifth, the government heard early on that Bill C-23's elimination of the public education and information programming role of Elections Canada, especially targeted toward disadvantaged groups and those more likely to experience difficulties in voting, was an abomination. I knew early on that this was one area that a lot of Conservative Party backbenchers had great trouble with. I could have predicted from the beginning what would happen, which was that the public education role for Elections Canada was restored, albeit only for primary and secondary school students. All of the other outreach activities that Elections Canada had engaged in over the years or could engage in in the future have remained prohibited by the current version of Bill C-23.
Nonetheless, at least allowing a student vote and analogous programs to continue to be supported, funded, co-organized, and partnered by Elections Canada constitutes a major victory on the part of civil society, which very much put this issue near the top of its concerns.
Sixth is the fact that Bill C-23 contained no provisions that are necessary in a bill, for technical reasons, to allow communications between the Commissioner of Canada Elections and the Chief Electoral Officer after the commissioner would be moved from Elections Canada to the Director of Public Prosecutions. That was rectified by putting in communications authorizations. They are minimal and do not go as far as we wanted, but they are nonetheless important.
Seventh, it was very clear that the new section 18 of the Canada Elections Act was written in such a way that the Chief Electoral Officer would henceforth be prohibited from communicating with the public other than to provide information to the public on a very narrow set of functional questions, such as where one can vote, how one can vote, and what identification one can use to vote. The reason was that section 18 was worded to say that the Chief Electoral Officer shall “only” communicate about the following. Therefore, there was great concern that, whether intentionally or not, it had been written in a way that meant the Chief Electoral Officer could communicate on nothing other than that in the future.
Early on, the minister said that was not the intention, and when he announced his other concessions, he said that the Chief Electoral Officer could communicate freely in his own capacity. When the time came for the amendments at the procedure and House affairs committee, it was never expressed that the Chief Electoral Officer could communicate freely henceforth, but the way in which section 18 was rewritten satisfies me that the result would be that he could now communicate freely. I only wish the government had agreed to an NDP amendment to make that clear for the sake of certainty. However, I will go on record here, as I did at the committee, to say that it is clear from the record that the Chief Electoral Officer would now be able to say whatever he wants in whatever context, in Canada or outside of Canada.
Finally, of the concessions made by the minister, there was a very puzzling provision in Bill C-23 that basically said the Commissioner for Canada Elections could not begin an investigation until he or she had reasonable grounds to suspect an offence had been committed.
Anybody involved in the criminal law or investigative sphere knows that is a standard not for beginning an investigation but for receiving things like orders for wiretaps or other kinds of investigative measures. However, in common law and in every other investigative context, all investigative officers need is a reasonable suspicion to start an investigation.
That was changed in committee, and I am willing to concede that it was simply a mistake on the part of the drafters, although a puzzling one that I cannot understand being made by anybody who understands how criminal law investigation works.
The point is that a number of major concessions arose as a result of fierce opposition, an engaged civil society, and either persuaded or somewhat fearful backbenchers, who obviously weighed in with the government.
I would like to now move to why, despite all those concessions, there still remain so many problems with this bill that it does not deserve our support, quite apart from all of the process concerns about how it was generated and how even the amendments process was non-consensual, in that not a single opposition amendment of any substance was accepted. Despite the concessions that I mentioned earlier, there are so many problems that it deserves not to see the light of day. I will briefly now indicate 10 points.
First, the current Bill C-23 on which we are about to vote today would continue to eliminate the power of the Chief Electoral Officer to implement public education and information programs designed to enhance knowledge of our electoral democracy and to encourage voting. It would only bring back one context, and that is for primary and secondary school students. All other public outreach would remain prohibited.
Second, Bill C-23 would prohibit the Chief Electoral Officer from authorizing the use of voter information cards, or VICs, as a piece of voter identification to be used not on their own but alongside a second piece of identification. It would do this despite the fact that such cards are a method of enfranchisement that were introduced because of concerns about limited forms of identity showing address and despite the fact that smoother administration of voting on election day resulted from their use in various contexts in 2011. It would be prohibited despite there being no evidence whatsoever for believing these cards are, or are likely to be, a source of fraud. This remains the case, no matter how many times the minister gives an example of a hoax that was attempted by the television show Infoman that never actually reached fruition.
Third, Bill C-23 would require that the Chief Electoral Officer and the Commissioner for Canada Elections must now get the permission of government officials in order to remunerate experts and investigators whom they find necessary to hire on a temporary basis. Previously, they could have direct access to the consolidated revenue fund. Now the CEO would have to go through the Treasury Board and the commissioner would have to go through the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Fourth, it refuses to legislate powers that are necessary for full compliance with, and enforcement of, the Canada Elections Act, in light of the experience with fraud and breach of other electoral law rules in the elections of 2006, 2008 and 2011, notably, the power of the CEO to require registered parties to provide receipts accounting for their election campaign expenses and the power of the commissioner to seek a judicial order to compel testimony during an investigation into electoral crime.
Fifth, it unnecessarily transfers the commissioner to a government ministry, the ministry of the Attorney General, and away from the current location within the office of the Chief Electoral Officer, who is, I will remind the House, an officer of Parliament. This thereby creates corresponding negative consequences for the effectiveness of commissioner investigations and for the complementary roles that the Chief Elector Officer and his or her staff and the commissioner and his or her staff play in securing compliance with the Elections Act, well ahead of and well beyond the relatively limited number of contexts in which their focus is enforcement.
Sixth, the commissioner is fettered in ways that other investigative agencies are not. In particular, he or she is required to inform suspects if they are under investigation, and he or she is prohibited from explaining to Parliament and Canadians why an investigation has not led to charges of prosecution.
Seventh, it leaves serious loopholes in the voter contact registry system that is to be administered by the CRTC, which is a welcome addition to the Canada Elections Act, but which does not go far enough. The loopholes include: the fact that the voter contact scripts for live calls and audio recordings of robocalls do not have to be conveyed to the CRTC; the fact that no person or group is under any obligation to retain phone numbers of persons called, let alone to convey those numbers to the CRTC; and the fact that no affirmative obligations are placed on the CRTC to proactively inform the commissioner if and when a CRTC employee suspects wrongdoing. I speak obviously not of wrongdoing on the part of the CRTC, but on the part of the actors who have to report to the CRTC.
Eighth, the Canada Elections Act, through Bill C-23, retains a politicized system of appointing deputy returning officers, poll clerks and registration officers as elections officials or officers for election day. As such, the Canada Elections Act does not grant Elections Canada the full authority to appoint all elections officers on the basis of merit, with corresponding detrimental effects for Elections Canada's capacity to minimize election day irregularities through more timely recruitment and training for elections officers. It is one of the major outcomes of the Neufeld report saying that the ability of Elections Canada to appoint all elections officers would be the single most important way to enhance the capacity of elections workers to minimize irregularities that the government from the beginning tried to leverage as evidence of fraud, which it was not.
Ninth, is the problematic provisions relating to voter identification that create the danger of harassment and intimidation of voters, because identity documents can now be inspected by party scrutineers. They also dissuade people from actually vouching for an address because of the fear that the requirement that the person must have known personally the person being vouched for is very unclear as to how long and how well the voucher must have known the elector.
Finally, it increases the role of money in politics through unjustified increases in donation limits and also by creating an unworkable banking loan system that would actually, in ways that are too complex to explain, benefit well-resourced candidates and parties.
Therefore, I would like to move a reasoned amendment. I move:
That the motion be amended by deleting all of the words after the word “That” and substituting the following:
this House decline to give third reading to Bill C-23, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and other Acts and to make consequential amendments to certain Acts, because, amongst other things, it:
(a) was rushed through Parliament without adequately taking into account the concerns raised by over 70 expert witnesses and hundreds of civil society actors that speak to a wide array of provisions that remain problematic in this bill;
(b) prohibits the Chief Electoral Officer from authorizing the use of 'Voter Information Cards' as a piece of voter identification to be used alongside a second piece of identification, despite such cards being a method of enfranchisement and promoting smoother administration of the election-day vote and despite there being no basis for believing these cards are, or are likely to be, a source of voter fraud;
(c) refuses to legislate the powers necessary for full compliance with, and enforcement of, the Canada Elections Act in light of experience with fraud and breach of other electoral law in the 2006, 2008 and 2011 general elections, notably, the power of the Chief Electoral Officer to require registered parties to provide receipts accounting for their election campaign expenses and the power of the Commissioner for Canada Elections to seek a judicial order to compel testimony during an investigation into electoral crimes such as fraud;
(d) eliminates the power of the Chief Electoral Officer to implement public education and information programs designed to enhance knowledge of our electoral democracy and encourage voting, other than for primary and secondary school students; and
(e) increases the influence of money in politics through unjustified increases in how much individuals may donate annually and how much candidates may now contribute to their own campaigns, thereby creating an undue advantage for well-resourced candidates and parties.