Mr. Speaker, before I begin, I want to say that I find it very unfortunate that this is the 95th time the Conservatives have imposed a time allocation motion. I think it is positively shameful that in our democracy, in 2015, the Conservatives will not let us have an honest discussion in the House of Commons on something like closure motions and time allocation motions.
Many of the solutions proposed could help us create a more vibrant democracy. The Conservatives have always rejected the solution proposed by the NDP to have limits on when time allocation motions can be used. I find that unfortunate. Ironically, when the Liberals imposed too many time allocation motions, the Conservatives were the first to denounce it, saying how wrong it was and how limiting debate was an affront to democracy.
Now the Conservatives have set a new record. I think there is an explanation for this. The Conservatives have realized that this is no longer making headlines. Early on, when they began moving closure and time allocation motions, that got a reaction out of people. People wondered why the Conservatives were doing that, and they were not happy about it. Now, 95 time allocation motions later, people are sick of it. There is a certain point where people stop talking about it, because it becomes redundant and there is nothing more to say on the matter. Saying that the Conservatives are attacking our democracy elicits responses like “Yes, but that is the way it is and the way it has always been”. This is nothing new, and people eventually ignore the situation. However, the reality is that we are once again faced with closure on debate. I truly believe that the Conservatives must have some sort of goal to move 100 time allocation motions before the end of the 41st Parliament. It is really unfortunate, but that is just the way it is.
Today I will be sharing my thoughts on Bill C-50. It is yet another bill to amend the Canada Elections Act. This time the amendment has to do with voting from abroad.
Bill C-50 is the solution the Conservative government is proposing in response to the legal problem caused by the Ontario Superior Court ruling in Frank et al. v. Attorney General of Canada.
I would like to take a bit of time to go over the events that brought us here in order to help those watching at home who may not have all the facts they need to properly understand our discussion today.
Summing things up like that will make it easier for me to explain why I refuse to support this bill. At the same time, I will have the opportunity to share with my hon. colleagues a few suggestions for improving this bill.
First, as I was saying, the impetus for introducing this bill last December was the decision by Justice Michael Penny of the Ontario Superior Court to nullify a part of the Canada Elections Act, specifically paragraph 11(d) regarding certain restrictions on voting applicable to Canadians living abroad.
Up until that verdict was handed down a year ago tomorrow, Canadian citizens living abroad for more than five years would lose their right to vote. Justice Penny held that this loss of the right to vote violated a constitutional right guaranteed by section 3 of the charter, which states that “Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.”
This prescribed time limit was contrary to the spirit of the charter because it could not be justified under section 1, which guarantees the right to vote in a free and democratic society. Justice Penny further held that voting is an inalienable right under the charter. That is what is at the heart of the discussion we are having today, and it is this key point that informs my entire understanding of the problem.
We must say it over and over again: every Canadian citizen has the sovereign right to cast a ballot during an election. It is simple. However, this statement has two logical consequences. First, anyone who would attempt to hinder or prevent a Canadian citizen from voting is guilty of very serious wrongdoing. Furthermore, and this is the impetus for the bill, as a moral entity, Canada must do everything in its power to ensure that its citizens can exercise their right to vote during an election. In other words, the state administration must adjust to its citizens and not the opposite. Best efforts must be made to facilitate, encourage and honour the citizens' democratic exercise.
This view of the right to vote that I just explained will be upheld by all the courts in the land, no matter what happens.
I do not believe that I am mistaken when I say that, in addition to the courts, the people themselves will confirm this interpretation of our constitutional rights and defend it. It would seem that the only person who has not understood this is the Minister for Democratic Reform. However, I am not here to argue with and insult the government. I would like all of us to work together to find a solution to this problem.
A consideration related to what I said earlier should be addressed here. We agree that the right to vote is an inalienable constitutional guarantee. The right to vote is also a civil responsibility. A citizen has the right and the duty to vote. However, he or she does not have an obligation to vote. Refusing to exercise one's democratic right is, in my humble opinion, also guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms because abstaining from voting or spoiling one's vote constitutes a valid democratic gesture. A vote does not have any qualitative aspect. A spoiled ballot is still a ballot. I am dwelling on these details, these facts, because I want to be clear and I want to properly identify the essential nature of the right to vote. I would like my colleagues to correct me if they believe that my definitions are incorrect.
I would like to come back to the judge's verdict. This Superior Court decision took effect immediately and struck down the five-year limit set out in paragraph 11(d). After all—and I am asking those who are listening this question—why five years? What was the rationale for that timeframe? Why not 6, 10 or 20 years? I am sure that some thought went into that decision when the Canada Elections Act was reviewed in the 1990s, but this number still seems rather random to me. I am not sure when this provision was added to the Canada Elections Act, but perhaps migration was less common or more permanent at that time. When a person left for more than five years, it was only logical to assume that they were never coming back. After all, international travel was not always as easy and common as it is now.
I think that this is one of the shortcomings of the decision to quantify the loss of the right to vote at five years, a flaw that remains in the bill despite the fact that the bill is supposed to fix it. Everything I am about to say now should be taken with a grain of salt. I am going to try to describe the perception that Canadians have of themselves when they take shortcuts. In their minds, Canadians are not the sort of people who tend to emigrate. People leave for a year or two, but then they come back. They may go to the United States or Great Britain to go to school, or they may move for a diplomatic post or because they are in the military and they are stationed abroad. Otherwise, being an expat is not very serious and is more an act of social rebellion than anything else. That is basically the stereotype we have about ourselves. However, it is quite close to the reality of many Canadians. Some Canadians do a lot of travelling. Many of them have dual citizenship and share their time between two countries. These people follow Canadian politics, talk about Canada in their second country and keep up with current events in Canada. These people are full citizens and they have the same constitutional guarantee to the right to vote as every other Canadian.
This was confirmed by Justice Penny in his ruling. If a rose is a rose is a rose, then a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian. No matter where a Canadian may be—even on Mars—they have a right to vote. The Office of the Chief Electoral Officer quickly responded to this Ontario Superior Court ruling, and it announced that it would no longer apply the parts of the Canada Elections Act that had been invalidated. In theory, the right to vote was thus expanded to a pool of about 1.5 million newly enfranchised voters. This was a historic decision. An entire group of people had once again been vested with the most fundamental right in our Constitution. It was anachronistic, but still exciting. Just last week we celebrated the anniversary of women obtaining the right to vote in Quebec. Need I remind members that aboriginal people just obtained the right to vote in their own country in 1960?
The five-year period set out in the Canada Elections Act was a remnant of an bygone era, and this ruling appears to have completely eliminated this exclusion.
Although this speech will soon take a more negative tone, I am very happy that the last restriction on enfranchisement in Canada has been eliminated.
With respect to selective inclusion, I would like to share a quote from David Smith of the University of Saskatchewan:
Voting is the hallmark of citizenship, both symbolically and practically....
....at different times, the House of Commons admitted and the House of Commons excluded, but in each instance, the House of Commons defined Canada.
The value of the right to vote as a guarantee of the legitimacy of this House demands absolute respect on our part.
However, this decision creates a big problem. These 1.5 million citizens who will now be able to exercise their right to vote will be added to the approximately 2.8 million other expats who were already eligible to vote.
Electoral logistics need to be properly set up so that these millions of people can vote. After all, as I said, the state is responsible for facilitating the process and collecting ballots everywhere in Canada.
This is where things get a little less fun because we are getting right into the frustrating world of political calculation.
Let us start with the good ideas and the brilliant initiatives. In February, my colleague from Halifax introduced Bill C-575, which presaged Justice Penny's decision and attempted to ensure that absolutely all Canadian citizens residing abroad would have the right to vote.
The thinking behind Bill C-575 is self-evident. In the interconnected and instantaneous world of globalization, it a good thing for Canadians to live and work around the world. The House must take immediate action to confirm these citizens' right to vote.
I would imagine that everyone agrees with the member for Halifax's ideas on this, but of course, such a historic and generous initiative from the opposition could not be tolerated, much less endorsed, by the government. The Conservatives would rather die than take the lead and accept a perfectly acceptable opposition proposal.
Hubert Aquin wrote:
Political partisanship is a means of action, not a mode of thinking.
A year and a half later, the Conservatives are finally taking action. Bill C-50 is the Conservative proposal for dealing with the consequences of Justice Penny's ruling.
However, the minister's response goes much further. In response to a clear legal decision regarding an even clearer problem, we have a vague proposal that is like a reflection dimly seen in a mirror, as St. Paul put it.
When you take a closer look at the proposals in Bill C-50, it becomes very clear very quickly that this bill is not about empowering citizens.
This bill accepts the basic premise that Canadians abroad have the right to vote, but it does so in a backwards way. Expanding the constitutional right that is the very essence of the bill and should be showcased does not actually appear in the bill and can only be read between the lines. It is an odd masterpiece of inversion, like a photographic negative.
In his speech introducing the bill, the minister showed no signs of excitement. This bill is not about the right to vote, nor is it about righting a historical wrong, far from it. Rather, it is about tyring to combat electoral fraud.
The minister said, and I quote:
The citizen voting act has three principal objectives: the first is to help prevent non-citizens from voting in federal elections; the second is to require voters living abroad to provide proof of identity, past residence, and citizenship; the third is to create one set of rules for all Canadians voting from outside the country.
The main focus of the bill is the fear of these so-called collateral misdeeds, which are presented as going hand in hand with the privilege that the government is taking such great risk to provide to Canadians living abroad.
From the outset, the government makes it clear that there is the risk of serious abuses, which are listed and may be impossible to prevent. The government's message is that it is full of goodwill, but the electorate abroad is asking for the impossible and, accordingly, the privilege to vote will come with very strict measures.
It is as though the government were saying that it was giving us the right, but in order to exercise that right, we would have to jump backwards through rings of fire in a hoop skirt. We might go so far as to say that the government is completely disregarding Justice Penny's ruling and not really giving Canadians who live abroad for more than five years the right to vote.
The government did not welcome the decision with great enthusiasm and appealed the Frank ruling. Let us not forget that it also tried to impose a moratorium on the coming into force of the ruling. Clearly, the Conservatives were hoping the problem would go away.
Nonetheless, as I said earlier, no court in this country can justify restricting a Canadian citizen's right to vote. This is the new reality, and we must implement the necessary means to ensure that everything works as it should.
In my naivety, I thought this democratic progress would be heralded for what it says about the maturity of our country. However, I again forgot that I was living in one reality whereas the Conservatives were living in a world of Stalinist paranoia where having a passport is a betrayal.
Under the guise of harmonizing the procedure—creating one set of rules, according to the minister—the Conservatives are turning what they consider to be a reversal of legal fortune into a win. Not only are they not really giving the right to vote to Canadian citizens who live abroad for more than five years, but they are also taking it away from the other 2.8 million Canadians, with a few exceptions, such as people in diplomatic postings and members of the Canadian Armed Forces.
As my colleague from Toronto—Danforth wrote in an article published in the National Post on February 3:
In fact, Bill C-50 uses the court’s rights-expanding ruling as an excuse to actually undermine the voting rights of all Canadians abroad, regardless of how long they have resided outside of Canada. It does this by generating delays that could easily prevent voting in time for election day and that creates disincentives for voting by making it unreasonably difficult.
This is what Bill C-50 is proposing to do: Canadian citizens living abroad who want to exercise their right to vote during an election will have to prove two things. First, they will have to provide proof of citizenship, which goes without saying. Second, they will have to provide proof of address for the place where they last resided before leaving Canada.
To better understand all that, we can propose a hypothetical scenario. Suppose that in 2011, I decided not to stand as a candidate in the federal election, and I decided instead to live happily somewhere abroad. Had I done that, I would have remained the same citizen I was, with less contact with the political world than I have now, a normal citizen with concerns other than the legislative changes debated in the House of Commons. Furthermore, being abroad, I would work regularly to maintain my ties to Canada. I would make an effort to consult the Canadian media and keep abreast of what is happening.
Say I want to vote in the October 2015 election. I am sure that, if I have to go through a whole process to be able to vote, it is better to get started earlier rather than later, so I go online to see what that process involves. If I search for “voting from abroad, Canada”, the first hit takes me to a Government of Canada website. On that website, it says:
If you live abroad, you may apply to be added to the International Register of Electors and vote by special mail-in ballot in future federal elections at any time.
That is no longer true because of Bill C-50. It goes on to say:
To apply, complete an Application for registration and special ballot for Canadian citizens residing outside Canada, available online through Elections Canada, in person at any Canadian government office abroad, or by calling Elections Canada...
Send your completed application and copies of your supporting documents to Elections Canada in Ottawa. Once your completed application has been approved, your name will be added to the International Register of Electors. When a federal election, by-election or referendum is called, Elections Canada mails a special ballot voting kit to all eligible electors whose names appear in the International Register.
In order to remove inaccurate information from the register—according to the government, there are 40,000 non-Canadians on the list—voters who are living abroad are going to be asked to reconfirm their place of residence.
Canadians living abroad generally believe that they will be able to just pick a riding in which to vote, but in reality that is not how it works. Canadians who are living abroad and who have not lived in Canada for a number of years sometimes have difficulty obtaining tangible evidence that they lived at their last place of residence before moving abroad.
Seeing this measure in the bill gives me a feeling of déjà vu and reminds me of the discussions that we had about Bill C-23 last year. It is very simple. Under the guise of improving the accuracy of voter identification and combatting election fraud, the Conservatives are actually making the rules as complicated and as difficult to follow as possible. In a way, they are doing as much as they possibly can to interfere with Canadians' right to vote. As I said, it gives me a feeling of déjà vu and reminds me of Bill C-23.
I do not need to remind the House about all the bad provisions that were passed by the Conservative government in its reform of the Canada Elections Act in Bill C-23. There were so many measures aimed at simply lowering voter turnout, such as no longer allowing the voter information card or vouching as a means of identification, that we can no longer trust this government when it tells us that it is doing good things or that it wants to help Canadians; we know that the underlying philosophy of undermining Canadians' right to vote as much as possible is always there.
That is why I obviously cannot support Bill C-50. We will make a number of suggestions to amend and improve this bill. With Bill C-23, we barely had enough time to debate half of the amendments proposed by the NDP.
I hope that this time we will be allowed to carefully study this bill for real in the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs and that the government will be open to improving it as much as possible.