Madam Speaker, I am rising today to discuss the motion moved by the member for Skeena—Bulkley Valley.
I want to begin by thanking all the members of the special committee on electoral reform for their excellent hard work in producing this report.
The committee held 57 meetings in every province and territory, listened to the testimony of 196 witnesses, collected and considered 574 written submissions, reached more than 22,000 Canadians through an online consultation process, and received 172 reports from members of Parliament who had hosted their own town halls to gather opinions from their constituents, my own among them.
Their report, entitled “Strengthening Democracy in Canada: Principles, Process and Public Engagement for Electoral Reform”, is a significant addition to the study of electoral reform in Canada and includes many important recommendations to improve our electoral system.
I also want to thank all the expert witnesses, the tireless and dedicated committee staff, and the thousands of Canadians who participated in this very important exercise in democracy. The extent of their work was impressive, and a credit to our democratic system.
Meanwhile, our government also spent the summer and autumn of 2016 engaged in extensive consultations on this important issue. We were elected on a commitment to listen to Canadians. The previous Minister of Democratic Institutions and her parliamentary secretary also undertook a cross-country tour during this period, holding community events in every province and territory.
Our government also launched an innovative online tool to engage in a conversation with Canadians and learn more about what they value most in our democracy. This website, mydemocracy.ca, not only helped us to engage with as many Canadians as possible but also provided us with essential statistically valid public opinion research data. Every Canadian household was invited to participate, and more than 360,000 individuals took the time to share their views on democracy. We thank them for doing that. It is indeed rare for a government to be able to engage in such a significant national dialogue.
As the electoral system is a foundational component of any democratic system, I think all hon. members would agree that any significant change in how we vote must have the broad support of Canadians.
As was announced on February 1 of this year, these consultation efforts revealed that there is no broad consensus throughout the country to replace the current voting system or on what a preferred new system would look like.
We learned that Canadians value the direct relationship between their members of Parliament and the constituents they represent and the ability of these constituents to hold their elected representatives directly to account.
Therefore, our government has taken and will continue to take concrete steps to work with all parliamentarians to advance the five principles of the special committee's mandate. These principles are effectiveness and legitimacy, public engagement, accessibility and inclusiveness, integrity, and local representation.
In his report following the 2015 election, our former chief electoral officer made a number of recommendations aimed at modernizing the Canada Elections Act. The Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs is currently considering these recommendations. To date, two interim reports have been tabled, with further feedback expected.
Another important step that we have taken to advance these principles is the introduction of Bill C-33, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act. This legislation seeks to increase inclusion and voter participation by breaking down barriers that discourage Canadians from voting. It would also enhance confidence in the integrity of Canada's elections.
Bill C-33 addresses many of the concerns we have heard from Canadians in response to the changes made by the former government's Fair Elections Act. Bill C-33 reflects our government's focus on how we can help all members of our society gain access to the democratic process, including youth, seniors, indigenous Canadians, new Canadians, those with disabilities, and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
Returning to the special committee's work, I would note that the committee made a number of important recommendations that extended beyond the foundational changes to the voting system, and I would like to address a few of those now.
Let us start with committee recommendation 3, which calls on our government to not bring in mandatory voting at this time. Our government agrees with the committee that mandatory voting is not the correct approach at this time. However, we are committed to taking steps to encourage greater civic participation and greater citizen literacy to increase voter turnout in future federal elections.
Bill C-33 aims to increase voter participation by reducing barriers posed by voter identification, expanding the Chief Electoral Officer's mandate to undertake broad education campaigns, and creating a national register of future electors.
Furthermore, the government will continue to explore avenues to remove barriers to participation and improve voter turnout. We will do this by working with our partners and all Canadians. Our work will be informed by the recommendations of the Chief Electoral Officer and the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.
Another committee recommendation, number 4, advises against allowing online voting at this time. Again, we agree, and while Canadians who participated in mydemocracy.ca agreed that online voting would improve voter turnout, their support was contingent on the need for solid assurance that such a system would not be vulnerable to manipulation by hackers. Similar concerns were heard from the experts before the special committee.
Recommendations 5 and 6 call on Elections Canada to explore the use of technology to make voting more accessible, particularly for people with disabilities, while also ensuring the overall integrity of the voting process. The former chief electoral officer has made similar recommendations, and the government will consider them carefully in light of PROC's own deliberations. We will also consider consultations led by the Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities on broader measures to help disabled Canadians participate in our democracy.
Recommendation 8 calls on the government to amend the Canada Elections Act to create a financial incentive that encourages political parties to run more female candidates. The government acknowledges that more must be done to support the participation of women in Canada's democratic life, and we urge all parties to more aggressively recruit, encourage, and support female candidates. As such, the government is committed to building on existing measures as well as to considering innovative approaches to further this goal.
For example, last year Status of Women Canada solicited applications for projects to create inclusive public spaces to increase the participation of women, including indigenous women, in the democratic life of our country. The call consisted of two themes: empowering women for political action to promote the participation of women in political life, and empowering women for community action to improve conditions for women by amplifying women's voices and enhancing their civic participation. A total of 14 projects have been approved for funding since the spring of 2016, totalling an investment of $8.7 million over the next three years.
Recommendation 9 of the special committee report calls on our government to include youth in the national register of electors before they reach the voting age. Our government is very much in favour of this recommendation. In fact, we have already included a national register of future electors in Bill C-33.
Canadians have told us that they want to encourage young people to vote, and research has found that when young people vote in one election, they are more likely to make it a lifelong habit. The Chief Electoral Officer recommended that we prepare young people to vote. It would happen by introducing pre-registration. The amendments to the Canada Elections Act in Bill C-33 would allow Elections Canada to work with young people in schools and other settings to register to vote. Young Canadians aged 14 to 17 would be able to pre-register and to access educational resources as well as other information about our democracy, elections, and voting. Upon turning 18, they would be automatically added to the national register for voting and would be ready to cast that all-important first vote.
The 10th recommendation made by the committee has a similar theme. It asks the government to empower Elections Canada to encourage a higher voter turnout. We agree with this recommendation, as a lack information can create a significant barrier to participation. Under the previous government's legislation, the Chief Electoral Officer can only conduct educational programs for primary through grade 12 aged children. The Chief Electoral Officer has recommended that the mandate be extended to conduct education programs for all Canadians. We agree, and that is why our government has included a provision in Bill C-33 to allow the Chief Electoral Officer to undertake non-partisan educational programs aimed at providing information to all Canadians.
During our national electoral reform engagement tour, Canadians told us that they wanted more done to improve civic literacy and to build knowledge about Canadian democracy. They told us that they want us to make it easier to vote. They want to make it easier to learn about voting and the democratic process, and they want to make sure that as many Canadians as possible who are eligible to vote have an opportunity to do so.
Although this is reflected in the measures in Bill C-33 I have already mentioned, the bill has several other key measures that underscore the efforts we would make to improve democratic participation in our country. First, it would allow the Chief Electoral Officer to authorize the use of voter information cards as identification. Elections Canada piloted the use of the VIC as ID in 2010, and in the 2011 general election, approximately 900,000 Canadians, at more than 5,600 polling stations, were eligible to use the card as ID. The initiative was particularly useful at polling places such as long-term care homes and seniors' residences.
Unfortunately, the former government's Fair Elections Act prevented Canadians from using the voter ID card as ID in the 2015 election. Last autumn, the CEO recommended to the procedure and House affairs committee that the practice to use the card as ID be re-established. He said that this would be particularly helpful for three groups that have difficulty proving residency: youth, seniors, and indigenous voters.
Reinstating the VIC would increase access to voting for a number of Canadians.
Second, Bill C-33 would re-establish vouching so that a Canadian citizen could vouch for another to allow him or her to vote. Before the Fair Elections Act, an eligible Canadian voter could vouch for someone who needed to prove his or her identity and residence but lacked proper ID. The limitation on vouching created a significant barrier to voting.
A Stats Canada survey last year estimated that some 172,000 Canadians said they were unable to vote because they lacked proper ID. This is a particular problem for indigenous people living on reserve and homeless people.
Third, Bill C-33 would help Elections Canada clean up data in the national register of electors. This is in response to the Chief Electoral Officer's request for more tools to improve the register. Our bill, if passed, would give Elections Canada new resources to refine the register's data and to let it operate more effectively.
Fourth, it would improve the public's confidence in the integrity of our elections by addressing concerns raised related to the independence of the commissioner of Canada elections as a result of the Fair Elections Act. The commissioner is a non-partisan official responsible for investigating potential voting issues, such as voter fraud or financial irregularities. The commissioner ensures that Canada Elections Act rules are followed.
Previously, from 1974 to 2014, the Chief Electoral Officer appointed the commissioner, and the commissioner reported to the Chief Electoral Officer within Elections Canada. The previous government's Fair Elections Act transferred the commissioner to the office of the director of public prosecutions. We heard from Canadians during electoral reform dialogues that there were concerns that the commissioner would be subject to less independence. Bill C-33 would enhance confidence in the integrity of the elections system by clarifying this situation.
Finally, it is estimated that Bill C-33 would expand voting rights to more than one million Canadians living abroad. Today, Canadians living abroad may only vote within five years of leaving Canada and must have an intention to return. These restrictions are currently being challenged before the Supreme Court of Canada. Our bill would remove a barrier to voting for those Canadians who, even though they choose to live abroad, care about the future of our country and want to have their voices heard. This proposal does not impact Canadian Armed Forces voters, who already have a full right to vote, regardless of where they are posted.
I want to touch briefly on the Minister of Democratic Institutions' mandate to protect our electoral system from cyber-attacks. Working with her colleagues, the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness and the Minister of National Defence, the minister has asked the Communications Security Establishment to analyze proactively the risks to our electoral system and to release a public report. Further, we will ask the CSE officer for advice for political parties on cybersecurity best practices.
In conclusion, the government is greatly appreciative of the special committee's work in studying electoral reform as well as other important issues they raised as part of their study. We remain committed to strengthening Canada's democratic institutions and processes. Bill C-33 would remove voting roadblocks, encourage participation, and create a level playing field for political parties. We are also working to defend the Canadian electoral process from cyber-threats and are increasing transparency in the political fundraising system.
Why take these actions? It is because Canadians value their democratic institutions, which remain the envy of the world. Our system is trusted by Canadians and is renowned worldwide. Our government remains committed to improving, strengthening, and protecting our democracy. The work of the Special Committee on Electoral Reform represents an important contribution to these efforts.