Mr. Speaker, I would like to begin my remarks this evening by acknowledging that this week is the 25th annual National Public Service Week.
Now is the time to celebrate the tireless work of the more than 250,000 public servants who support the Government of Canada and ensure that the needs of Canadians are met.
I want to sincerely thank my officials who have supported me since the day I was sworn in as Minister of Democratic Institutions. They work hard to ensure that I am supported in my duties as minister. I feel proud and fortunate to work with such an exemplary group of public servants. Even more than that, Canada can be proud of the strength of its public service, thanks to individuals such as these. I thank them for all that they do.
I am pleased to rise this evening to speak to this opposed vote. This particular motion deals with vote 1, in the amount of $129,915,146, under Privy Council Office program expenditures, in the main estimates for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2018. Of this $129 million, $1 million deals with the creation of the new, non-partisan, merit-based Senate appointments process.
As the Minister of Democratic Institutions, I am mandated to “restore Canadians' trust and participation in our democratic processes”. My job is to improve, strengthen, and protect Canadian democracy.
I was honoured when the Prime Minister asked me to take on this portfolio, as, to me, it is one that touches every single Canadian. The effectiveness of our democratic institutions and the health of our democracy is one of the most defining features of our identity as a country. We know that when Canadians have faith in their institutions, they are engaged. It is when they lose faith in these institutions that they become disengaged from the process and disheartened by their lack of voice in the system.
Unfortunately, Canadians' faith in the Senate was shaken during the Senate expense scandal that saw the previous Prime Minister's Office directly interfere in the day-to-day operations of the Senate. We listened when Canadians told us they were losing faith in this institution. We listened when they told us they did not think the Prime Minister's Office should be interfering in the careful deliberations of the upper house. We listened when they told us the Senate should not simply be a rubber stamp for the government in the House of Commons, but instead should be conducting its important constitutional role as the chamber of sober second thought. Under the previous government, the reputation of the Senate suffered.
Canadians care deeply about their democracy. It is our job as legislators to ensure that we continue to strengthen and protect our great institutions.
That is why we announced in our 2015 election platform that, once elected, a Liberal government would set up a non-partisan committee whose members would be appointed based on merit and would propose candidates to the upper chamber to the Prime Minister.
We made this commitment to restore Canadians' trust in this institution. The Senate, after all, plays a pivotal role in our Parliament, and as it is written in our Constitution, we cannot pass legislation without it going through the Senate.
On January 19, 2016, we established the Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments and launched a non-partisan, open, and transparent application process. It consists of three permanent federal members and two ad hoc members from each of the provinces or territories where a vacancy exists.
The independent advisory board has a mandate to provide non-binding, merit-based recommendations to the Prime Minister on Senate appointments by carefully assessing applications using merit-based criteria. The advisory board looks to identify Canadians who would make a significant contribution to the work of the Senate.
From now on, Canadians across the country will be able to apply to become a senator.
The changes we made reflect our commitment to make the Senate a more open and transparent institution, a Senate that is arm's length from the government and less partisan than ever before.
If Canadians want to apply to serve in the Senate, they simply have to visit the government's website, Canada.ca. Our government is committed to a merit-based assessment of Senate candidates. Our emphasis is on individuals who meet the merit-based criteria established by the government.
The first such criterion regards gender, indigenous, and minority balance. Individuals will be considered with a view to achieving gender balance in the Senate. Priority consideration will be given to applicants who represent indigenous peoples and linguistic minority and ethnic communities, with a view to ensuring that representation of those communities in the Senate is consistent with the Senate's role in minority representation.
The second criterion is non-partisanship. Individuals must demonstrate to the advisory board that they have the ability to bring a perspective and a contribution to the work of the Senate that is independent and non-partisan. They will also have to disclose any political involvement and activities. Past political activities would not disqualify an applicant.
The third criterion is knowledge. Individuals must demonstrate a solid knowledge of the legislative process and Canada's Constitution, including the role of the Senate as an independent and complementary body of sober second thought, regional representation, and minority representation.
The fourth criterion is personal qualities. Individuals must demonstrate outstanding personal qualities, including adherence to the principles and standards of public life, ethics, and integrity. Individuals must demonstrate an ability to make an effective and significant contribution to the work of the Senate, not only in their chosen profession or area of expertise but in the wide range of other issues that come before the other place.
Since spring 2016, our government has appointed 27 senators through the new appointment process. Whether they are from Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario or British Columbia, they who have taken their sears in the Senate are all outstanding Canadians who are doing an excellent job on behalf of all Canadians. These new senators are from a variety of professional backgrounds; they are former judges, Olympians, engineers, civil servants, teachers, police commissioners and more, and they will add their knowledge and skills to the wealth of experience each member already brings to our institution.
While we have taken steps to modernize the Senate through the appointment process, the Senate itself has undertaken a number of modernization efforts to fulfill its important constitutional role. For example, the Senate has begun inviting ministers to appear at Senate question period. This gives senators an opportunity to directly question ministers in relation to their portfolios and mandates and to hold the government to account. I had the opportunity to appear before the Senate during its question period in February this year.
Furthermore, a new special committee was created in the Senate to deal specifically with Senate modernization. This Special Committee on Senate Modernization has released 11 reports to date on a variety of modernization efforts the Senate can implement within the current constitutional framework. These reports deal with issues such as question period, the speakership of the Senate, regional interests, and more.
On May 11, 2017, the Senate adopted the seventh report of the Senate Standing Committee on Rules, Procedures and the Rights of Parliament. This report implemented recommendations from the Special Committee on Senate Modernization that amended provisions in the Senate rules to allow any group of at least nine senators to be recognized either as a recognized party in the Senate, as long as the party was registered under the Canada Elections Act, or had been in the last 15 years, or as a recognized parliamentary group formed for parliamentary purposes. This change is a response to the influx of senators who are now sitting with designations of Independent or Non-affiliated. There are currently 43 senators who are not sitting as part of a recognized political party.
The Senate has also made changes to its committee structure. In December 2016, a sessional order was moved to increase the size of Senate committees to accommodate non-affiliated senators and to give them better representation on committees that is more in line with their numbers in the chamber.
The Senate is taking an active role in modernization efforts, and we applaud all senators for their hard work in this regard.
Our efforts to modernize the Senate by making it more open and transparent go hand in hand with our vision of governance.
We promised Canadians a government that is fair, open, and transparent, and that is what what we are doing. In addition to reforming the Senate, the Prime Minister gave me a mandate to deliver on other government priorities, such as significantly enhancing transparency for the public at large and media in the political fundraising system for cabinet members, party leaders, and leadership candidates.
I recently introduced Bill C-50, an act to amend the Canada Elections Act (political financing). This bill, if passed, will make political fundraising more open and transparent for Canadians.
Any fundraising activity with a ticket price of $200 or more and involving the Prime Minister, cabinet members, ministers, party leaders, and leadership candidates currently sitting in the House of Commons must be publicly advertised at least five days prior to the event. In addition, a list of everyone in attendance must be submitted to Elections Canada within 30 days so that it can be posted online.
Canada, it should be repeated, has one of the strictest oversight systems in the world when it comes to the financing of political parties. We have strict spending limits, a cap on annual donations, and a ban on corporate and union donations, but that does not mean we cannot do more to improve and strengthen our institutions.
Canadians have a right to know more about political fundraising in Canada. Bill C-50 will give Canadians more information than ever before on fundraising. This is part of my commitment and this government's commitment to protect, strengthen, and enhance our democracy.
This commitment also led us to introduce Bill C-33, an act to amend the Canada Elections Act and to make consequential amendments to other acts. If passed, Bill C-33 would make it easier for Canadians to vote. It would make our elections more open and inclusive and would help to build confidence in the integrity of our voting system.
Specifically, the legislation would do the following. It would restore the Chief Electoral Officer's ability to educate and inform Canadians, especially young people, indigenous Canadians, new Canadians, and others about voting, elections, and related issues. It would help more Canadians to vote by restoring vouching and using the voter identification card as ID. Guided by the Charter of Rights, it would break down barriers preventing millions of Canadian citizens living abroad from voting in Canadian elections. It would invite more Canadian youth into our democracy by allowing voting pre-registration for Canadians aged 14 to 17.
If passed, this bill will strengthen the integrity of the electoral process by giving Elections Canada new tools to ensure that only Canadians with the right to vote are listed in the national register of electors. In addition, this legislation will increase the level of independence of the commissioner of Canada Elections.
Bill C-33 would keep our government's promise to repeal certain elements of the previous government's so-called Fair Elections Act, which made it harder for Canadians to vote.
We believe that Canada is better served when the franchise is extended to as many Canadians as possible, not restricted. We will continue to look at ways to encourage greater voter participation and engagement. We will continue to work with the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, which is currently studying the report of the Chief Electoral Officer, entitled “An Electoral Framework for the 21st Century: Recommendations from the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada Following the 42nd General Election”.
The committee has been studying this report, item by item, and I would like to thank them for all the work they have done so far in that regard. I very much look forward to receiving their recommendations.
In closing, I would like to take this opportunity today to remind Canadians that our work is not finished. Indeed, as I carry out my mandate, I will continue to work hard to protect, strengthen and improve our democratic institutions. To that end, I am currently working with the Minister of National Defence and the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness to assess our electoral process' degree of vulnerability to cyber threats.
I will also be looking at bringing forward options to create an independent commissioner to organize political party leaders' debates during future federal election campaigns, with a mandate to improve Canadians' knowledge of the parties, their leaders, and their policy positions.
I will also review the limits on the amounts political parties and third parties can spend during elections and propose measures to ensure that spending between elections is subject to reasonable limits.
Our democracy is strengthened when Canadians can get directly involved in our process. While casting a ballot is one of the most important ways to make our voices heard in our democracy, we have to ensure that Canadians know that it can be so much more than that. We can do this by continuing to examine what barriers exist between Canadians and participation and by learning how to create pathways for meaningful engagement.
I intend to do just that.