Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my friend from Cowichan—Malahat—Langford for stepping in at the very last minute with a very articulate and thoughtful 10-minute speech, as there was some confusion in the House as to who was next. He is a rookie no more, if he is able to come forward like he did on such a complicated bill as the one we have before us, Bill C-76. It is 350 pages long. It deals with a whole suite of issues with regard to our elections here in Canada.
The process by which the Liberal government got us here has been as much of a challenge and raised more questions than provided answers to Canadians, in terms of who is actually running things over there. When I say “things”, I mean important things like how we have our elections here in Canada.
Let me start by saying that the Liberals promised at the time of the last campaign two and a half years ago to undo some of the changes forced through Parliament by the previous Conservative government in what it called the Fair Elections Act. Many Canadians came to know it as the unfair elections act, simply because in many aspects it sought to do what is often called in political circles “voter suppression”. It did so by changing the standards by which Canadians are able to vote, changing the ID requirements that seemed, both on the surface and in substance, to target certain groups of Canadians—those of lower income, first nations, and young people—in terms of voting ID requirements, in banning the Chief Electoral Officer from doing things like educating Canadians about how it is important to vote, and with a number of other issues that came out as we went to the polls in 2015.
For example, the previous government realized that it had a bit more money than the other parties. One little loophole in our elections act was to have an incredibly long election period. By doing that they essentially doubled the amount of money that parties could spend in that election.
I never really heard a good rationale as to why we needed a 78-day election, as if Canadians could not sit and listen to the views of various candidates in their local ridings, listen to the national leaders, hear a couple of debates, and then make up their minds. Even in a riding like mine, which is 330,000 square kilometres, we have never found it all that much of a struggle in 35 to 40 days to be able to get out and meet people.
The government did that. The previous Conservative government did that because they could spend more money. They had more money so they spent more money. It did not work out in the end, but it was an attempt that is now being fixed by Bill C-76.
How we got here is a serious concern. The promises made then by the newly minted Liberal government were to undo much of what had been done with regard to vouching, education, and all of these other issues by the previous government, and it introduced a bill to that end. The government said, “Here is our bill. It's going to get rid of the stuff that Stephen Harper did” . Then it sat on it for 28 months.
We were writing to the government. We were calling the government and the democratic institutions minister out, both the previous one and the current one, asking where the bill was. Tick tock. We had heard from Elections Canada, which runs our elections, that it needed any legislation and major changes to be passed as of April this year, not introduced but passed through the House of Commons, through the Senate, and to receive royal recommendation, so that it could implement the changes. Any delay would risk the changes coming to fruition in time for the next election.
It made sense. Elections Canada needs that time to train its workers, to educate Canadians, especially if there is anything big coming. Well, Bill C-76 is big. It is 350 pages long. The Liberals themselves call it a “generational change”. If it is a generational change with regard to our elections, one would think there would be some urgency to introduce it in time so that the Chief Electoral Officer and all the people who work during our elections would have time to implement it. However, the due date for the homework came and went.
The day after the Liberals introduced this omnibus bill, this generational change, they still had not hired a Chief Electoral Officer, by the way, a role that hung vacant for 18 months. Apparently they finished interviews last October. This morning I met the nominee for the first time and we asked him about the process. Yes, he had interviewed back in October and he got a call in February. It was a nice little chat. The first time he heard about an actual nominee was the first time we as parliamentarians had heard about a new Chief Electoral Officer from the pages of the Toronto Star.
The Liberal government wanted to leak its nominee, so it did, and then two weeks later, that nominee was gone. Then there was a new letter from the Prime Minister announcing a new nominee, and we asked, quite rightly, what happened to the other guy? Did he do something wrong? Was he no longer qualified? He seemed qualified. There was no explanation from the Prime Minister or the minister.
Many people describe our democracy and elections like an ecosystem: all the rules are in place and there is a person bringing the rules forward and enforcing them. We kind of want it to be like a great hockey game. At the end of a great hockey game, we do not really picture the referees, do we? They did not really factor into it too much. They called penalties fairly for both sides and administered the game. That is what we want the Chief Electoral Officer to be like. We want him to have a clear and fair set of rules for everyone to play by, calling out the bad actors when they do something wrong, but we do not really want them front and centre. We do not want the rules to be the question; we want the competitors, those seeking the vote and the hope of Canadians, to be the story. That gets very difficult if major rule changes are introduced at the last minute. If we are hiring the referee at the last minute, we make the whole job of running an election in Canada, which is difficult already, even harder.
With a Liberal government that had blatantly betrayed a promise that was repeated 1,800 times to Canadians that 2015 would be the last election under first past the post, a government that has already lost the favour and trust of many Canadians when it comes to democratic voting issues, one would have thought there would be a whole bunch of urgency and importance placed on something like this to try to regain some of that trust, the basic trust in the competence of the government to bring in rules, the basic trust in the government's willingness to work with the other parties. We have had a long tradition in Canada, regardless of which government is in power, that whenever we make major changes to the rules that govern our democracy, there would be not just an attempt but also a standard to achieve consensus among the major political actors, so that Canadians could understand that there was no bias in the rules and that the rules were not put in place to favour one party over another. The way to do that is to consult meaningfully, to seek and achieve the agreement of each of the parties.
Unfortunately, that tradition, which is not required in law but is something we should consider, was broken by the previous Conservative government. It wanted to bring in changes that the other parties and Canadians broadly did not like or agree with, and rather than negotiate and work with us in the full light of day, the then Harper government forced the debate through Parliament. It shut down debate time and time again, and the Liberals screamed as loud as anybody else about how unfair that was. We have a raft of quotes from Liberals in this House from that time.
The Liberals in fact introduced an opposition day motion condemning the Conservative government for doing it, and voted for that, saying, “How dare they shut down debate in Canada's Parliament around our election laws.” What did we see last week? The Liberals introduced a motion to shut down debate about changes to our election laws, as if they had not read their own speeches, as if they had not participated in the election that got them here, in which they said they would be different and would not do the terrible, nasty tricks that Stephen Harper did, and we believed them. We believed them because it had been so blatant and they had a mandate to be better, to be different from the previous government.
I should say before my time runs out that there are, of course, a number of things in this bill that New Democrats like: the reinstitution of vouching; creating the future electors list; helping folks with disabilities; helping veterans vote freely and fairly; making education part of the mandate of the Chief Electoral Officer, and not just how, where, and when to vote, but why to vote, especially encouraging young people. The Liberals make it so hard sometimes. They make it so hard to agree with them sometimes. Sometimes they do the right thing, but they do it so late, so poorly, and they do not talk to anybody. There is this strange sense of entitlement of their, one that I think they have to clean out their system. I do not know if it is possible for them to do that, because it has been baked in there, for some of them, for generations.
They have to understand that for the health of our democracy, for the health of that ecosystem, to grow and be nourished, we need to listen to all sides. We need to have respect for all sides, whether we agree with them or not. We need to come up with election laws that Canadians can trust to be non-partisan and to be fair for all actors involved, so that when Canadians cast their votes, they know that the rules are fair, the referee is fair, and that they can freely and fairly decide who will speak on their behalf.