Mr. Speaker, today I rise to speak to Bill C-76, a bill that would, among other things, make changes to the way political parties, election candidates, and third parties could spend money both before and during elections.
Spending limits on candidates and parties for elections is not new. These have been around for decades. Contribution limits are a little more recent. Many Canadians remember the days when political fundraising was wide open. There was a time when political parties could hold a dinner in Toronto and banks, law firms, and lobbyists could buy tables at $10,000 a pop, paying for them with company money, and perhaps even deducting the cost as a business expense, which it was, rather than as a political contribution.
Eventually, successive governments changed the rules to diffuse political financial support away from Bay Street and toward individual Canadians, more typically motivated by personal conviction, as it should be, rather than by self-interest.
It was the Chrétien government that brought in the first contribution limits. With the Federal Accountability Act of 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper reduced the limit to $1,500 per person and banned contributions from corporations, unions, and charities. Later, he also got rid of the per-vote subsidy, recognizing that paying political parties for each vote rigs the system in favour of perpetuating the winner.
Another thing Prime Minister Harper did was tell his cabinet that he would not tolerate fundraising by his ministers from stakeholder groups that had dealings with their own departments. In other words, he would not tolerate cash for access fundraising.
The reason I bring up this brief history of political party fundraising is that the most important aspect of Bill C-76 is the way it would deal with election and pre-election spending.
The environment this bill is tabled in cannot be separated from the spending and fundraising environment the present governing party finds itself in. Make no mistake, the Liberals have struggled to raise money in the post-corporate-donation and post-per-vote-subsidy era, while at the same time, they have greatly benefited from spending by third parties. Some third parties are virtually Liberal proxies, and others are foreign entities with an agenda hostile to Canada's best interests.
When elected, the first thing these Liberals did was start holding these secret cash for access fundraisers, and we are not talking about a one-off. We are talking about a fundraising system wherein a significant part of Liberal fundraising relied on these kinds of events.
When the media and opposition parties criticized this practice over a period of months, the government House leader said, at least some 200 times in this House, that Canada's fundraising laws are among the strictest anywhere in the world. I agree with her. We have already mentioned this. I agree with her that the fundraising rules are strict. The problem is that the Liberals have tried to get around the rules, to get around the spirit, and in some cases the actual letter, of the existing elections law and fundraising practices.
Here are today debating Bill C-76, knowing that Canada, as she has said, already has very strict fundraising rules that make it very difficult to raise money any way other than through small donations from individual Canadians motivated by support for a party's ideas or its candidates.
What can a party in government do when it cannot raise enough money on the strength of its ideas and when it is carrying around the weight of its own dubious track record? When it is struggling to raise money, it can do two things: limit expenditures by political parties; or make it easier for third-party proxies, who are not subject to the same rules as a political party, and have these third parties do its job for it.
This bill would enable both of these things to happen. On the expenditures side, this bill would create a pre-writ expense restriction, which would help the Liberals, who are struggling to raise money. At the same time, this bill would allow registered third parties a similar cap during the pre-writ period, but then it would nearly double the amount these third parties could spend during the writ period itself, while doing nothing, absolutely zero, to address the broader issue of how foreign funding of registered third parties distorts our democracy.
This is the most important part of the bill. At an absolute minimum, the changes to the spending rules contained in Bill C-76 are a cynical attempt to compensate for the Liberals' inability to raise money on their own. At worst, this bill represents a wilful refusal to deal with attempts by foreigners to influence Canadian elections. The bill contains token lip service to the problem by creating a pre-writ election period in the summer before a scheduled fall election and by banning foreign contributions by third parties during that time. This bill would create an expense limit during that time, which, by the way, for third parties, would be nearly the same limit a political party would have. The government will, no doubt, claim that it has now addressed the problem by doing so, but nothing could be further from the truth. This bill would nearly double the amount third parties could spend during the writ itself, and again, would do absolutely nothing to address the much more serious problem of the way foreign organizations are undermining Canadian democracy.
How serious is the issue of foreign-funded third parties in our elections? How do we know that foreign interests are exerting influence in Canada's elections? The answer is simple. We know this because registered third parties that receive millions of dollars in foreign money openly bragged about their success in influencing the outcome of the last election. In the case of the Tides Foundation, which is the foreign paymaster of at least eight domestic third parties that campaigned in the last election, it openly states that its agenda is to shut down Canada's resource industry. Likewise, it claims credit for the substantial success that anti-energy agenda is currently enjoying under the current government.
Take the example of Leadnow. That is an organization funded by the anti-Canadian Tides Foundation. It boasts about the role it played in defeating the previous government. Its own published report following the 2015 election claimed, “We selected target ridings with field teams run by paid Leadnow organizers”. This post-election “Defeating Harper” report went on to detail how it systematically targeted ridings based on detailed, extensive, and expensive professional polling research and focused its attention on those critical ridings. It further took credit for the defeat of Conservative candidates in 26 out of 29 targeted seats and for having a 96% success rate for its endorsed candidates.
There is no mystery. It received foreign money and is bragging about how effective it was in using it to pay organizers to help defeat the previous government. This is not a conspiracy theory. It is not speculation. Foreign-funded third parties are out there bragging about how effective they are at influencing election outcomes.
If the Liberal government agrees that such interference is a problem, or if it is in any way uncomfortable with the prospect of foreign money compromising the integrity of Canadian elections, it should have used the opportunity before it to actually engage in meaningful reform of how third parties engage with the public during and between elections. The government could have, for example, made registered third parties subject to audit between elections. It could have banned foreign contributions altogether by making it an offence for a third party that participates in an election campaign to receive money between elections instead of simply during the summer pre-writ period.
The government could prevent third parties from colluding to defeat the intent of the law. It could reduce, instead of increase, the limit on third parties during the writ period.
However, the Liberals have chosen not to do any of these things, because these Liberals have proven over and over again how much they prefer a rigged game when it comes to elections. They are the same Liberals who wasted enormous energy on their absurd electoral reform program, which they actually used to suck in various activist groups like Leadnow, Fair Vote Canada, some union groups, and The Council of Canadians. They used that issue to gain support from these third parties and then did absolutely nothing to follow through on their promise. These are the same Liberals who relied on secret cash for access fundraising until they were caught, the same Liberals who tried to eliminate opposition tools through standing order changes, and the same Liberals who tried to give themselves a $7-billion slush fund through their so-called estimates reform. They are the same Liberals who are now trying to compensate for their failure to raise money through this bill.