Mr. Speaker, today, for the last time, we will debate at third reading Bill C-63, an act to amend the Canada Elections Act, the Parliament of Canada Act and the Referendum Act.
It is with great disappointment that the official opposition found itself caught in this spiral that kept winding faster and faster as time went by.
My remarks will bear the stamp of civility while at the same time revealing a deep flaw, a major deficiency in the system for drafting and adopting electoral legislation.
Before starting my speech, I want to thank the chief government whip, the hon. member for Stormont-Dundas, for his excellent work on this issue although he was pitched into his new position as the chief government whip at the last minute to participate in a debate whose direction I feel eluded him. So, none of what I am about to say is directed at him personally.
However, I have been on the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs since the very beginning of this Parliament, in January 1994. At the time, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs was chaired by our colleague, the hon. member for Kingston and the Islands, who is now the Deputy Chairman of Committees of the Whole.
Over the weeks, months and years that the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs worked together, a relationship of trust was built that spread to every member of the committee. On many occasions, both the government and the opposition went the extra mile to achieve a consensus. Very seldom, since the beginning of the 35th Parliament, have we in the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs needed to take a vote. Generally, we would come to an agreement or, where unanimity was not possible, we would deal with matters at hand in such depth that the stakes were clear. No one came out feeling someone had-pardon the expression-pulled a fast one on them; all the ins and outs of the matter were on the table, and the way proceedings at the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs were rushed during the first session of the 35th Parliament was not justified.
To show you how much things have changed, let me explain to you how things were done. You probably remember, because it was debated at such length in this House, Bill C-69 to amend the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act. How was this bill developed in a non-partisan manner? And look how long it took.
First, on March 17, 1994, the hon. Leader of the Government in the House of Commons tabled in this House an order of reference that was debated. The order of reference read as follows:
That the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs be instructed to prepare and bring in a bill, in accordance with Standing Order 68(5), respecting the system of readjusting the boundaries of electoral districts for the House of Commons by Electoral Boundaries Commissions, and, in preparing the said bill, the committee be instructed to consider, among other related matters, the general operation over the past thirty years of the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act, including:
(a) a formula to cap or reduce the number of seats in the House of Commons;
(b) a review of the adequacy of the present method of selection of members of Electoral Boundary Commissions;
(c) a review of the rules governing and the powers and methods of proceeding of Electoral Boundary Commissions, including whether those Commissions ought to commence their work from the basis of making necessary alterations to the boundaries of existing electoral districts wherever possible;
(d) a review of the time and nature of the involvement of the public and the House of Commons in the work of Electoral Boundary Commissions;
That the committee have the power to travel within Canada and to hear witnesses by teleconference; and
That the committee report no later than December 16, 1994.
The order of reference proposed by the government House leader was adopted on Tuesday, April 19, 1994. This is an important date to remember. The Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs subsequently held meetings on the following dates in 1994: June 7, 9, 14 and 21; July 5, 6 and 7; September 27 and 29; October 4, 20 and 25; and November 1, 3, 15, 17 and 22. Following this, the committee tabled in the House Bill C-69, which was read for the first time on February 16, 1995. Second reading took place on February 25, 1995, while third reading was on April 25, 1996. The Senate passed the bill on June 8, 1995.
Taking into account only the process that took place in this House, a notice was given by the government House leader on March 17, 1994, and the bill finally passed third reading on April 25, 1995, more than 13 months after the House was notified.
The official opposition expected the same process. It expected the government to have the House pass an order of reference instructing the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to hold hearings and to prepare a bill on the establishment of a permanent register of electors for all of Canada.
We did some preliminary work anticipating that such an order would come. We listened to the people from Elections Canada, who came to tell us about certain theories, certain possibilities with respect to drawing up a permanent list and changing polling station hours in western Canada and the rest of the country.
The last hearing we had, in fact, was on April 30, when Jean-Pierre Kingsley, the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, came to make his last presentation and told us that he had to have legislation in place before the summer recess, before the end of June, so that it could be in effect for the next election. Thereafter, the official opposition was given no information whatsoever on developments.
What happened, while we were waiting in vain for an order of reference from the government? We honestly believed that the government had simply abandoned the idea of drawing up a permanent list of voters in the short term. The next thing we learned came not from the chairman of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, not through a government order in the House, but in the form of a telephone call I received in the afternoon of October 3 from Geneviève Rossier, a Radio-Canada journalist, asking me what I thought of the bill that was going to be tabled. Between April 30 and October 3, my information came from Radio-Canada. It is just a little frustrating for a parliamentarian to learn from Radio-Canada and CBC as well that a bill concerning the establishment of a voters list is going to be tabled.
Radio-Canada's 11 o'clock evening news confirmed that Mrs. Rossier had been right on the mark, because her interview with Mr. Kingsley and with the Leader of the Government in the House made it clear that a bill was in the offing.
Subsequently, the bill was tabled here in the House, for referral to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs before second reading. In fact, it was to be rushed through this committee with undue haste, so much so that it was actually difficult to follow the debate.
I submit that in a non-partisan matter that should have led to wide-ranging consultations across Canada on establishing a permanent list of electors, a fundamental amendment to the Canada Elections Act, we should have sought the broadest possible consensus.
As this debate draws to a close, I repeat that if today's vote were to show that the government does not have substantial support among the opposition parties, this bill should simply be withdrawn. It would not make sense and in fact it would be risky to go into an election when a bill to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Referendum Act is passed by the only party that has a majority. I say this because the Canada Elections Act does not exist for the benefit of one party or all parties, although they are affected by this
legislation. This legislation is above all important to the voters we represent.
The partisan approach to the consideration of this bill in committee, and all the murky circumstances around its tabling-I will get back to that in a minute-argue against the government going ahead if it does not enjoy substantial support from the opposition parties. The government and those who will be asked to take a second look at this bill will have to consider the following question: How was it passed?
Of course, there are a number of factors that could explain, not excuse, the present situation. The first session of the 35th Parliament was prorogued. A new session started last March. All parliamentary secretaries were replaced, including the hon. member for Kingston and the Islands who was Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House. Here was a man of consensus, a team worker who had managed to make the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs a non-partisan committee. His successor had to take over the committee in circumstances he was probably not able to control entirely and with an agenda that was not his own. I am not pointing the finger at him, but when all of the parliamentary secretaries are changed from one day to the next, there are major side effects.
The most important one is that the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs ended up with a chair who had no prior knowledge of the operations of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. He will learn in time, of course, but at a point when legislation involving the election process was being worked on by the members of that committee, there seems to have been no continuity in the chairmanship.
This is a direct link. If I remember correctly-and I stand to be called to order if my information is not correct-procedure and House affairs is the only committee headed by a parliamentary secretary. He is linked directly to the minister responsible for election legislation. The parliamentary secretary to the government House leader is linked directly with his minister, who ought normally to know where the government is headed in terms of the Elections Act.
Another unfortunate event beyond our control, and one which may well explain part of the situation, is the illness of the hon. Leader of the Government in this House. Obviously, when a man of this calibre, with all of his wealth of knowledge of this institution, has to take time off to recuperate and get back on his feet, the cabinet is missing a key element. We have all noted the effects the absence of the hon. member for Windsor West has had on the government. Far be it from me to criticize his behaviour in any way, but it is a factor to be considered. I quickly and carefully looked at the events that could have affected the consideration of this bill and how it was dealt with.
The consensus I spoke of earlier was at the time-and I refer to last spring-that we would have an order of reference to enable the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to draft a bill.
This would involve the committee's hearing witnesses; asking them questions; hearing people in videoconferences; doing simulations involving, for example, the opening of polls; meeting people from British Columbia to ask them what this means to them; having the broadest possible discussions so as to have the information needed, perhaps not for a consensus, but to know what is in the bill so that each member of the committee can say why a given comma is where it is.
The Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs prepared 23 drafts of Bill C-69. Twenty-three drafts were produced; the three parties were present. The Liberal Party, the Bloc Quebecois and the Reform Party were there for each of the 23 drafts. The changes made in the formulation of Bill C-69 were at the request of one or the other of the parties. Some even felt that we had taken too long. There is no such thing as too much time when one wants to do a good job. We produced an excellent bill that was both well drafted and easy to understand.
The official opposition voted against the bill, but knowing what was in it. We voted against it for one main reason: it did not retain as a criterion a 25 per cent minimum representation for Quebec. In fact, Bill C-69 should be reintroduced to be passed again so that it could apply to a subsequent Parliament. As for the rest, we know the bill inside out since all the parties have worked on it for more than a year.
For reasons best known to themselves, Reformers also voted against the bill. It was easy for them to speak to the bill since they were already familiar with its content.
Today, it is quite another story. Not only did the committee not develop the bill, not only was it obviously instructed to go full steam ahead, but we now find ourselves at the last minute with amendments to be tabled.
Perhaps some of this can be explained by the fact that Elections Canada resigned-this is an interesting slip of the tongue. It did not resign, its offices were moved from Telesat Court to Slater Street. Also, from time to time, they are seen in the Liberal Party's lobby, which we find disturbing.
Elections Canada's attitude on this issue is bizarre. I mentioned earlier that Mr. Kingsley had appeared before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs on April 30. In his testimony, he said that, if we wanted to establish a permanent
voters list, we should do so before the summer recess, which was not done.
The question I asked myself then and still ask myself now is: Did Elections Canada lose faith in the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs and stop dealing with this committee, which is responsible for electoral issues, preferring to go directly to the government, or did the reverse happen? Is it the government that lost faith in the committee, because it was not proceeding quickly enough and thus decided to rely on Elections Canada? We still do not know.
Given the nature of the situation, there is an element of doubt. Some trust will have to be re-established, because it was destroyed. Members of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs have a right to wonder whether Elections Canada played a double role.
Since we did not get answers, because the answers provided by Elections Canada officials who testified before the committee were vague in many respects, we have reasons to believe that the situation was foggy, to say the least, as regards relations between Elections Canada and the government's legislative body, that is to say, us, and its executive branch, which is the cabinet. Indeed, all these questions remain.
I do hope, and I am optimistic given the quality of the people working for Elections Canada, that these bridges can be rebuilt. However, I ask Elections Canada officials to be very cautious when they have to deal with both the legislative and the executive powers. The principle that no one can serve two masters at the same time is even more important in the case of legislation such as the Canada Elections Act and the Referendum Act.
These were our observations on the form. Let us now look at the content as such. First, we are told, as regards the establishment of a permanent voters list, that the bill is essential because it will allow us to create such a list. I believe all the members of this House who spoke on the issue support the principle of a permanent voters list and a shorter election campaign that would last 36 days instead of 47.
I encountered very little opposition to the principle from any party, but then there is a second question: When will the permanent list of voters be ready? The list the government is talking about will not be ready for the next election, and will not be used to elect the 301 members of the 36th Parliament. Barring an early election, in the case of a minority government, that list will be ready for the election of the 37th Parliament, a good 6 or 7 years from now. This is the bill we are debating under emergency procedures, and with time allocation yesterday, without in-depth debate by the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, and also without in-depth debate during consideration at report stage yesterday, and at second reading, not that there actually was one, and today, again under time allocation, at third reading.
Why rush through legislation that will be used only 6 or 7 years from now? That is the real question. The question is not whether or not we want a permanent list. Of course we do. But not at any cost, and certainly not in such a headlong rush.
They could very well have waited and gone with the principle that the next election campaign would operate under the existing legislation, but that the enumeration for the next election would be the last door-to-door enumeration, that the data gathered for the election of the next Parliament would form the basis of a permanent list of voters, that would then be used in 6 or 7 years' time to elect the 37th Parliament. That was the only amendment we really needed: authorize Canada's chief electoral officer to use the next enumeration done during an election campaign, and after the writs are issued, authorize him to use this list as the basis for drawing up his permanent list of voters.
Instead, we have a bill with a multitude of provisions: it tries to cover everything and falls miserably short. Consequently, we find ourselves faced with a bill most members of this House are not very familiar with, since we have not had the time to go into what it is really all about, all of its objectives, or how it intends to attain them, but I will address a few points. In principle, yes, a permanent electors list, because the tools are there, the computer possibilities are there, the data banks are there to establish one.
We are no longer in the horse and buggy age, we are in the age of the Internet, with easily accessible data banks on voters. Let a permanent list be drawn up, then, but not in the way Bill C-63 proposes.
Second, we have raised the question of the terminology used in Bill C-63, the fact that Bill C-63 and the Elections Act in general speak of " résidence ordinaire '' or ``main residence'', as the qualification for voting in a given riding.
This concept of "main residence" is a concept of common law. It is not a concept in Quebec civil law. I respect this notion in common law. Its application to the provinces operating under common law is most understandable, but as far as Quebec is concerned, where we have had a codification of our French legal customs since 1866, the concept of "main residence" is not an acceptable one. In Quebec, the concept of "domicile" is what must be used.
Am I surprised by this? Yes and no. Let us recall that on November 29, 1995, the Right Hon. Prime Minister tabled a resolution before this House concerning recognition of Quebec as a distinct society.
What does that motion say?
Whereas the people of Quebec have expressed the desire for recognition of Quebec's distinct society;
(1) the House recognize that Quebec is a distinct society within Canada;
(2) the House recognize that Quebec's distinct society includes its French-speaking majority, unique culture and civil law tradition;
(3) the House undertake to be guided by this reality;
(4) the House encourage all components of the legislative and executive branches of government to take note of this recognition and be guided in their conduct accordingly.
And the motion was passed by the Liberal majority in this House.
There is an order from the House encouraging "all components of the legislative and executive branches of government to take note of this recognition" of the distinct society. It is also an order to law editors to take note that there is a society based on the French civil code in Canada and that society is in Quebec. When our law editors write a text in which they use the terms "main residence" or "résidence ordinaire", they are in fact infringing on an order of the House instructing them to take note of the fact that Quebec is a distinct society.
During the debate on November 29, 1995, we said that the government was just paying lip service to this concept when it said it would recognize the distinct society. Today we have proof positive. Even the law clerks in the Privy Council and at the Department of Justice failed to take into consideration the concept of "domicile" which is used in Quebec in accordance with the civil code and goes back to 1866, Quebec having legislative authority in this area pursuant to sub-section 92(13) of the British North America Act, 1867 . This power is not recent. It has been around since well before November 29, 1995. In fact, it goes back to well before 1876, because it was in the custom of Paris which we codified in 1866.
That being said, we had no illusions on November 29, when the government rushed in with a motion recognizing Quebec as a distinct society. The hon. member for Calgary West raised a few questions yesterday about this distinct society. Perhaps I could take a few minutes to explain what distinct society means, because everyone talks about distinct society but is not necessarily referring to the same thing.
There is the distinct society of November 29, 1995, which means nothing at all. There is the distinct society of Charlottetown, which is equally meaningless. And there was the distinct society of Meech Lake, remember, the one that was supposed to mean something but was never ratified because two legislatures, Manitoba and Newfoundland, refused to give their consent.
What was the meaning of distinct society in the Meech Lake accord? It meant that Canada's Constitution would have a section with priority over sections 91 and 92, essentially, the two sections dealing with the distribution of powers between the provinces and the federal government.
In other words, one section would be above these two and would indicate to the courts that they were to interpret sections 91 and 92 of the Canadian Constitution in light of the fact that Quebec must, in order to meet its objectives, have more powers than the other provinces.
That is the distinct society in the Meech Lake accord. It was not the November 29 one, nor the Charlottetown one, it was the Meech Lake one. I am sure the hon. member for Calgary West, even though he did not share the intentions we had at the time for the distinct society, understood very well, since he and his colleagues explained the meaning of distinct society at the time quite well to their electors in western Canada: a section establishing a special status and entirely distinct and different powers for Quebec.
Even that was denied. Two legislatures abstained from ratifying it. Even the 1987 Meech Lake accord was rejected. That was a pity.
On the other hand, it made it possible to get at the heart of the issue. Like the present bill, the Meech Lake accord was concluded behind closed doors. People were not consulted in their communities pretty much throughout the country. It was an agreement between 11 first ministers who tried to have their legislatures ratify, without public consultation, without a referendum, the new system of law wanted for Canada.
Since then, it has somehow become customary, in constitutional affairs, to consider referenda as the norm in Canada. We experienced it in Charlottetown, we experienced it in Quebec last October 30, and we will experience it again one day on the same issue, in circumstances which, this time, should be more favourable.
This bill goes further than the Meech Lake accord, because it is important to recall what happened in Meech Lake. The Bloc Quebecois, the official opposition, is the result of the failure of the Meech Lake accord. If the Meech Lake accord had been ratified by Manitoba and by the Newfoundland Legislative Assembly, we would not be here today. We are the result of the failure of the Meech Lake accord.
The leader of the Bloc Quebecois, Mr. Bouchard, left the government following the failure of the Meech Lake accord, because the hon. member for Sherbrooke, who still sits in this House, wanted to water it down. It was at that moment. We came very close to an agreement which, it seems, would have been enough for a majority of Quebecers at the time. This would not have been the case for several members of the Bloc who, because of their sovereignist convictions, felt that the accord did not go far enough, but a magic bond was formed at that time.
When the Meech Lake accord failed, Quebecers of all political stripes-members of the Liberal Party, the Parti Quebecois and other, less representative political movements-rallied behind the notion of distinct society in the Meech Lake accord, a notion that no one defends any more.
The bill mentions the use of some lists of electors. So, the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada will be allowed to hold an enumeration. This will probably take place next April if the bill is passed by the House and the Senate. For approximately three weeks, the Chief Electoral Officer may send people door to door to do an enumeration. In some provinces, he may also make arrangements with provincial electoral officers. This will certainly be the case in Alberta and Prince Edward Island, where programs and lists have been established with the help of Elections Canada as part of a joint project with the provinces.
As for British Columbia and Quebec, since we represent the people of Quebec, Quebec's lists will neither be used nor usable. One of the amendments put forward in committee, without specifically naming any province, excludes the use of Quebec's permanent list for the purposes of Bill C-63. This list will be available as of next May 1, that is, in the days following the end of the Chief Electoral Officer's mandate. Why? Because a little technical, harmless-looking amendment says that a provincial list may be used provided the door-to-door enumeration was conducted in the previous 12 months. In Quebec, however, the enumeration used to establish a permanent list was done in September 1995, whereas the list itself will be ready and completely up-to-date May 1. Since these two events are more than 12 months apart, the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada cannot use the list of electors.
And yet the list will be established using taxpayers' money, those same taxpayers who paid for the establishment of the permanent list in Quebec and for the expertise of those who established it, and they will have to watch as enumerators do it all over again, when we could have had just one list using the same data base. We have only to redistribute voters according to the proper ridings. This is feasible; Quebec does it for municipal elections where districts are different. We have only to exchange information and communicate, and we will be able to use Quebec's list.
Savings would exceed $15 to $20 million; we are not talking about $10,000. Or even the cost to reprint an amended bill. Savings would be significant. At a time when everybody is asked to tighten their belt, the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada is not allowed to use Quebec's electoral list, or British Columbia's for that matter.
My colleagues will raise other points. For my part, I am going to deal with the issue of polling hours. Bill C-63 contains clauses
providing for the staggering of polling hours across Canada. As a result, polling stations in the east will stay open later. For instance, in Ottawa, polling stations will stay open until 9.30 p.m., whereas in British Columbia they will stay open until 7 p.m.
There has been no trial run. What appears in Bill C-63 has not even been submitted by Elections Canada to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs as a working assumption. They pulled this out of a hat and this is the rabbit we got. The trick was that we did not know.
Yesterday, during debate, I listened to my colleagues from central Canada who, much more than I, will be affected by the change, and the closing of polls at nine thirty did not seem to represent a major change for them; for British Columbia however, closing the polls at seven means a very major change. Yesterday, the members for Surrey-White Rock-South Langley and Saanich-Gulf Islands mentioned all the drawbacks this measure could cause.
The member for Surrey-White Rock-South Langley said that many constituents from the town of Surrey and the vicinity, who work in Vancouver and finish working at five or five thirty, will not make it back to their riding in time to vote if the polls close at seven. That is a serious problem.
I think we should put aside the section on the polling hours and, since there is no need to hurry, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs should study Bill C-307 presented by the member for Vancouver East and hear witnesses, like the people from British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Atlantic region, to find out what they think.
How will that measure be applied in real life? Will we have to allow advance voting for 10,000 people in each riding? This is of serious concern to us. We ask the government to reconsider that provision and to allow Bill C-307 to be studied further since we have sufficient time to deal with this before the start of the next election campaign.
The last point also concerns the polling hours. Not only are we reducing the number of hours for the polls, we are also reducing from 4 to 3 the minimum number of hours that employers will have to give their employees for the vote.
If we remove the busiest hours, what we could call the golden hours of polling, we will have problems, because most people do not vote in the morning, at lunch time or early in the afternoon, but right after work. Yet, what we are saying to the people in Surrey, Langley, Vancouver, Squamish, and even in Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta is: "You will have to vote much earlier, or else you will not have time to go to the polling station". What is the voter
going to do? What are members of electoral organizations going to do? They will have to work like mad to let people vote in advanced polls, they will be pulling their hair out on election day, because they will not have enough time.
What I am saying is that we did not think long enough about the opening hours of polling stations and I believe we would be better off keeping the present system for one more election rather than rushing into something that will make people who are unable to take time off work feel disenfranchised. We are trying to deal with a problem, but coming up with a cure which is worse than the disease.