Mr. Speaker, it is customary in this House not to make reference to the absence of other hon. members, but we can talk about our own. I was not in the House yesterday, but I saw on television that the government House leader and member for Windsor West was back in the House. I wish to join my hon. colleagues and yourself, Mr. Speaker, to say, as you did yesterday, how much he was missed in this House and how happy I am to see him back in good health.
Regarding Bill C-63, on the basic principle of having a permanent electoral list, the official opposition cannot have too many reservations. It can therefore be said that we support the bill in principle.
That said, let us now look at the timing of this legislation. As it enters the last year of its mandate, the government is now proposing to change the rules of the game.
The hon. government House leader referred earlier to discussions among the parties. A very broad consensus will be required, on the government side as well as on the side of the official opposition and the Reform Party, for any changes to be made before the next election, given how close we are to an election. That is why I salute and greatly welcome the government House leader's decision to refer immediately to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs the matter of establishing a permanent electoral list.
But I do have some concerns already, at this stage. Mr. Kingsley, no doubt and other people who have been involved in establishing permanent electoral lists provincially in conjunction with other witnesses and experts will have to shed light on certain problems.
The government House leader mentioned earlier that a list could be established from information collected before an election, therefore making lists available within five days after an election writ has been issued. I would just like to put on record what the chief electoral officer himself, Mr. Kingsley, told the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs at our April 30 meeting.
The chief electoral officer said the following in reference to the first scenario, namely the one mentioned by the solicitor general, and I quote:
The legislative changes to bring about the first scenario are elimination of enumeration within the election calendar and provisions to allow us to build the register outside the electoral period; reduction of the calendar to a minimum of 36 days from the current 47; authority to the chief electoral officer to use lists of electors provided by the provinces and territories; collection of additional information-as I mentioned earlier, date of birth and phone number-from electors; and implementation of a streamlined revision process. Those changes would be required by the end of June 1996.
This was several months ago and the provisions have yet to be passed. It seems somewhat illusory at this point to consider establishing a permanent electoral list for the next election.
Look at what happened in Quebec. The office of Quebec's chief electoral officer, Pierre-F. Côté, has been working for at least 18 months to establish a permanent electoral list, which is still not in effect.
First, statutory authority was granted by Quebec's National Assembly to provide legislative authority to establish a permanent electoral list for Quebec.
And then what happened in Quebec? Last year, when the referendum was held, and even before that, in September if I am not mistaken, Quebec's chief electoral officer held a census. When the referendum writ was made out, some time was spent updating this electoral list, which was used for the referendum.
Of course an important data bank could be set up at the federal level, which would probably help us to act faster. However, the real permanent list would be the one that would help us follow the voters and keep all the needed information thanks to computers, without invading the voters' privacy. We could follow the voters throughout Canada, but that is still not an option in Quebec, even after 18 months of work. People are still working on that project. The Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs will have to consider these issues.
I also wonder about something else. On October 3, in the French CBC news program Le Téléjournal , at 11 p.m., I happened to hear the government House leader tell Geneviève Rossier, a CBC reporter, that a permanent list will not be ready for the next election and then Mr. Kingsley, the Chief Electoral Officer, gave a somewhat different version of the facts, to say the least. This will have to be clarified before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. Mr. Kingsley was quoted as saying that he had convinced the government to reduce the campaign from 47 to 36 days.
Who convinced whom? These questions will be asked at the appropriate time. But the October 3 news report implied that the government was far from being convinced that a permanent electoral list could be implemented in time for the next election. The government should have acted before now, and we could have supported the initiative, which does not mean that we will not support the study the government wants to embark upon. Let us carry out this study, and if we cannot implement the recommendations in time for the next election, we will be able to do so for the following one.
Given the political situation in Canada, I do not think that the government is heading for a five-year mandate and will remain in office until autumn 1998. Logically, normally, according to our
tradition, this should be an election year. The list is expected to be made in spring. Of course, no definite dates are given. An enumeration could very well be initiated by the returning officer outside of a campaign period and then writs could be made out at some point. What would happen then? Would we go back to the old legislation? Would we go back to a 47 day electoral period? Would we proceed with a new enumeration, a new revision, new training for the enumeration and revision officers?
If that were to be cast in stone, with a 36 day period, the danger is that, under the existing law, we would have the preliminary list of electors not five days after the writs are issued, but ten days before election day. That is the first danger. It would be rather strange to have the preliminary list of electors ten days before election day.
What would be the adverse effects of that? The amount each political party is authorized to spend for the election is based on the preliminary list of electors. Therefore, we would know only ten days before election day what budget is allocated to each of our ridings. It is difficult to plan our election expenses if we do not know what our budget is until the end of the campaign.
Even though everybody agrees that the 47 day period is too long, if it is not compatible with a computerized list available at the beginning of the electoral period, we will have to make sure, at the hearings of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, that it is not reduced to 36 days because we would then be forced to run an election campaign and a door-to-door revision campaign at the same time. For rural Mps like me, this would mean a revision of our 60 or so municipalities, street by street, concession by concession, to see if electors have been forgotten.
These are some of the points I wanted to raise with regard to the dangers. Of course, on the substance of the bill, it is not appropriate to take a stand at this stage since, according to the new Standing Orders of this House, what we are having now is a preliminary debate to clarify the issue and to see where we are headed.
There is another question that could be raised in committee and that the minister forgot to mention when he introduced the bill. I do not know if it is because of a difference in opinion between the government House leader and the Minister of Justice, but about ten days ago, the Minister of Justice told us that he would not contest an Alberta Court of Appeal decision authorizing third parties, including interest groups, corporations and unions, to spend as much money as they want to support one particular political option.
When the Minister of Justice said that he would not appeal to the Supreme Court, we might have thought that he would introduce a bill to control expenses by third parties. Since this is not the case, how can we not feel that the measure is directed at us somewhat?
Since the issue will not be submitted to the Supreme Court or to this House, it will have to be studied in committee. The question must be dealt with. We must know what control measures and limits the political parties may exercise during an election campaign and also the limits of third parties' participation. I can still recall the convincing arguments put forth by the Minister of Finances in support of the limitation of expenses of third parties.
These and other questions will have to be asked during the debate and they are the main themes I wanted to touch upon this morning after the speech made by the government House leader.