Canada Elections Act Third Reading

Speeches

Bill C-23, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and other Acts and to make consequential amendments to certain Acts Senator Jane Cordy June 11th, 2014

Resuming debate on the motion of the Honourable Senator Frum, seconded by the Honourable Senator Tkachuk, for the third reading of Bill C-23, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and other Acts and to make consequential amendments to certain Acts;

Hon. Jane Cordy: Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Bill C-23, a bill that I believe will make elections less fair for Canadians.

It's June and the days are warmer, thank goodness. Summer is just around the corner, and here we go again with yet another slew of government bills being unnecessarily rammed through Parliament with little debate and yet another closure motion — so much for sober second thought.

There is absolutely no practical reason why this bill is thrust on us now and why it is being rushed into passage at this late stage. Here is a bill that should have been introduced by this government years ago to allow for proper scrutiny by Parliament and for input from Canadians. Instead, we wait until the last minute and then proclaim that the bill has to be passed this spring so that Elections Canada can work on it before the next election.

This bill should have been drafted with the consideration of non-partisan electoral experts and academics, not by politicians with axes to grind. All political parties should have been consulted if indeed the purpose of the bill is truly to make elections more democratic and to encourage more people to vote. The result of this wrong-headed and unilateral approach is the bill we have before us today — a hastily written, detrimental, ideological-driven and vindictive piece of legislation that The Globe and Mail accurately labelled as the 2014's worst piece of legislation.

One of Canada's most sacred rights is the right to vote, and one of society's most sacred institutions is our electoral system. Careful thought and consideration should always be given before tinkering with one of Canada's institutions charged with ensuring our democratic rights. This is one area of public policy that should never be altered without careful thought, and never unilaterally by any one political party. This government does not appear to be concerned with that.

Reforms to the Canadian electoral system are a delicate matter that should be handled with a sense of reverence. Changes to our electoral system should never be altered unilaterally by any one party and never in a fashion that provides that party with a perceived advantage at the polls. In this case, most experts and observers feel that this is exactly what has occurred with Bill C-23.

We have a Prime Minister and a government who appear intent on punishing Elections Canada for doing their job. Unfortunately, it is Canadians who will be punished with the passage of this bill.

At a time when increased investigative powers are required by Elections Canada to properly investigate election irregularities, this bill further erodes Elections Canada's investigative powers.

To listen to the Minister of Democratic Reform's sermons on this bill, the true evildoers are Canadian voters intent on manipulating our election process. The minister has been extremely vocal on this particular point, boisterously proclaiming ad nauseam, every chance he gets, that the process of vouching will be the downfall of our democratic system.

We have heard from Conservative caucus members that they have witnessed election fraud, but unfortunately none of them actually reported it to Elections Canada. Of course, this flies in the face of the evidence, where voter fraud is seen as virtually non- existent, according to a report by Harry Neufeld.

If the minister a truly concerned about election manipulation, he may wish to turn his attention not to the non-existent threat of Canadian voter fraud but to his own party where allegations of voter suppression in the last election are very real. I cannot think of a more grievous attempt at election manipulation than obstructing Canadians from casting a ballot. I think everyone in that chamber is disgusted by the alleged actions of a few campaign staffers who actually worked to obstruct Canadians from voting in the last election. I know we all agree that every effort must be made to prevent this type of thing from ever happening by any party's candidates or election team during a campaign. Those who engage in this type of activity should be penalized severely.

You would expect, then, that these fraudulent actions would be the focus of a bill to strengthen Canada's electoral system. Instead of bolstering Elections Canada's independence from government influence, and instead of increasing investigative powers and giving access to vital campaign data, this government gives no power to Elections Canada to compel witnesses to testify. This deficiency has stalled and ultimately led to the collapse of several Elections Canada investigations.

The bill also moves the person in charge of pursuing investigations of electoral wrongdoing out of Elections Canada and into a branch of government, effectively neutering Elections Canada's investigative powers.

The bill puts an unnecessarily short expiry date on campaign automated phone call data collected by the CRTC. The CRTC will store the scripts of all automatic phone messages from an election for a period of three years, after which they are legislated to destroy the records. This is essential information that is needed to investigate cases such as the robo-call scandal from the 2011 election.

There are allegations of voter suppression in the last election and, in a strange twist of irony, the government in its wisdom feels that the responsibility to promote and engage Canadians to turn out to vote falls solely on the political parties. Elections Canada is not only discouraged from promoting voter turnout; they are now prohibited from doing so by measures in this bill.

This is backward thinking. What possible benefit does restricting Elections Canada from promoting voter participation provide? Absolutely none. The minister argues that the historically low voter turnout in recent years is proof that voter promotion campaigns are not working and therefore prohibiting Elections Canadian from undertaking this type of activity is necessary. This logic could not be more flawed. Combatting voter apathy and promoting voter participation should be a priority for Elections Canada. We will be the only democracy in the world that prohibits their electoral body from educating the population on the electoral system. This will include prohibiting any form of voter awareness campaigns designed to encourage people to vote. Why is this government making concerted efforts to deter even more Canadians from voting?

Coincidentally, the plummeting voter turnout just so happens to coincide with Prime Minister Harper taking power and the seemingly new low level of discourse on Parliament Hill over the last few years. I would like to believe the political parties want Canadians to vote and I am truly puzzled that any political party would want to forbid Elections Canada from encouraging a high voter turnout. I strongly disagree with this measure and feel that the job of voter promotion is not mutually exclusive to Elections Canada or to political parties.

I believe much more can be accomplished with Elections Canada and political parties working together to encourage Canadians to vote at election time. Our democracy will only be stronger as more Canadians participate. Restricting Elections Canada's ability to educate the Canadian public on our democratic system and election policies just does not make sense and seems to be intended to further deter voter participation.

With all of the ministers blustered, decrying the non-existent voter vouching fraud, it was a show of misdirection to distract Canadians from the unfortunate fact that this bill is really an attack on Elections Canada, just the latest in a long line of Canadian institutions vindictively targeted by the Harper government. Bill C-23 is another bill that should be scrapped altogether and sent back to the drawing board.

With leading non-partisan experts on these matters not supporting this bill, it should give the government reason to pause and reflect on the legislation they hastily drafted, tinkered with in the other place and are now ramming through Parliament. Our democratic systems are too important for any one political party to unilaterally alter. This is especially true in the face of universal criticism that this bill is a seriously flawed piece of legislation. Independent experts and academics believe that, at worst, this bill is an attack on Elections Canada and, at best, moderately harmful to our democratic system and biased to the majority party.

We are constantly bombarded by this government to pass this urgent piece of legislation so that the powers that be will have sharper teeth, a longer reach and a freer hand in place before the next set election date in October 2015. But, honourable senators, as we have heard from expert testimony on this bill, you will be hard pressed to find anyone outside of the government caucus who would agree that this bill is either fair or good. However this criticism falls on deaf ears with this government, as they continue to run roughshod over Canada's once proud institutions and publicly smear the character of those who disagree with them.

Mr. Harper exclaimed that we won't recognize Canada when he is through with it. Sadly, honourable senators, this is becoming more of a reality every day. This bill is wrong and I cannot support it.