Murray Rankin - Speech to Bill C-23 - Fair Elections Act

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to Bill C-23, the so-called fair elections act, at the second reading stage. I wish to say at the outset that I am strongly opposed to this initiative on both process and substantive grounds, which I would like to address in turn.

On the process side, it is very difficult for me to explain in my riding of Victoria just how a bill of over 240 pages could be introduced on a Tuesday and the Conservative government would seek to invoke time allocation, or closure, on Wednesday, after only two speeches.

There was a 17-month delay from the month the Conservatives committed to table this bill. It was promised for September 2012.

There was no consultation with Elections Canada or with other parties or MPs, which I understand has been the tradition in this place, before this foundation statute, this quasi-constitutional law, came forward. One day a 244-page bill was dropped on the table. Debate was forced to begin the next day.

The government refused to agree to an NDP motion to send the bill to committee after first reading, which would have allowed wholesale changes to the bill, unlike what is going on at present.

Let us not finally forget that, surprise, surprise, this unfair elections act arrived in the House just before the budget comes out and at the same time as Canadians are naturally focused on the Olympics. That is what is really going on. I know that Canadians understand what is going on.

I just met with a number of students at the flame. They presented us with 30,000 signatures on petitions that were gathered in one weekend. Canadians understand what the government is trying to do, and we are not going to let it get away with it, if we possibly can.

The Globe and Mail asks today the question I wish to ask. It is simply this: Why the rush to get this through? Is it because perhaps the Conservatives expect Canadians not to know the content of the bill, so if it is pushed through, they simply will not notice? That is a very serious allegation I am making, and it basically demonstrates something I hoped I never would have in this place, which is utter cynicism about the way the bill has been dealt with.

Again, there were two speeches, then they moved to closure and rushed it through as quickly as they could. Even Canada's national paper understands what is going on. Canadians do too.

The minister of so-called democratic reform, who has been so aggressive at warding off criticism of Conservatives' elections wrongdoing, which were later proven to be well founded, now defends this as a fair and judicious measure. Well, there may be some things in the bill we like, but in typical Conservative fashion, there are many things pushed in there that are going the opposite way a democracy should function.

Let us call as spade a spade. Forget the Orwellian language, the title of the bill. Let us call it what it is. It is an unfair election act. I am going to explain why, on substance, I believe that is the case.

First, we are not dealing with a regular bill. We are dealing with a bill like the Access to Information Act or the Privacy Act, which are essentially quasi-constitutional in nature. These are the foundation rules for how we govern our democracy.

My brilliant colleague from Toronto—Danforth spent many hours pouring over this complicated law. He reckons that there are at least 30 serious deficiencies in it. I only have time to talk about two, but two that I think are quite dramatic. To be talking about this with the closure gun pointed at our heads is simply inexcusable. I am frankly saddened and ashamed to be here in this context.

It is shocking that the Conservative minister for democratic reform failed to consult with the Chief Electoral Officer about these changes and then made misleading statements during question period suggesting that he did.

The new bill would restrict the ability of Elections Canada to communicate with voters, narrowing the legal authority of the Chief Electoral Officer and eliminating provisions that allow Elections Canada to promote voting to “persons and groups most likely to experience difficulties in exercising their democratic rights”. All he can do is tell people who can vote and where to vote. He cannot talk about promoting democracy, which he finds an affront to democracy. I agree with our Chief Electoral Officer. We are fortunate to have officers of Parliament like him and the Information Commissioner and the Privacy Commissioner, who are shielded and can speak their minds on behalf of Canadians. I am proud that he is doing so, as we are today.

To talk about two issues of substance alone, I would like to focus on, first, the weakening of Elections Canada and, second—again calling a spade a spade—the voter suppression mechanisms in the bill.

The minister has been attacking Elections Canada for many years. Shortly after the bill was introduced, he accused it of being biased and “wearing a...jersey” when it comes to prosecuting the Conservatives for rule breaking. The bill clearly attacks Elections Canada, by gutting its powers.

The Chief Electoral Officer had asked for more powers, as did the NDP, including the ability to request financial documents related to the election. The Conservatives have failed to include these measures in the bill.

Rather, the Chief Electoral Officer would be appointed and responsible to Parliament, but the bill would have another agency, the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, appointed by the Attorney General and accountable to the government, where the Commissioner of Elections would be housed. We are supposed to be happy about that, I think. Well, no one in the office of Elections Canada is happy about that.

Consider what the Conservatives could have done.

We have a number of securities commissions around this land. We have the Competition Bureau, which is a federal agency. It is an independent law enforcement agency that ensures Canadian businesses and consumers prosper in a competitive environment. The Supreme Court of Canada has applauded the way in which that agency operates. Why can we not be there now?

I invite people to look at the Chrysler Canada Ltd. v. Canada (Competition Tribunal) case, in which the 1992 decision of Mr. Justice Gonthier from the Supreme Court of Canada was complimentary about the way in which that enforcement agency proceeds with both civil and criminal remedies.

We could have had that. We had that before, but now we are supposed to be happy with the changes to weaken Elections Canada by sending the commissioner somewhere else to be accountable to the government. It just does not make sense. I know Canadians will see through this.

What is the key problem with this? It is that the bill refuses to enact perhaps the single most effective measure that would enhance investigations. What is that? It is giving the same powers to compel testimony to the commissioner to investigate; the same safeguards as currently exist for Competition Act investigators.

However, that is not good enough for the Conservatives. It seems to work fine for competition, according to the Supreme Court, but we are supposed to try something different in this bill.

Why? Is it because the Conservatives have a personal vendetta with some of the people at Elections Canada? I will let Canadians decide.

Bill C-23 also ignores that part of the NDP motion that Conservatives voted for in March 2012, which called upon Elections Canada to have the power to request and receive national political party documents to enable Elections Canada to assess whether the Canada Elections Act had been complied with. It is not in the bill.

The second part of the bill's major deficiency is voter suppression. The Conservatives, as Canadians know, have a track record of breaking election laws with their in-and-out scheme, robocalls designed to suppress opposition votes, and rule-breaking overspending by Conservative ministers.

Bill C-23 would also disallow the process of vouching. I am proud to say that one of my constituents, Rose Henry, an aboriginal activist who works with the homeless, went to the British Columbia Court of Appeal to say that it was one of the elements critical to the voting process. The court said that it was a critical part of the voting process and upheld the constitutionality of what she had sought to strike down on the basis, among other things, that vouching was part of the fabric of voting in Canada. However, the Conservatives would take that away.

I invite Rose to go back to the courts and vindicate her rights as a voter, because this time I predict she will win because this proposed law will be found unconstitutional.

This proposed law is a travesty. Canadians are getting to understand it, and I am hoping they will rise and call it what it is: an unfair elections act.