Canada Elections Act—Bill to Amend—Motion to Authorize Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee to Study Subject Matter as Amended

Hon. Jim Munson: I wish to speak on this.

In the last few weeks or in the last month or so we have had a rather novel approach to Question Period. We have had Canadians ask questions and then put them to the Leader of the Government in the Senate. We have not had too many answers, but at least Canadians are speaking through us and asking the questions of the government. I think that, too, is democracy.

I would also like to talk about this unfairness act. This is a concern from one Canadian, and all Conservative senators have received these letters as well.

I am a concerned Canadian, one of many who are becoming increasingly concerned about changes being made by the Harper Government. One of the Harper Government changes being proposed is the “Fair Elections Act;” under the guise of making it better and less susceptible to fraudulent activities, the government is proposing drastic changes to the Elections Act of Canada. Despite sharp criticisms and strong recommendations from experts as well as ordinary Canadians, Pierre Poilievre, Minister of State for Democratic Reform, repeatedly states that everyone else is wrong, that he knows best, and PM Harper supports him.

National and international academics and experts have publicly stated their valid objections to the proposed Act; included in their objections is the plan to silence the Chief Elections Officer, and to place the department’s Commissioner of Canada Elections within a government office where the ability to speak publicly about investigations would be severely limited, nor would Elections Canada be given their requested power to compel witness testimony.

Just as troubling is the Government rationale behind this Act, to prevent fraud. The only proven fraud in the last election —

And these are the words from the Conservative Canadian:

— was that committed by the Conservative Party, the very people now making these questionable changes. Their proposal to eliminate Vouching (never a source of election fraud) will instead disenfranchise large numbers of voters, especially those considered to not vote Conservative.

Never before has such an important Act been rushed through the House so rapidly without unanimous consent among all parties. Why now? Why such speed?

As the purpose of the Canadian Senate is to give “sober second thought” to bills passed by the House of Commons, I ask all the Senators to do exactly this, to stand up for Canada and all Canadians not just Mr. Harper and his Conservatives, and to very carefully give much thought to this so-called Elections Act.

Please do not allow this partisan bill to be rushed through, please do not allow many Canadians to be disenfranchised, please stand up for Canada!!

That is one Canadian. There are literally tens of thousands of Canadians.

This is the one that we have all received, as well, in our debates.

Dear Sir / Madam,

I’m a Canadian and have been since my birth 57 years ago and rarely have I been more offended by the Federal Government than I am by the Fair Elections Act C-23.

I believe the following notions, concepts and ideas be given an full and complete evaluation prior to accepting this Bill;

1) Remove from the Act all provisions allowing political entities to recommend names for election officers

2) Leave vouching in the Act

3) The voter information card should be allowed to be used to prove residence in combination with one other piece of identification

4) An amendment should be added to clarify that no elector will be prevented from voting as a result of not wanting to show his or her ID to a candidate’s representative

5) The bill should be amended to authorize the CEO to ask a party to produce the documents and provide the information that he considers necessary in order to verify that the party and its chief agent are compliant with the Act’s requirements with regard to election expenses returns

6) For the Commissioner to operate effectively, it is sufficient that the confidentiality of his or her investigations be affirmed, subject to such disclosure as the Commissioner finds necessary for carrying out his or her duties under this Act

7) No changes required that would separate the two officers, clear mechanisms both for the CEO to transfer information to the Commissioner, and for the Commissioner to request information from the CEO — such as occurs currently while both reside in Elections Canada — are required.

8) Yes, a power for the Commissioner to compel testimony upon court order should be added to the bill, as currently exists for the Commissioner of Competition under s. 11 of the Competition Act

9) Yes the bill should include a provision extending commonly accepted privacy protection principles to political entities and requiring that parties exercise due diligence when giving out personal information contained in their databases.

Thank you for your time.

May our democracy remain strong.

Obviously, this particular person has put a lot of thought into writing down these points of view. I was just thinking about, in my opposition to Bill C-23, a few points. There was once an opinion piece that was titled “Unleash our political process!” and it was published in The Globe and Mail in 2002. The authors were Chuck Strahl and Stephen Harper, and they had this to say about my old boss, Jean Chrétien’s, parliamentary practices. Here is what they wrote:

More than any other government in Canadian history, the Chrétien government has used time allocation and closure routinely and cavalierly to shut down debate. Private members’ business is supposedly outside of the control of the PMO, but cabinet and caucus abuse procedural chicanery in the House, Senate and standing committees to postpone, eviscerate and hijack the effort of individual MPs.

Well, guess who is hijacking the agenda now? Pierre Poilievre and Mr. Harper. It’s rather compelling that the same man who wrote this is leading a government that has the all-time record for use of time allocation.

Senator Segal: You can’t live in the past.

Senator Munson: A senator here says you can’t live in the past. Guess what? We all are. But it is the present.

Speaking of the past, last June Maclean’s predicted that the Conservative government would likely reach 100 uses of time allocation before the next federal election. We’re well on our way to that. This government has to be aware of the harmful impact of restricting debate on democracy. A decade ago, Stephen Harper described this as an abuse of power and he opposed it, and he knows full well what he’s doing. To know it and still carry through with it again and again betrays an utter disregard for Canadians, for democracy, for the wisdom and progress that can be realized with free exchange of ideas, not under this guillotine.

The Conservative government is a majority government, so we all know that the bills it wants passed will be passed. But this isn’t enough for this government. It has to go farther — too far — and invoke one motion after another for time allocation on debates over its bills, even after hearing from tens of thousands of Canadians. It is the style and modus operandi of our government to bully and bulldoze through the legislative process. Subjected to time allocation, we are each of us being hindered from thoroughly fulfilling a crucial pact with those who we are here to serve. We are here to serve — Canadians. This is a blatant disregard for democracy and Canadian values. It’s no wonder that public trust in our parliamentary system is falling away.

With all these emails I received — and there are many more and I’m sure other senators will bring them up — they write these emails with a mix of trust and hope that, as a senator, I can carry out my responsibility to scrutinize bills and ensure they undergo due process. I am but one person, one parliamentarian among hundreds on the Hill. My perspectives, insights and inclinations are distinct, and my freedom to express them in this chamber is both my right and my duty to the people of this country.

I don’t expect my Senate colleagues to unanimously agree with what I have to say. I do not want that. I simply want my voice to be part of exchanges of ideas and opinions with anyone here who chooses to share his or her own point of view. This is what democracy is, and this is how we arrive at decisions in good conscience, not in great haste — decisions that best reflect the interests and needs of Canadians. Full debate is one of our essential roles, and procedures should not be used to stifle that role.

In the words of John Diefenbaker —

Senator Mercer: Oh, oh.

Senator Munson: You finally paid attention. Senator Tkachuk had a great article in the Citizen today about John Diefenbaker. Here is another quote for Senator Tkachuk from John Diefenbaker, one of the first persons I ever interviewed on Parliament Hill. Here is what he said:

Parliament is more than procedure — it is the custodian of the nation’s freedom.

Let’s not act in haste with this unfairness act.

The Hon. the Acting Speaker: Will you accept a question?

Senator Munson: Yes.

Senator Cordy: Thank you very much for agreeing to take a question. A lot of discussion we have had so far has been about things that are in the bill, like doing away with vouching. But I thought that part of one of the letters that you read out was quite interesting because they were suggesting something that should be in the bill in order to truly make it a fair elections bill. That was ensuring that Elections Canada could compel testimony.

This was one of the concerns in the robo-calls incident that we all have heard about, which took place in the last election. Elections Canada said, when they came out with the report, that one of the challenges they had throughout this whole robo-call investigation was that they had people who were not forthright in the discussions that they had with Elections Canada, and it was very challenging to get the correct information as to what actually happened. I know that you read that from somebody who wrote to you, but I wonder if you could further expand on the importance of Elections Canada having the ability to compel testimony and why you think that has been left out of this bill, which you call the unfair elections bill. And I think inclusion of that would actually help to make it a better bill.

Senator Munson: Thank you for your question, senator. Obviously, there are answers that could come from the commissioner. Hopefully he will give strong answers to your question, and I think the only way that I can answer it is here is what this person said:

Yes, a power for the Commissioner to compel testimony upon court order should be added to the bill, as currently exists for the Commissioner of Competition under s. 11 of the Competition Act.

I think we should have the opportunity to hear the people who are writing these things to all of us. We’re reflecting their voices right now. And I support this. I have to do more study of this. That’s why we have to take a strong, hard look at this. This person here should be in Ottawa, or we should visit them, to get testimony from Canadians. I haven’t seen for an awfully long time this much email traffic from all Canadians. I know people will say, “They’re Liberals,” but they’re not Liberals; they’re Canadians who want to participate in this debate.

The question that has to be asked of all of us is this: What’s the hurry? Is there another agenda here? Some of us might think that Mr. Harper certainly has not obeyed his own timetable when it comes to election days; he can move them around. I have this feeling that perhaps they want to get this done in a hurry so they get to an election in a hurry and lose in a hurry.

Thank you.

Senator Cordy: You made reference to this, and I certainly had indicated in this chamber that I believe it — that if we’re going to take the time to do a pre-study we should consult with Canadians, I said that if this committee were to travel to my region of Nova Scotia, I would be the first person to stand up and support it.

When I read the letters to the editor in The Chronicle Herald, the Halifax newspaper, which is now being published in Cape Breton, which is also very good —

Senator Mercer: Where is that?

Senator Cordy: A high number of the letters to the editor are related to this particular bill. I always gauge what’s important to people in my region based on what people are going to talk to you about after church on Sundays, because they’re not necessarily partisan political people. I don’t know how they vote. I wonder if you could ask for more time.

Senator Munson: I would like to have a little more time.

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

Senator Cordy: When I’m leaving church, or if I go downstairs afterwards for coffee with the members of my congregation, the number of people who come up to me regarding this bill is extremely high. They are non-partisan people who are greatly concerned about democracy.

When I go out to public functions in Nova Scotia, people come up to me expressing concern about the bill. They are truly engaged in the discussions surrounding this bill. They are greatly concerned about some of the things that are being brought forward in this bill or, in the case of compelling testimony, the things that are being left out of the bill.

Given the interest we have seen through emails and people in my region of Nova Scotia who are talking to me, do you think it would be extremely important for a Senate committee to go and hear directly from Canadians? Looking somebody in the eye when they’re giving testimony has tremendous value.

Senator Munson: Thank you, senator, for that question. I just have a couple of personal anecdotes. I still play old-timers’ hockey. I play twice a week. I actually played basketball with my tall friends on Saturday. Here is what has happened in the last six or seven months. During the issues and controversy we had in the Senate in the fall, I would walk into the dressing room, and the hockey team, from all walks of life, would have some pretty nasty things to say — and you had to take it — about the issues that were going on in the Senate. You had to take that.

Guess what? I couldn’t believe this. As recently as two Saturdays ago, I wasn’t in church, but I was in a tavern having a pint with my friends after playing. This gentleman you would not think of as being involved in a political conversation came over and sat down. He said, “I’ve been vouching for these people in my area who have a hard time to explain things — who and what they are and what they’re doing.” He has been doing that.

He was really angry, and I never expected that or that kind of conversation. Usually after those occasions, we’re talking sports and only sports, but he was serious. This guy is a roofer. He spent all his life in different parts of the city, fixing roofs. And he was really angry. He said he wanted me to bring it up, and you’ve given me the opportunity to bring it up.

In my work as a reporter for 35-odd years — and I think Senator Fraser will vouch for this — when a boss says, “Can you cover a story taking place somewhere else across the country,” could you do it from Ottawa? I can’t do it very well, because I’m not talking to people who are living on the street and experiencing either a disaster or whatever is going on. You’ve got to be there to cover the story. You can’t do it without covering the story.

These Canadians, by the way, who came here yesterday on their own money and were supported by all parties — it was regarding autism — they paid their own way here. They’ve paid their own way here. I don’t think Canadians would mind paying our way to go there or to go elsewhere to get that kind of information and feedback. The feedback we got yesterday — and Senator Joyal’s testimony on autism was the most gut-wrenching, heartfelt feeling that had a reverse psychology to it. The people who came to tell their stories heard our stories, too; we exchanged them. That happened here.

We can and should go across this country. It would be fair to this “unfairness act” to have those voices heard.

And if Senator Tkachuk stacked a meeting in Saskatoon with a whole bunch of Conservatives and they supported it, let’s hear them, too. But let’s hear all voices in this country. There is nothing better, as we say in the old news business, than a good, informative road trip.

Senator Mercer: I have a question for Senator Munson.

We heard an interesting speech from our good friend, Senator Sibbeston, and he talked about the people in the North and out in the land having difficulty with finding identification. It’s a little easier for us who live in big cities. Isn’t that the kind of place that the committee should visit when the bill gets before the committee? Shouldn’t the committee be out there, visiting those communities? Shouldn’t they be visiting the Lower East Side in Vancouver, St. James Town in Toronto, North End Halifax, talking to people who have these problems on a regular basis?

Senator Munson: Yes.