Fair Elections Bill

Hon. Jim Munson: Honourable senators, my question is for the Government Leader in the Senate.

Your government introduced the so-called Fair Elections Bill last month. There has been a lot of talk about it in the country. It proposes sweeping changes to our independent, non-partisan elections agency, from its alarming proposal to strip Elections Canada of its investigative powers to limiting the agency’s public information role. As we have seen, Canadians are concerned.

Neeta Kumar-Britten, from Sydney, Nova Scotia, is among the many who are worried about these changes and would like to know —

An Hon. Senator: Oh, oh!

Senator Munson: Be that as it may, this is still a democracy. This is her question. Big Liberal, little liberal, big Conservative, little conservative, big democrat, New Democrat, little democrat, what does it matter? The question is the question. She’s a Canadian. She’s a Canadian from Cape Breton, where you are from, Senator MacDonald.

This is her question: What is the government’s intention with respect to educational programs dealing with democracy education that are led by Elections Canada, both in terms of resources that are their own and programs they support like Student Vote?

Again, this question is from Neeta Kumar-Britten, from Sydney, Nova Scotia, a Canadian taxpayer.

[Translation]

Hon. Claude Carignan (Leader of the Government): I would like to thank that Canadian taxpayer for her question. I think the important thing is communicating with the people, with citizens, about elections. The Fair Elections Act enhances Elections Canada’s ability to increase voter turnout by focusing its efforts on providing basic information people need in order to vote: the location, the date, what ID they need to bring, and the specific tools available to help Canadians with disabilities exercise their right to vote.

Elections Canada’s CEO will still have the option — the obligation, actually — to communicate with the public about elections.

I would like to assure that Canadian taxpayer that the CEO of Elections Canada will have access to all of the necessary communication tools to encourage people to vote in accordance with the law.

[English]

Senator Munson: I have a supplementary question. I don’t think the Chief Electoral Officer is too impressed. In fact, last week Marc Mayrand told the CBC’s The House that he would no longer be permitted to participate in Student Vote if the Fair Elections Bill becomes law.

Elections Canada’s support for the group began a decade ago when all parties in the other place backed a Liberal motion at that time on youth and political engagement.

Honourable senators, voter turnout among young Canadians is still hovering at historic lows. Just 38.8 per cent of voters aged 18 to 24 cast a ballot in 2011.

Elections Canada’s mandate to educate voters remains as important today as it was then. Why is your government forcing the agency to abandon its crucial public information role?

[Translation]

Senator Carignan: Elections Canada will still be able to provide basic information to the public about voting. The Deputy Leader of the Government gave notice that a motion will be moved at the next sitting of the Senate in order to allow a pre-study of Bill C- 23.

If that is something that interests you, I hope that next Tuesday you will vote in favour of the pre-study so that we can study this bill, which is currently in the other place, and continue to debate it.

[English]

Senator Munson: The answers you’re giving aren’t satisfactory. If you’re not going to listen to Neeta from Sydney, Nova Scotia, there’s somebody else by the name of Preston Manning. So Neeta is not alone when it comes to concerns about the fairness of Bill C-23. Preston Manning had this to say about the fair elections act at the Manning Networking Conference earlier this month:

It can be improved, as I say, by strengthening rather than reducing the role of Elections Canada and the Chief Electoral Officer with respect to promotional and educational activities designed to increase voter participation in Canada’s elections.

This is Preston Manning. A footnote to the prepared text of his remarks proposed the following amendment:

Add to Section 18 (1) listing the only topics on which the Chief Electoral Officer may provide information to the public, “(f) public education and information programs to make the electoral process better known to the public and increase voter participation.”

Leader, I would like to know whether your government will accept this reasoned amendment, and can you assure Neeta and Preston Manning that Elections Canada will continue its public information role and maintain its support for Student Vote?

[Translation]

Senator Carignan: I like your practice of using Canadians’ queries to ask your questions. It introduces an interesting perspective, and I am always pleased to answer Canadians’ questions. I would just like you to be clear when you ask your questions. If you add something that the person didn’t mention, we don’t know whether it is you or the person asking the question. To be respectful of that person, I would ask that when posing your questions, you make a distinction between your own comments and those made by the person asking the question. I think that would be more respectful of that person.

As for Preston Manning, he said:

This legislation, which is a commendable democratic initiative, seeks to eliminate those practices — robo-calling, misuse of the vouching provision, misuse of election contributions, etc. — which discredit elections and parties associated with them.

[English]

Senator Munson: I have one quick, further supplementary question.

When I asked the question — her question — I did say, “This is her question.” That was the first question. That was pretty clear. I’m not so sure about the answer, leader.

Then when I asked the other question about Preston Manning, I said this is what he had to propose, and in the middle I asked my own question. I didn’t have to preface her. I just wanted to make sure that was clear. Thank you.