Hon. Dennis Dawson:
Honourable senators, after 42 years of following Serge Joyal’s speeches, I know he is always a tough act to follow. Having spent years in the other place with Senator Joyal, and the last 13 or 14 in this place, I know he is a tough act to follow. I will do my best. I will deliver my speech in French so you won’t be able to compare me to him. It will be to my advantage to have my speech interpreted.
I am pleased to rise today to speak at third reading of Bill C-76, the Elections Modernization Act. Before I begin, I would like to thank Senator Joyal and the two deputy chairs of the committee for their help and for the great work they did in moving this bill forward.
I would like to thank the leaders in this chamber for making it easier to hold an effective meeting of the committee of the whole, so that not just committee members but all parliamentarians and all senators had the opportunity to ask relevant questions about this bill. Though it may have been the result of fruitful collaboration, the bill also got a bit of help from the spirit of Christmas come early to the Senate.
I want to thank them for their flexibility in ensuring that the bill was passed quickly. As a result, the bill should come into force before the upcoming federal election next year.
Senators had the opportunity to talk with the Chief Electoral Officer and the Commissioner of Canada Elections, who both continue to support Bill C-76 and who said it would be good for our electoral system if this bill came into force before the next election.
Honourable senators, Bill C-76 includes important measures to modernize our electoral system, making it more secure, more accessible and more transparent. I would like to take this opportunity to briefly go over how Bill C-76 will further each of these objectives.
Transparency is needed in order to preserve and strengthen Canadians’ faith in our electoral system and our democratic institutions. Bill C-76 proposes concrete measures to make the electoral process even more transparent.
For instance, creating a pre-writ period is a key feature of the bill. During that period, third parties who reach a certain threshold of spending or contributions will be required to submit interim reports to Elections Canada. That way, Canadian voters will have more information on those who may try to influence their vote.
As honourable senators know, I presented two private members’ bills on this subject in the past. With the arrival of fixed election dates, the process did not control what was being spent before the election process. This was a major flaw in what I think was a very good decision to have fixed elections; it made the spending of money a bit more complicated.
During the last election we could all see one of the consequences of fixed date elections, namely in the increased volume of large-scale advertising campaigns just before the writ was dropped. Bill C-76 sets spending limits for political parties and third parties during the months preceding the campaign. These restrictions do not infringe on parliamentarians’ work since they do not unduly limit freedom of expression or Canadians’ ability to comment on the work of their parliamentarians.
Bill C-76 would also require online platforms to keep a record of ads published during pre-writ and writ periods. As everyone knows, the platforms are able to very precisely target who sees the ads. Bill C-76 will therefore allow for a minimum of transparency regarding the advertising efforts of various electoral players.
For purposes of accessibility, eligible voters should not have their right to vote breached by administrative barriers. That is why the Elections Modernization Act proposes making the electoral process more accessible by making it easier for as many Canadians as possible to vote.
Bill C-76 will once again let the Chief Electoral Officer authorize the use of the voter information card as proof of residency. In order to make it easier for those in more vulnerable situations to vote, the bill will also restore vouching, a measure that existed before the law was amended in 2014.
The bill also contains measures to foster the participation of the disabled in elections. For example, it creates financial incentives for political parties and candidates to make campaign materials more accessible. The bill also updates the language of the legislation to reflect current realities so that accommodation measures are not just available to those with physical disabilities.
The bill also makes important changes with respect to Canadians living abroad. In fact, it removes the requirements that they be outside Canada for less than five years and that they intend to return to Canada. As the Minister for Democratic Institutions said when she appeared before the Senate committee:
This is the right thing to do.
Because a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian, whether he or she lives in Canada or anywhere else.
To conclude my remarks on accessibility, I would like to mention that changes are being made for members of the Canadian Armed Forces, who will have greater flexibility in how they vote.
The electoral process must be made more secure. Bill C-76 will help achieve that objective. For example, it contains measures to prevent, as much as possible, foreign interference in our electoral process. One such measure prohibits third parties from using foreign money to fund partisan activities, even outside of the pre-writ and writ periods.
The bill also takes significant strides towards ensuring that anyone who violates the act will be punished. Not only does the bill put the Commissioner of Canada Elections back under the umbrella of Elections Canada, but it also gives the commissioner more effective enforcement tools. This includes, for example, the ability to seek a court order to force an individual to testify, and the creation of an administrative monetary penalties regime to be used for minor offences.
Honourable senators, the initiatives I have mentioned are just some examples of the proposed measures in Bill C-76 that will make our electoral system more secure.
The final key aspect of the bill has to do with modernizing our elections. The Elections Modernization Act implements more than 85 per cent of the Chief Electoral Officer’s recommendations following the 2015 general election.
I want to share a quote from the Chief Electoral Officer’s 2016 report:
Our statutory framework has stood up relatively well over the years, but it is increasingly showing signs of strain. While it is important to remember the past, we should embrace change and make sure that our legislative framework keeps pace with a rapidly evolving society. . . . we need legislative change to effectively and efficiently administer elections in the future.
Honourable colleagues, that is exactly what Bill C-76 does, and so I urge you all to support the Elections Modernization Act to ensure that it comes into effect before the next general election. Thank you.