Mr. Speaker, today I will be splitting my time with the member for West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast—Sea to Sky Country, the very dynamic Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Trade, who does a wonderful job advocating for her constituents.
We tend to take democracy for granted and in some way I suppose this is understandable when one is born into one of the best democracies in the world, Canada’s. When one is born into a democracy or relative prosperity, it is not always easy to imagine there was a time when things were not as good, or there are places in the world that have not achieved this level of democracy or prosperity. In this regard, sometimes it is new Canadians, refugees especially, who remind us that there are places in the world where there is no democracy, where there are strong-arm dictators, where there are no rights, and where there is corruption. Sometimes we forget that when we debate in the House. We do not realize there are places where there are real democratic problems.
We live here, in Canada, the best democracy in the world. It is a highly evolved democracy, one based on respect for individual rights and freedoms.
However, it is flexible enough to also recognize and respect the rights and interests of communities, in particular official language minority communities.
That said, we must respond to any attempt to weaken the underlying principles that support our great democracy. That is the objective in part of this bill, which would reverse certain measures previously implemented in an attempt to suppress Canadians’ right to vote. Bill C-76 would also establish measures to strengthen the foundation of our democratic system by also fostering a higher participation rate in federal elections through education programs and the registration on the voter list of youth from the age of 14, even before they have the right to vote. We want to give them the opportunity to get on the voter list in advance.
Voting is a hard-earned right, something we must encourage in order to have a better and stronger democracy, a democracy where government decisions reflect the will of the largest number of people, and not of special interests. Voter suppression does not serve the democratic interest, obviously.
What would Bill C-76 do? It would do a number of things to improve our democracy. Let us start with the fact it would limit the length of elections.
As we know, 2015 will go down in history as the longest campaign ever. Ironically, the previous government brought in fixed-election dates purportedly to prevent governments from using election timing for partisan advantage, but then it broke the spirit of that legislation by calling an election in 2008, long before the fixed date and without real reason.
Bill C-76 tries to prevent governments from using their position and their insider information to manipulate the electoral process to their advantage, to create campaigns that last 60 or 90 days for partisan reasons.
I heard the hon. member say that the timing of the election by the former prime minister was done out of a great sense of fairness. That was not the case: there were strategies behind the timing of the dropping of that writ.
Bill C-76 tries to do away with this power that governments have to manipulate the length of an election for their own purposes.
Bill C-76 would also make important changes to spending limits. Our Canadian democracy, while resembling many advanced democracies, also has its own shadings, if I may say. Most Canadians believe that diversity, including diversity of opinion, is essential to a healthy democracy. This does not mean that some views will not win out in an electoral contest, but only that the electorate has a right to be exposed to a variety of ideas in order to have a broad choice of ideas that a majority of voters will judge most desirable, and thus merit implementation.
In Canada, we believe that measures to safeguard and promote diversity of opinion are essential to a well-functioning and healthy democracy.
Our neighbour to the south, the United States, has a different view of this, in a way. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court has taken the view that money is speech, and that those with more money have a bigger say, as it were. I refer to a court case in the United States in 1976, Buckley v. Valeo, where the majority ruled that spending limits during elections are unconstitutional because they contravene the first amendment right to freedom of speech. In that decision, a minority view was expressed. Justice Byron White dissented in part and qualified election spending as “a mortal danger against which effective preventive and curative steps must be taken.”
Justice Byron’s view is more in line with that of our own Supreme Court, which has taken the egalitarian or “level playing field” position when it comes to spending limits.
In 2004, for example, in the case of the Attorney General of Canada v. Stephen Joseph Harper, the court found that although spending limits, in that case third party spending limits, infringe on section 2(b) of the charter, the law was reasonable and justified under section 1. By a majority of six to three, the court ruled:
In the absence of spending limits, it is possible for the affluent or a number of persons pooling their resources and acting in concert to dominate the political discourse, depriving their opponents of a reasonable opportunity to speak and be heard, and undermining the voter’s ability to be adequately informed of all views.
We know, for example, that the fixed election date law that was brought in by the previous government had, in a sense, an unintended consequence. When we know when the election is going to be, spending can be ramped up. If candidates can afford it, they can ramp up spending well in advance of the date that the writ is to be dropped. We saw that happen in spades in the last Parliament. We saw the Conservative Party ramping up its partisan advertising long before the writ was dropped.
Bill C-76 is essentially trying to correct that unintended consequence of fixed election dates by making it illegal to engage in partisan advertising in the pre-election period, defined as beginning June 30 of the election year. To be more precise, it will be allowed but only to a maximum of $1.5 million.
This bill also encourages voting by allowing young people in Canada, those 14 and over, to register to vote when they turn 18. In other words, it encourages them to start thinking about voting long in advance.
I know we all visit classrooms, and we see that students are quite interested in what is going on in the political realm and the societal realm. This goes against the narrative we always hear about young people being disengaged from politics or being apathetic. When we go into classrooms, regardless of the party to which we belong, we all see that young people are indeed keenly interested. We owe it to the teachers in this country who take it upon themselves, either as part of a curriculum course or outside the constraints of the curriculum, to engage students about politics.
This bill will allow students to register, and will of course create discussion within classrooms. They will start thinking about who they might want to vote for, or which party they might want to vote for. As has been said many times in this House, once somebody votes, especially at a young age, they are more likely to continue voting throughout their lifetime. This particular measure in the bill will encourage first-time voting for young people. This is another very good aspect of the bill.
I will leave it at that for now. I look forward to any questions my colleagues might have.