Excerpt from the Official Report of
DEBATES OF THE LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY

(Hansard)


May 11, 2015

Deabte on Bill 20 — the Election Amendment Act

S. Simpson: I’m pleased to get an opportunity to take my place to speak to the Election Amendment Act, Bill 20. What Bill 20 does is make a number, a series, of changes to the Election Act, and as colleagues have said before, legislatures and legislators should be pretty cautious about how they change an election act.

It’s the rules that help to frame the democratic process. It’s the rules that are put in place that are to be accountable and transparent to show the balance and the fairness in how we choose the people who come to this place and are elected to this place as representatives of everybody in British Columbia.

We should be very cautious about how we make changes, we should be very thoughtful, and we should not presume that we always get it right the first time that we craft those changes. I think that we have a situation here where we didn’t get it right.

This piece of legislation, Bill 20, has a number of housekeeping pieces in it, but it also has some pieces in it that are pretty fundamental, some changes in it that are pretty critical moving forward as to how the political process will work in this province, how elections will work and how they may affect the outcome of those elections.

There are some serious issues and some serious challenges — I’ll speak about those in a moment — and there are some oversights. There are some areas where there were opportunities. Others have spoken about that; I will speak a little bit to that. But there are oversights in what could have been in this legislation that would have helped, and they would have helped with what is clearly one of the biggest challenges we face, which is voter turnout.

When you have voter turnout in provincial elections of just over 50 percent of the vote, we all have to be concerned. I have to believe that everybody in this room, in this chamber, would like to be seeing 70 percent turnouts in our elections, but we have a long way to go.

We all know, of course, that much of that — not all of it, but a significant amount of that challenge — comes from young people making the choice to not vote. The question becomes: are we doing enough to encourage young people to think about voting, to think about that responsibility, to think about the role voting plays and how our society functions and how the democratic process functions?

Bill 20 should be important to everybody in the province. Bill 20 will go a long way in helping to determine how votes are cast and who ends up in this place. And as we obviously all have a keen interest in that, the general public should have that interest as well. And I believe that they do. I don’t think it always shows, it’s always reflected. I think people turn politics off for a good part of the year unless something captures their particular personal or immediate attention. But I do believe that come election time, and as we head up to elections, people get more focused. They get more engaged.

We have heard increasingly, over the past couple of years as polls kind of are right and wrong and questionable, we’ve heard more and more that campaigns matter. And I think that’s true. I think we’re finding out, increasingly, that campaigns matter. Because campaigns are the time when the public starts to pay attention. Campaigns are the time where people put a little bit more of their focus on elections, a little bit more of their focus on the candidates, on the parties, on their records, on their promises, on the promises that they’ve broken, the promises that they’ve kept and the promises that they’re making moving forward.

I think that it does become particularly important. I want to talk a little bit about a couple of issues that are in the legislation, and then I want to talk about some things that are not in the legislation that should have been considered.

We know that the government, I guess it was a couple of years ago, attempted to put third-party spending limits in place. They moved to, in fact, be able to seriously restrict what third parties could say and how they could say it in the 60 days leading up to the election period. And as people know, the election period is essentially 28 days, four weeks. That is the writ period, the period where we all play by the election rules within the context of that 28 days.

But there is another recognized period: the 60 days previous to that, the pre-election period, as it’s called, and there have been a set of rules related to that. The government made the decision to try to halt spending in that period of time.

That decision was overturned in the courts. The courts made the decision that the government didn’t have the authority to do that and that they shouldn’t be able to do that. The government accepted that, and we’ve seen a recognition of that heading forward, that those spending limits are lifted and that they won’t be there.

And generally, I understand that period. You don’t want people spending, in the 28 days, recklessly, for sure. But I think that people have a right of freedom of speech and a right to speak, and that 60 days prior, there is a case to be made for that.

The problem with Bill 20 is that the government decided to take this new-found revelation from the courts and take it a step forward — to essentially remove the spending limits that are in place on political parties and candidates.

Currently, as we know, in that 28-day period, I have the ability to spend $70,000 as a candidate to get myself elected. That $70,000? It’s important. It’s got to be recorded. I’ve got to be accountable for it. I’ve got to be able to demonstrate that I did not overspend that amount of money. And $70,000, for lots of people, may seem like a significant amount of money, but it’s an amount of money that candidates certainly can put together over a period of time.

It’s an amount of money I know that I’ve found — I think most people found — gives me the opportunity to deliver the message that I want to deliver to my voters. To allow them to know a little bit about me, to be able to distribute some material, to be able to call them up and to engage with voters in that election period so they get an opportunity to know a little bit about me.

And what those rules say is we’re all equal here. Everybody who runs in that election gets to spend up to that $70,000 limit, and it’s a sufficient enough amount of money that we all get the opportunity to say our piece to the electorate in our respective constituencies.

Now, what the rules have said is that in the 60 days prior, that pre-election period, you get to spend $70,000 too. So if you want, you can spend up to $70,000 in that prior two months getting ready for the election.

We know that with fixed election dates, elections aren’t 28 days anymore. Elections last about a year, but they get pretty focused in those last three or four months. So that 60-day pre-election period really is all about the election. There’s a reason, and a good reason, to have rules that focus on that 60-day period.

What the government is saying now is that they’re going to take those rules away. That’s what the B.C. Liberals are saying. They’re going to take those rules away. If somebody in that 60-day period wants to spend the money, and they want to spend $200,000 or $300,000, presumably they could spend $200,000 or $300,000. They have no limits.

That starts to call into question one of the fundamentals of a successful democracy. A successful democracy is about putting limits on the impact of money in an election and saying: “We’re going to make sure that every candidate has the capacity or the ability to raise enough money to be able to go out and to have their campaign be successful, but we’re going to put some limits on just unregulated spending.”

If there’s a failure in the U.S. system that we see, the failure that I think many people would point at in the U.S. system is the dominant role of money in their electoral system. We have been able to control that provincially and federally to some degree. Federally, they’ve done it. They’ve moved to the place that we have argued for and eliminated union and corporate donations and put limits on what individuals can contribute. They’ve put even greater controls in place, controls that make some sense. But here we’ve now got a situation where Bill 20….

We’re being told that money, all of a sudden, is a critical factor again. The ability to spend whatever you can afford to spend in those 60 days…. You can fill your boots. Go ahead and spend every dime you want to spend if you’ve got it. There’s nothing good about that for the democratic process. There’s nothing good about saying that people have unlimited ability to spend in that 60-day period.

There’s been little or no rationale on the part of the government for doing that, for making that decision, for deciding why to remove that regulation. It would be great to see the minister responsible release all of those briefs and documents that he got from a long list of people saying: “You’ve got to eliminate this restriction on $70,000 that you can spend. It’s undermining the democratic process. Heaven forbid. You should be able to spend $1 million if you’ve got $1 million.” I don’t imagine there were too many briefs to that effect, but we’ll never know.

The problem, though, is that it does create a fundamental issue, and that is a good enough reason by itself to defeat this legislation. That’s a good enough reason to defeat this legislation, this unbridled ability to spend in that period of time. I have sympathy for third parties who have to have their voices heard. I think you have to think about how you limit, but there has to be accountability for those parties — certainly transparency about what they spend and how they spend it. But for politicians and for political parties, the leash has to be shorter than that. We have to be in a more restricted place.

The rule, the $70,000 and $70,000 — $70,000 in pre-election and $70,000 in election period — is not a bad rule, but this legislation, Bill 20, will bring that to an end.

One of the other things that is in this legislation or has been done in the legislation is to add a couple of days to the advance polls. I think that as we struggle with the challenge about how to get people to the polls to vote, encouraging advance polls makes sense. Telling people, “You get to vote more than just on election day, and we’re going to accommodate that,” makes a lot of sense. The problem with this legislation is that the government took a pretty narrow approach and said: “We’re going to add a couple of days.”

The Chief Electoral Officer, in their report on the piece of legislation and their recommendations, took a different approach. I think it’s an approach that’s more innovative and more flexible. It was an approach that said that district registrars, the people who are responsible for running the elections in constituencies, be given a greater flexibility to sit down and figure out: how do we accommodate more people in this area voting? How do we make changes that continue to be fair and accountable and transparent but encourage ways for people to vote?

I think providing that flexibility to the people who run those elections every election period — to provide that flexibility for the Chief Electoral Officer, working with their staff come election time — would have been a wise thing to do. Government chose not to do that and said: “We’re adding a couple of days.” Is a couple of days better than nothing? I think it probably is, but is it getting at the problem? I’m not so sure of that at all.

The third thing that’s here that has been controversial, certainly, is the turnout lists. Now, this is a situation where the records of everybody who has voted — not how they voted, but the fact that they cast a ballot — would be made available in electronic form to political parties or to successful candidates. Independents — we would argue it be made available to them in cases where they’ve run.

All the political parties supported this. Our party, the opposition, supported it. The government supported it. The Green Party was at the meetings where that happened. The Conservative Party was at those meetings. There was support for this. But as a result of that, we’ve heard from the Privacy Commissioner, and the Privacy Commissioner has raised some real concerns.

One of the reasons you put the Privacy Commissioner in place as an independent officer is so that you have somebody there who has that responsibility and authority to call us to task when we do things in this place that, in this case, she thinks challenge the rightful protections that people should have. She has raised those issues around the turnout.

The questions are partly around whether that list should be available — whether it fundamentally should be available — and I don’t have a problem with that. But I do agree with her. She has convinced me that we need to have restrictions in place that are strong and that have enforcement and consequences behind them about how you can use that information, about what you can and can’t use it for.

I think that we need to heed Ms. Denham and her concerns. I don’t think that we have the luxury of ignoring the Privacy Commissioner when she says: “I think that there are flaws in this particular piece of the legislation.”

I think that all sides of this House have to be prepared to do that, and we will see. I mean, there will be amendments moved to this. Certainly, from this side of the House, I’m sure. We’ll see whether there are amendments that come from the government side, and we will see what evolves here and how this gets resolved.

But it’s clear that the current language is insufficient to be able to satisfy the person that we all put in place to protect the privacy of British Columbians. I don’t think we have the luxury of simply ignoring the concerns that she has raised. We need to address them. We need to address them either in terms of the clause itself and its existence in the bill or address them in terms of the rules that will be in place around how that turnout list information is used and how it can be made available. We’re going to see over the next period of time, presumably, how that sorts itself out.

Those are some of the key pieces of this legislation, but there are pieces that are not in this legislation. You’ve heard from members on this side time and again about one of the most critical issues, which is the issue of voter turnout and the particularly challenging problems we have with getting young voters, or prospective young voters, out to the polls so that they are participating in the electoral process and helping to make the decision about what this chamber looks like in terms of who is elected here.

We have a responsibility to try to engage and encourage young people to vote in greater numbers. It doesn’t matter who they vote for, but they need to be more engaged. I believe the failure on this has largely been our failure as electors and our failure as a legislature.

The gap between what we perceive and what young people perceive, I think, continues to grow. These are not young people who are not necessarily encouraged about public affairs. They are interested. You can talk about the environment, you can talk about other rules, you can talk about international affairs, and you can talk about inequality. These are all issues that when I talk to young people, they are entirely engaged in. They have views about these issues, and they plan to have their voices heard, over time, in whatever role they choose to play.

But in most instances, it is an extraparliamentary role. It’s not a role that’s about how we elect people. It’s not about legislatures or city councils or Houses of Commons. It’s about something else, and that’s good. But we also need to engage them more in this process, because this is a pretty fundamental part of how it all works.

The question becomes: what do we do to encourage young people to vote more? A lot of it is about information. But the idea was put forward by this party — by the official opposition — heading into the election, about early registration in high school, registering young people before they reach the age where they can vote, an idea that certainly is reflected in the work of the Chief Electoral Officer, who has called for that early registration.

The reason for that is because you get a few things that happen. If we start registering grade 11s, grade 12s, there’s going to be a discussion in that social studies class or that class in school where that process happens. There’s a piece of the curriculum that’s going to be about why that’s important and about why, when they fill out those forms and submit those registration forms, it’s important. Hopefully, that stays with people.

We do know that where this has occurred, when people are registered, the likelihood that they will cast a vote is much, much greater than if they’re not registered at all, because they’re going to get information. They’re going to get told that they’re registered to vote. They’re going to get told when election day is. They’re going to hear from people because they’re on an electors list, on a voters list.

All of us, as candidates and prospective members of this place, when we’re going knocking on doors and we’re looking at our list of people, it’s going to have the names of those young people on it as people who are going to be prospective voters. We’re going to want to talk to them, or we’re going to look at other opportunities to talk to them. That’s really important.

If we want to grow that voters list back to the 60 percents and the 70 percents, maybe even more, then a key to that is going to be getting young people to the polls and getting young people to vote.

I guess the thing that most mystifies me about Bill 20 is why the government would have chosen to ignore this issue, why the government chose not to take some steps to encourage young people to be active in the electoral system, to ultimately vote when they reach the age of eligibility. But it has been ignored, even though the Chief Electoral Officer made the case pretty eloquently in his report.

We need to think this through, and we need to think about this. That failure, that omission, is a serious flaw in this legislation, and it’s a flaw that should be corrected.

There are other things that are left out of this legislation. This would have been the opportunity for us to follow the federal model, to follow a majority of provinces in this country, and put an end to corporate and union donations and put a cap on what individuals could donate in an election.

Now, there’s a lot of discussion about what that does in terms of money and that — all good questions, I’m sure. But the reality would be that we would start to remove some of the cynicism from the political process.

We all know there’s a level of cynicism out there about politics and about the political process, and a lot of that’s driven by money. It’s by people who point and say: “Well, that party is supported by those folks and the other party by those other folks, and they have undue influence.” People, quite rightly, are pretty frustrated and not happy with the notion that in our democratic process there would be undue influence based on money.

Well, the opportunity was there to remove that potential influence, real or not, and certainly to remove the perception of it by taking union and corporate donations out of the mix. We would all have to adjust, and we would. This place, in the long run, would be a better place for it.

We’re seeing the federal situation where that has now been the rule for a while, and you’re going to see a federal election here where it’s my sense that the major parties are all going to have enough money to run their campaigns pretty successfully with no union and corporate donations in play at all. They’re going to all have sufficient money to run their campaigns. It isn’t about that money having to be there.

The same would happen here if we took that money out of this system. It’s something that we should think about very seriously. But it’s not something that is part of the discussion that we’re having at this point here in British Columbia. It was an opportunity to have done that in this piece of legislation. Chose not to do it.

We have missed opportunities. We know that we missed the opportunity to put more controls on donations, on where the money comes from and on the ability to make massive donations. We had the opportunity to give this back to the people of British Columbia and say: “You will decide where the money comes from for politicians.” We had the opportunity to do something that certainly would have helped.

Would it have been a panacea? Absolutely not. I don’t believe that for a minute. But it would have helped with turnout and particularly helped with turnout among young people, and that would have been to take strategic steps around the youth vote. A very simple one that the Chief Electoral Officer endorsed and understood was registration of high school students before they’re heading to their first election and all of the education and awareness that could have come as a part of that.

On the other side the bill obviously has some real challenges. It has the challenge around lifting those spending limits, probably the most challenging part of this bill, in that 60 days leading up and saying: “We’re changing the rules, and now it’s all about the money. Spend as much as you want. It’s all about the money.” That’s a retrograde step. It’s heading in the wrong direction.

We should be looking to remove the influence of money from elections — still allowing political parties to function and to be able to deliver their message but removing the influence of money. That’s what we’re calling for on this side. Instead, the government has said: “We’re going to increase the influence of money in elections, and we’re going to do it by lifting the caps on spending in that 60-day pre-election period.”

We know that we have challenges around the concerns raised by the Information and Privacy Commissioner around section 6 of this bill and around those lifts. That has to be corrected. How that gets corrected, there’s probably still lots of work to do on that. Quite honestly, the obligation of this piece of legislation to be here right now and the obligation to not have it go away and have some of this corrected and come back next spring, it would be a perfectly fine thing to have happen.

I don’t believe that’s going to happen. But there’s the opportunity to go away and try to fix that problem in a way that satisfies the Privacy Commissioner that the protections are in place and the safeguards are in place so that she can be comfortable in saying the concerns that she has expressed to date about section 6 are being addressed by an amendment. We’ll have to see how this plays out over the coming days as this bill comes to closure sometime over the next couple of weeks.

I’m pleased to have had the chance to speak on this bill. It’s a bill that is flawed. It’s a bill that does not deserve support at this point in time. It’s a bill that needs an awful lot of rethinking, and that rethinking should happen before this bill is on the floor for a final vote. I’m sure that’s not going to occur and that, in fact, we are going to deal with this bill. It’s going to get rammed through in some form by the government, as most legislation does, and in due course we will deal with that.

When the time comes for that vote, I will be looking to vote no on this bill.

http://www.leg.bc.ca/hansard/40th4th/20150511pm-Hansard-v26n2.htm

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