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Bob Rae Speaks in the House on the Need for Amendments to the Elections Canada Act

Posted on March 8, 2012

Hon. Bob Rae (Toronto Centre, Lib.):

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the chance to speak in this debate. I want to indicate that our party will of course be supporting the motion. We would like to see it strengthened. We would like to make sure that the motion refers not simply to future elections but to the election that we have just come out of. Six months is too long. I hope there can be some discussions among the parties to make sure that the motion is strengthened. [cont’d…]

I would like to give a bit of historical context to this issue. I was reading the wonderful book by Alan Taylor called The Civil War of 1812. We are all reading about the war of 1812 because it is our 200th anniversary. There is a wonderful description in the book of how Simcoe recruited his surveyor general David W. Smith to stand for an assembly seat in Essex county in 1792. The book says that “Smith entrusted electioneering to his wealthy friends who campaigned in the traditional style by lavishing music, food and alcohol rather than policy discussions upon the voters. A paternalist rather than a egalitarian, Smith advised his campaign manager ‘let the peasants have a fiddle, some beverage and beef’”. Anticipating victory, he planned a culminating celebration, and I quote, “I beg that an ox be roasted whole on the common and a barrel of rum be given to the mob to wash down the beef”. The book goes on to say, “As Simcoe expected, Smith won his seat”.

That is how politics was conducted in 1792 by the ancestors of the Tory party which is now in place.

I would like to simply bring that up-to-date by drawing attention to a comment that was made to me by a well-known Conservative who I will not name. He said to me, “Give me a computer and give me an Internet access and I can boom your house and cellphone from three continents away at the same time with the same or different message”. It is the same party but just a different technology. As opposed to ox and booze, nylons and rum, we have a new way of reaching people: give me a computer and an Internet access and I can boom one’s house and cellphone.

We have to understand how politics has changed and become such a technology-driven system. But behind every technology there still are human values as to how we campaign, how we relate to voters, and what the limits are.

We need to have clear laws. We need to have clear accountability. We need to make sure that people are held to account for the things that they say. There are limits as to how much an individual can spend in each riding. There are limits as to how much parties can spend, as we all know. That is the Canadian way.

This basic practice in Canada has only been challenged by one party and actually by one person. It was in another life that the current Prime Minister challenged this system. We do not want this system, he said. We want the American system. We want a system where people can spend whatever money they want, he said. We want a system where there is unlimited access to dough, he said. He said that is the kind of system we want for Canada. In that case known as Harper v. Canada, and I have to mention the name because it is the title of the lawsuit, the Supreme Court of Canada said that it is actually reasonable and fair for Canadians to limit the ability of third parties to spend as much money as they want in the course of an election campaign.

That same Prime Minister again in another life described the people at Elections Canada as jackasses.

The same Prime Minister led his party through the so-called in and out scandal. Day after day in question period his party refused to recognize the problem, refused to provide the information. His party forced Elections Canada to go to court to get the documents from the party which finally, after a five year process, copped a plea, accepted the fact that it had done wrong, paid back the money, and paid a fine as well.

That has become the culture of the Conservative Party of Canada. In carrying out that culture, it has at the same time, and it has to be said very clearly, created a very complex but, nevertheless, effective system of communicating with voters across the country.

The Minister of State (Democratic Reform) just gave his ritual response. In the course of his speech and in answer to the questions that were asked yesterday by the parliamentary secretary, the robo response king of the House of Commons at the moment said that my party and others paid millions of dollars to make hundreds of thousands of calls. Of course they did. So did the Conservative Party. That is the common technique which is now used by all political parties. Some of the calls are made in person by phone banks, some of them are so-called robocalls, some of them were tele-town halls where people were brought together to listen to a conversation with a political leader or candidate. That is one of the techniques that we use.

What has to be clear is that all of these systems can of course be abused, just as there have been abuses in the past. The question is: Is our Canada Elections Act keeping up with the abuses and potential abuses and are we now able to say that we have a system of regulation and real accountability to public authorities which is in fact equal to the technologies that exist?

There is nothing wrong with a robocall per se. There is nothing wrong with somebody phoning and saying, “I’m calling on behalf of the Conservative Party and I would like to ask you how you intend to vote in the next election”. Voters can either say, “Go away, I don’t want to be annoyed” or “Here’s the information”. There is nothing wrong with either of those things. In fact, when I hear this called the so-called robocall issue, it is not really about robocalls. It is about misleading calls. It is about misinformation in calls. It is not even about a call which is unpleasant, a call which says that a voter’s Liberal candidate or New Democratic Party candidate has done this, this and this. There are all kinds of negative things said during campaigns.

We have all been in all-candidates debates. Every member of the House has been in an all-candidates debate when somebody on the other side says something we object to and do not think is true. We have all seen leaflets which say negative things about our parties, candidates or leaders. There is a difference between hardball, tough politics, even negative politics and dishonest politics. We have to understand where the line is to be drawn. There are tough things said. There are things said that we might think are unfair. I happen to think that many of the things that were said about our former leaders were very unfair. They help to suppress votes, discourage voters and create a climate that creates negativity, but I would not say they were illegal.

{En Francais, translated}:
I object occasionally to things that are said and not just in my opinion. Advertising against our leaders, in my opinion, was harsh. I am sure my colleagues in the Conservative Party and the NDP will say that we have seen advertising that we thought unfair. However, the problem is that there is a difference between a tough policy and a policy of dishonesty, even a negative political and a policy based on fraud. That’s the question before Elections Canada now.

I’m sure the minister’s speech will be repeated by all the Conservative MPs who will speak today. This will be repeated again and again. I would simply say that it is the Conservative Party which is now subject to an investigation, that it is he who is subjected to a very clear order from the court of having to produce documents. The Conservatives have no choice, they must give the documents. We, we said we were ready to provide all cooperation to Elections Canada that we would give him all the information we have no problem, no question. This is clearly from the Liberal Party of Canada.

However, we must see exactly what the problems we have. We have examples of calls that can not explain but that will need some explanations. There are examples of a highly centralized system, the preservative system in all its philosophy throughout its organization. We must consider how we might explain things, commits one could explain the calls to Jewish families who have received at Easter messages claiming to come from the Liberal Party of Canada. These were not automated calls, they were calls from people in person and who claimed to come from the Liberal Party. We know, for example, that the campaign office of my colleague from Mount Royal was closed. We did not call this office. We must find an explanation.

If there was a lot of other counties where we have the same thing, it’s hard to say that it is a coincidence.

If it happens in one riding, we can say that it is clearly a rogue situation. However, it happened in a riding that requires a password to access the central system. How does the company involved get access to the central system? How does one get access through the company? These are perfectly legitimate questions.

One of the first examples I heard about did not involve the Liberal Party at all, but rather involved the Bloc Québécois in the riding of Rivière-du-Loup in the byelection of 2009. There we heard of an example where a call was made indicating it was a call from the Bloc. It was not a call from the Bloc. It was a call coming from somewhere else.

How do we explain these phantom calls? How do we explain the number of phantom calls? There is a difference between a call that is dishonest, a call that is intended to suppress a vote, and a call that is exactly intended to misdirect someone to a polling station at place Y when in fact it should be place Z. How do we explain that? How do we explain the number of times that has happened?

Give me a computer and Internet access and I can boom a person’s house and cellphone from three continents away at the same time with the same message or a different message.

How do we track down this information? What if some of those calls were coming from offshore? What if they are offshore and off book in terms of how they are financed? These are legitimate questions, because when something happens once we can say it is an accident, when it happens twice we look into it, when it happens dozens of times in dozens of ridings there has to be some other explanation. There has to be some way of getting to the bottom of what that is.

If the government is sincere in saying that it wants to get to the bottom of it, then it is the Conservative Party of Canada who can easily do that with respect to the campaign theme and the people who were working in the war room, which was specifically intended to deal with close ridings.

I say to my Conservative friends that no one involved in the business of politics today can have anything but a grudging sense of admiration for the discipline and organization which goes into the Conservative campaigns. They have a central message. It is repeated over and over and over again. They have raised a lot of money, which is put into creating the greatest and latest technology that is available. The problem that we have to get to the bottom of is this. What are the values of the people who are behind that technology and behind that impressive organization? That is the issue that Elections Canada can get at from a certain perspective, but one which only the members of the Conservative Party can deal with themselves.

Have the Conservatives created a culture in which winning is everything? Have they created a culture in which they say that we are sore losers? Looking over at the other side, I would say that they are just a bunch of sore winners. They do not let up. They are relentless in their determination to go forward in the way the have, such as in 2006 with the in and out, and the brazenness with which they defied any questioning with respect to this subject, and with respect to the fact that they resisted Elections Canada and finally had to succumb to a subpoena and a police raid in terms of seizing documents.

{En Francais, translated}:
That’s the question. What are the real values ​​behind the machine? Yes, as professionals in politics, we see a machine and we must say that this machine is very professional. It is a machine well-controlled from the center, but the fact that it is well controlled from the center means that there are not many accidents regarding the things that happen in the counties. This is why we insist on answers to our questions and, frankly, we will not let go.

We are not going to let go of this. It is not a pleasant subject, because we are constantly having to ask questions about things that we cannot quite believe could be happening. They are not based on–in the words of my colleague opposite–unsubstantiated smears, they are based on complaints coming from Canadian citizens.

The member opposite shouted out just now that it is too late. I have news for the member, it is never too late for justice and truth to come out. It is never too late for people to bring forward complaints. It is very important for people to recognize that someone who gets a call early in the campaign and is asked who they are going to vote for and either declines to answer or says it is none of their business because the call is coming from the Conservative party and then two days before the election receives another call saying their polling station is in Kalamazoo what kind of conclusion we expect people to draw from that. When they hear and read about other people getting these calls, they say they got that call too. That is why we have an absolutely unprecedented number of complaints coming into Elections Canada.

One thing the Conservative party is going to have to come to grips with is it is not a matter of what the Liberal party thinks or does, or what the NDP thinks or does in this matter, or what the Bloc or Green party thinks or does, it is about the Canadian people and what they think. It is about the forms that they are signing, the things that they are saying. The argument of the Conservative party is not with the Liberal party and it is not with the NDP, it is with the Canadian people, and Conservatives have to understand that. As they reposition themselves for the umpteenth time and as their talking points shift the blame from one party to another party to somewhere else, they have to look into their own hearts and minds and ask themselves a simple question: have we not done something here that we should not have done?

I make no bones about it. This is an unprecedented situation, to quote from Mr. Kingsley. We are literally in uncharted waters. Those so-called experts or others who say there is nothing to all of this stuff do not really understand the implications of what happens when bad values and good technology get mixed up in the same lethal cocktail. This is what happens, and this is why Elections Canada needs to have these additional powers.

I am glad the Conservatives have backed away from their previous position and done a 180 on this issue. It is time that they did. However, we need to make sure that it applies not to future elections, but to this election. We need to make sure that it applies to what is happened in these campaigns. I look forward to those discussions.

We have gone from the serving of beef and beer, from nylons and rum, to where we are today. It is something we have to come to grips with was Canadians. Corruption is corruption is corruption. It should not happen wherever it happens, and we have to deal with it today.

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