Mr. Stéphane Bergeron (Verchères—Les Patriotes, BQ)
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak in my turn to the bill put forward by my colleague, which seeks to enable the Chief Electoral Officer to appoint or to remove returning officers following an open and transparent process which will have made it possible to assess the competence, the merit and the skills to fulfill their duties of the people to be appointed.
I think there is no issue, topic or theme which allows us to discover more clearly the extent to which the current government is showing bad faith and duplicity in its pretense of wanting to reform the democratic institutions in such a way as to make them more valid or acceptable in the eyes of our fellow citizens who, for some years, have been exhibiting an increasing level of cynicism towards political institutions.
This government has taken upon itself to reform a number of things at the parliamentary level. The current Prime Minister, when he was barely running for the leadership of his party, was already floating the idea of parliamentary reform aimed at giving more powers to members of Parliament. He announced a plan to give MPs the power to appoint judges so as to avoid partisan appointments. We now find out that on this issue, he stubbornly follows the example of his predecessor and want to retain partisan appointments to returning officers positions.
We know very well that this government is desperately trying to separate itself from its Siamese twin, that is, the previous Chrétien government, which we are learning bit by bit was steeped in scandal, corruption and nepotism. It is understandable under the circumstances that the present government is anxious to do all it can to detach itself, separate itself, differentiate itself, from the previous government.
Yet these two are true Siamese twins, and cannot be separated because they share a number of vital organs. Some key players in the previous government are in the present one, and not just on the back benches either. They are in the ministerial seats.
As I said, this matter of returning officers gives us a clearer picture of the duplicity and bad faith of this government. I will give an example of something that happened quite recently in my riding of Verchères—Les Patriotes. Unfortunately, the woman who was appointed returning officer before the 1997 election recently passed away. I will take this opportunity to express my condolences to her family. When I learned of this—and moreover I was not notified but had to seek the information out myself—I took action immediately, given the imminence of a federal election. I went to see the deputy house leader to tell him that the returning officer in my riding had died and to ask whether he wanted me to provide names of highly qualified candidates who could assume those duties. To my great surprise, he announced to me that he had already submitted a name to Cabinet and that the matter would be settled shortly. In fact, the nomination took place just a few days ago.
In answer to the parliamentary secretary or to the member for Gatineau, nobody has ever said in this House, even on our side, that all returning officers were incompetent. Some are quite competent indeed. What we are saying though is that we do not necessarily choose the most competent ones because there are no call for nominations, we are not getting all the possible candidates for the position and friends of members of the government party are the ones being asked. It is nothing but cronyism, patronage and partisan politics.
The parliamentary secretary was saying earlier that the best experience one could have was to have been a candidate representative for a whole election day, from the opening of polls until the counting of ballots at the end of the day, saying that this was a real experience.
It is of course a fine experience, but the returning officers should not all have gotten their experience on the same side. Otherwise, if this side has a tendency to foster bad habits in its election workers, odds are that these bad habits will be found in all the returning officers.
It is, of course, a relevant experience that has to be taken into consideration. However, we have to be able to choose—from among all of those who have had such an experience, no matter which party they worked for—the ones who are most competent for the position.
In his report following the 37th general election, the Chief Electoral Officer recommended, among other things, that returning officers be appointed by the Chief Electoral Officer based on merit, that new returning officers be appointed for a 10 year renewable term and that the Chief Electoral Officer have the authority to dismiss returning officers on grounds of incompetence or unsatisfactory performance. Following the 38th general election, he reiterated this recommendation. This is nothing new; the Lortie commission recommended the same thing back in 1990. I might add for the benefit of the parliamentary secretary that, on this issue, the commission said one thing and then the opposite. The Chief Electoral Officer had made the same recommendation following the 35th and 36th general elections. It did not just occur to him out of the blue that this would be a good idea. Based on his extensive experience, he came to the conclusion, especially now, that such a change was necessary.
I remember hearing the Chief Electoral Officer say that, in discussions with some of his foreign counterparts, he was embarrassed to mention how returning officers are appointed in Canada. Understandably so, because this country, Canada, which boasts about being a model of democracy for the entire world, still has a few skeletons in its closet in this respect.
As a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, when I meet colleagues from around the world, I have some difficulty telling them with a straight face that our senators are appointed by the Prime Minister, and not elected. While most are extremely competent and acting in good faith, the fact remains that senators are appointed on a partisan basis. The same is true of returning officers.
The parliamentary secretary said earlier that there had never been any problems, except minor glitches here and there. We could, however, list a number of serious problems that the Chief Electoral Officer himself raised before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs on October 26. He said, and this is no minor matter:
I know of about 10 cases of insubordination, three problems involving conflict of interest, about 14 problems of incompetence, some 10 cases involving a lack of computer skills, which is a different area.
—a returning officer hired 10 members of her family, which is a violation of the ethics code. ... a returning officer kept his position in an association despite the fact that this created a conflict of interests... a returning officer put himself in a conflict of interest by agreeing to work in the riding office of a provincial member of the legislature.
One of them told me that if I was not pleased, he was going to resign in the middle of the election. That is insubordination.
That is what the Chief Returning Officer said. He also said:
—I received two letters of resignation from two returning officers. One told me that he had informed his local party association before the people there asked him to resign. The other one told me that he had informed the local association and that it had identified two possible successors and was going to review their candidacy further. He also said that he had defined the roles and responsibilities of a returning officer for the association, so that it could appoint an appropriate candidate.
Appropriate under what criteria? Those of the riding association? It makes no sense. That is scandalous.
I conclude with another case the Chief Electoral Officer reported:
—a returning officer... accepted nomination papers without checking a single name, because he did not want to be late for an appointment. In the case of all other candidates, all 100 signatures were checked.
While, as the member for Gatineau has said, we cannot conclude that all returning officers are incompetent or partisan, it appears that a number of them are.
A stop must be put to that situation and people hired following a transparent and open public competition, where people's experience, competence and ability to do the job can be assessed. Let us put an end to this system of nepotism and modernize Canada's electoral system.
Topic: Private Members' Business
Subtopic: Canada Elections Act