Propositions on reform of electoral laws

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Propositions on reform of electoral laws
April 1st, 1998

Propositions on reform of electoral laws by the SAINT-JEAN-BAPTISTE SOCIETY at the National Assembly, April 1st, 1998

The Referendum Act is an important law for Québec since it is the democratic expression of what we are and what we hope to become. It must be treated with respect and should not be allowed to be weakened or belittled by others. Its main provisions should bear the mark of Québec's guiding political values, namely the principles of equality, universality and the collective ability to act. If it must be modified, then we should modify it in the same manner in which we adopted it, that is inspired by the desire to be "masters in our own home".

1. Equality of means

From our history as a colony, we learned of the evil that money can inflict on the principle of equality. For a long time, money in the hands of powers that dominated Quebec was so efficient that some Quebecers were tempted to follow suit. One of the lines of force - and honor - of the Quiet Revolution was to lead Quebec in a direction where the power of money would lose its power to destroy equilibrium.

With national YES and NO committees, the referendum law is the culmination of the corrections initiated in the 60s. That is why the SSJB-M believes the law must be maintained. The weakening of the rules that some would have us agree to, at the request of the Supreme Court, would disturb the equilibrium and prepare the ground for further weakening of the law. By following the Supreme Court's suggestion (capping expenses incurred by independents), Quebec would invite those who dislike democracy here to return to the courts. The effect would be to weaken the law even more by casting doubt as to its moral value. Is it not more accurate to interpret the Supreme Court's proposals as another trap to Quebec democracy rather than just friendly advice.

2. Equality before the media

Since the quality of voters' choice depends on the information available to voters, this information must be available. Nowadays, this is a fundamental aspect of the principle of equality. It is not enough for both sides simply to be treated equitably and equally: they must also feel, know and understand that it is so. This is indispensable in order to maintain a healthy public attitude the day after a referendum. Should the losing side feel that they were "done in", their behavior and their attitude could hinder the necessary reconciliation.

The SSJB-M therefore proposes that the legislator establish a system of "media overseer or ombudsman" as in other countries, such as France (monitoring by the "Conseil supérieur de l'audiovisuel"). This system could be created quickly and serve continually, not only during referendum periods. Citizens would be informed of the sense of fairness of the different media. The right to be informed includes the right to know the quality and the value of the news organ.

3. Equality of voters

Democratic principles require that voters be able to follow and fully understand public debate, that they be free to cast their vote without hindrance or fear of repercussions. On this point, we have three observations regarding public education, knowledge of the official language and protection against undue pressures.

3.1 Public education

The level of public education must be as high as possible. Anything that enhances the level also improves the democratic character of the electoral process. All that societies do to reduce illiteracy serves democracy, as do all efforts to reduce the number of school dropouts. The latter is not only a social and economic problem, but also and above a serious blight on democracy.

3.2 Knowledge of the language of political life

In the name of democratic principles, modern states have ensured that the official language is spread throughout the territory and among all the population so that it becomes the common language. How can people hope to exercise their rights as citizens if they do not know the language of political life.

Under these same principles, modern states have made access for immigrants to citizenship - and thereby the right to vote - contingent upon knowledge of the official language (or one of the official languages). This condition required for naturalization now appears in its full light. Before being an incentive to learn the official language, it is first of all a means to ensure that naturalized citizens are able to participate fully in society.

Another sign of Quebec's political subordination is the fact that it does not yet have the right to naturalize immigrants and make them full-fledged voters. Quebec is obliged to let others set the limits of the voting public. In current circumstances, however, Quebec can - and must, in the opinion of the SSJB-M - demand that the federal authorities not award Canadian citizenship without being sure the candidates know the official language well. At present, Quebec should accept knowledge of one of the two official languages.

3.3 Equality: protection against undue pressures

The right to vote is an individual right. It is exercised with a free conscience and must be protected against undue pressures. In real life, it is never easy to guard against this type of abuse. Fortunately, in this part of the world, we do not have to fear the pressure of military forces (unless we are in the armed forces...). It is not necessary therefore to demand that the armed forces withdraw from the territory during referendums on self-determination as was the case in parts of Europe during votes pursuant to the treaties of Versailles and Saint-Germain.

On the other hand, experience has shown that other pressures are exerted that, though they may be softer, are nonetheless contrary to the free expression of people's will. For example, in certain minority or ethnic communities, people who decide to vote for Quebec are often stigmatized as "traitors to Canada" - and thus undesirable for the country according to the conclusion drawn by a federal minister regarding a Bloc Québécois parliamentarian of Chilean origin. People familiar with these circles know that the phenomenon exists.

People have complained about this. For example, in the Anglophone community, Anne Meggs stated: "The problem is that the majority (of Anglophones who favor the YES) refuse to publicly affirm it for fear of being denounced in their community." (La presse, Oct. 15, 1995, p. A6). Ghila B. Sroka, Editor of La Tribune Juive, made an even more dramatic testimony: "I wish to say loud and clear that being a Jew, Francophone, and having defended the cause of Quebec independence was the worst ordeal of my community life." (La Parole métèque, juin 1996) Not very nice, nor very worthy.

How can this fear mongering be eliminated in certain communities that are especially vulnerable because they are minorities. Legislation is of course out of the question. But the situation should be denounced. This is what the SSJB-M wishes to do today before this committee of the National Assembly, namely to tell everybody everywhere that the legislator in this country knows what is going on in certain communities and should call for change in behavior that will help to enhance the referendum process.

4. The principle of universality

All citizens should be able to vote. This is why the SSJB-M applauds measures in the Côté report that will facilitate registration of new voters who are 18 and over and new citizens recently naturalized.

Who in fact is a citizen of Quebec. This question is normally posed to those of us who came from outside Quebec: how and when do they become citizens?

Belonging to Quebec society should never be based on ethnic criteria (as was the case for too long a period and for too many groups elsewhere in Canada). Better it be based on the time lived here. As we know, the duration has varied in Canada according to the series of modifications to naturalization laws. For a long time, it was five years, which is the same as the countries closest to us (United States, France, United Kingdom). During the 70s, in reaction to the rising sovereignty movement, the Trudeau Government brought it back to three years of residency in the hope of developing new obstacles to block Quebec's march towards sovereignty.

Whatever the motive, Quebec accepts this very short residency requirement. It is short in comparison with the practice of countries around us, where the rule is five years. It is even shorter when compared with the practices of some countries (especially in Europe after the Treaty of Versailles) that, in matters of referendums regarding self-determination, submitted the right to vote to much more stringent residency requirements that can reach 20 years.

  • Schleswig 1920 born in the zone or resident since January 1, 1900 (20 years).
  • Allenstein 1920 born in the zone or resident since January 1, 1905 (15 years).
  • Sopron 1921 born and resident in the territory prior to January 1, 1919 (2 years).
  • Haute-Silésie 1921 born and resident prior to January 1904 (17 years).
  • Klagenfurt 1920 born or naturalized and resident prior to January 1, 1912 (8 years).

Reference : Plebiscites since the World War, by Sarah Wambaugh, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, 1933, pages 474-477.

That requirement tends towards the one that Ottawa chose to impose in 1917 for certain categories of naturalized voters. Someone born in an enemy country - or who spoke the language of an enemy country ! - could not vote in federal elections unless they had been living in Canada for fifteen years since they were naturalized. It should also be noted that in the New Caledonia referendum on self-determination to be held this year, only French citizens who lived in that territory 10 years earlier, in 1988, can vote.

The SSJB-M is proud that Quebec has accepted the three-year rule since it shows how open we are. We want naturalized citizens, who sometimes feel "excluded" from political life, to appreciate it. This fact is promising for the future. A people who is so welcoming to those who just arrived, especially in an area as fundamental as that of our common future, is obviously prepared to welcome them also all common undertakings when the time comes to build the future together.

The current electoral and referendum laws trivialize the right to vote by giving it to anybody who has lived in Quebec for only six months. It is little time to become accustomed to the habits and stakes that are no less important than a people's future. English Canada is not, and will probably never be, the perfect venue for freely debating the subject of Quebec independence. Debate is rarely balanced. No media treats the Parti Québécois with respect, a fact that makes La Presse publisher Roger D. Landry chortle (Before the Empire Club in Toronto, Mr. Landry said it was perfectly correct and understandable that no media in English Canada was fair in dealing with PQ politicians, La Presse, 5/3/97, B3).

Peter Scowen, editorialist of the cultural weekly Hour, describes the treatment of Quebecers in English Canada as libel. "There is English Canada's continued debasement of French-speaking Quebecers' reputations and the all-too-willing nature of the English media to portray this province as a crumbling banana republic. It amounts to one of the grossest and longest-standing libels of a people in this country's history - and there are no journalists in English Canada trying to do anything about it". (Michel David, The Gazette, 20 mars 1998, page B3.

5. Universality over and above ethnicity

The rule of equality without distinction must be pushed as far as possible. Much more must be done in this area. Given our history, habits have developed that lead us to distinguish voters by certain characteristics. No vote can be held in Quebec without distinctions being made between Anglophone and Francophone voters - generally opposing one to the other. This practice is not common in modern democracies. Moreover, it will probably be some time before we change our ways. Nonetheless, we must begin sometime, and the Government seems well placed to break now ground.

The Government could adopt way of counting and publishing referendum results as a whole and not by electoral riding. It would contribute to de-escalating ethnicity in our political life. This change would also have another effect, namely to combat the partitionist temptations, as was done in several European referendums after 1919. It would certainly not be superfluous at a time when some people announce their intention to amputate from a future sovereign Quebec those ridings with a majority NO vote.

6. The ability to act

The blunt question before us is to know who will decide what is good or not, the authorities in Ottawa through their Supreme Court, or the men and women of Quebec through their elected National Assembly.

All of Ottawa's efforts and its Plan B is there in a nutshell: to impose the idea that the Supreme Court is the real leader of the game who will determine the rules by which Quebec democracy will operate when it exercises its will to determine its own future. Everybody is expecting an answer to this question this year. More specifically, everybody expects the Supreme Court to give itself the right to create obstacles, and in the same breath bring Quebec's premier under its wing in the name of Quebec's democracy.

The judges in Canada's leaning Tower of Pisa are very skillful at getting a pleasing tone. They know the artichoke method: peel off the leaves one by one and rely on the mentality that says "that's not the heart of it". This method worked on Bill 101. A bit of flattery, some good advice, just enough to get their foot in the door.

Some people have already been taken. A law professor here, a journalist there. Others will join in. As if it were a detail that a minor amendment will correct. That road is open to us. It's the road that the Supreme Court would like us to take, to have Quebec fit the mould defined for it. To follow the Supreme Court's directions would be to recognize it as the master of the game. How could we back away later?

Some people refer to international opinion, though international opinion had nothing to criticize in 1980, 1992 and 1995. Is there in fact any international opinion on this issue? Is it not simply an English Canadian opinion that, through a whispering campaign from media to media, has gone beyond our borders in order to shake the will of our leaders. Quebec's Premier knows it very well: has he not been dealing constantly with the so-called international opinion (remember the mirror business at the last PQ convention)? Nonetheless, the calumny him against has continued.

There is no paradox. The more you give in, the more your adversary wants. If the government backs down today, everybody will understand that it will back down tomorrow. The message will be clear, for both sovereigntists and those who joined the YES side in October 1995. The Supreme Court has offered Premier Bouchard an excellent occasion to show his mettle in the current confrontation with the Plan B strategists.

7. Integrity of the electoral process

The right to vote is a fundamental right that should be exercised in the respect of the highest principles of fairness. In the past century, many measures have enhanced the voting process to ensure that votes are cast only by the person who has the right to vote, and not by usurpers who vote twice or who deprive honest citizens of their right to vote.

The proposal to issue a voter's card with a picture or to require a recognized identity card with a picture appears to be an excellent improvement. This would help eliminate doubts about the integrity of the vote that characterized some of the recent events. Several western countries require this type of identity card, including Puerto Rico where a referendum will be held on the future of the island as soon as the American Congress had passed the referendum bill.