The House resumed from April 25 consideration of the motion that Bill,
C-2, an act providing for conflict of interest rules, restrictions on election financing and measures respecting administrative transparency, oversight and accountability be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Paul Crête (Montmagny—L'Islet—Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup, BQ):
Mr. Speaker, I would like to remind the House of the Bloc Québécois’ position on the accountability bill. The current title of the bill in French— Loi fédérale sur l'imputabilité—will have to change because it contains an unacceptable anglicism. I hope that the government will agree to the amendment proposed by the Bloc. According to our information, this is the direction in which we are headed.
In any case, it is important to know that this bill is in response to the sponsorship scandal and the corruption of the previous government, especially the Liberal Party of Canada, Quebec wing.
The Bloc Québécois would like to see some of the measures in this bill implemented. It suggested them a long time ago. For example, returning officers should be selected by the chief electoral officer rather than the cabinet; the Public Registry of Lobbyists should be independent; and corporate contributions should be banned—as Quebec has been doing for 30 years now. In addition, this bill needs to be considered more thoroughly in committee. A number of amendments should be made to it because, for example, it encourages an unhealthy snitch culture by offering rewards for whistleblowers. In my view, this goes too far. We will have to listen to the comments and suggestions made in committee. It is important to take our time and study this bill thoroughly. It should not be passed in great haste because it will become one of the cornerstones of this government and future governments.
The bill also contains a suggestion that is made in good faith but in my view would impede democratic debate. When a citizen lodges a complaint under the Federal Accountability Act, it is supposed to be forwarded to the commissioner. If he or she considers it appropriate, there would no longer be any right to discuss it further. I think that this is unacceptable. One of the main aspects of the task carried out by the members of this House would thus be eliminated.
In the four minutes that I was given to finish my speech, I wanted to say that the Bloc Québécois supports the bill in principle. It will propose a number of amendments to the bill, which needs to be fixed so that in the end we achieve our objective of ensuring that the kind of corruption that occurred under the previous government never happens again. It is important, therefore, for the House to take time to study this bill thoroughly.
Mr. Paul Crête:
Mr. Speaker, my colleague’s question is an interesting one. Actually it is a fundamental one. The major issue throughout the entire election campaign was government transparency and past cases of corruption. If there is one thing the citizens of Quebec and Canada expect, it is that we do something about this quickly and that we examine the file in depth.
There first has to be a vote on the actual principle of the bill. All the parties and members in this House must vote on the merits of the legislation and decide whether or not they are in favour of the principle of the bill. Then we can take an in-depth look at each of its components.
This bill is really very significant. It touches on many elements, including the method of appointing returning officers that has long been recommended by the Bloc Québécois. As for prohibiting corporate donations, this goes right to the source of problems that arose in the past. We saw businesses and banks that acquired, as if by chance, the attentive ear of the government after having made very large donations. We hope that this measure will be corrected. We can cite the model of Quebec as an example. It is not perfect, but it has been around for 30 years. It succeeded in preventing the sort of situations we have gone through here and that greatly undermined the people’s trust in their elected representatives.
To regain this trust, we must first vote on the actual principle of this bill, then refer it to committee for study, rather than proceeding the other way around.
In this regard, I do not share the opinion of my colleague. I find it important to show the public that one of the first parliamentary actions taken by the newly elected government, which saw the need to act on this matter, was in fact to have done so and let every member in the House vote.
On the other hand, this bill should not get steamrollered in committee. As many witnesses as possible must be heard so that in the end we adopt amendments that are going to have far-reaching effects. They will no doubt be put forward in large numbers. Perhaps the testimonies will continue until the fall. However that may be, when the time comes to pass this bill, a solid foundation will be necessary to ensure that, at least for a few years, the act will function as it should.
We will not stop some individuals from behaving in ways not entirely correct, but the role of Parliament and the opposition is to act as watchdogs. At least this bill will make it possible to clarify a certain number of situations, especially if we make the amendments to it that we and the other members of this House put forward. We must make this a solid bill whose effective duration will correspond to the importance of this issue in the last election.
Mr. Paul Crête:
Mr. Speaker, the Bloc Québécois has already clearly said that it supports the bill in principle. However, given its scope and the number of subjects it deals with, it is important for us to take time to study them properly.
I do not believe that it is necessary to give the bill third reading between now and the summer recess. What is important is that we get to the bottom of things and that all witnesses have a chance to be heard.
Take the example of whistleblowers. There is a major step forward in the bill in terms of how this issue is to be handled. However, I think that we go too far when we say that we are going to offer rewards to whistleblowers, and I believe that a balance should be struck. We will therefore have to assess this situation, hear the witnesses, and perhaps consider amendments.
That is only one of the questions about this bill that is unanswered. I will mention a few others. For example, only three of the nine foundations are covered by the Access to Information Act. Is there not some way to expand that to the six others, or a portion of them? To do that, we have to know about the foundations that are not covered, what their mandate is, and determine whether they should be covered.
On the question of political party financing, there is still no ceiling for leadership races. Would it not be necessary for us to understand whether it is a good idea to have an amendment to do this?
In other words, it is obvious that this bill is going to need a lot of work in committee. The committees are not yet operational. I believe that the motion has just been introduced that will allow the committees to begin work. The chairs and vice-chairs have to be chosen, as do the committee members, priorities have to be set, and the committee that will be responsible for studying this bill has to be decided. The people who want to testify must also be given time to prepare properly.
Let us not do things in haste, let us rather do them properly so that we can be sure that the situations involving government corruption we have seen in the past never happen again, situations that were the result of loopholes in the law and problems that have not been solved.
When we have taken the time to study it thoroughly, let us hope that this bill will solve a majority of those problems. One month more or less will not make any difference.
Hon. Shawn Murphy (Charlottetown, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to stand in the House today to participate in the debate on the federal accountability act.
As everyone is now aware, this is what I would classify as an omnibus bill. It is large, it is complex and it will be referred to a committee. I think that is a good thing. I have confidence in the committee system and it will be studied and analyzed at the committee. Generally speaking, I support the thrust of the bill. Any time we clarify roles, define expectations and increase transparency and oversight, I think those principles are good. However, from my first reading of the bill, my fear is that the law of unintended consequences may creep in, which is why it is good to refer the matter to a committee.
I wholeheartedly support some provisions in the bill but others need refinement and others are downright silly which, hopefully, will be dropped by the committee.
I should point out that this is really not that groundbreaking. Many of the provisions in the bill are a continuation of initiatives in Bill C-24, the whistleblower legislation, which the previous speaker spoke to, legislation that had been debated, discussed and passed by the House in the last Parliament. It dealt with some of the major changes dealing with procurement in the federal government, the institution of the Comptroller General and some of the changes with the Ethics Commissioner.
I certainly support the provisions for dealing with donations to political parties and the whole idea of secret donations. I do not know how extensive they are. I have never received one and I do not know anyone else who has but anything like that should be stopped in its tracks.
The whole issue of lobbyists has bothered me since I arrived in the House. I had to call a deputy minister or someone else when I was in government but it was difficult to meet with them. However when I would go to Wilfrid's or other restaurants around town I would see them meeting with lobbyists, which has always concerned me. I think that is something that we should bring to light in the House.
The intention of government with regard to government appointments is probably a positive development, although it has not been followed by the government so far.
The area I have real concern about is the institution of the office of the public prosecutions official. Given the limited scope of what this person would do, which would be drug offences, income tax and shipping act violations, I see it as being somewhat silly.
The parliamentary budget authority is something that perhaps can be discussed in committee but it seems to me that has been the procedure followed over the last 10 years, but by taking an average of all the economists across Canada a lot of times the economists had it wrong. These things are subject to tremendous variations and it will be hard to pin it right on the nose. I believe it is a duplication and a waste of time and effort.
When we go forward as a House discussing this bill I think we need to bear in mind the balance between allowing public servants to take risks and to accept change and that one is not always looking out for one's back. We also need to differentiate between making a mistake and wrongdoing. We all make mistakes and in time when we take a risk, make a change or take an initiative a lot of times we do make mistakes.
I distinctly remember making a mistake in my first month practising law some 30 years ago. I thought it was serious so I went to the senior partner of the firm and I apologized for the mistake. He said that he did not see it as being that serious and he told me to show him a lawyer who did not make mistakes and he would show me a lawyer who did not make any money. We all make mistakes but we need to differentiate mistakes from wrongdoing. I think that will be very important with the bill.
Dealing with the whole issue of accountability, there are two measures that are not in the bill. If the two measures were in the bill, it would increase accountability in this town substantially. First, is the tenure of deputy ministers. One of the biggest problems in the administration of government is the short tenure for deputy ministers. They serve, on average, about a year and a half to a year and three-quarters, and there is no accountability.
If we look back at the function of departments, there are problems, but the deputy minister has only been there a year, and the deputy before that was there only a year and a half, so no one is accountable. They can always say they were not there or not there long enough. This was the recommendation which came forward in the Gomery report that the tenure of a deputy minister should be at least five years, so that there is accountability and that those deputies be held to account.
The second measure is the whole issue of sanctions. This is a tool that would be available to ministers and deputy ministers when we do have wrongdoing, not mistakes. This has been talked about in the accountability act with the financial administration and I agree with that, but it should be stronger than that. I have been on the public accounts committee for five and a half years now and I have seen problems. With a budget of $200 billion and 450,000 public servants, there are going to be problems. If anyone in the House thinks that they are going to correct all the problems of the world by one act, they are fooling themselves.
I have asked the question at least 40 or 50 times, when there is a problem and someone sees wrongdoing, of whether there has been any disciplinary action taken? Every time the answer has been “no”. Was there any disciplinary action taken with Mr. Guité? No. Was there any disciplinary action taken with Mr. Quail? No. No one has ever been disciplined, that I am aware of, in any of the cases of wrongdoing we have investigated in the public accounts committee.
Those two measures would increase and improve accountability tremendously in the House, although they are not in the bill. Having said that, this is why we debate these bills in the House. That is why they are referred to committee and it will come back, and I do look forward to the debate.
The only difficulty I see which disappoints me tremendously is what I call the pith and substance of what the accountability bill states is going on here in Ottawa. The government says it has five priorities but actually it has six.
The first priority of the Prime Minister was to appoint his co-chair to the Senate and then appoint him as the Minister of Public Works and Government Services. That absolutely destroys any line of accountability in the House. The House of Commons is an institution of accountability. Our job is to pass legislation, grant allocations for spending of money, and to hold the executive to account.
A very important part of the executive of the government is the Minister of Public Works and Government Services, who is not in the House. I asked a member who spoke to the bill yesterday and he said that there is nothing to worry about because the minister is accountable to another institution. That is not accountability. I find it offensive. I was disappointed. I thought the President of the Treasury Board would deal with that spectacle in this bill, but he did not. That is probably the situation I am most disappointed about and I do hope this spectacle does end very soon.
Regarding the whole issue of political fundraising, I agree with the pith and substance of what the bill says, but this Friday night, Mr. Speaker, if you have $1,000, I can get you into a dinner with the Prime Minister in my home town of Charlottetown. If you have $1,500, I can take you to Moncton the following night and you can have two dinners, and enjoy the company of the Prime Minister if you were so interested.
The bill talks about the Ethics Commissioner being of a judicial or quasi-judicial background. We had a spectacle a month ago where the Prime Minister was offering the job to an ex-member of the House. He was qualified, but he certainly did not have these qualifications. Again, it just goes to show that what the act says and what the government is doing are totally opposite and it is very disappointing.
I am thankful for this time to present my views on the bill. I look forward to further debate in the House and to the report of the committee.
Mr. Kevin Sorenson (Crowfoot, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, my hon. colleague across the way touched on a number of points within his speech and I have a couple of questions for him.
Before I ask the questions, I would like to say that when the government came forward with the federal accountability action plan, the whole purpose of the government's ideas were to bring forward accountability to government, not because of the former government, not just to the present government but to government, period, the government as a whole.
I know the government and the Conservative Party certainly have wanted to promote a whole culture of accountability. They wanted to ensure that Canadians across this country would be able to gain again confidence in government, not confidence in the Conservative Party or in any other party but confidence in government because across this land we are seeing more and more people lose confidence in politicians, politics and government.
I will now go to the question that the member caused me to bring forward. I had not thought of it, but he talked about the tenure of deputy ministers. He mentioned in his speech that the average deputy minister would spend approximately a year and a half in that position. I want to tell a quick story.
I jumped aboard one of the green buses on Parliament Hill once. There was a new minister who had been appointed after one of the famous four from the past government was asked to leave office by the then Prime Minister. As I talked to this new minister, I asked him if he would consider one or two things in the ministry that he might achieve while he was there. He had great plans. He had great ideas of what he could do. About two weeks later, I spoke to the same minister and he said that the bureaucracy basically was running his department.
My question is in regard to the year and a half. If ministers were to have the ability to request the Prime Minister to remove a deputy and to have someone in the position that they can work closely with, why then would they not be in favour of ministerial accountability and ensure that their ministry is set up the way they would like to see it set up? Why would ministers not do that?
Ms. Diane Ablonczy (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I would like to begin by sincerely thanking the voters of Calgary—Nose Hill for their continued confidence in me and for being willing to have me represent them here in this House. I take that duty very seriously. Some of them did not vote for my party, but I want to be a good representative of all the constituents of Calgary--Nose Hill, whether they voted for me or not, and also to help Canada in shaping its future.
As members know, today we are talking about the first piece of legislation that has come before this new Parliament, the federal accountability act. For those Canadians who are watching this debate, I wish to go over very quickly what this act is all about. Sometimes there is a lot of rhetoric, but people are wondering exactly what it is all about.
Essentially, this bill would make changes in five areas of government operation. This bill would bring in political reform, parliamentary reform, public sector reform, procurement reform, and finally, measures to make the public sector more open.
With respect to political reform, the bill would limit donations so that there is not undue influence put on politicians because of funding. It would ban secret donations and trust funds to politicians. It would prevent the immediate move from government to lobbying, so members who were our seatmates one day could not be getting favours on behalf of clients the next day. It would enhance the role of the Ethics Commissioner and pass the conflict of interest code, which has been an unofficial guideline, into law.
With respect to parliamentary reform, the law would give more power to the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, the Information Commissioner and the Chief Electoral Officer, and would create the positions of commissioner of lobbying and the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner.
It would be great if we did not need all these watchdogs, would it not, if our watchdog was in our heart and in our commitment to do what is right. However, we have seen that this is not sufficient in areas of endeavour in the public and, sadly, even in this House, and so these watchdogs would be put into place to help boost the conscience of members in the political arena.
In addition, the Auditor General would now be able to follow the money. Instead of just saying money was misspent and it disappeared somewhere, somehow, the Auditor General would be able to take the steps to actually follow the money trail so that we know, and Canadians know, exactly what happened to the dollars that went missing.
There would also be an independent parliamentary budget authority that would provide a financial reality check on the nation's finances. This individual would also provide a reality check on proposals by House of Commons committees and proposals in private members' bills. Again, because numbers that have been given to the House in different other settings have been, shall we say, not as reliable as they should be, we will put another reality check and another balance in place.
All these appointments would be confirmed by a vote in Parliament. These watchdogs would be officers of Parliament. They would not be beholden to the government but to this House, and all the members of this House and all the parties in this House.
With respect to public sector reform, there would be a clearer accountability of ministers and deputy ministers. There would be real whistleblower protection, including a reward for those who expose wrongdoing. There would be an independent tribunal to adjudicate cases of reprisal, so that public servants would feel they could actually be public servants without suffering a mortal blow because of their integrity.
There would be a new Comptroller General to ensure proper audits of departments. There would be a blue ribbon panel to review grants and contributions, including reviewing fairness in these contributions. There would be a specific initiative to streamline financial management policies and practices.
On procurement reform, there will be a new procurement auditor to provide an independent review of procurement policies to ensure fairness and openness. There will be a code of conduct for procurement. Public opinion research paid for by the public will be made available to the public within six months.
On making the public sector more open, there are measures to expand coverage of the Access to Information Act, which is sometimes referred to as the ATI. This will now include crown corporations, agents of Parliament and the three federally created foundations. We will bring forward a draft bill containing the Information Commissioner's recommendations on ATI together with a paper on the issue for discussion and further action in the House of Commons.
We will establish a public appointments commission to set up a merit based appointments process.
This bill is about making everyone from the Prime Minister to MPs to public servants to grant recipients more accountable. The bill changes the way government works and makes it easier for Canadians to hold government accountable. Most important, it is a giant step in rebuilding Canadians' trust in their government.
We all need to be accountable. We have to remind ourselves of what happens when accountability is weak or non-existent as it was under the former Liberal government. There were misspent millions on the sponsorship program with everyone in government claiming total ignorance and no responsibility at all. There was a 1,000% cost overrun on the gun registry which failed to catch any criminals because criminals, being law breakers, do not obey registration laws. There were mismanaged billions in HRDC and other grants and contributions and loans programs. Then we saw the outrageous spending habits of those in high office spending money foolishly and unwisely, money that came straight out of the pockets of ordinary hard-working Canadians. We saw contracts for cronies and supporters of those in government. There were hundreds of specific examples of this kind of abuse of citizens' money and trust.
Canadians deserve so much better than this. No law can entirely weed out the bad apples, those who are on the lookout for what they can get for themselves. But we can move strongly to make sure that such actions do not remain hidden and do carry consequences.
Our government is committed to rebuilding trust and respect for leaders and for government. We are looking forward to working with all members of the House to make this a priority for Canadians.
Ms. Diane Ablonczy:
Mr. Speaker, that definition which, I might add, is very individualistic and highly selective, is not what the bill is talking about at all.
The former government, of which the member was a part, often, every day, talked about openness and accountability. I never heard the member get up and say, “and this is what we mean by accountability”. He certainly never gave the definition which he just gave in the House before. And what is the reason? It is because we all know what accountability means. There are some things like honesty that we do not have to define.
Accountability means that when we do something, we take the responsibility for it. If we are not willing to take the responsibility and we are trying to duck it, there are other watchdogs and other checks and balances that will hold us accountable. That is what accountability is about.
I would say to the member that far from having any negative repercussions in the public service, like all of the measures on which the hon. member's former colleague, the former president of the treasury board, was working, this bill has been supported by the public servants. Why? Because it supports them.
Public officials now will be free to actually look their minister in the face and say, “I can't do that because now I am going to be held accountable for it”. There will be some real measures to protect whistleblowers.
This bill will help to hold politicians and public officials accountable and that is exactly what it should do.
Hon. Andrew Telegdi (Kitchener—Waterloo, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, let me say that I hold my colleague from Calgary—Nose Hill in high esteem. I really wish that she would have come back and served on the citizenship and immigration committee. When we talk about questions of accountability and holding the bureaucracy accountable, it is important that the government has members who know the issues of the department. She knows those issues very well.
Let me suggest that in terms of the bill the member talked about accountability, but what she is really talking about is conduct. This whole thing is in a lot of ways a charade. It does not matter what segment of society it is, whether it is a service club, a police department, a university, a law firm or a church, there will be some people who will engage in criminal conduct. That is why we have spent billions of dollars on the courts and the police and penal institutions for enforcement.
What really happened in the last Parliament is that the opposition parties were very successful in undermining people's belief in this place and in the role of government. I think our member from Vancouver Quadra spoke very eloquently on that subject.
What has to be remembered is that if the basic underpinnings in a system are undermined, we are all hurt. This Parliament is hurt, the government is hurt, the bureaucracy is hurt, and a bad impression is given to the rest of the world.
No one party has a monopoly on virtue. If we examine the record and if we want to talk about accountability, the first thing the Conservative government should have done when it came into the House was to apologize for the previous Conservative government that left office in 1993. I raise that because ministers and MPs were charged and convicted. Nine people went to jail.
Let me also underline a way that the Conservatives have undermined our belief in the legal system. I know the truth is not welcomed. I note that some of the members were not around. But the fact of the matter is that the Conservatives deeply undermined the system by trying to infer that all politicians are corrupt. This does not serve us well, Mr. Speaker. You would know more than virtually anyone else in this place since you are the dean of this Parliament.
The other canard that has been floated is that somehow former prime minister Mulroney was prosecuted by the government. In a democracy the prosecution is done by the police, the RCMP and the crown attorney. It is not done by politicians. Let me say that I would not want to live in a country where politicians can direct the police or can direct the prosecution to persecute someone.
I came from a country like that 49 years ago. This year will mark the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution. I can tell members that the basis of democracy is that government should never be in a position to single out an individual and say politically to the head of the RCMP or the head of the prosecution that it wants the person charged.
A lot of people have come to this country from places like I did. They came as refugees. They came as immigrants from oppressive regimes. We have to ensure they do not get the wrong impression that any political party can direct the police or the prosecution.
It was because of what happened with the sponsorship issue that the former Liberal government launched-
Mr. Kevin Sorenson: You guys are all crooked. That is why you are over there.
Hon. Andrew Telegdi: I am going to pick up on that. Recently it was on W-FIVE that the former prime minister, Mr. Mulroney, received $300,000 from Mr. Schreiber. Surely we should have a Gomery type of inquiry on this because now this is an established fact. If the Conservatives want to be accountable, they would do the right thing. The Liberal Party did the right thing. The former prime minister called the Gomery inquiry.
However, even before the Gomery inquiry was called, we had the mother of all bills in terms of accountability, and that was Bill C-24. When we came into government in 1993, it was possible for corporations to give millions of dollars to political parties. It was possible for individuals to give millions of dollars to political parties. What this government did with its financing bill was limit corporations to $1,000 from untold millions that they could give. The other thing we did was limit the contribution from individuals to $5,000.
Those were the most sweeping changes that have ever been made. Whatever this bill now wants to do, it will be a small fraction of what we did. This is important because that is where we are coming from.
To get back to the whole issue of the bill, it gives me nightmares when I see that the Conservatives have introduced a part where they want to pay $1,000 to somebody to snitch on somebody else. I have trouble with that because of where I came from. I have trouble with that because, unfortunately, in totalitarian regimes people denounce each other. I have trouble with that because I worked in the courts. I know when testimony is given, it has to be given for the best of reasons, and certainly not because of $1,000. It is an insult to the law-abiding men and women of our country to think that $1,000 would be the reason they would do this. We are not talking about operation watch or rewards being offered for anonymous donations. We are talking about civil servants who have high ethics, for the most part. They are not perfect.
Our party will support the basic thrust of the bill, but I am particularly disturbed that we are going to be able to interfere in the affairs of the first nations, the section relating to the Auditor General. First nations have had a long and troubled history and we have to treat them with respect. We have to respect their leadership. We have to understand that we should no more to them than we do to the provinces.
The Liberals will support the bill. I look forward to further debate on it. We are all responsible for upholding the faith of Canadians in our elected institutions and other institutions.
Hon. Andrew Telegdi:
Mr. Speaker, first, let me very clear that I am the last member of Parliament in the House who anybody should be accusing of hearing no evil and seeing no evil. If I believe in something and I see something is wrong, I will defend the opposition party against the powers of the minister and of the government.
In terms of the names of the individuals involved, buy the book. It is called On the Take: Crime, Corruption and Greed in the Mulroney Years. The member will find all the names. If the member wants, I will table in the House tomorrow the names of the nine persons who were convicted of criminal charges.
Mr. Dave MacKenzie: Do it outside the House.
Mr. Andrew Telegdi: I will do it outside and in the House. It is a matter of public record.
Let me talk about one part, which I think will cause a problem in terms of limiting donations to $1,000. If somebody goes to a convention, there is a cost. We are going to have one this year. The Conservatives and NDP had them in the past. It is a very expensive process. It will cost a couple of thousand dollars. According to the laws, if one is going to do it through a personal donation, one can go.
The other issue that is really lacking and is the weakest point in this bill, the real Achilles heel of the bill, is that it does not ban third party advertising. We know the problems we had with the former head of the National Citizens Coalition--
Mr. Fabian Manning (Avalon, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased today to stand and make a few comments on what I believe to be one of the most important and progressive pieces of legislation to come before the House in a long time.
Recognizing that this is my first opportunity to give a speech in the House, although I gave a brief private member's statement before the Easter break, I would like to take a moment to say a sincere thanks to the wonderful people of the riding of Avalon in Newfoundland and Labrador for the honour and privilege of electing me to be their representative in this honourable House. Their vote of confidence on January 23 was the result of a clear desire by the people of Avalon to see a change not only in the riding of Avalon, but also to join Canadians from coast to coast to ensure that there would definitely be a change in Ottawa.
As the first Conservative elected in Canada on election night, I am proud of my constituents, the people of Avalon riding, who were the first to turn over a new leaf for a new Conservative government in our country. I take my role as an MP very seriously and look forward to working with my colleagues within our government on behalf of the people I represent. While there are always challenges that we have to deal with, I look forward to exploring the opportunities on behalf of my constituents of the Avalon riding.
I would like to recognize the fact that I am here with two political veterans of Newfoundland and Labrador, namely the member for St. John's South—Mount Pearl and the member for St. John's East. I am delighted that my colleague, the member for St. John's South—Mount Pearl, has been appointed the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, an important industry in my riding of Avalon and in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
I was delighted that one of the first acts of our government, in relation to our province, was last Tuesday. I travelled with the Prime Minister and the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans to our province, to Gander especially, to announce the bringing back of the Gander weather station to Newfoundland and Labrador. This was a promise made by the government during the election campaign, and I am proud to say a promise kept by the Prime Minister.
Bill C-2, the federal accountability act, is about trust. It is about cleaning up government. The bill, as the words themselves say, is about accountability, accountability to the citizens of Canada to ensure that their hard earned tax dollars are not wasted, to ensure their hard earned tax dollars are not used to reward friends and cronies and to ensure that their hard earned tax dollars are not used to prop up a political party in its dying days.
The sponsorship scandal disgusted Canadians from coast to coast. The HRDC scandal before that disgusted Canadians from coast. The gun registry, which was supposed to cost $2 million but ballooned into a cost of $2 billion, disgusted Canadians from coast to coast. All this brought on the Gomery inquiry. People from across Canada watched with interest and were more disgusted day by day as we listened to what happened here in the past 13 years.
Recent polls across our country have measured the level of trust that Canadians have in different professions. I was not surprised, and I am sure members on all sides of the House were not surprised, to see that firefighters, nurses, farmers and others topped the list. Politicians placed dead last right behind used car salesmen. As MPs, as Canadians, we definitely need to address this issue. The government plans on doing so through this bill.
We need to work together to rebuild the trust of Canadians. Some important components of the bill include: reforming the financing of political parties; the strengthening of the role of the Ethics Commissioner; toughening the Lobbyists Registration Act; and providing real protection for whistleblowers. Allan Cutler spoke up to expose a Liberal scandal and lost his position. That action was wrong and, through this bill, an independent officer of Parliament would have the power to protect those who expose wrongdoing.
The bill would strengthen the access to information legislation. It would strengthen the power of the Auditor General to follow the money and, believe me, as we watched the Gomery inquiry there were many Canadians who wanted the opportunity to follow the money. That is what the bill is about.
The purpose of the bill is to give Canadians a level of understanding of how government works and that there is a difference between a political party and a government. There is a difference between spending taxpayer dollars and not being accountable and spending taxpayer dollars and answering for them.
I listened to members earlier talk about responsibility and accountability. We are elected to the House to be accountable and responsible. One goes side by side with the other. They cannot be separated.
Reforming the financing of political parties is an important part of this legislation. These changes would increase transparency, reduce opportunities to influence politicians with contributions and help Canadians feel more confident about the integrity of the democratic process. It would level the playing field among individual contributors and encourage political parties to engage the electorate more directly.
This is what Canadians want and what Canadians asked for and we as a party put forward an agenda. We are not standing here today bringing forward something in the House of Commons that is a surprise to anyone on this side or that side. We are delivering on a promise we made during the election campaign to clean up government, to clean up Ottawa and to clean up politics. I am proud to stand here and say that I fully support the legislation and I was glad to hear members today say that they support it because Canadians want this legislation passed.
The federal accountability act would see the banning of secret donations to political candidates. We cannot have this. I certainly have not received anything but, as we have heard in the past, there have been envelopes with tremendous amounts of money placed in them. No one needs to tell us that when an envelope with $5,000 or $10,000 is passed to someone, today, tomorrow or the next day, that person will come knocking for a favour. That is what the legislation is all about.
These changes would bring greater transparency and fairness to political financing. The government will heighten disclosure requirements regarding the personal finances of members of Parliament and hence reduce the risk of their holding problematic financial interests. These measures would allow members of Parliament to hold legitimate financial instruments that do not influence their elected positions. We cannot use our positions in any way that is dishonest or disloyal to the people who gave us the opportunity to be here.
There are many parts of the bill that will be discussed over the next few days. I am very pleased that we have the opportunity to discuss this and that the bill will be going to committee where there will be an opportunity for other party members to put forward their opinions.
On January 23, Canadians voted for change. They voted for a change in the way politics are conducted in this city. They voted for a change in government because they wanted the wrongs righted, which is exactly what the federal accountability act would do. We are very pleased to put it forward and hopefully have it passed through the House so Canadians once again can trust us as politicians.
Mr. Richard Nadeau (Gatineau, BQ):
Mr. Speaker, the Bloc Québécois is in favour of the principle of the accountability act.
Let us recall that, during the last two federal election campaigns, the Bloc Québécois criticized the Liberal government’s misuse of public funds and corruption. With the word “ethical” are associated such synonyms as “integrity”, “loyalty”, and “reliability”. This is in contradiction to such antonyms as “pettiness”, “arrogance” and “ingratitude”.
The Bloc Québécois wishes to spare Quebeckers scandals such as the dishonourable sponsorship scandal, of which the Liberal Party of Canada showed us the entire ignominy from the mid-1990s, or the Option Canada scandal, which was orchestrated by federalist forces, both Liberal and Conservative, during the last referendum.
With regard to the current Bill C-2, called the accountability act, the Bloc Québécois took part in the Gomery Commission in the constructive spirit we are known for, by developing 72 recommendations which must now be implemented.
In this regard, I am happy to note that several proposals put forward by the Bloc Québécois, some since 1990, have been taken up. For example there is the merit appointment of returning officers by Elections Canada; the independence of the lobbyists registry; the act respecting the financing of political parties, which will be more like Quebec’s in its prohibition of corporate donations; strengthening the power of the Auditor General.
The Bloc Québécois, however, has always maintained that the reinforcement of laws and policies was of no effect if there was no real commitment of elected officials to change things.
As far as lobbying is concerned, for example, it is curious to see the Prime Minister tolerate what he criticized the Liberals for. In the Conservative Party’s ethical platform on page 3, the Prime Minister criticized the Liberals for allowing people to move back and forth between political offices and lobbying firms. I quote:
|| Under the Liberals, lobbying government--often by friends and associates of Paul Martin and other Liberal ministers--has become a multi-million dollar industry. Senior Liberals move freely back and forth between elected and non-elected government posts and the world of lobbying.
The new Minister of Defence, however, was a lobbyist for some ten years for ordnance suppliers. We are entitled to ask ourselves the following question: will he defend the interests of citizens or the interests of his former clients?
The same is true in the case of the Prime Minister's director of communications, who represented the interests of a dozen or so businesses potentially doing business with the government. Will she defend the interests of the public or of her former clients?
The same may be said for the current director of parliamentary affairs for the Minister of Public Works, who worked for Summa for a number of years. There, he represented the interests of Purolator Courier, Enbridge and SAS Institute Canada or he lobbied the government. Will he defend the interests of the public or of his former clients? That is the question.
It is surprising to note that the Conservatives have learned nothing from the mistakes of the Liberals. Like the Liberals with Alfonso Gagliano, the Conservatives appointed their political organizer in Quebec to head the public works department. The Minister of Public Works, who has acknowledged doing political funding work for the Conservative Party, is responsible for $10 billion in government spending. If the accountability legislation freely permits this sort of activity, where does the accountability lie?
In this regard, we hope that the Conservative government will take the amendments by the Bloc Québécois into account to ensure it really does want to change things.
If the current government really does want to change things, it will have to revise the sanctions for conflict of interest. As my colleague from Repentigny said yesterday, a fine of $500 for infringement of the Conflict of Interest Act is far from acceptable given that contracts can exceed $200,000, as we have seen in the past.
If the government really wants to change things, it will have to examine this aspect of the bill very closely.
It is important to note that the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner is authorized to impose penalties. Unfortunately, this power is not very clearly defined. Can the commissioner impose financial penalties exceeding $500? This issue must be cleared up.
With respect to the Access to Information Act, here again the government seems unwilling to budge.
This Act was adopted in 1983. Since then, despite numerous calls for it to be revised, it remains essentially unchanged. The Conservative government has chosen not to reform the Access to Information Act as part of its omnibus legislation, despite the fact that the bill proposes changes to about 40 acts in its 317 clauses. The Access to Information Act should have been among them. The President of the Treasury Board claims that additional consultations will be necessary.
Nevertheless, the Conservative government promised reforms to the Access to Information Act many times over during the last election campaign. For example, on page 7 of their election platform, they said:
|| A Conservative government will:
|| Implement the Information Commissioner’s recommendations for reform of the Access to Information Act.
The Conservative members, like all the other members who sat on the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, rejected the suggestions made by the former Liberal Minister of Justice, who wanted to study the bill further. On November 3, 2005, the committee unanimously agreed to the act proposed by the Information Commissioner and asked the government to legislate without delay.
Various governments have been holding consultations for 20 years. Back in 1987, the Standing Committee on Justice made 100 recommendations for reforming the act. In August 2000, the President of the Treasury Board and the Minister of Justice formed a task force of public servants to review the act, regulations and policies on which the present access to information scheme is based. In November 2001, the Bryden committee proposed a dozen recommendations that it regarded as priorities. It will be recalled that the present Minister of Justice signed that report.
This House also had an opportunity to debate this act, when a number of members introduced private members’ bills. The Information Commissioner even proposed a complete bill to the government in October 2005, as he had also done in 1994.
Is the unspoken truth that the Conservative government is in less of a hurry to reform the act now that it is in power? That is the question.
The Information Commissioner recently observed that this is a consistent reaction by all governments. I quote him:
|| The reason that action, not more study, is required is that governments continue to distrust and resist the Access to Information Act and the oversight of the Information Commissioner.
In conclusion, I reiterate that the Bloc Québécois has always maintained that it was ineffective to strengthen laws and policies if this were not accompanied by a genuine intention on the part of the elected ministers to change things. Let us say that the signals we have been receiving from this government in the last few months are a cause for concern.
We have identified a number of loopholes in this bill that might allow wrongdoing to occur. On that point, we invite the President of the Treasury Board to take the time that is needed to properly analyze the amendments to the bill that will be proposed, in order to reduce the risk of wrongdoing like that which has greatly contributed to the cynicism about politics and the people who are responsible for upholding the public interest.
My colleagues may rest assured of my full cooperation in efforts to improve this bill.
Mr. Rahim Jaffer (Edmonton—Strathcona, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, it is a great pleasure to speak here today. I want to start by first congratulating you on a job well done. Congratulations in your new role as Deputy Speaker in this House. You wear the robes well and we look forward to your continued performance in this position. It is a great pleasure to be able to congratulate you in that capacity.
This is the first time that I have had the chance in this session of Parliament to stand and address what I think is one of the most important pieces of legislation to ever come into this Parliament, I would say, especially after the performance of the previous government and in view of the fact that we have to move quickly in ensuring that Canadians restore their faith in politicians and their government. I am excited to be able to rise in the 39th Parliament to speak to this very profound legislation.
Before I do so, I would like to start by congratulating and thanking the residents of Edmonton--Strathcona, who have been so kind to send me back to this place for my fourth term. It is hard to imagine that I am approaching nine years in this place. Time goes by so quickly. I have learned a lot over those years. I have had some incredible debates and some incredible experiences. I must say that even though my neck is a little sore as I face the Speaker from this angle, it is nice to be in government after all that time.
As we move forward in the House, I would like to start by addressing some of the key things to start cleaning up government, to start cleaning up the mess that was left behind by the previous regime after 13 years. We have heard a number of our colleagues on this side of the House and the minister who has been in charge of this legislation, the President of the Treasury Board, address the reason why it is so important that this legislation come forward at this time, and why Canadians, after January 23, spoke so resoundingly in saying that they wanted to have a change in environment. They wanted increased accountability and increased transparency.They wanted to change the way business was done in Ottawa. That was clear after January 23.
For those who are tuning in and watching to see how this debate is unfolding and to hear about exactly what criteria are involved in this particular legislation, I think it is important that from time to time we highlight some of the key points in this legislation so Canadians do see how important it is in the efforts of this government to try to clean up the way things have been going here in Ottawa.
There are some concrete and I think welcome changes. I heard that during the course of the campaign and even leading up to the tabling of this legislation. Canadians could not wait to see things like the strengthening of the powers of the Auditor General, banning union and large corporate and large personal political donations, and providing real protection to whistleblowers, which I think is something that we have heard about over and over.
They also could not wait to see things like ensuring that government contracting is proper, fair and open. We know about the problems that led up to the sponsorship scandal of the last Parliament and the last government, so I think this is something that is still top of mind for Canadians. There is also the preventing of lobbying by former ministers and other public office holders for five years, which is a very strict measure. We look forward to seeing how this will be felt, especially as we move forward in the committees. Finally, there is also the creating of more open government by improving access to information.
This last is something that I would like to start focusing on in the time that I have this afternoon for this debate. I would like to start with that particular topic and move on from there to address as many of the topics as I can, topics that are the basis of this legislation.
As I mentioned, during almost nine years in opposition there were some frustrating times when we were dealing with issues of ethics, accountability, and transparency, with issues of being able to show what was happening with taxpayers' dollars in different aspects of the government, wherever that might be. I am most surprised by some of the comments I have heard today in listening to this debate, especially those of our colleagues across the way, many of them who served in the previous government.
We heard questions on the semantics of definitions of what accountability means. We heard one of the members say that this is a facade. It seems to me that the members across the way would not know what accountability is even if it came and bit them in the you-know-what, Mr. Speaker. It is surprising to me, especially after all these years of problems we have seen in this place, in regard to these simple measures. I recall when I was sitting in the opposition benches how frustrating it was when we were trying to get access to information on crown corporations.
The most incredible thing is it seems that today we are hearing many of the Liberals complaining about this particular provision. The only reason I can imagine that is happening is, as we know, in many of the crown corporations, many of the members, directors and others were appointed cronies and friends of the Liberal Party of the past. There was no real transparency in that process, so it does not surprise me today that in trying to open up that process and accountability to those particular crown corporations, something for which opposition members had been calling for years, there seems to be some sort of pressure coming from the Liberals not to allow that to happen. It begs the question of why they would want that, unless they are still trying to protect their friends in many of these positions across the width of these crown corporations.
We have heard over and over again of problems at Canada Post, at the Mint and other crown corporations regarding lack of accountability and the attitude of being entitled to their entitlements. We saw a number of other incredible stories over the last era of 13 years of mismanagement, which we hope to change by ushering in this new aspect of access to information that all members of this House should be welcoming.
I know that the members of the Canadian public would love to see how their taxpayers' dollars have been spent, especially in the areas of Liberal appointments of cronies over the years in many of those positions.
Another area that I remember defending passionately when I was in the opposition benches was strengthening the power of the Auditor General. Members may recall there was a time when the whole sponsorship scandal was out in the open and the Auditor General continued to find in department after department problems of mismanagement, money going missing and lack of accountability. At one point we even heard the Liberals, at the time they were in government, wanting to try to restrict and curb the powers of the Auditor General. I was shocked when that was happening. I could not believe it.
We have a number of checks and balances in the system that we are trying to strengthen, but Canadians would agree that the Auditor General's power should be one of the fiercest, and the resources required to do that job should be put in place by any government and by members of this House. It is in the interest of all our members here and the interest of Canadians to have that office treated with the respect and the resources it needs and deserves to do its job on behalf of Canadians. I do recall there was talk in the previous government of cutting that budget and restricting the powers. I cannot believe we even heard those kinds of things.
Canadians can be assured that is not the attitude of this Conservative government. We are going to make sure that Canadians know that their hard-earned tax dollars are spent wisely. The Auditor General needs to have the power to follow the money to make sure that it is spent wisely and properly.
This government is going to give new powers to the Auditor General to audit individuals and organizations that receive federal funding. This will help the Auditor General hold to account those who spend taxpayers' money.
We all think back to our constituencies and the people who are affected most by government decisions. I know that the people in Edmonton can look forward to an independent authority to find out where their money is being spent and that they will not need to take only our word for it, that there will be open and accessible information available for them.
One of the things that I know makes the previous members of the Liberal government a little nervous is the idea of changing the financing regulations. I will admit they made some changes in the last Parliament over the years to restrict some of that corporate funding, but quite frankly, they did not go far enough. We still see the effect of lobbyists and big money in the decisions made by the previous government. The new financing components in this bill we are proposing, by actually banning donations by corporations and big unions, give back the power to ordinary Canadians to be able to communicate to their government and be taken equally as seriously as the unfortunate culture that developed in the previous government of big money being able to control the agenda.
Our members are passionate about these measures we have been speaking about in this new government. We are excited to be able to deliver a new era of good government to Canadians.
We are excited to be able to work with Canadians to finally restore the confidence they want so much in their government. Hopefully we will usher in, as I mentioned, a new era for all Canadians to take part in their democracy and take their democracy back from the 13 years of mismanagement, corruption and unfortunate malaise.
Hon. Keith Martin (Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, the basis of this so-called accountability bill rests on something that I will refer to as the big lie. It is the false premise that government is corrupt and cannot be trusted and somehow that Ottawa needs to be “cleaned up”. The Conservatives managed to successfully ride that false premise into government.
Indeed, the accountability bill has everything to do with political strategy and nothing to do with accountability. True accountability is being confused with conduct. I think the strategy of the Prime Minister is if we repeat accountability often enough, something that we all agree on, it sounds good and we confuse it with conduct, that somehow we can put a bill through that is simply going to be adopted by all parties, including the opposition because no one will have the courage to call it what it really is.
Justice Gomery said that the vast majority of elected officials in the House, in Parliament and in government are honest, hard-working, diligent individuals who carry out their duties. That is the truth of the matter.
The bill sounds good on the surface but has, as I said before, very little to do with true accountability. It has to do with conduct. It will cause gridlock. It will cause a series of ritual and expensive investigations into what takes place in Parliament and will not serve the public well at all. It will cost taxpayers money. It will draw down the ability of this place to work effectively in the interests of the public.
It is interesting that in this particular bill there is not a single definition of what accountability is. That is remarkable. What is accountability? Let me quote a national authority, a gentleman who used to work in the Auditor General's office, Mr. Henry McCandless. He is an expert in public accountability. He said that responsibility means the obligation to act; conduct is the manner of carrying out a responsibility; accountability means the obligation to explain how responsibilities are being carried out.
That is what accountability is. That is not listed anywhere in the bill because the so-called accountability bill has to do with conduct and not true accountability.
In plain common language, accountability is the obligation of persons to explain fully and fairly how they are carrying out their duties and responsibilities to the public.
It also requires a set of reporting requirements on performance and that too is absent from the bill. Does this make a difference? Does this misrepresentation of true accountability make a difference in how this place works in the interests of the public?
Members have spoken about the issue of trust. Indeed true accountability is intimately entwined with trust. Trust is a function of a government's account to its citizens. A government must account and explain to the public what it is doing and why it is doing it before it does it. There are sufficient performance and accountability measures on top of that.
If that occurred, if the bill could be crafted in such a way, then the government would be doing something that has not truly been done before. It would be putting forth a bill that dealt with true public accountability.
When citizens understand quite fully what a government is doing, then citizens can either support that government, can alter the actions of the government, or can defeat the government. That is the basis of true accountability and that is the basis of trust. If the government wants trust and wants the public to actually trust it in what it is doing, then it would pay heed to what true accountability is and would include that true public accountability in the essence of the bill.
The bill contains a series of auditors which will cause gridlock: the parliamentary budget officers, the procurement auditor, the director of public prosecutions, a whistleblower system that pays money to public servants and will cause fear and paranoia in our public service. It will cause gridlock in the system. All of those auditors imply that the current system is not working and that the government does not trust the current auditors.
With respect to the sponsorship issue, people broke the rules. Was there a problem with the rules? The Auditor General was very clear and said there was no problem with the rules. The rules were there and they were broken.
Right now our public service, indeed our government, is mired in a lengthy overweening sense of obligation with respect to procurement. It is too slow, too complex and too expensive. It needs to be streamlined. As defence minister, the current Leader of the Opposition did that very well.
The Prime Minister has introduced a bill that has nothing to do with accountability. He has actually broken the rules on accountability on a number of counts himself. For example, he muzzles his cabinet and his MPs. He restricts the ability of the press to do its job. He appointed an individual as Minister of Public Works and yet that minister does not sit in the House. That ministry is responsible for spending billions of dollars of the public's money. Shielding a minister of the Crown, who is responsible for spending billions of dollars of the public's money from questions in the House, so he cannot account to the public freely and openly is an egregious violation of true public accountability. Nothing in the bill says anything to that practice. That particular appointment shields that individual from questions in the House and the right of the public to know what is taking place within the Department of Public Works and the spending that occurs there.
With respect to the issue of funding, we restricted public funding quite significantly, $5,000 from individual donations and $1,000 from corporations. The bill says nothing about third party funding from special interest groups and this is critically important. Bill C-2 is a political bill as opposed to one in the interests of the public service and the public. The bill would actually restrict the ability of political parties to do their job and restrict the public's ability to have their wishes and their views expressed through the people they elect.
Can a corporation buy influence from a member of Parliament for $1,000? I do not think so. Not at all. I have never been offered any money and I do not know anybody in the House, regardless of political stripe, who has been offered money. Could someone possibly gain influence by making a $5,000 donation or a $1,000 donation? That is what we implemented when we were in government. The government of today will not restrict third party funding that could have undue influence on governments or political parties. This is a critical absence in the bill.
This particular bill says nothing about true public accountability. It is going to put true public accountability back more than 20 years. This is a political bill, not a bill in the interests of the public. This bill is overweening and overkill and is going to damage public accountability.
I would beseech the government to listen to the comments that have been made here today and to listen to the true public accountability experts like Henry McCandless and others who are working or have worked in the Auditor General's Office or in academia. The government should put a bill forward that would truly deal with public accountability and in doing so, the government would be doing something that has not been done in 20 years. To say that Ottawa is corrupt and needs to be changed does a huge disservice to what we do as members of Parliament. It also does an enormous disservice to public servants.
Mrs. Cheryl Gallant (Renfrew—Nipissing—Pembroke, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, it is with great interest that I take this opportunity to speak to Bill C-2, the federal accountability act.
Today is not a proud moment in Canadian history for Canadian democracy. The fact that it has become necessary, within our parliamentary system, to bring forward the accountability act speaks volumes about the previous administration.
While the legislation is being brought forth in the name of the President of the Treasury Board, Canadians know that the Prime Minister has been the steering force in bringing accountability back to Parliament.
I congratulate the Prime Minister, the right hon. member for Calgary Southwest, on identifying for all Canadians the importance our party places on accountability in government and the priority we have placed on maintaining our democratic institutions.
As a measure of this importance, I share with my party the principle of accountability on a regular basis. I canvass the opinions of the people in my riding of Renfrew—Nipissing—Pembroke to seek their guidance and support as I represent their concerns to the Parliament of Canada.
The number one issue people in my riding have identified as being of prime importance is the issue of honesty in government. They recognize that government is complicated. However, if government is not honest in its undertakings on behalf of its citizens when every decision is made, it is not honest. It is wrong.
A strong house can only be built on a solid foundation. Confidence right now is at an all time low in our democratic institutions because of the actions of the last 13 years. This gradual deterioration did not happen overnight. It is instructive to quote from a speech in the 35th Parliament:
|| Mr. Speaker, this government has set high standards of integrity and probity for itself. I have made integrity a number one priority personally.
|| I have said it before, and I will say it again: Setting such standards for the holders of public office is essential in renewing and maintaining the faith of Canadians in their public institutions.
|| This is the case in particular of ministers who must remain above reproach at all times and in all of their activities, whether it be as ministers, members of Parliament or private citizens. That is the burden of public office, and one that we all gladly accept to bear.
This quote comes from the now disgraced former leader of the Liberal Party after being found out in the first of what would become an ever lengthening list of corruption and scandalous behaviour. These are hollow words from an administration that will forever be known in history for the sponsorship scandal.
Let us be clear. It was the activities of the Liberal Party that prompted the commission of inquiry into the sponsorship program and advertising activities that has led to Parliament debating the legislation now before us, the federal accountability act.
In the words of the fact finding report, from 1994 to 2003, the amount expended by the Government of Canada for special programs and sponsorships totalled $332 million, of which 44.4% or $147 million was spent on fees and commissions paid to communication and advertising agencies. These amounts do not include the salaries or costs of the public servants who worked on the sponsorship program, the cost of the numerous audits, and the investigations or the cost of the present commission of inquiry.
According to the Auditor General, from 1997 until August 31, 2001, the federal government ran the sponsorship program in a way that showed little regard for Parliament, the Financial Administration Act, contracting rules and regulations, transparency and value for money. Parliament was not informed of the program's objectives or results it achieved. It was misinformed as to how the program was being managed.
Those responsible for managing the program broke the government's own rules in the way they selected communications agencies and awarded contracts to them. Some sponsorship funds were transferred to crown corporations using unusual methods that appear designed to provide significant commissions to communications agencies while hiding the source of funds and the true nature of the transactions.
Further, the Auditor General stated that documentation was very poor and there was little evidence of analysis to support expenditure of more than $250 million. Over $100 million of that was paid to communications agencies as production fees and commissions.
While the Auditor General identified $250 million defrauded from taxpayers, Justice Gomery put the figure at $332 million for this program alone. Oversight mechanisms and essential controls at Public Works and Government Services Canada failed to detect, prevent or report violations.
While the Auditor General was conducting her special audit, more details slowly emerged of massive, systemic looting of the public treasury by certain members of the Liberal Party. The commission of inquiry found a complex web of financial transactions among Public Works and Government Services Canada, crown corporations and communications agencies involving kickbacks and illegal contributions to a political party in the context of the sponsorship program; five agencies that received large sponsorship contracts regularly channelled money, illegitimate donations or unrecorded cash gifts to political fundraising activities in Quebec with the expectation of receiving lucrative government contracts; certain agencies carried individuals on their payrolls who were, in effect, working on Liberal Party matters; the existence of a culture of entitlement among political officials involved with the sponsorship program, including the receipt of monetary and non-monetary benefits; and the refusal of ministers, senior officials in the Prime Minister's Office and public servants to acknowledge their responsibility for the problems of mismanagement that occurred.
The fact that only certain persons or organizations are mentioned does not absolve the others assigned blame by Justice Gomery. By limiting the scope of the Gomery inquiry, the Liberal Party prevented Justice John Gomery from investigating chapter 5 of the Auditor General's report. That chapter criticized the Liberal Party for using taxpayer dollars to conduct polls for partisan political purposes with questionable value to Canadian taxpayers. By preventing Justice John Gomery from including the entire November 2003 report of the Auditor General from being investigated, suspect practices were allowed to continue in the Liberal government.
According to the commission report, the method of financing the Liberal Party using kickbacks from persons deriving benefits from the sponsorship program is described in the fact finding report of the Gomery commission. The persons who accepted contributions, cash and other improper benefits have brought dishonour upon themselves and their political party. Liberal Party members deserve to be blamed for their misconduct. They disregarded the relevant laws governing donations to political parties. The Liberal Party as an institution cannot escape responsibility for the misconduct of its officers and representatives.
According to Justice Gomery:
|| The Commission has heard abundant evidence of irregularities and improprieties committed by the five communication and advertising agencies specifically identified... including systematic overbilling, failure to fulfil obligations, charging for work not performed, conflicts of interest, assigning work to subcontractors without justification and without competitive bids, and other very dubious contracting practices.
It became evident to a majority of Canadians that the only way justice could be served and those guilty brought to justice was for a change in government to occur. Canadians voted for that change. While the federal accountability act seeks to accomplish many things, strengthening the role of the Ethics Commissioner and establishing clear judicial qualifications for that role is imperative for the proper functioning of that office.
If the public is to be allowed an opportunity to bring forward complaints through a member of Parliament, there must be confidence that complaints that are frivolous, vexatious or made in bad faith are rejected. By requiring members of Parliament to attest by oath or affirmation that a public complaint they were sponsoring is well-founded, is the one check on potential abuse of this process. The commissioner must then be suitably well versed in the law with a judicial or quasi-judicial background in order to uphold the integrity of the Office of the Ethics Commissioner for that office to maintain respect in the job it is required to do.
Unfortunately, this has not been evident as the position was established under the previous government. The fact that rulings have been inconsistent with the member's code suggests that this might be the most important change of all to rebuild public confidence in our democratic institutions.
If anything tells us that history repeats itself it would be in the comments of the member for Calgary Southwest in the 35th Parliament to sum up that first session and how those observations could have been made at the conclusion of the 38th Parliament of Canada.
Mr. Paul Szabo (Mississauga South, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in this second reading debate, but I am sorry we are here at second reading. I wish the bill had gone to committee before second reading, just as Bill C-11 did in the last Parliament, which was the whistleblower bill.
For some of the members who may not be familiar with the process, if a bill is tabled in the House and we have second reading debate right then, we have a vote on it to give it approval in principle, once the debate is completed and we have heard all members who wish to speak on a preliminary basis. What it does at that point is lock in the general principles of the bill, and those will be untouchable.
The bill then goes to committee where we receive witnesses. The witnesses represent all the stakeholders who will be touched by the legislation and who have input. They may be people within the public service or people who are not in the public service who have a vested interest in the matter. The experts will comment on the practical implementation of the various aspects of the bill.
In my experience, when members of Parliament get a bill after first reading, they do not have a lot of time to do the research necessary on an average bill, and this is a very substantial bill. It is long and it touches a large number of acts, as members have said. It means that the speeches we are hearing today, unfortunately, are speeches about generalities, about titles, about the general purpose of the bill, but not about the substance of it and the operational efficacy of it.
We are talking about high points. We are not talking about the functionality of the bill and the fact that it relates to a large number of bills. We will be touching the Financial Administration Act, the whistleblower bill, which was passed in the last Parliament, the Access to Information Act, the Canada Elections Act and a large number of other bills.
We cannot read the bill in isolation. It does not tell us what we need to know because we need to have the bills that will be amended by this bill in order to see the context in which most of the amendments in here will be made.
The point is that we are going through a process now where we are not really very productive. We are basically laying out some of the points of interest or concern to the various members.
The bill will go to committee. The committee will go through all this process and get a chance to consider it and make committee stage amendments. However, because the bill has passed at second reading, there is a restriction on the extent to which they can amend the bill. They can fine-tune it, but if it has been voted on at second reading, there is a significant restriction on the committee's ability to make changes to the bill, which has been approved in principle in the House.
The alternative would have been to refer the bill to the committee before second reading, before the vote at second reading. That would then empower the committee with the full input of all appropriate witnesses who are expert in terms of various aspects of the law, whether it be the Privacy Act, or the Access to Information Act, or all these other acts with which not every member of Parliament is totally familiar. They can talk generally but not with certitude on the implications of a change proposed in Bill C-2 with regard to one of these acts.
That process, which was used very successfully in the last Parliament, is an opportunity to ensure that the bill is the best bill possible. It is the responsibility of members of Parliament to make good decisions, responsible decisions and informed decisions, having the expert testimony to give us the insights into what the implications of making this change or that change might be. This bill would have had an opportunity to be a much better bill and the confidence level of members of Parliament would have been much higher had they had the opportunity to hear the experts first so they could then start digging into those areas where there clearly was no consensus of the witnesses or maybe among the members.
I wanted to raise that because I think it is an opportunity missed.
I have heard often, and it concerns me a little, that there is a timetable for the bill. It has to be passed before we rise for the summer.
Let me tell the House what happened with Bill C-11, the whistleblowing bill, in the last Parliament, and it was much smaller than this bill. It was introduced in October 2004. It was referred to committee. The committee got it on October 18, 2004, just a couple of weeks later. A little less than a year later, the committee finally reported the bill back to this place. We had report stage and third reading. After that, it went to the Senate and it passed, with the support of all parties, and received royal assent.
It is law in Canada but it is not in force because the bill still has not been proclaimed.
However, we can make amendments to a bill that is not in force. That is why I mentioned to one of the other speakers that, in my opinion, there really is only one new clause to the whistleblower protection. Almost all of the 40 pages of matters relating to Bill 11, which is the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act, are referred to in Bill C-2, the federal accountability act, which in part incorporates a number of amendments.
All of the substantive provisions of providing protection for whistleblowers were in Bill C-11 in the last Parliament. That was passed by Parliament and unanimously supported by all parties. It was the best job we could do with the best advice we had from the broad range and almost a full years of hearing witnesses and negotiating for changes. Our committee did an excellent job of ensuring that we had the best possible bill for Parliament to consider. That is why it passed so quickly after it came back to the House.
There are a couple of other things about the bill. I do not like the idea that the federal accountability act has to meet a certain timetable because it smacks of perhaps a political timetable as opposed to a legislative timetable.
How can we say today that we need to have this bill done by this time when we have not even heard any witnesses? We have no idea whether there are any problems to deal with. We have no idea how long it will take for members to do the necessary work to consider and propose amendments, to debate them and discuss them. How long will it take after it comes back from committee to do report stage motions? Every member of Parliament who is not on that committee, who did not have an opportunity to participate in committee stage amendments, will have an opportunity to propose other amendments. Then we will have third reading and then it will go to the Senate.
There are probably only about 35 or 40 sitting days between now and the scheduled June 23. It is somewhat unrealistic to suggest that parliamentarians should give up their responsibilities and say, “Let's just pass this”. That is not the way it happens. I certainly would not want to vote for a bill on which we had not done the work.
Therefore, there is a sense that perhaps we should be a little more realistic about what we can do to ensure that we get a good bill. In general I think there is support for the whole aspect of improving the accountability, but it is really important that we do the job well, that we make good laws and wise decisions. It takes whatever time that it takes based on the experience we have as we go through the legislative process.
I support the bill in principle, but I very much look forward to having the input from the public service and those outside the public service so we can make Bill C-2 a very good bill.
Mr. Brian Masse (Windsor West, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to speak in the House of Commons to Bill C-2, the accountability act. It is very apparent that 13 years of Liberal problems in the House have created the urgency or the need that is seizing this 39th session of Parliament to draft, right away, some sort of legislation and procedures to deal with cleaning up politics at a federal level in Canada.
It is important to note that Canadians have become a little cynical about their democracy. They have become concerned about its future, for not only themselves but for their children. This is one of the reasons that we need to address some of the measures in the accountability act and why the New Democratic Party is actually supporting it. We have suggestions and we will have some amendments to the legislation. We believe it could use some improvement. However, we will be making sure that we are going to be part of a process to restore faith in Canadian democracy. That does not just happen overnight.
I am not going to spend a lot of time on this, but it is important to acknowledge that prior to the 13 years of Liberal involvement there was the Mulroney era, where we certainly had enough public venting and concern about the course of democracy because of the actions of the PMO, his office, and the numerous scandals that took place on that watch.
That is what led to the transition to the Liberal government of yesterday, which had 13 years to clean up and to create more accountability, but did not do so. Hence, once again the public voted for a shift in government. This time, I am hoping that all members of the House can bring in some new procedures and reforms and can offer substance to real and significant change to gain back the Canadian democracy that people seem to want and yearn for in the House, in this chamber and this country.
I point to the quite significant work of the member for Ottawa in the previous Parliament, formerly the member for Oshawa, now retired, Mr. Ed Broadbent. He put forth a significant contribution to get us here today. Ed's ethics package, which is how we affectionately refer to it, offered a series of principles to change Canadian democracy. It was a road map, in fact the first one introduced in this chamber in modern times. It was done before the Conservative Party started to table a package. It was one where he worked cooperatively with many experts. He discussed it with the public to get vetted information.
Unfortunately, Bill C-2 does not live up to all of what Ed worked toward. There are various gaps in this legislation, but at the same time we recognize that this is a step forward. Hence, New Democrats will be working at the committee level to make sure that we actually get some reforms to the legislation and we will be working for it to be passed. There seems to be a threat by the government about passing it in a shorter window of time, which is very important to the government, but I would suggest that we will do everything in our corner of the House to make sure we pass this responsibly and as expeditiously as possible.
I know that members of the Liberal Party are going to have some difficulty with this legislation, but I invite them to find elements they can support because, frankly, I think it is part of what is necessary for them to admit: that they are partly and quite significantly responsible for the decline in the credibility of Parliament that we have seen happen.
One of the things I want to talk about are some of the changes we have happening here, but at the same time, we are missing a few strong points. It is also a contradiction, because it was campaigned on strongly in terms of ethics by the Conservative Party of Canada and its leader, and at the same time we have witnessed certain elements of hypocrisy or not following through.
One element I will touch on to start with is one that is very important to British Columbians and I think all Canadians: the crossing of the floor by the member for Vancouver Kingsway, who quite frankly literally could not wait to take his lawn signs out of the ground before crossing the floor from the Liberal Party to the Conservative Party.
I worked with him when he was formerly the minister of industry for the last two years in the previous session of Parliament. I am hoping that since the public comments were from members of the Conservative Party, they find his ideology and sense of delivering policy in tune with their actual mandate, which shows that the two main parties in the House at the moment really are not that far apart. Second, I hope the Conservatives are going to actually act on some of the things he promised as a Liberal but that the Liberals never delivered.
The previous Liberal minister promised in committee on two separate occasions in November that he would bring in an auto policy but he never delivered. The Conservative government now has that member in cabinet because they like his ideas and his policies. If that is the case, let us see his auto policy. If a member crosses the floor to another party then that party should take his baggage as well, which is that he did not act on the auto file despite promising publicly, in the chamber and in committee, that he would take action. He has yet to deliver an auto policy to an industry that is suffering. His crossing the floor has violated the accountability bill because banning floor crossing is not in the legislation.
I would point out that other governments are banning floor crossing. The Manitoba government of Gary Doer has enacted legislation. Part of accountability is not only conflict of interest or the actual benefit one gets, it is the perception of that to the public that erodes things. When a member crosses the floor to become a cabinet minister, receives an increase in salary, a driver, expenses, power and influence, all of these things leave a mark on all of us as members of the House. We could basically sell ourselves for another option that would benefit us.
Ed Broadbent's idea of banning floor crossing was a significant contribution to Canadian politics because it gave people options. When members cross the floor to join another party they are not punished. If they decide to sit as an independent I have no problem with them not being forced to go back to the electorate. We have to remember that every voice in this chamber counts, no matter what party one belongs to, even an independent. The value of our democracy is that the people who occupy the seats here are the voices of our constituents who work day in and day out to have influence.
The member could have chosen to sit as an independent. The government could have told him to sit as an independent and then run for the party when he felt it was necessary. He could have voted with the government at any time and could have done speaking engagements in terms of the work of the House of Commons and in terms of private members' business. None of that would have been hampered by the principled position that Ed Broadbent had advocated.
The other option the member had was to go back to the electorate for a byelection. This would have given the people in his riding an opportunity for choice. His constituents could have let him know whether they minded him switching parties or not. They would be able to listen to his arguments as well as the arguments put forward by other candidates in a campaign. However that is not what is being done and that is a serious flaw in the bill and it has to be fixed.
As New Democrats we would like to see fixed election dates, which was introduced by Ed Broadbent. This is an important element of accountability. It would stop a government from playing around with election dates just because polling, internal resources or other circumstances make it favourable. Fixed election dates would bring patterns, predictability, accountability and, more important, stability. We do not have the element when we have someone crafting the date to their own advantage. We saw that with the previous administration. Before this administration is dissolved I would suggest that it bring this to fruition as other provincial governments and other democracies have done.
Hon. Jim Flaherty (Minister of Finance, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to be taking part in the debate about the Federal Accountability Act.
On January 23, Canadians from coast to coast voted for a new Conservative government. They did this for several reasons. They wanted change because they were tired of scandals, mismanagement of their hard-earned tax dollars and of government not delivering on its promises. They voted for a new government which would replace a culture of entitlement with one of accountability.
I cannot help noting the release a week or so ago of the report by the arbitrator, retired Justice Adams, about Mr. Dingwall's case. The government of the day said in this place that his leaving his post at the Mint was voluntary. The independent arbitrator, the retired justice, said in his report that it was clearly involuntary.
It is the notion of being entitled to one's entitlements that Canadians want changed. They want a government that will now put the interests of the country ahead of the interests of a privileged few. This is an exciting chapter in our country's history. Canada's Conservative government is turning over a new leaf. We trust in the Canadian people and our goal is that Canadians will once again trust in their federal government.
Our government has promised to deliver on five key priorities: reducing the GST from 7% to 6% and then to 5% over the course of our mandate, and I look forward to delivering the budget on Tuesday in this place; cracking down on gun, gang and drug crime; giving parents a choice in child care with the $1,200 allowance, and by providing tax credits to employers who cover the full cost of creating child care spaces; working with the provinces and territories to establish a patient wait times guarantee in health care; and restoring trust and accountability to government with this bill, the federal accountability act.
Accountability is the foundation on which Canada's system of responsible government rests. An accountable government assures Parliament and Canadians that their government is using public resources efficiently, effectively and honestly. It also promotes ethical practices, since actions undertaken by the government must be motivated by the public interest and carried out in accordance with legislation and policy.
Accountability means that those who manage public resources must be prepared to report openly on results achieved. A high degree of transparency makes government more accountable and is vital to the effective and meaningful participation of citizens and organizations in developing sound public policy.
Canadians expect politicians and public servants to adhere to the highest ethical standards.
Recent political scandals, notably those concerning government sponsorship and advertising activities, have contributed to a further erosion of Canadians' trust and confidence in their government. They have brought issues of accountability, transparency and integrity to the forefront of public discussion and debate.
On November 4, 2005 when he first introduced the federal accountability act to Canadians as leader of the official opposition, the Prime Minister gave his word that if elected, our first priority would be to clean up government by introducing and passing the act. The Prime Minister committed that this act would be the first piece of legislation presented to the Parliament of Canada, which it is.
On April 11 the President of the Treasury Board did just that. He tabled Canada's first federal accountability act, the toughest anti-corruption legislation in Canadian history.
With this act the government is creating a new culture of accountability that will forever change the way business is done in Ottawa. We are holding government to a new standard never contemplated before. We will restore the principle that government should serve the public interest of all Canadians, not the personal interest of its members, nor the political interests of the party in power.
We will also restore Canadians' faith in our public institutions by making them more accountable and effective. The federal accountability act will enable Canadians to once again have faith in the integrity of the political process. With this legislation, our government will tighten the laws around political financing and lobbying.
We will ensure government is more accountable by eliminating the undue influence of big money donors, banning large personal and corporate donations to political parties, toughening the rules surrounding government lobbying, providing real protection to whistleblowers, ensuring government contracting is proper, fair and open, improving access to information, making the federal government more transparent and accountable by increasing the power of independent officers of Parliament, such as the Auditor General, and ensuring truth in budgeting.
Every day, Canadians in my riding of Whitby—Oshawa and across this country leave their homes and their families to go to work and earn a living. They work hard and they work long so that they can provide not only for themselves, but also for the people they love and who depend on them. The government is obligated to treat the tax dollars from hard-working Canadians with respect, to manage their money prudently and to give its citizens the opportunity to see where it is being invested.
The money that the government spends and manages does not belong to the government, but to Canadian taxpayers, who work hard to earn that money.
Most of my hon. colleagues are likely aware that under the previous government, federal spending jumped by almost 15% in one year. That is more than six times the rate of inflation. As the Prime Minister concluded, that kind of spending is simply unsustainable. We must do a better job of controlling government spending and making every dollar count.
We must also do a better job of budgeting and forecasting. Canadians deserve to know the true state of their economy and to live within a budget which is based on accurate, open and honest figures. We must put an end once and for all to the previous government's habit of getting it wrong. Governments cannot be held to account if Parliament and Canadians do not know the real state of public finances.
For example, in the spring of 2004, the Liberal government told Canadians that the 2003-04 surplus would be only $1.9 billion. It was in fact $9.1 billion. As the Prime Minister likes to say, it was a case of fiscal dyslexia. In the 2005 budget, the Liberal government estimated the 2005-06 surplus to be $4 billion. In the economic update only nine months later, the estimate had ballooned to $13.4 billion.
The International Monetary Fund has pointed out that the Liberal government consistently underestimated its budget surpluses for the past 10 years and suggested that Canada is the only country that shows such consistent errors. The IMF stated that Canada's federal government was the only one among the group of 11 countries studied, including all of our sister and brother countries in the G-7, that both underestimated revenues and overestimated spending every year since 1995. This cannot continue.
That is why with the federal accountability act we will expand the mandate and resources of the non-partisan Library of Parliament by establishing within it the first ever position of parliamentary budget officer. The officer will have the mandate to provide analysis to the Senate and the House of Commons concerning the state of the nation's finances and trends in the national economy, to undertake economic and fiscal research for the Standing Committee on Finance, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, the Senate Standing Committee on National Finance on the request of these committees, and estimate the cost of proposals currently or prospectively under consideration in either House when asked to do so by a member, a committee of the Senate or House of Commons, or a committee of both Houses. As well, instead of providing fiscal forecast updates once each fall, our government will provide them quarterly.
These measures will increase transparency in the government's fiscal planning framework and enable Parliament to better hold government to account. Our purpose, our commitment in all of this, is to make government more accountable, disciplined and effective. I look forward to the budget speech on Tuesday when I hope I can assist in moving forward that agenda of accountability, discipline and effective government.