The House resumed from September 15 consideration of Bill C-520, An Act supporting non-partisan agents of Parliament, as reported (with amendments) from the committee, and of the motions in Group No. 1.
Mr. John Barlow (Macleod, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to participate in today's debate.
The principle of the political impartiality of the public service agents of Parliament and officers of Parliament is a fundamental element in our government system.
The bill before us today further protects this vital feature of our democracy by supplementing and adding transparency to the existing regime. As such, it deserves support in the House.
By way of background, it is worth noting that the federal public service has a tradition of non-partisanship dating back to the early 1900s. For almost 100 years, this tradition of non-partisanship has made our system of government work. An impartial public administration ensures Canadians, regardless of their political views, receive fair, objective treatment from government officials.
We are fortunate to have a non-partisan, high performing and professional public service. In fact, the Government of Canada employs some of Canada's best and brightest, and their work is intimately tied to our country's success.
Public servants operate in more lines of business and do so on more points of service than any other Canadian organization, public or private. Public servants provide a multitude of services that have real life consequences for Canadians, from inspecting food and regulating the safety of our pharmaceutical drugs, to manning the border and employing Arctic icebreakers in the Northwest Passage.
For example, in any given year, public servants welcome more than 22 million visitors to our national parks and issue close to five million passports with remarkable client satisfaction. They inspect more than 1,000 high-risk foreign vessels to ensure our ports are safe and our water is clean.
The exceptional work public servants do behind the scenes every day impacts all of our lives. The Prime Minister said it best, “the Canadian public service is, in fact, a critical asset that this country possesses in a difficult and uncertain world”.
One of the keys to the public service being such a critical asset is the principle of non-partisanship. In recognition of this, both the Values and Ethics Code and the provisions in the Public Service Employment Act protect the impartiality of the public service and agents of Parliament.
Clearly the principle of non-partisanship is of great importance. In fact, it is essential to the success of the public service that this reputation and tradition of impartiality should be maintained in the eyes of both the public and all Parliamentarians.
The bill before us today seeks to preserve that tradition and reputation. It recognizes that while non-partisanship is expected of all public servants, agents of Parliament play a particularly important role in government oversight.
Agents of Parliament, such as the Auditor General, the Commissioner of Official Languages and the Information Commissioner, are a unique group of independent statutory officers who serve to scrutinize the activity of government. They report directly to Parliament rather than to government or an individual minister and, as such, exist to serve Parliament in relation to Parliament's oversight role.
Agents normally produce a report to Parliament to account for their own activities, and their institutional heads are typically appointed through special resolutions of the House of Commons and the Senate.
Given the close relationship of agents of Parliament and their employees with parliamentarians, it is critical that these offices be independent of political affiliation in carrying out their duties. I also believe it is crucial that the staff of agents of Parliament work in a non-partisan way to maintain the confidence of all parliamentarians and all Canadians.
With that goal in mind, the bill would require every person who applied for a position in the office of an agent of Parliament to make a declaration with respect to past engagement in politically partisan positions. Specifically, this declaration would state whether, in the past 10 years before applying for that position, the person occupied certain specified politically partisan positions.
The bill also prescribes a declaration for persons who work in the office of an agent of Parliament. In the interests of complete transparency, the declarations would be posted on the website of the office of the relevant agent of Parliament.
The bill would also require persons who worked in these offices to provide a written undertaking that they would conduct themselves in a non-partisan manner in fulfilling the official duties and responsibilities of their positions.
These provisions provide enhanced transparency and accountability for all parliamentarians who must have confidence that the work of agents of Parliament is impartial.
As we know, accountability and transparency are the hallmark of this government. Our commitment to those principles was evident with our first piece of legislation, the Federal Accountability Act, and that commitment continues today with our support of this bill.
I encourage everyone in the House to support this important legislation. It augments non-partisanship in our system of government.
Ms. Ruth Ellen Brosseau:
Mr. Speaker, I apologize. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of naming the Prime Minister. We all make that mistake from time to time. That kind of thing happens.
As I was saying, these were people who dared to tell the government things it did not want to hear. People like Kevin Page and Marc Mayrand, well-respected people whose actions were guided by wisdom and who told the truth. That is why I am here today with my colleagues. We think that we need to stand up for these agents of Parliament.
I watched some of the testimony from the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. During the study of the bill, my colleagues repeatedly asked the government for a definition of “partisan conduct” and for reasons why this bill was needed.
No satisfactory answer was given, which makes sense, because the fact is that there have been no proven cases of conflict of interest or even the appearance of conflict of interest in the offices this bill targets.
This is what the Information Commissioner of Canada says about this bill:
|| [It is] difficult to understand the need for the Bill or what problem it is attempting to resolve. [It] creates a duplication of regimes. Although the stated purpose is to avoid conflicts related to “partisan activities” that term is not defined or mentioned in the Bill. [It] creates an environment that may hinder the independence and the execution of the mandate of the Office of the Information Commissioner.
Currently, the partisan activities of public servants are already regulated by Part 7 of the Public Service Employment Act, the Political Activities Regulations, and the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector. This leads us to again question the legitimacy and the relevance of this bill.
Fortunately, with pressure from the NDP, the Conservatives have withdrawn major parts of the bill, including the ability of members of Parliament and senators to ask for investigations of officials working in the offices of parliamentary oversight bodies that demand accountability from government. However, the government's concessions are minimal compared to the concerns of the NDP and of the agents of Parliament.
I really find it quite disappointing that the government is using public officials as punching bags and is trying to make people believe that this bill will help increase transparency.
I have been here for three and a half years and what I notice is that, all too often, this government does the opposite of the definition of transparency. Some people also accused the government of coming up with this bill as a diversion from the problems in the Senate. To that accusation, the author of the bill replies that the intent is to increase people's trust in the agents of Parliament. Personally, I think that the main issue is to increase people's trust in the government.
Mary Dawson, the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, raised another interesting point before the parliamentary committee. She feels that the bill could allow anyone to attack the reputation of an employee because there is no clear definition of partisan activities or of the reasons that could justify opening an investigation.
Mary Dawson says that she is opposed to this bill because it has serious shortcomings in terms of respect for privacy and because it violates the merit principle in hiring in the public service. She adds that the Conservatives provided no witnesses in support of the bill and that they refused to answer the questions they were asked.
With the Conservatives, that does not strain belief at all.
This bill has nothing to do with transparency; its goal is to distract Canadians from this Conservative government’s repeated failures at making Parliament accountable by launching a baseless attack on the offices of the parliamentary watchdogs whose jobs are to hold the government to account.
I will close by quoting Jean-Pierre Kingsley, who headed Elections Canada from 1990 to 2007.
|| This bill aims to fix a problem that does not exist.
I absolutely agree with him that this bill is completely unnecessary.
Mr. Rick Norlock (Northumberland—Quinte West, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have this opportunity to provide the government's response to Bill C-520, an act supporting non-partisan offices of agents of Parliament. I know that the member for York Centre has worked very hard on this bill, and I would like to assist the House in explaining the reasons he brought it forward.
The purpose of the bill is to avoid conflicts that could arise, or be perceived to arise, between partisan activities and the official duties and responsibilities of any person who works in the office of an agent of Parliament. For the record, this bill would apply to the offices of the Auditor General of Canada, the Chief Electoral Officer, the Privacy Commissioner, the Commissioner of Official Languages for Canada, the Information Commissioner, the Commissioner of Lobbying, the Senate Ethics Officer, the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, and the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner.
We all know these offices quite well. They oversee the activities of our public institutions. Their chief officers report directly to Parliament rather than to government or an individual minister, and as such, they support MPs in carrying out their important duties.
Some have been part of our system of government for a very long time. This includes the position of Auditor General, which was created shortly after Confederation to provide objective information and assurance regarding the use of public funds.
In 1920, the position of Chief Electoral Officer was created. Among its many duties, this office monitors compliance with electoral law and maintains readiness to conduct federal elections.
The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages has also been with us for some time. Established in 1969 with the adoption of the Official Languages Act, this office ensures recognition of the status of each official language in Canada. It also ensures compliance with the spirit and intent of the Official Languages Act in the administration of the affairs of federal institutions.
Then, in 1983, as issues related to personal privacy and access to information began to draw more and more attention, the positions of Information Commissioner and Privacy Commissioner were created.
More recently, the government created three additional agent of Parliament positions: a Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner and a Public Sector Integrity Commissioner in 2007, and a Commissioner of Lobbying in 2008.
Each office serves a specific function. They contribute enormously to the accountability of our system of government, and taken together, they provide Canadians with assurances that government programs and services are working as they should and that institutions and individuals are accountable for their actions and decisions.
Here are some of the important functions they ensure: that funds provided to a federal organization are fully accounted for and used in compliance with programs or project agreements, that public service employees and other officials adhere to standards of professionalism and ethics, that activities are conducted in accordance with an organization's legislative mandate and adopted policies, that government activities are conducted in the most efficient and effective manner, and that the inefficient use of resources is avoided.
In short, agents of parliament play an invaluable role in our Westminster style of government. As a whole, they oversee the activities of a vast array of public institutions and officials that provide countless services and benefits to Canadians around the world.
It is worth remembering that the federal government is the largest employer in Canada. Its range of activities is as broad as it is vital to the future of our country. Indeed, we have people working in hundreds of locations in all parts of Canada and around the globe. From hospital orderlies to research biologists, from economists to crews on naval ships, from ambassadors to correctional officers, from police officers in remote communities to aircraft pilots, the knowledge and skills demanded of public service employees are as varied as Canada itself. This all takes place in a complex and unpredictable environment.
It is part of our challenge as parliamentarians to ensure that the full range of what the government does for Canadians is run in an accountable and transparent way. It is a big job, and we could not do it without the support of agents of Parliament.
The government has taken steps to strengthen and enhance the role of agents of Parliament in recent years, in particular through the 2006 Federal Accountability Act. The act strengthened the powers of the Auditor General, toughened the office of the ethics commissioner, expanded the reach of the Access to Information Act, and tightened lobbying rules, among other measures. Thanks to such reforms, Canada has one of the most accountable and transparent systems of government in the world. This is something all Canadians can be rightly proud of.
The bill before us today gives us an opportunity to further enhance our accountability regime. It includes measures to help maintain the principle of merit and non-partisanship in the offices of agents of Parliament. For example, it would require every person who applies for a position in the office of an agent of Parliament to make a declaration with respect to past engagements in political partisan positions. Specifically, this declaration would state whether in the 10 years before applying for that position the person had occupied certain specific politically partisan positions. The declaration would indicate the nature of any such position as well as the period of time during which the person occupied it.
The bill would also require every person who works in the office of an agent of Parliament and who intends to occupy a politically partisan position while holding the position in that office to provide a written declaration of their intention to do so. The declaration would indicate the nature of the politically partisan position as well as the period of time during which the person intends to occupy it.
In addition, the bill would require persons who work in these offices to provide a written undertaking that they will conduct themselves in a non-partisan manner in fulfilling the official duties and responsibilities of their positions.
This bill would help to ensure that we continue to benefit from a system of government that is based on non-partisanship, an essential element of both a professional public administration and a responsible democratic government. It is for this reason that I urge all members to join me in supporting this legislation.
Mr. Craig Scott (Toronto—Danforth, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I was hoping to be able rise to say that the previous speaker had persuaded me, but unfortunately he has not, and I will be opposing the bill.
I would like to start with a frame of reference that situates Bill C-520 within the whole question of the democratic functioning of this Parliament. I have four main points before I get to what are the specific problems with the bill in my view.
The first thing is that we cannot forget how central parliamentary officers—we often say parliamentary agents—have become to the functioning of this institution, but the House of Commons in particular. One only has to note the Auditor General, the Chief Electoral Officer, the Privacy Commissioner, the Information Commissioner as being among the officers to know how incredibly important their roles are.
It also speaks to why the leader of the official opposition, in a bill the Conservatives voted against, would have wanted to elevate the position of the Parliamentary Budget Officer to that of an officer of Parliament, as well.
Why am I mentioning this? The way in which our system has evolved, the incredible degree of influence, if not direct control, that the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister's Office, to an extent ministers have in the way in which this very legislative institution functions makes it all the more important that there are other avenues of accountability than the traditional ones that Parliament, the House of Commons, relied on for centuries.
That is why it is so important that the parliamentary officers have evolved in the way they have. Without the annual report of each of these officers, without the role of the Auditor General, we would be a much poorer institution. I believe most members across the way would agree with that.
However, my concern is that, directly or indirectly—and I honestly fear, despite my respect for my colleague who is sponsoring this, it is more directly than indirectly—this amounts to an attempt to almost intimidate, if not undermine, those institutions. If that at all is either the intent or unintentionally the result, then I think this is a huge problem from a democratic perspective.
The second point is that this is a private member's bill, among so many that we have seen. I am not going to guess whether it is one of the many examples we have seen of private member's bills that are, in effect, government bills. I am going to assume it is a pure private member's bill.
However, the concern is that we have no charter compliance mechanism in the House or in legislation for private member's bills. The only thing that might happen is that the subcommittee of the procedure and House affairs committee may actually, on occasion, look at the charter issue as being relevant to votability but, frankly, I do not think that happens.
The Minister of Justice's duty to vet, supposedly vet, the compliance of legislation being tabled in the House is limited to government bills and it does not include private member's bills.
Now, my colleague may well have sought advice from the law clerk, or others, about the compatibility with the charter of this legislation. However, the fact is that it is before us, with me at least having serious concerns about whether or not the questions around how it affects freedom of expression, because there is forced expression here, and how it affects discrimination or arbitrary treatment of one sector of public servants versus other sectors of public servants, how whether or not that actually does implicate the charter.
It may well be that, if the case were made that parliamentary officers are very different institutions from government departments and, therefore, their staff must somehow be subject to this new regime and others must not, if that case were really well made, then it might be saveable under section 1.
The fact is that I have not seen that analysis and I do not think it was even looked at in any serious way, if at all, by the committee.
The third thing is, unfortunately, I think this reveals, yet again, the general weakness of our legislative process when it comes to the work of committees, especially, in majority government situations.
I believe the bill is fact challenged. There has been no sign at all of a problem of partisanship of the staff, let alone of the parliamentary officers. Therefore, there is this issue of a solution in search of a problem.
If I am not mistaken, and I can be corrected on this, the committee did not hear from a single witness to support the bill.
Basically what we heard was all kinds of evidence, external and in the committee, about why this was unnecessary and potentially harmful. The harm includes confusion with existing regimes, and the broader harm of whether this in fact would act as a form of intimidation of either the agents of Parliament themselves or their staff.
Therefore, in my view the committee ultimately did not do its job, because, at a minimum, it should not be bringing this bill back unless there are very clear reasons that it should support it. Apart from collegiality with the sponsor, which I can understand as one motivation, there almost seems to be no reason the committee should not have basically killed the bill.
The fourth and final point is the democratic functioning point. I think I was a bit generous earlier and I will stay that way: I am going to assume that this bill is the pure emanation of the priorities of my colleague.
Nonetheless, private member's bills have often been used as extensions of the government's agenda ever since I arrived almost three years ago. I believe this to be an abuse, at least to the extent that they are not then subject to the kinds of scrutiny and caveats that government bills are. They get to committee in a very short period—two hours—and they are not subject to charter review, as I already suggested.
I still remember almost being floored two weeks ago when a Conservative member of Parliament whose private member's bill was before us stood up and had as his very first words something of the following sort: “When I first saw this bill, I didn't think I liked it.” However, gradually he read the bill and he began to decide that he could support it.
It was the first clear admission I have ever seen in the House of a member saying he had been given a bill.
I am not saying at all that this is the case here, but I wanted to put this in the context of the frailties of our system when it comes to private members' bills.
Why can I not support the bill? My colleague has just adequately summarized three main points.
First, it is a problem in search of a solution. There has never been a proven or recorded incident of a conflict of interest or perceived conflict of interest involving partisanship. No evidence whatsoever was brought forward in committee.
Second, it duplicates already-existing provisions that were adequately outlined earlier by my colleague, especially in part 7 of the Public Service Employment Act and relevant codes of conduct for at least two of the parliamentary officers' staff. At minimum, there is going to be this overlap-duplication-confusion issue with respect to how the two regimes apply. There is no mechanism in the bill for resolving that.
Even if I left it at an untidy piece of legislation, that would be a reason to vote against it, but the fact of the matter is that it is redundant, because the question of the admissibility of civil servants engaging in political activity is already covered in the rules of employment for those public servants. What it really amounts to is singling out with a very heavy-handed regime public servants of a certain kind: those who work for officers of Parliament.
This brings me back to my concern, the third problem with the bill, which is that there has been no analysis of charter rights and whether this could be upheld under section 1. The only way it could be upheld is if they made a really strong case that these civil servants are in a position that is different from that of all other civil servants, and I do not think we have come close to seeing that argument.
The fourth point is that whether it is intended this way or not by my colleague, it is turned into a Conservative talking point tool, in order not actually to seriously pursue transparency but to actually attack or undermine the offices of the agents of Parliament because of the central premise that there is a problem with partisanship. Why would there be a need for this bill unless there was a problem of partisanship?
I do believe that some of my colleagues on the other side believe there is a problem. They certainly did not prove it.
In that optic, despite a fairly fierce resistance from the NDP in committee and two amendments, this bill is not worthy of our support despite those amendments.