Bill C-34 (Historical)
An Act to amend the Parliament of Canada Act (Ethics Commissioner and Senate Ethics Officer) and other Acts in consequence
This bill was last introduced in the 37th Parliament, 2nd Session, which ended in November 2003.
Don Boudria Liberal
(This bill did not become law.)
Oral Question Period
October 31st, 2003 / noon
Don Boudria Minister of State and Leader of the Government in the House of Commons
Mr. Speaker, that is absolutely inaccurate and the hon. member should know it.
He knows that the framework legislation that we put forward, Bill C-34, has two components in it, one for ministers, and that the ministers, in any case, are also subject to the code, generally, as it applies to members of Parliament. In fact, there are supplementary requirements for ministers, not less requirements.
Parliament of Canada Act
October 1st, 2003 / 6 p.m.
The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)
I declare the motion carried.
The question is on the main motion for third reading of Bill C-34.
Parliament of Canada Act
October 1st, 2003 / 5:25 p.m.
The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)
It being 5:29 p.m. the House will now proceed to the taking of the deferred recorded division on the previous question at third reading stage of Bill C-34, an act to amend the Parliament of Canada Act.
Call in the members.
(The House divided on the motion, which was agreed to on the following division:)
Parliament of Canada Act
October 1st, 2003 / 3:50 p.m.
Elsie Wayne Saint John, NB
Madam Speaker, I am pleased to add my voice to the debate regarding the government's ethics bill.
I find it difficult however to give the government much credit for this long overdue legislation when so many scandals have emerged and continue to emerge on a daily basis.
These ethical question marks take away from the work of government and tarnish the reputation of parliamentarians and Parliament. They draw attention away from key issues that remain to be resolved, such as the continuing difficulties resulting from softwood lumber, the BSE trade concerns with the U.S., and the timely provision of emergency aid in response to crises, such as the recent hurricane that hit Nova Scotia, as well as the VIP, of which I spoke about today.
Meanwhile, long standing concerns continue to be neglected, such as the reduction of our foreign diplomatic presence and reputation, our inability to protect our coastlines, and the shocking state of funding that exists for Canada's military. All these important issues are not given the attention they deserve because the Liberal government remains distracted by one scandal after another.
This is one last attempt to carve out a legacy for the Prime Minister in the final days of his 10 years in power. History books will reveal a different story on the legacy of the government. Beginning in the early 1990s, when the government took office, it campaigned on a theme of ethical government.
Canadians will remember that this is the government that promised, in its 1993 red book, to introduce change to revive parliamentary democracy by improving ethics, elections and introducing parliamentary reform. A decade later these promises have not yet been met and one wonders if the government ever intended to fulfill these promises.
The government was once quick to pounce on the former Conservative government on ethical questions, even though it pursued this path with only the slimmest shreds of evidence. The Liberals continued to follow this road, even after allegations were proven false and millions of dollars were spent, and official apologies had to be given to the individuals under suspicion. That was a disgrace and a great deal of lost money.
At the same time the government faced a long list of scandals and ethical debacles that forced the resignation of four ministers of the Crown.
Prime Minister number one, as I will call him, faces unresolved questions regarding the now infamous Shawinigate affair. Prime Minister number two faces unresolved questions regarding his blind trust and conflict of interest with his multimillion dollar shipping empire.
Canadians unfortunately are not provided the details of the secret meetings he enjoyed as finance minister. Instead, Canadians and Parliament are expected to trust the word of the Prime Minister and his loyal ethics counsellor.
How this situation gives the Liberals the mandate to introduce legislation on the ethical conduct of government is beyond me, but that is what is on the table today.
Canadians now sit and wait as Prime Minister number one sits on his throne long enough to cause Prime Minister number two as much grief as possible and prevent Parliament from doing its job.
The incoming Prime Minister has taken to saying absolutely nothing at all on any policy issue, including legislation that is still before the House and that will be in place only when the current Prime Minister is long gone.
Our new Prime Minister will be the man responsible for implementing an ethics bill, yet his Liberal government has failed to earn the public's trust to set ethical standards. We all know that as we voted a week ago on marriage and now it is talking about decriminalizing marijuana.
Let me tell the House that I have worked with children who were on marijuana and I worked to get them out of an alleyway. They have come to thank me for that. This is another big mistake for the government.
The Liberal government has also failed to hold to the principles of effective parliamentary democracy or accountability. In recent days one example after another of lavish spending practices has cast a deeper shadow on Liberal government fiscal accountability. This is a government however that, in spite of its long list of ethical problems, proposes to introduce ethical reform in Canada's Parliament. We can only shake our heads in amazement and look for a silver lining.
The PC Party supports the principles of improved ethics, parliamentary improvement and electoral reform. For the last decade, PCs have been by far the most effective party in holding this government to account in Parliament and our efforts are now forcing results.
Effective democracy in Canada will be well served by efforts to recognize the need for an appointed, independent ethics commissioner reporting to Parliament, not reporting to the Prime Minister.
The proposed ethics commissioner will have powers to investigate ethical issues, analyze facts and draw conclusions. That information will be released to the Prime Minister, to the person making the complaint, and to the minister under investigation.
I have to say that the Auditor General we have today does an independent job. She does not hold back. She does what she thinks is right. That is the type of ethics commissioner we should have as well.
The PC Party notes, however, that Bill C-34 discusses only the means to enforce ethics rather than the code of ethics itself. If this bill were to pass, what ethical code would the ethics commissioner enforce?
We note also that although the bill calls for information to be released simultaneously to the public, the commissioner will also provide the Prime Minister with confidential information that will not be included in the public report. That is not right.
In other words, the government is reserving the right to edit the public record and hold back any damaging or unethical findings. The PC Party urges the government to ensure that all relevant findings are made available to both Parliament and the public, all of them, not just part of them but all of them.
We have also raised concerns on the issue of the salary of the ethics commissioner. Currently the salary would be set by cabinet, despite the fact that this could have the negative effect of making the commissioner beholden to cabinet for raises in pay. I would like the government to explain how someone can conduct an unbiased investigation into individuals who buy their groceries and pay their rent.
The PC Party would prefer that the salary of the ethics commissioner be set as it is for the privacy and information commissioners. That is:
That the Ethics Commissioner should be paid a salary equal to the salary of a judge of the Federal Court, other than the Chief Justice or the Associate Chief Justice of that Court, and is entitled to be paid reasonable travel and living expenses incurred in the performance of duties under this or any other Act of Parliament.
My party also has serious concerns that the reports tabled in Parliament will not contain more than a simple statistical list of investigations conducted, dismissed or completed. We trust that they will be considerably more detailed.
Finally, the Progressive Conservative Party is pleased that after many years of appalling ethical conduct, prime minister number one's last gift to Canada will be to impose a stricter code of conduct on his successor. Canadians will wonder, however, whether the timing of this bill is for the good of the country or if it is one last joke at the expense of prime minister number two.
It is the hope of the Progressive Conservative Party that it will not be lame duck legislation and that it will be a first step in leading to improved ethical standards and parliamentary reform in Canada. Canada desperately needs the effective, ethical leadership that it has lacked for far too long.
We can only trust that prime minister number two chooses to improve the ethical standard rather than trample on it as it has been for the last 10 years. Rest assured that the Progressive Conservative Party will continue to hold every government to account and work toward genuine ethical standards and parliamentary reform in Canada.
We look forward to seeing this bill. We look forward to many changes that need to take place.
Parliament of Canada Act
October 1st, 2003 / 3:30 p.m.
Ken Epp Elk Island, AB
Mr. Speaker, it says something when the only substantial debate that the Liberals can come up with on this particular bill is to make sure that other people cannot do anything about it, like amending it to make it better. That is atrocious. The Liberals on the other side ought to be hanging their heads in shame. They have come close to coming up with an ethics package that would be useful and workable but it has serious flaws and they will not fix them. I am very disappointed.
I want to talk a little about this whole ethics thing. As we all know it was a little more than a year ago that the Prime Minister came up with an ethics package. One might ask why he would do that. Is it because they were keeping an election promise after 10 years? I do not think so because if they were working on keeping that election promise, one would think they would have brought forward the legislation a long time ago.
The fact of the matter, which is inescapable, and I do not see any Liberal on the other side objecting to what I am saying, is that they brought this forward simply as damage control at a time when the wheels were coming off the Liberal ethical bus. As a matter of fact, I think they have had a tow truck dragging it for the last five or six years. It is a desperate action that they have taken in order to make it look as if they are fixing the problems.
We are in a difficult situation in our party and that is that we have to vote against this package because of its flaws. That produces for us, of course, an extraordinary communication package. I can just see them in the next election going around the country and saying “Here we are, the wonderful Liberal Party. We brought in an ethics package”. Of course they will want the people to believe that they are now becoming very highly ethical. Then they will say “The Canadian Alliance Party voted against it. They are not in favour of ethics”. That is what they will be saying.
Well, I sincerely hope that Canadians will see through that facade and will recognize it for what it is because the occurrences which brought us to this place will not be solved by the ethics package that the Prime Minister announced. I believe that what they are doing is building yet another series of steps that they can take when ethical problems occur so that they can deflect the media interest. I am very concerned about that.
All these breaches that we have heard about have had to do with the executive branch of government: the Prime Minister and the front row of the Liberal Party over there called the cabinet, which is the executive branch in our system of government. Whenever there have been problems, that is from where they have derived. It began, of course, with the Prime Minister himself. He alone has the power to determine whether or not there is an independent inquiry into the thing, and surprise, surprise, he declined. No, let us not find out the truth in this. There was more than ample evidence that he interfered but the results of that are still not in. The new ethics package, which the Liberals have introduced, will not address that problem. It will not require that there be an independent inquiry into such things. It will not require that the minister or the Prime Minister be held to account.
Then we had this dreadful situation with government services and the advertising contracts; contracts being given to advertisers in Quebec, where the only work they did to collect the money was to sign the cheque and take it to the bank. I cannot believe it. No wonder Canadian taxpayers are outraged. We have a government that just loosely gives away the hard-earned taxpayer money.
I regularly hear from constituents that they are having trouble making ends meet and yet their incomes are high enough that they are taxable. I hear particularly from seniors and widows who have a limited amount of income, say $15,000 to $18,000 a year. With that, they have to pay horrendous utility bills and property taxes. Yet the government thinks it is fine for them pay income taxes.
After that money goes to the federal government what does it do with it? It gives it to Liberal friends who presumably contribute to its party during election campaigns, but who do not do anything. They may copy a document that they wrote the year before, put a new date on it, print it again and get another $180,000, or whatever it is that they get for these contracts.
However that money is the hard-earned money of Canadian taxpayers, including those widows who come to my office or who phone me. They want to know what to do. They say that they have expenses but that they will run out of money. They tell me that they have skimped and saved to provide for their future but that after paying high utility bills and all the taxes they will not have enough. Then they read in the paper how some people are getting that money just because of political inbreeding and they are justifiably upset.
The government comes along and says that we will have an independent ethics commissioner because that is what was promised in 1993. That would be wonderful if it were accurate. Unfortunately, it is not. Unfortunately, under Bill C-34 the appointment of the ethics commissioner is, as always, made by the Prime Minister. That is our primary objection to the bill.
When it comes to dealing with ethical breaches on the part of the government, that is the cabinet, what we find is that the ethics commissioner will still be investigating and providing private information and advice to the Prime Minister.
Sure the bill states that the Prime Minister will consult with the leaders of the other parties on the appointment of the ethics commissioner but consultation is left undefined and there is no requirement in that consultation that the Prime Minister actually has to respond if they object.
I find it repulsive that the next time one of the Liberal boondoggles shows up, with a waste of thousands or millions or billions of dollars, the Liberals may haul up some petty little complaint against a backbench MP or an opposition MP and sic the ethics commissioner after them, an ethics commissioner who would have been appointed by the Prime Minister without the concurrence of the other parties.
Some have argued that the ethics commissioner should have the same status as other officers of Parliament. I would tend to agree with that but I would have a further proviso. Since the ethics commissioner would be making judgments that could affect the whole future of another member of Parliament, it should be absolutely mandatory that he receive, for all intents and purposes, the unanimous support of all members of Parliament, instead of just having the Prime Minister appoint him or her.
This is a very frustrating exercise. It is frustrating to the point where one just wants to ask what the point is of it all. What is the point of standing here and arguing, trying to get all those Liberals over there to change their position on this? They do not listen. If they agree with me, let them say so. If they disagree, let them say so. They will not say a thing because they are totally entrenched in their old ways. They will simply vote the way they are told.
The bill will come up for a vote later today and they will stand on command and say that, yes, they agree with the way the Prime Minister wants to do this stuff. That will be the end of the matter and we will have to live with it.
I pledge on behalf of my constituents and all Canadians that we will not rest until there is a procedure in place for a truly independent ethics commissioner, and a truly and transparent set of rules that guide our behaviour so that Canadians can once again put their trust and faith in their institution of government.
Without that, our democracy is at risk, our country is at risk, and our children's future is at risk. We can settle for nothing less.
Parliament of Canada Act
September 30th, 2003 / 5:50 p.m.
The Deputy Speaker
The House will now proceed to the taking of the deferred recorded division on the amendment of Mr. Forseth on the motion at third reading stage on Bill C-34. The question is on the amendment.
September 30th, 2003 / 3:45 p.m.
Benoît Sauvageau Repentigny, QC
Mr. Speaker, I was not particularly surprised by the comments of Liberal members, but I am grateful for the motion introduced by the hon. member for Regina—Qu'Appelle.
However, before I read the motion, I want to talk a bit about the Liberal Party's opposition to this motion. It is rather easy to identify its reasons for opposing this motion.
There is some pretty deep thinking involved here. The party in power thinks that if this is the best country in the world, with the best electoral system in the world and the best government in the world, then nothing should be changed. Except that I will shake up the Liberals a bit by advising them to read a certain UN report—wake up everybody—because we are no longer the best country in the world. Our rating has slipped. The Liberals are so used to being the best that they ensure we are also the best at scandals and fraudulent activities. To this end, they exaggerated and extrapolated their obsession with being first at everything. This is true when it comes to politics, expect that, at some point, we need to slow down. Other people should do that. The courts will rule too on their waste and spending habits, on the somewhat less elegant ways they compensated their friends or those to whom they gave money, later asking for 12% back. This was the case in some provinces or some organizations. Fortunately, that way of doing things has been rectified.
So it is understandable, but perhaps we should look at reality in 2003 and say that examining a position does not necessarily mean one admits to being “the worst”. There is some place between the “best” and the “worst”. Do not worry; if we study this, there will be no problem.
But this debate is on the motion of the hon. member for Regina—Qu'Appelle, who appears to have been making this a personal issue for a number of years. Permit me to read the motion:
That this House call upon the government to hold a referendum within one year—
I like this part of the motion better.
—to determine whether Canadians wish to replace the current electoral system with a system of proportional representation and, if so, to appoint a commission to consult Canadians on the preferred model of proportional representation and the process of implementation, with an implementation date no later than July 1, 2006.
Personally, I think it would have been much better to ask for the creation of a committee that would hold public consultations and report back in 2006. For reasons I do not understand, they want to make the process more complicated. But it is hard to be opposed to the principle.
We could hardly oppose it, for one simple reason: in Quebec—another distinction or difference—we have not been afraid to engage in this debate and have been doing so for more than 40 years. Mr. Speaker, I realize that you are very knowledgeable about the political parties and politics in Quebec. I am not telling you anything new, but this might be new to a few members in the House.
Over the years, the various political parties tried many times to introduce proportional representation. It was under the René Lévesque government that the process went the furthest with Minister Robert Burns and his excellent deputy minister, Raymond Faucher.
At the time, there was a public consultation process. A bill was also introduced in 1984 concerning territorial proportionality. It was defeated by the caucus after having been supported by the Premier and the leader of the opposition.
So much for transparency in democracy. The Premier and the leader of the opposition agreed, but the caucus defeated the motion for territorial proportionality. At the time, the leader of the opposition was Claude Ryan.
In February—this is a little like what the member for Regina—Qu'Appelle is asking for—estates general were held on electoral reform. Countless stakeholders offered their views. These estates general travelled throughout Quebec and there was a large meeting with more than 1,000 people. People were able to discuss which electoral system they preferred or thought to be best suited to the reality of a modern Quebec.
The Liberal Party is currently reviewing the issue and a bill should be introduced during this term. However, there is a small problem. The Liberal Party made a campaign promise to introduce a form of proportional representation for the next election, but after the election they said it would be for the next election, in other words, in five or six years, and that they would review the issue in the meantime.
Forty years might be a long time, but at least we are tackling the issue and working on improving the system. When the government is ready, the work will have been done.
What the Bloc Quebecois appreciates is that the motion by the hon. member for Regina—Qu'Appelle does not call for the change to be immediate. That is why we are surprised to see the Liberal's opposition. What we are being asked is to be ready when the time comes, when the change needs to be made.
For example, when we proposed that a commission be set up to address a single currency, they said “Look at the Bloc members. They want us to have the U.S. dollar.” That is not it at all. As they say, when the train pulls into the station, we need to be ready to get on board. So it is better to study the question before something gets imposed upon us. The same goes for proportional representation.
Are we going to wait until we have a federal election turnout of 42% before we address the question of why people do not get out and vote? There is perhaps a defect or shortcoming in the way MPs represent their electorate. Perhaps there is a shortcoming in the amount of work MPs who are not in cabinet do. Perhaps there is a shortcoming in the present electoral system.
If we study this system and reach the conclusion that the system we have is the best, then we stick with it. But if we are confident that the present system is the best, we should not have any problems about comparing it with other hypotheses so as to be able to state at the end of the process that the status quo should prevail.
We are so confident that we do not even want to talk about it; we want to hide it, set it aside, save it. What a great show of confidence.
It seems to me that we are clearly in favour of introducing some form of proportional representation. There lies the question. A form of proportional representation does not mean a uniform system across Canada. There may be a middle ground somewhere. At the very least, there are elements of the proportional system that could help enhance democracy and the representation of citizens in the House of Commons.
Because of the first past the post system, political parties that do well in an election sometimes get blanked out. We find that unfortunate.
This proportional system could have been put forward or examined at the time when the reform of the electoral system was dealt with in committee, along with the new ridings and the appointment of returning officers.
There is also a flaw in the Canadian electoral system in that 100% of the 308 returning officers are said to be appointed by the governor in council. The Chief Electoral Officer—and if ever there were a non-political officer, it is he—has requested the authority to appoint returning officers, through a competitive process, which the government party refused, of course.
In committee at the time, I argued that there should be no hesitation. I am convinced that there are competent Liberals. They may not all be competent, but there must be a few who would go through the competitive process and keep their jobs. However, the Liberals are so sure that their returning officers are good, competent and hard-nosed that they will not consider having a competitive process or proportional representation. That is what I call confidence.
In our internal documents, we have noted that the proportional system is an approach that should be part of a larger effort to enhance political institutions and parliamentarians. The confidence bias the public has for Parliament may be a solution. Under Bill C-34, the ethic counsellor will not be the only one resolving the whole world's problems, but this study could also provide a solution.
We support the principle while at the same time saying that our ultimate goal is to represent the people of Canada well, as long as we in the Bloc Quebecois are here. Our ultimate goal is not to improve the system so that it can be used for another 125 or 150 years and work to our advantage. On the contrary, we want to get out of it following a winning referendum on sovereignty.
However, on the other hand, as long as we are in the system, it is very much to our advantage to ensure that voters in Quebec are recognized in a Parliament whose electoral system could be modernized.
The most important part of the NDP motion concerns public consultations. Bogus prebudget consultations are held. On major international agreements, the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade holds consultations that are, more often than not, not very serious. And, moreover, when it comes to something as important as the electing representatives, nothing is said about the way in which public representatives are chosen.
The Bloc Quebecois supports this motion primarily in terms of this need for consultation. Such consultations would lead to an exchange of ideas on the issue and would lead to future replacement models that could work in Canada.
However, we question doing this so early in the process. Studies were doubtless undertaken by various committees, or studies could be undertaken before launching this consultation, to allow people to discuss, using concrete examples, as we heard earlier in this House, those countries which have a different electoral system from our own but which are not necessarily banana republics. There are other countries and other electoral systems.
In representative democracy, the way that representatives are elected is extremely important, since this mechanism translates the public's wishes into the number of seats each party obtains.
There are two major types of voting systems: majority voting and proportional voting. In the majority system, constraints related to governance dominate, while in the proportional system, constraints related to representation are predominant. There are mixed systems as well, aiming at a solution lying somewhere between the two, and that, I think, is what Canada should look into.
Each of these types is divided again according to voting methods. Thus, even though we are in a majority system, there are different kinds of majority systems.
At one extreme, there is the first past the post majority system, the one used in Canada, the United States and Great Britain, the preferential system, as in Australia, and not so far away, there is the two round system used in France. In the last election in France, the importance of the two round majority system became apparent.
On the other hand, in the other type of voting systems, there are proportional elections that can be absolute, as in Israel or the Netherlands, that is with one huge electoral district, or moderate proportional systems with larger or smaller districts, as in Norway, Switzerland and Belgium, with a much higher rate of participation.
We are dealing here of countries with a recognized democratic system, countries that are not in the third world, democracies that could reasonably be taken as inspiration for improvements to our system. From another point of view, some say no, our system is so good that we do not even dare to compare it with others.
Finally, there are mixed systems that combine elements of the majority and proportional systems, for instance those in Germany, New Zealand, Japan, and Russia. There are variations in the mixed systems too. They can be of the reciprocal type, as in Germany and New Zealand, where the seats attributed proportionally are intended to compensate for those filled by a majority. That is one model we might consider as suitable, or at least which might provide Canada with some inspiration.
In contrast, in Russia and Japan, it is a mixed cumulative system, and the element of compensation is lacking. When correcting any failings of the current system, we must not make voting more complex for the voters, thus pushing them farther away from their representatives; we must ensure that they at least understand who their member of Parliament is, and that there are no more ridings and no more party representatives. Thus, if this study is done, one priority must be to maintain the close link between the voter and his or her representative.
There is no sense in trying to correct a problem by creating an even bigger one. That is why I am describing systems that exist in other countries. I think that if we implemented this in Canada, it would have to be done slowly and in stages, to allow the public to properly understand the improvements that we want to see made to the current electoral system.
Of the 53 most stable democracies—in other words, where democratic elections are held at regular intervals, countries with at least 3 million inhabitants and a multi-party system—there are 25 that have proportional representation, 15 that have a first past the post system and 13 with mixed member proportional. Consequently, we can deduce that there is no magic recipe or miracle formula.
If out of 53, there are 25 with proportional representation, 15 with first past the post and 13 with mixed member proportional, that means that culturally and politically, people have to identify the system that best suits them during the development of their country, and that electoral systems can evolve, as society does.
The first past the post system may still be used—this was pointed out earlier by the Liberals—in many major democracies, such as the United States. But we must not forget that George W. Bush was elected with a 50% participation rate and that roughly 50% of those people voted for him. Therefore, roughly 25% of the Americans elected their president.
In this regard, there was a minor problem in a state where his brother was governor.
Parliament of Canada Act
September 25th, 2003 / 12:10 p.m.
Rahim Jaffer Edmonton—Strathcona, AB
Mr. Speaker, it gives me pleasure to address this particular bill. As we all know, Bill C-34, an act to amend the Parliament of Canada Act, would appoint an ethics commissioner and a Senate ethics officer.
It frustrates me, as I am sure you as well Mr. Speaker, when we hear members like the previous speaker spout off about things that they feel so passionate about. However, when it actually comes down to demonstrating a commitment to that by making changes in this particular place which would reflect that, which would strengthen our institution of democracy and give more accountability and transparency, which were the words that the member used himself, they refuse to make any commitments. They refuse to vote for changes that would improve the institution of Parliament and improve the ability for Canadians to have a voice in this particular place.
This ethics bill is interesting. What is the reason that we actually have to debate instituting a position of an ethics commissioner in this place? A reflection of the last 10 years will paint a stark picture and give reasons why in fact we are debating this sort of legislation.
Elected officials are held in a higher regard. There should not be questions of conflict of interest. There should not be ethical questions about the ability of ministers to have any influence in their own dealings when they are sitting in those particular departments, but in fact we are debating those very problems.
It is a reflection, unfortunately, of the problems we have seen time and time again from the current government. It started from the top and spread out in an incredible way to all parts of this particular government. This is one of the reasons that this whole debate about the need for an ethics commissioner has come about.
It was not so long ago that I was a student at the University of Ottawa studying political science and economics. I was here and had the fortune of working for a member of Parliament. At that time it was a Liberal MP who currently sits in the House. We often joke about that. But I remember during that time, the Liberals were in opposition and there were many things being debated because it was just before they were going to form the government.
I remember a real void in that particular group. There were a few MPs who really talked passionately about changing this place when they were in opposition, but I started to see a stark difference as that election campaign began between the things that were being said and where the party was going once it actually formed the government. I really lost hope.
Being a first generation Canadian--my family came here as refugees when I was just a baby--the idea of freedom and democracy has always meant a lot to my family, especially my father who taught me about that. That was what inspired me to get involved in politics at a younger age.
I remember that during that transition period I was so disappointed with what I actually saw taking place with the commitment to freedom and democracy, and how to strengthen those principles. It drove me far away from the interest in politics, as someone who came here in an idealistic way and who wanted to get involved in creating a stronger institution for the people. It drove me away from wanting to be involved here because I saw no commitment to that sort of change. Instead, I embraced initially this new movement which, being a new movement, had a lot of challenges, but it talked about bringing those sort of values to Parliament, especially the idea of parliamentary reform.
That is one of the reasons I joined the Reform Party and got involved along with many younger colleagues who got involved in the early 90s. Later we had an impact on that particular process and that particular thinking, and could even get involved in elected office, which is rare to see in many other traditional parties.
However, one the reasons I did get involved, which I mentioned and why I switched from the Liberal Party, was because of the fact that I saw a real void and a lack of commitment to that parliamentary reform. Now the Liberals talk about it in the same way they talk about democratic deficits and strengthening institutions of Parliament, but when it comes down to voting for change, they only go with half measures.
This is a particular example of that when we look at the bill that we are debating, Bill C-34. The amendment deserves merit and deserves some serious debate, which we are not getting from this particular government. The amendment has been put forward because we support the government in its effort to improve Parliament, but again its measures are only half steps.
In trying to improve this bill we would adopt the amendment by having “an all party committee of the House of Commons search for those persons who would be most suitably qualified and fit to hold the office of Ethics Commissioner”. Then the said committee would recommend to the House of Commons the name of the person to hold that particular office. What would be wrong with taking that bit of power away from the Prime Minister?
Currently, the Prime Minister controls almost every aspect of this House. When we go to this particular nomination, it will be appointed by the Prime Minister and then put to the House for a vote. As we have seen in many votes in the past, Liberal members will be whipped to follow the Prime Minister's choice and this particular ethics counsellor will not be independent of Parliament to judge the actions of members of Parliament and their dealings. That person would, in essence, become a lapdog for the Prime Minister.
This minor amendment, that has such profound effects on the way this position would be installed, would seem to me to be something that the government would embrace. What does it fear? What does it have to lose to take that bit of power away from the Prime Minister? Its own backbenchers complain about the fact that they have no say once they come to this particular place.
This slight amendment would strengthen the ability for this House to have more transparency as the previous member talked about. It would allow an independent ethics counsellor to review certain complaints that may be brought forward by members of Parliament against other individuals and report independently of the Prime Minister. It would add a bit of democracy to this place, a bit of freedom that unfortunately continues to be eroded by a government that wants to hang on to power and a Prime Minister on his way out who still does not want to relinquish any of those particular things that would provide effective checks and balances in this place.
That is something that totally amazes us. We know that in the recent past we saw a rift in that particular government when we in the official opposition put forward a motion dealing with committee chairs being selected by secret ballot. We did not want our committees whipped either because, let us face it, committees are supposed to be an independent wing of Parliament. They are supposed to be independent from the House, independent from the government, and they are supposed to study issues and make legislation better. What better way to do it if we could have the chairs of those committees selected by member of Parliaments who they thought were the best candidates for those jobs.
Ultimately it was a tough vote for the government because of the soon to be Prime Minister who has talked about this democratic deficit. There was a huge rift in that particular government when that vote came to the House and in fact that was a small victory for democracy, not for the opposition and not for our goals but for democracy and for Canadians.
Here is a chance for that same spirit to continue, where we could have true transparency by having an independent ethics commissioner chosen by a committee that would select the best possible person for the job and make the recommendation to Parliament.
I want to briefly reflect on the amendment that has been put forward by the NDP. It is something that we did in fact support. We would not be afraid of having the requirement of a two-thirds majority in this place for the appointment of an ethics commissioner. As my hon. colleague from Elk Island had mentioned, there were some complications as they pertained to the Constitution.
On that matter, anything that we could do in this place to evoke change and improve the conditions of this institution, of course, we would support. We want to see Parliament strengthened, we want to see ministers behave in the appropriate manner, and we want Canadians to have the confidence in this place that they should have.
We only wish that instead of talking the talk, the government would actually take the steps necessary to put these sorts of things in place and strengthen the institution's democracy. It is with a great sense of sadness that, unfortunately, we have to debate legislation like this because of the performance of this particular government over the last number of years.
Parliament of Canada Act
September 25th, 2003 / 11:30 a.m.
Deepak Obhrai Calgary East, AB
My colleague says it is arrogance. I absolutely agree.
The Prime Minister has been in politics for 40 years. Forty years is great. However as everyone else knows there is a time when it is time to go. The country needs a new vision. We need new ideas. I think there should be a fixed term. Twelve years is a pretty good time to be in the political arena because a person becomes burned out. Here we have 40 years. What do we get? We have a ship adrift.
Then of course we have the Senate where senators are politicians for life. Senators are not accountable to anyone, yet they want to make decisions. How can the people of Canada speak? That House is not even elected. What do we have then? We have a de facto opposition taken over by the provincial governments. Then we have the tugs and the pulls of federal and provincial relationships.
Finally something penetrated across the floor and into the government that there was something seriously wrong. It took a long time. There were many scandals. Now the government has come forward with Bill C-34 to try to tell the people of Canada that, yes, there is transparency in the House and, yes, the government will attend to it.
I have read editorials and it is quite generally accepted that elected officials are held to higher standards than the average Canadian. We sit in the chamber and make laws. Therefore, there is an expectation that we have higher standards. It is a given that elected officials should be held to a higher standard than average Canadians. As such, we agree with the intent of Bill C-34 to have an ethics commissioner who can look at affairs of members of Parliament, as well as the government, and to whom we can talk if we feel the rules have not been followed.
However the problem with Bill C-34 is the government is not willing to let go. It is afraid. I do not know why the government is afraid. We tell other countries what to do. The government will not appoint an independent ethics commissioner.
Last year or the year before that the issue with the minister responsible for CIDA came before the House, after I wrote the commissioner. In my dealings on that issue with the minister responsible for CIDA, I came to realize that it was very necessary to have an independent ethics commissioner. It became obvious that it was necessary to have independent officials of the House.
My friend on the other side just asked a question about whether this responsibility should be shared with other officers of Parliament. I say absolutely. These officers should be independent because the Parliament of Canada is independent.
In Bill C-34, while the government technically uses the words an “independent ethics commissioner”, will that person really be independent? The answer is no. The prime minister will appoint the individual in consultations with the opposition parties. What consultations? With the government there has never been consultations. The government does not have a great track record with the Canadian public in reference to transparency. The government does not have a record of cooperating with the provinces, so why would it cooperate with opposition parties.
The simple question being asked by everyone is: Why can there not be a real independent ethics commissioner? Why does the government want to have a noose around the neck of the ethics commissioner? Is it because if he gets out of line the government can pull him back? What does the government fear? There is nothing to fear.
We in the House want to stand up and be counted so Canadians will see that those who are making the laws are people of integrity. I will not deny the fact that everybody in the House is working very hard for Canadians. I therefore have to ask why the government wants a noose around the neck of the ethics commissioner.
Why does the government want to control the ethics commissioner? It is because over the last 40 years that the Prime Minister has been in the House those members have created this power and grabbed it, which s why there is tension between the provinces and the federal government. The Liberals want to grab all the power and do not want to let it go.
We just have to look at how much the Prime Minister's Office controls this country. We just have to look at how much power is concentrated in the Prime Minister's Office. Senators in the other place are appointed by the PMO. They do not run in elections. Individuals who are rejected by Canadians end up in the Senate making rules for the country. Where is the voice of Canadians?
The amendment brought forward by this party would address that concern and would bring back some respectability to the House. The amendment asks that the bill go back to committee so we can really and truly have an independent ethics commissioner. Canadians need to feel confident that an independent ethics commissioner is looking after their interests.
I hope the government will listen. I hope we will not go the same way we have gone year after year, election after election, and not see Canadians turn out at the polls.
Parliament of Canada Act
September 25th, 2003 / 11:20 a.m.
Deepak Obhrai Calgary East, AB
Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to rise to speak to Bill C-34. I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the work that the member for Elk Island has done on the bill. He has taken the lead in this debate and has brought out the flaws with Bill C-34.
The amendment proposed by the Canadian Alliance tries in reality to address the bigger concern that we on this side of the House have with the bill. Let me go back and tell members why we have a very serious concern with Bill C-34.
I was elected in 1997. That was the time I put a foot into the political arena. One glaring issue that became quite clear was that Canadians were losing confidence in their elected officials.
Before I carry on, I would like to congratulate my other colleague sitting in the Speaker's chair, who I think is sitting there for the first time and looks pretty good in it. That does not mean my colleague will get my vote.
Back to the business of Bill C-34. As I was saying, when I was elected in 1997 I found that people held elected officials in extremely low esteem. About three or four days ago I was listening to CBC Radio. The issue was why young people did not vote in current elections. A study was commissioned by the Chief Electoral Officer, a copy of which I received yesterday in the mail, and I am sure every member of Parliament received it.
An interesting issue came up on the radio talk show. The host was interviewing a couple of young people from Carleton University in Ottawa, the capital of our country which one would say is a place where politics is very active. The general responses I heard from the young people were they were disconnected from politics. One young girl said that because she had low esteem for politicians, she, to put it in her words, did not trust politicians. Why did she not trust politicians? All she wanted was for the politicians if they made promises, to keep their promises.
The erosion of confidence in young people about their elected officials is a very serious issue. I am glad the Chief Electoral Officer commissioned a study to look into this. Practically everybody in this House works very hard, whether they are on that side of the House or this side of the House, and have the interests of the country at heart, but we seem to have sent out a wrong message to the electoral of Canada. They seem to have decided to disconnect themselves from politics after hearing about some of the things that have gone on here. They feel elected officials cannot be trusted. That is a serious blow. As a matter of fact, I would venture to say that many times this impression comes from the governing side as well.
Since I became an MP, I have heard on many occasions the so-called famous words of Prime Minister Trudeau that MPs were nobodies outside Parliament Hill. That was the Prime Minister of Canada talking about elected officials. Talk about having no confidence in these things.
At one time I even heard a minister say to her public official not to worry about members of Parliament but to do what the government said.
The bureaucracy, which is supposed to be an independent arm, should understand that the people of Canada speak through Parliament, through their elected voices. This is the House where we debate. This is the House where the people of Canada have a voice through their elected officials, not the other House because they are not elected. This is the place where the people of Canada can speak. Yet the Liberal government, from Prime Minister Trudeau to the ministers today, have sent out the message that the House is irrelevant, that hard-working people in the House are not relevant. Only the government, the Privy Council and the bureaucracy are relevant. That is the message I got.
As a matter of fact it has been compounded in my dealings with the public service. On many occasions this attitude comes across. The director of Revenue Canada in Calgary, the immigration officer in charge of immigration in Calgary, these public officials have told my office to leave them alone because they know what is best. They are the ones who are not cooperating. They do not understand the fact that democracy is the essence of transparency.
What is ironic is that we in Canada spent a huge amount of money lecturing other countries. Even today we have a delegation of African parliamentarians visiting Canada to look at good governance and transparency. This is what we preach to them. We tell other countries that if they do things this way, then we will look at assisting them in their development needs. That was one of the foundations of NEPAD which the Prime Minister talked about when he was at the G-8 in Kananaskis. We tell everyone out there that transparency, democracy and accountability are the key elements in good governance.
The disconnect continues. Therefore, what do we have? Canadian people are reacting and their reaction is not be good news for us. They are not voting. We can see the numbers of people who vote go down and down. Do we want to make the House of Commons, the voice of the people in Canada, an irrelevant body?
At the end of the day this message seems to have penetrated the governing party. After all the corruption and scandals that we have seen or that many of us have alluded to on this side, the message that there is a serious problem with the confidence of Canadian people in the House of Commons has finally penetrated the government
The prime minister in waiting talks about the democratic deficit. Why is he talking about democratic deficit? His party has brought us to this condition where the democratic deficit is now a glaring reality.
At the end of the day the people of Canada look at the House of Commons and its elected officials and do not see transparency. They have become disconnected and disillusioned. When my colleagues on this side of the House, and I am sure on that side too, go to their ridings and talk at town hall meetings, it is always the same. The degree of frustration is very high.
This is why we have talks of separation. Western alienation and separation are issues about which people talk. I want to make it quite clear that I am not in favour of separation. However that discussion is out there. Why? Because of the level frustration with the House not wanting to reflect the wishes of Canadians. From where does this all come? It comes from the governing party.