Senate Ethics Act

An Act to amend the Parliament of Canada Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts

This bill was last introduced in the 40th Parliament, 2nd Session, which ended in December 2009.

Sponsor

Steven Fletcher  Conservative

Status

Second reading (House), as of May 28, 2009
(This bill did not become law.)

Summary

This is from the published bill. The Library of Parliament often publishes better independent summaries.

This enactment amends the Parliament of Canada Act to eliminate the position of Senate Ethics Officer and to transfer the duties and functions of that Officer to the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner. It also makes consequential amendments to other Acts of Parliament.

Elsewhere

All sorts of information on this bill is available at LEGISinfo, provided by the Library of Parliament. You can also read the full text of the bill.

Senate Ethics Act
Government Orders

May 28th, 2009 / 4:20 p.m.
See context

Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia
Manitoba

Conservative

Steven Fletcher Minister of State (Democratic Reform)

moved that Bill C-30, An Act to amend the Parliament of Canada Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Madam Speaker, I am pleased to move second reading of Bill C-30, the Senate ethics act.

Bill C-30 proposes to make a single officer responsible for administering all the ethical standards for parliamentarians.

Many Canadians are surprised to learn that despite the overlap in ethics standards for ministers, members of Parliament and senators, senators have their own ethics officer while ministers and members of Parliament have another.

From the perspective of the House of Commons, there has been long-standing support to establish a single ethics officer for all parliamentarians. Several attempts have been made to correct this inconsistency.

In 1997, a special joint committee chaired by our current Speaker and Senator Oliver recommended that a single ethics officer should administer a common code of conduct.

In 2002, the federal government introduced a draft bill on appointing a single ethics officer in the wake of the recommendations made by the special joint committee in its 1997 report.

However, the upper house ultimately opposed the initiative, insisting that it should have its own ethics officer. As a result, the government introduced a bill that created two separate ethics officers: an ethics commissioner for the House of Commons and public office holders, and a Senate ethics officer.

In 2006, the House of Commons passed the Federal Accountability Act, which provided for the appointment of a single ethics officer.

However, the upper house again opposed this political accountability measure and deleted the relevant clauses from the bill. In the interest of passing the many other important accountability measures in our government's flagship legislation, the House of Commons agreed, with a promise to return to the issue.

Today, we are doing just that.

I hope that the House of Commons will again pass the measure it supported previously. I also hope that the other place will recognize the democratic will of the people of Canada as expressed in this House.

The upper house has blocked our efforts in the past on this issue. Let us pass the bill as a signal to Canadians that their voice cannot be stifled by unelected members in the other place.

The main provision in the Senate ethics act would eliminate the office of the Senate ethics officer and transfer all of its responsibilities to the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner.

There are many advantages to bringing the administration of the ethics standards for members of Parliament, ministers, parliamentary secretaries and other public office holders under a single officer. For one, it reflects the expectation of Canadians that ethics standards should be applied consistently for all public officials, rather than having a special process for a special class of people.

In 2004, the Parliament of Canada Act was amended to create two positions: the office of the ethics officer and the office of the ethics commissioner. While the Senate ethics officer's mandate was to oversee the ethics code for senators, the ethics commissioner was given a broader mandate that included members of Parliament and public office holders: ministers and parliamentary secretaries, ministerial staff and governor-in-council appointees, for example.

This mandate was continued in 2006 in the Federal Accountability Act. When it was established, it included the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner to replace the aforementioned ethics commissioner. The Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner has considerable expertise in the administration of ethical standards.

The commissioner oversees ethical standards not only for the 308 members of Parliament, but also for Governor in Council appointees.

Moreover, the commissioner currently administers two codes: the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons, and the ethical rules for public office holders in the Conflict of Interest Act.

While there are some differences between the rules for a member of Parliament and for public office holders, where the rules do overlap, there is a stronger accountability through a common approach applied by a single officer. Indeed, it makes little sense for two ethics codes to prescribe the same conduct and yet be administered differently.

The Conflict of Interest Code for Senators is similar in many respects to the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons, yet there is no way to promote a consistent approach to administering similar rules under our current system.

The Senate ethics act would correct this by enabling the commissioner to administer the ethics standards for all parliamentarians. To maintain the expertise of the commissioner and allow for his or her office to access the necessary funds to pursue a new mandate, the resources and staff of the ethics officer will be transferred to the office of the commissioner to assist in these new responsibilities.

On several occasions senators have expressed their own concerns that this change would undermine their independence as a chamber of sober second thought. They fear that a single ethics officers would undermine their independent status in Parliament.

Some also feel that a single ethics officer would undermine their privileges as a chamber to regulate their internal affairs, including the power to discipline its members.

In response, I would like to point out that the Senate ethics act has been designed to respect every aspect of the upper house's independence. Currently, the Senate ethics officer is appointed by the governor-in-council after the approval of the appointment by the upper house.

The Senate ethics act preserves the upper house's role in approving the appointment of the officer responsible for its ethics code. The conflict of interest and ethics commissioner will have to be approved by both the House of Commons and the upper house before being appointed by the governor-in-council.

Our colleagues in the other place would have no less of a say in approving the officer responsible for administering their ethics code under the Senate ethics act than they do currently. Moreover, the Senate ethics officer currently carries out his duties and functions under the general direction of the conflict of interest committee.

The Senate ethics act maintains the committee's role in providing general direction, but simply specifies that the direction would be provided to the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner.

The act also allows for the House of Commons and the upper house to establish a joint committee to provide general direction to the commissioner, but in no way obliges either chamber to do so.

In this way the other place will have no less of a say in the direction of the officer responsible for administering its ethics code under the Senate ethics act than it currently does--

Senate Ethics Act
Government Orders

May 28th, 2009 / 4:30 p.m.
See context

Conservative

Steven Fletcher Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia, MB

Madam Speaker, it is amazing how BlackBerries get in the way sometimes.

As I was saying, in this way, the other place will have no less of a say in the direction of the officer responsible for administering its code under the Senate ethics act than it currently does.

However, this bill goes further to address concerns of the upper house with respect to its independence. Since senators had no role in selecting the current Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, who will now assume the responsibilities for its ethics regime, the Senate ethics act provides an important transitional provision.

The current commissioner will remain in office for no more than six months unless the upper house confirms the appointment by resolution. If the other place prefers another commissioner, the bill also provides that the upper house and the House of Commons may approve the appointment of a different officer. In this important way, the upper house will maintain its role in selecting, directing and appointing the officer responsible for its ethics code.

Another important fact to note is that nothing in the Senate ethics act affects the Conflict of Interest Code for Senators. That code is an internal document and can only be amended by the other place. The upper house remains responsible for regulating its internal affairs, including the power to discipline its members, consistent with parliamentary privilege. The House of Commons is no less independent a chamber than the upper house in our Parliament. Yet, nobody in this chamber believes that we are less independent because our ethics officer is also responsible for administering the ethics standards for public office holders.

Similarly, in provincial legislatures most ethics commissioners are also responsible for administering the ethics standards that apply to ministers. In some cases, ethics commissioners have also been given responsibilities for the ethics governing the public service and for the regulation of lobbyists. How, then, can the upper house argue a loss of independence where no loss of independence exists for the House of Commons?

Ultimately, I do not agree with the upper house argument or some of the members of the upper house. For this reason, I hope others can see that the Senate ethics act has been carefully designed to respect the independence of both houses. We may question what happens when the bill is referred to the other place. The expectation of Canadians is clear. Any concerns with the independence of the upper house have been addressed. We in this place have expressed our desire to proceed with the reform and I hope we will do so again.

The upper house has indicated its resistance to this reform in the past. Yet, the advantages are obvious and our desire to proceed with this legislation signals that the will of the democratically elected Commons should prevail. I hope members of the other place will hear the elected members of this chamber and give sober second thought to their previous position on this bill.

Since taking office, our government has emphasized through our Senate reform agenda that Canada's representative institutions must evolve with the principles of modern democracy and the expectations of Canadians. This includes the expectation that the highest ethics standards will apply to those honoured with the public trust. The institution that should be at the forefront of Senate reform is the upper house itself. Yet, time and time again, the Liberal dominated Senate has resisted changes proposed by the democratically elected members of the Commons.

Whether it is the creation of a single ethics officer or the establishment of term limits, the Liberal dominated upper house has obstructed and delayed our efforts. Indeed, the Liberal opposition senators spoke out against this bill even before they read it.

I urge our colleagues in the other place to embrace Senate reform, starting with the adoption of the Senate Ethics Act.

I would encourage our colleagues in the other place to embrace the Senate reform, beginning with adoption of the Senate ethics act. I encourage the members of this House to support the legislation. Together I hope we can make major reforms toward ensuring the upper house is a house that reflects the modern institutions that Canadians expect.

The Senate is a house that can do, and does do, work that is helpful to Canadians. However, Canadians expect that all members of Parliament adhere to the highest ethical standards. The bill helps move us in that direction. I hope the opposition party will support this important government initiative. Not to do so is not only undemocratic, it is simply wrong.

May God keep our land glorious and free.

Senate Ethics Act
Government Orders

May 28th, 2009 / 4:40 p.m.
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Liberal

Bob Rae Toronto Centre, ON

Madam Speaker, I have long taken an interest in constitutional issues, and I do not think we can consider this particular piece of legislation outside of a broader context. The fact is that we find ourselves, as a country, in an unusual position. We have a government in office that has decided to take a unilateral approach to the subject of Senate reform.

I will certainly be discussing the bill and the position of the Liberal Party with respect to the particular piece of legislation in front of it, but it is impossible for us to consider the bill without also recognizing that on this very same day the government has decided to announce several other measures with respect to the unilateral reform of the Senate.

This particular piece of legislation, which provides for the House of Commons, if you will, taking upon itself to transform the questions of conflict of interest and ethical behaviour of members of the other House is not the necessary or right approach to take in our view.

The Senate has an ethics regime. The Senate has an independent ethics officer. The Senate has a structure it has created, which reflects the views of senators according to legislation that has been passed and approved. If the government wanted to initiate a discussion with respect to particular issues about any ethical matter affecting a senator or the conduct of the members of the Senate, it knows perfectly well what it could do. It could start that conversation and discussion in the Senate, with the Senate, with senators making the decisions with respect to their conduct.

First, one cannot help but observe that two days after the Minister of Finance did not even announce, but let slip, the fact that the public accounts of the country are in a much greater shambles than he was prepared to admit even 37 days ago, the government has now decided as a matter of political strategy to change the channel and once again bring out the somewhat tired and hoary subject of Senate reform in one manner or another as one of its priorities.

Political science students have long been studying the Canadian Senate, along with the possibility of reforming it and changing its nature. The Senate was established by constitutional process prior to 1867. Members of the Senate are appointed by the government, not elected. They reflect the condition of the federation of a long ago era. Naturally, some still wonder whether this institution ought not to be reformed, and they continue to work toward that.

I remember very clearly back to the 1970s when I was an elected member of this House that there were some very clear proposals on this. The Supreme Court, however, said that if the House wanted to change the nature of the Senate, it could not do so unilaterally.

It needs to respect the Canadian Constitution, and it needs to respect the fact that this federal institution does not belong to the House of Commons, does not belong to the PMO, does not belong to the government in power. This institution is entrenched, rooted in the Constitution. Even if the government and the reformists who are in large part on the other side of this House may be somewhat impatient, it is quite simply not possible to do this.

Today the minister is presenting certain reforms to the Senate's code of ethics, but we know that it is already in place. It is not that there is no code of ethics in the Senate, there is, and it is well set up and well regulated. If a senator causes problems, all it takes is a call to the office of the Senate ethics officer, who will find a solution.

Here we have a government that always wants the Senate to reflect its point of view, the Prime Minister's point of view, or that of the PMO. The Conservatives insist that this is an institution that they will reform by themselves, as they see fit.

Two weeks ago, I made a speech on the right this House has to take up a position with regard to matrimonial matters on aboriginal reserves. I was speaking directly to my Bloc colleagues. I said that we had long ago accepted the need to respect the fact that we have a Constitution which guarantees important rights to aboriginal peoples. That said, the House of Commons cannot make unilateral decisions as though we were not a federation, as though we did not have a Senate and as though we did not know that it is not easy to amend the Constitution. I know something about it. Twice I sat down at a table to attempt to find solutions, and we were unable to do so. That is life in Canada, and that is how we must do things.

I know very well that when we hear from the provincial premiers, they will say straight out and clearly that it is essential to respect the Constitution so that the provinces may take positions, be consulted and see how we arrive at a solution that will reflect the true federal nature of our country.

Canada is a federation.

Senate Ethics Act
Government Orders

May 28th, 2009 / 4:45 p.m.
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Liberal

Bob Rae Toronto Centre, ON

The minister may say yes, and if that is the case, I say to the minister that Conservatives must respect the Canadian Constitution. If they really believe that they have the power to unilaterally change the status of the Senate and of the members of the Senate and the ethics requirements in the Senate, let them go to the Supreme Court of Canada to see what the House of Commons can really do to unilaterally change an institution that is enshrined in our Constitution.

I do not know what the judges will say. Neither the minister nor I are judges, even if we have ambitions and desires. We do not know, we are not there yet.

We must respect the fact that we have a Constitution. If we have a Constitution, we must respect it.

What I have a problem with is that I perceive the Reform ideology which is still alive and well within the government. The Reform ideology is determined to unilaterally attempt to change the Canadian Constitution as they see fit.

In their minds, that is what the reformists are going to do.

Even if I do not like some things in the Senate, I have to respect the Canadian Constitution, I must respect the independence of this House and I must respect the fact that this institution was created by the Canadian Constitution and that it is through the Canadian Constitution that we can change it.

If I am somewhat emotional on this topic, it is not because I want to become a senator. That is not it and it is not because I want to become a senator some day, but because I understand full well that we have to accept the Constitution in its entirety.

Moreover, we have to see that we cannot continue to do what the Conservatives insist on doing and want to continue doing: trying to change the nature of the Senate without having the necessary support of the provinces.

I say to the minister, with great respect, the Conservatives cannot change unilaterally the nature and structure of the Canadian Senate. They cannot change unilaterally how it is made up and who it is made up of. They have to respect the independence and integrity of that institution. If they want a change with respect to the conduct of the Senate, then start with the Senate, start with the Senators, start with their colleagues in the Senate, and then start with a process which respects the independence of that institution. We cannot do that unilaterally ourselves.

The Conservatives may get the majority that will give the ability to get this House into second reading. They may get it into third reading. They may be able to do it. I do not know where the votes will go. I know my colleagues in the New Democratic Party continue to take a puritanical position with respect to the Senate.

I will only say to my colleagues in the New Democratic Party to name a federation in the world that does not have a second chamber. They will not find it. There is no federation in the world that does not have a second chamber. As my colleague from Calgary says, they are elected.

Look, this is not about what I think nor what the member for Toronto Centre says. If I were writing a constitution in the sky, I do not know what it would look like, any more than the member from Calgary would. That is not the point.

We are not capable, we do not have the power in this House, to unilaterally change the nature of the Senate. That is something which this party opposite, the government opposite, simply does not understand. The Conservatives cannot do it. It cannot be done. They will continue trying to do it and they should not continue trying to do it. They should be told to just stop, stop trying to change the dial and change the subject, stop going back to their tired old ideologies.

If they want to sit down and change the Senate, set up a meeting with the provinces, sit down in negotiation, and go back to the process of constitutional reform. I wish them the best of success in doing so. If that is what they want to do, go ahead and do it.

Senate Ethics Act
Government Orders

May 28th, 2009 / 4:50 p.m.
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Liberal

Bob Rae Toronto Centre, ON

Madam Speaker, I admit I was in full flight. I will try to come down to a lower decibel level. I know the member opposite is well known for never losing his temper or having arguments in his office, so I will not be making any further comment.

Let me just say that even with this modest bill, the minister might say, “Look, all we are simply trying to do is create one regime for the regulation of ethics in the House and the Senate. They should be the same. It's no big deal. Nothing much to be affected by it. Nothing much to worry about”.

All I can say to the minister is, if it is not broken, we do not have to fix it. There is nothing broken about ethics in the Senate. There is no crisis of ethics in the Senate. We have an independent ethics officer in the Senate. We have an independent structure in the Senate. Senators are able to do their business. They do what they do.

Some of the things the Senate does, in my opinion, are very good. There are some outstanding senators who are in the upper house, and some of them are members of the Conservative Party, and some I count among my dearest friends. They do studies, work and travel widely. They issue reports on public policy, which have had a major impact on the public policy of the country going back decades.

That is the structure that we have been given. It is not the perfect structure. Do I think it is a wonderful structure? No, I do not. I do not think it is a wonderful structure, but it is what we have.

The member from Calgary says, “Let's change it”. I say to the member from Calgary that we have a Constitution. We go back to square one. The Constitution does not give the House of Commons the power to unilaterally dictate the conduct of senators. It does not give us the power to unilaterally dictate how they will run their affairs. They have an ethics officer who deals with issues. We have laws that deal with these questions. We have laws which apply to members of the House of Commons and members of the Senate.

There is no need for us to do what is being proposed. It is absolutely unnecessary. It is a classic case of changing the dial and changing the subject, and trying to make something out of nothing.

It is part of a bigger strategy on the part of the government. It is part of a bigger approach. That has to do with all that the Conservatives are seeking to do with the Senate. All I can say to the hon. members is that they are wasting their time and they are wasting our time.

It simply is not possible for the Government of Canada, for public policy, to achieve unilaterally, by one House voting one way or another, what cannot be achieved by a broader consensus of the country with respect to changing the Senate. That is why the Liberal Party will be opposing this legislation.

Senate Ethics Act
Government Orders

May 28th, 2009 / 4:55 p.m.
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Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia
Manitoba

Conservative

Steven Fletcher Minister of State (Democratic Reform)

Madam Speaker, I listened to the hon. member's comments carefully. I noticed that we have something in common. He was a member of Parliament in the 1970s, and I was born in the 1970s.

I also noticed that the member does not seem to be fully informed about the bill. He talks about unilateral action by the House of Commons. I do not know where this is coming from. The bill is going to go through, assuming it passes this chamber, both Houses of Parliament, and we are looking for the Senate to support this bill.

The Liberal Party just announced that they were opposing this bill, but in April 2006 they supported a bill with this provision in it. So they support it and they do not support it. The member opposite seems to be a bit of an anti-Senate reformist, defeatist.

He wants to open up the Constitution during an economic crisis. I do not think that is appropriate. What we are asking Parliament to do is to work together to improve the upper chamber. This bill does that, along with other pieces of legislation. It is absolutely constitutional and within the realm.

Instead of the Liberal Party opposing the government, it should support the government in its mandate that it received during the last several elections. I know the member has been around for a very long time, and he will know that the people of Canada want Senate reform. As a youngish person, I know young people want the Senate to reflect the realities of the 21st century. Why will the Liberal Party not reflect the realities of the 21st century?

Senate Ethics Act
Government Orders

May 28th, 2009 / 4:55 p.m.
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Liberal

Bob Rae Toronto Centre, ON

Madam Speaker, I take no offence at the minister's comments about the colour of my hair and the fact that I was here when he was born. I appreciate that and I take it in the spirit of the good humour in which it was offered. Since I have just come back from my nap, I am feeling very invigorated this afternoon and I am quite happy to take on the comments.

The minister himself said that this is alongside other pieces of legislation. That is why we have to consider them all as a package. We all have to understand that this is part of a common approach which the government has taken, and I sincerely disagree with the minister.

In the sense of whether they are constitutional or not, I would just say that if the minister has confidence that they are constitutional, he should simply refer them to the Supreme Court of Canada and let the Supreme Court of Canada say yea or nay. That is what Mark MacGuigan had to do when he was a member of the government of Mr. Trudeau in 1977 or 1978. He had to refer the legislation and deal with it in that context.

We have been through this movie before. I know the Prime Minister has been watching a lot of tapes and movies, but a number of us are aware of what goes on in tapes and movies and we have been through this movie before.

I am certainly not recommending that we go back to the constitutional swamp. That is not what I am recommending. The government would launch us into a very expensive set of litigation with the provinces. I can assure the minister that if he follows this legislation through with the other pieces of legislation, he will be sued by many provinces. They will sue the federal government. They will say that this is ultra vires the powers of the federal government. They will go to the Courts of Appeal in the different provinces. It may be Newfoundland. It may be Manitoba. It may be Ontario. It may be Quebec. It may be New Brunswick. Then it will get appealed from there by whomever loses. It will get appealed up to the Supreme Court, and my profession, of which I am very proud member, will do very well out of this. He is setting up a legal nest that will go forward and it is not a good idea.

Senate Ethics Act
Government Orders

May 28th, 2009 / 5 p.m.
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NDP

Jack Harris St. John's East, NL

Madam Speaker, I listened with great interest to the member for Toronto Centre's vigorous and enthusiastic defence of the status quo.

I know that the Senate has served the Liberal Party very well in the past and I guess he is hoping that it will continue to do so. In fact, one of the senators, a very admirable man, Senator Prud'homme, has threatened to run for the House of Commons when he retires from the Senate, so his commitment to Parliament is very strong.

The NDP of course is in favour of an elected and accountable Parliament, and of course the Senate is part of Parliament.

Does the member actually think that we have such a rigid Constitution that the political will of the people could not be tested by a referendum in terms of whether they want an elected Parliament or not?

I know he is talking about the rigidity of legalities and what might happen, but this bill would have to go to the Senate. I do not suppose the Senate is going to pass it. That might allow the government to appoint a few more senators and we would get into a whole race over who is going to control the Senate.

Should we not actually try to find out what the will of the Canadian people is? Do they want an elected Senate or are they satisfied with a moribund institution?

Senate Ethics Act
Government Orders

May 28th, 2009 / 5 p.m.
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Liberal

Bob Rae Toronto Centre, ON

Madam Speaker, there are some things which one can set one's clock by.

Certainly, the predictability of the response from my friends in the New Democratic Party with respect to the subject of the Senate is well known. I can only tell the hon. member that I would have thought that having served in a provincial institution, as I have, that he knows very well the provincial situation in every province.

We are a federal country. Every federal country in the world has a second chamber. Some of them are elected. Some of them are appointed. Some of them are half-appointed and half-elected. Some of them are elected on a proportional basis. Some of them are elected by the provincial chambers. There is a whole variety of techniques by which second chambers are chosen.

I have made it clear that I am not defending the status quo. I am simply looking at what I know is the government's agenda, which I am surprised the member would support. I would suspect that the Premier of Newfoundland would be very troubled by a unilateral change in the Constitution of Canada, and an attempt to do that by the reformists on the other side of the chamber. I would be very surprised if that were something that he thought was a great idea. I would be stunned if Premier Charest was in favour of it, or indeed if any provincial premier thought this was a wonderful idea.

We are discussing a very modest proposal on the face of it, which is to deal with the question of ethics, but it is not just a question of ethics. It is the question of the extent to which we respect the independence of the other chamber.

Senate Ethics Act
Government Orders

May 28th, 2009 / 5:05 p.m.
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Liberal

Michael Savage Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, NS

Mr. Speaker, when a person comes to this place, one realizes the work the Senate does, people like Mike Kirby and his work on health and on mental health. I was at the Calgary social forum last week, and Senator Hugh Segal, a Progressive Conservative appointed by a Liberal, was speaking about poverty. He has a great deal of credibility.

I think that changes are needed. Nova Scotia has 10 senators and Alberta has six. There are things that need to be done, but my colleague is quite right that this is not the way to do them. It will not add up to anything.

I wonder if there is any reason Canadians should believe that this is anything other than an attempt to divert people's attention from a government that has the finances of this country out of control. There is a $50 billion deficit and there are people who cannot get employment insurance. The government has totally lost control, and this is just another attempt to divert attention from that.

Senate Ethics Act
Government Orders

May 28th, 2009 / 5:05 p.m.
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Liberal

Bob Rae Toronto Centre, ON

I assume, Mr. Speaker, that means we can use nicknames.

I appreciate the question from my colleague from Dartmouth—Cole Harbour. One of my favourite films, in addition to the tapes that I am sure the government is watching, is Wag the Dog. It is a great movie. Members should see it. I have seen the President of the Treasury Board. I know he does not have much to do because the money is not going out the door at all. He has put a cork in the government and stopped it.

Senate Ethics Act
Government Orders

May 28th, 2009 / 5:05 p.m.
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Liberal

Bob Rae Toronto Centre, ON

I thank the hon. member. I wish he would.

I will say to the hon. member for Dartmouth—Cole Harbour that I think this is an attempt to change the subject. On the face of it, one might say one wants to have an ethics officer for both chambers and what is the big deal. The answer is, maybe not much, but the fact is the Senate says it wants to have its own ethics officer dealing with its own situations, that it will apply the law fairly and it has the ability to apply the law fairly. The House of Commons should have sufficient faith in its institution that this is what it will do.

I do think the government is trying to change the subject and get back to the question of Senate bashing. I know it will please members of the New Democratic Party and others who say that is a great thing to do, but I do not know why they are taking the bait. I would not take the bait, and this side of the House has no intention of taking the bait.

Senate Ethics Act
Government Orders

May 28th, 2009 / 5:05 p.m.
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Bloc

Claude DeBellefeuille Beauharnois—Salaberry, QC

Mr. Chair, I am a young member, not in terms of my age but in terms of my years of service here, and I can say that one can be inspired or notice the work of members who have many years of service. I am as passionate as the member for Toronto Centre, but not about the same things. I do not share his passion for the Senate. Today, however, the Bloc Québécois is in favour of the principle of the bill we are discussing and would like to see it studied in committee.

What I am passionate about are matters of ethics and conflicts of interest. Thus, this bill is of great interest to me. When one sits on the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, these are often the topics we have to examine. It is our responsibility to make changes or amendments to the code of ethics and to the conflict of interest code for members. And so I was careful to read this bill attentively, and it is my pleasure to debate this matter in this House.

Everyone agrees that it is desirable that various codes of behaviour be established for members of Parliament, senators and public office holders. In our opinion, the idea that these codes be administered by a single person so as to standardize procedures and decision-making is a sensible one. The Bloc notes however that the bill will do nothing to significantly address ethics and transparency in the Senate. We noticed that most of the shortcomings in the Senate behaviour code will remain the same. I will explain a bit later that the bill would only see to the appointment of one person to govern both codes, i.e. that of members and senators. However, the commissioner does not necessarily have the investigative rights and powers needed to administer and enforce the code governing the senators.

Consequently, if what the Conservative government wanted was to make the Senate more transparent and to improve its image, it is missing the mark. You might almost call it window dressing, since the bill is going to introduce fairly minor changes. If the government had really wanted to improve the Senate's image, it could have started by not imitating its Liberal counterparts and not highlighting its partisanship and anti-democratic stance by making several partisan appointments. An example comes to mind readily. It should not have appointed Michael Fortier to the Senate. Moreover, it did not oblige him to run in byelections in Quebec between 2006 and 2008. It was within the Conservative government's power to do all sorts of other things to contribute to improving the Senate's image. However, the government continued the Liberal tradition of using the Senate as a partisan tool.

Consequently, this bill is rather symbolic. I am not a fortune teller, but I think that the government is well aware that its bill will not be passed by the senators, who have already rejected this proposal three times, as hon. members need to remember. The Bloc Québécois wants to remind this House that abolishing the Senate is the best way to put an end to the lack of Senate accountability. It is that simple. The Senate is not an institution that should continue to exist. However, I do agree with the member for Toronto Centre that to abolish the Senate, the government would have to amend the Constitution and enter into rounds of negotiations, which is a bit more complicated.

Hon. members also need to remember that in 2002, under Jean Chrétien, and subsequently under Paul Martin, the Liberals tried to introduce a uniform ethics regime including a single officer who would administer codes of ethics for MPs and senators. That did not work for Jean Chrétien.

For his part, Mr. Martin had to introduce separate regimes so that his Bill C-34 would be passed.

In the Federal Accountability Act, which the Conservatives introduced in April 2006, the Conservative government also proposed to create a single position of conflict of interest and ethics commissioner to replace the separate ethics commissioner and Senate ethics officer positions.

The bill was passed in 2006. However, the Senate twice rejected the provisions giving the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner the mandate to apply the Senate code of ethics and insisted on keeping the Senate ethics officer position.

The House of Commons finally agreed to the changes proposed by the Senate so that the Federal Accountability Act would be passed in a timely manner.

We would not be wrong in saying that Bill C-30 is the government's fourth attempt to subject the Senate to a real ethics commissioner.

The measures proposed in Bill C-30, the Senate Ethics Act, would amend the Parliament of Canada Act in order to abolish the position of Senate ethics officer and give the mandate to a single person, the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner. The position would be an independent one with a mandate to apply standards of ethics to senators, MPs and public office holders. The incumbent would be charged therefore with administering two completely different codes.

Under the new structure, senators would remain subject to the existing rules, that is, the senators' conflict of interest code would continue to govern the conduct of senators.

In actual fact, there are few changes. I see no reason then why the senators are upset, apart from the fact that the codes of ethics will be administered by a single conflict of interest and ethics commissioner.

The bill also contains transitional provisions on the renewal of the mandate of the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner and on the transfer of parliamentary votes and employees of the office of the Senate ethics officer to the office of the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner. That makes sense. If the position is transferred, the budgets and employees have to be transferred too.

The bill provides that, unless the Senate passes a motion approving the appointment of the current ethics commissioner, a new commissioner will be selected six months after the legislation comes into force.

Finally, the governor in council will appoint a conflict of interest and ethics commissioner after consultation with the leader of every recognized party in the Senate and the House of Commons and approval of the appointment by resolution of the Senate and House of Commons.

The bill will come into force on a date set by order in council.

This bill, despite being somewhat overblown, is fairly simple to implement and makes sense from an administrative standpoint.

As I said, the Bloc supports the principle of the bill. I repeat that it is desirable to have the various codes of conduct administered by a single officer in order to standardize procedures and decision making. It will mean consistency and makes perfect sense.

The conflict of interest and ethics commissioner will administer the conflict of interest code for members of the House of Commons and the Conflict of Interest Act applicable to elected officials and public office holders. He will thus be responsible for 1,350 full-time public office holders and 1,940 part-time office holders appointed by order in council, and 308 MPs.

I do not think that the addition of 105 senators will result in the commissioner being too overburdened to enforce the code. Basically, I do not think this will impede him in his work or overburden him.

From an administrative standpoint, it seems more economical and efficient as well as easier to ensure consistency if a single officer is responsible for the three codes of conduct.

It is important, though, to understand that this bill does not do anything significant to improve the ethics and transparency of the Senate because most of the shortcomings in the senators’ code of conduct will remain just as they were. I repeat, for the benefit of those who are concerned, that the appointment of a single officer to administer the three codes will not do a thing to change the application of the code or the procedures for enforcing it.

I could give a few examples of the shortcomings in the senators’ code of conduct, shortcomings that undermine the authority of the Senate ethics officer. This will help explain the basic point I am making. The Senate ethics officer exercises his duties under the general direction of a committee consisting of five senators and cannot initiate an investigation on his own. If he wants to conduct an investigation, he has to ask the committee for permission.

It is astonishing to find out that the Senate ethics officer does not have the authority to carry out investigations, decide which ones to do, and determine whether or not he can conduct an investigation, in contrast to the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner, who has the power to initiate investigations because she is independent.

The connections are very close, therefore, between the Senate ethics officer and the committee of five senators, which is basically like a board of directors. I use this comparison to make it easier for the people watching us at home to understand. It is this committee of five senators that holds discussions and examines documents provided by the Senate ethics officer and then decides whether or not to authorize an investigation.

As I see it, the Senate ethics officer is not necessarily as independent as the commissioner in enforcing the senators’ code.

I see too in subsection 45(1) of the senators’ code that the investigation reports of the Senate ethics officer are not necessarily made public. The ethics officer must report first to the committee of senators, which then reports to the Senate. It is obvious that the senators always maintain some form of control over the work of the Senate ethics officer.

In closing, as another example, the senators' code of conduct can only be amended by the Senate. In our opinion, if the government wanted to improve the Senate's image, and I am repeating myself, it should have set the example by not highlighting its partisan and anti-democratic nature with a proliferation of partisan appointments.

In the interest of properly informing the public watching on television, I would to make another point.

Members will remember that on December 22, 2008, the Prime Minister appointed 18 senators, including a number of Conservative supporters such as Michel Rivard and Leo Housakos, well-known Conservative organizers; Irving Gerstein, former Conservative Fund Canada president; Michael L. MacDonald, vice-president of the Conservative Party of Canada; Stephen Green, former chief of staff for Reform Party of Canada leader Preston Manning; or Suzanne Duplessis, Fabian Manning, Yonah Martin and Percy Mockler, former members or—

Senate Ethics Act
Government Orders

May 28th, 2009 / 5:20 p.m.
See context

Liberal

Wayne Easter Malpeque, PE

Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I believe the member is right. A senator is appointed to be a senator for the province. The only way we can name the senator is to use the last name. We do not use the first names of senators, but we use “Senator” and whatever the last name is.

Senate Ethics Act
Government Orders

May 28th, 2009 / 5:25 p.m.
See context

NDP

Jack Harris St. John's East, NL

Mr. Speaker, on the same point of order, I believe the member for Malpeque is correct. Earlier a member mentioned a senator by first and last name without even saying “Senator”. I think that is probably inappropriate. However, I referred to Senator Prud'homme, which is the only way to identify him as an individual in the Senate who says that he wants to run for the House of Commons. I think it is proper to mention their names and that they are senators.

It may not be proper to mention their first names or call them by name or call them by name without referring to them as a senator. I would like a clarification on that because I do not think it is possible for us to have a proper debate in the House if we cannot talk about individual senators. Senators may have a bill or they may have said something publicly that is a matter of public discourse. Therefore, I would like to hear a clarification on that. I can understand not being able to say Mike Duffy, but we may be able to say Senator Duffy. It may require some research, but it should be clarified for the House.