Supporting Non-Partisan Agents of Parliament Act

An Act supporting non-partisan agents of Parliament

This bill was previously introduced in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session.

Sponsor

Mark Adler  Conservative

Introduced as a private member’s bill. (These don’t often become law.)

Status

Report stage (House), as of Oct. 9, 2014

Subscribe to a feed of speeches and votes in the House related to Bill C-520.

Summary

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

This enactment establishes a requirement for every person who applies for a position in the office of an agent of Parliament to make a declaration stating whether, in the 10 years before applying for that position, they occupied specified politically partisan positions. The enactment also requires the persons who work in the office of an agent of Parliament to make a declaration if they intend to occupy a politically partisan position while continuing to work in the office of such an agent. The declarations are to be posted on the website of the office of the relevant agent of Parliament.

As well, the enactment requires the persons who work in the office of an agent of Parliament to provide a written undertaking that they will conduct themselves in a non-partisan manner in fulfilling the official duties and responsibilities of their positions.

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.

Votes

  • Feb. 12, 2014 Passed That the Bill be now read a second time and referred to the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.

Supporting Non-Partisan Agents of Parliament Act
Private Members' Business

October 9th, 2014 / 5:15 p.m.
See context

Conservative

John Barlow Macleod, AB

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to participate in today's debate.

The principle of the political impartiality of the public service agents of Parliament and officers of Parliament is a fundamental element in our government system.

The bill before us today further protects this vital feature of our democracy by supplementing and adding transparency to the existing regime. As such, it deserves support in the House.

By way of background, it is worth noting that the federal public service has a tradition of non-partisanship dating back to the early 1900s. For almost 100 years, this tradition of non-partisanship has made our system of government work. An impartial public administration ensures Canadians, regardless of their political views, receive fair, objective treatment from government officials.

We are fortunate to have a non-partisan, high performing and professional public service. In fact, the Government of Canada employs some of Canada's best and brightest, and their work is intimately tied to our country's success.

Public servants operate in more lines of business and do so on more points of service than any other Canadian organization, public or private. Public servants provide a multitude of services that have real life consequences for Canadians, from inspecting food and regulating the safety of our pharmaceutical drugs, to manning the border and employing Arctic icebreakers in the Northwest Passage.

For example, in any given year, public servants welcome more than 22 million visitors to our national parks and issue close to five million passports with remarkable client satisfaction. They inspect more than 1,000 high-risk foreign vessels to ensure our ports are safe and our water is clean.

The exceptional work public servants do behind the scenes every day impacts all of our lives. The Prime Minister said it best, “the Canadian public service is, in fact, a critical asset that this country possesses in a difficult and uncertain world”.

One of the keys to the public service being such a critical asset is the principle of non-partisanship. In recognition of this, both the Values and Ethics Code and the provisions in the Public Service Employment Act protect the impartiality of the public service and agents of Parliament.

Clearly the principle of non-partisanship is of great importance. In fact, it is essential to the success of the public service that this reputation and tradition of impartiality should be maintained in the eyes of both the public and all Parliamentarians.

The bill before us today seeks to preserve that tradition and reputation. It recognizes that while non-partisanship is expected of all public servants, agents of Parliament play a particularly important role in government oversight.

Agents of Parliament, such as the Auditor General, the Commissioner of Official Languages and the Information Commissioner, are a unique group of independent statutory officers who serve to scrutinize the activity of government. They report directly to Parliament rather than to government or an individual minister and, as such, exist to serve Parliament in relation to Parliament's oversight role.

Agents normally produce a report to Parliament to account for their own activities, and their institutional heads are typically appointed through special resolutions of the House of Commons and the Senate.

Given the close relationship of agents of Parliament and their employees with parliamentarians, it is critical that these offices be independent of political affiliation in carrying out their duties. I also believe it is crucial that the staff of agents of Parliament work in a non-partisan way to maintain the confidence of all parliamentarians and all Canadians.

With that goal in mind, the bill would require every person who applied for a position in the office of an agent of Parliament to make a declaration with respect to past engagement in politically partisan positions. Specifically, this declaration would state whether, in the past 10 years before applying for that position, the person occupied certain specified politically partisan positions.

The bill also prescribes a declaration for persons who work in the office of an agent of Parliament. In the interests of complete transparency, the declarations would be posted on the website of the office of the relevant agent of Parliament.

The bill would also require persons who worked in these offices to provide a written undertaking that they would conduct themselves in a non-partisan manner in fulfilling the official duties and responsibilities of their positions.

These provisions provide enhanced transparency and accountability for all parliamentarians who must have confidence that the work of agents of Parliament is impartial.

As we know, accountability and transparency are the hallmark of this government. Our commitment to those principles was evident with our first piece of legislation, the Federal Accountability Act, and that commitment continues today with our support of this bill.

I encourage everyone in the House to support this important legislation. It augments non-partisanship in our system of government.

Supporting Non-Partisan Agents of Parliament Act
Private Members' Business

October 9th, 2014 / 5:20 p.m.
See context

NDP

Ruth Ellen Brosseau Berthier—Maskinongé, QC

Mr. Speaker, I rise today in opposition to Bill C-520. Yes, at first glance one might wonder why we would be opposed to more transparency. The answer to that question is that, on closer inspection, this bill seems to be the government's way of conducting trumped-up witch hunts to intimidate agents of Parliament.

Under this bill, the 10 agents of Parliament as well as their staff would have to make declarations and post them on the Internet stating whether, in the 10 previous years, they occupied a partisan position. This is yet another example of the Conservatives' narrative of attacking those who keep them accountable, as was the case with the auditor general and the chief electoral officer.

Under this bill, if members of Parliament or senators were the subject of an independent investigation by these agents of Parliament, the parliamentarians could make it hard on these agents by calling for their own investigations in order to call the agents' integrity into question. That is absurd, ridiculous and nonsensical.

The law already requires agents of Parliament to be impartial. Why create a new law? There is no need to allow people to carry out witch hunts in these offices. We have already witnessed this government attack public servants who spoke out about irregularities or who dared to tell the government things it did not want to hear.

I am thinking about Kevin Page and Marc Mayrand, well-respected men who acted with good judgment and who told the truth, but who ultimately ended up paying the price. Is that the example the government wants to set?

Supporting Non-Partisan Agents of Parliament Act
Private Members' Business

October 9th, 2014 / 5:25 p.m.
See context

NDP

Ruth Ellen Brosseau Berthier—Maskinongé, QC

Mr. Speaker, I apologize. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of naming the Prime Minister. We all make that mistake from time to time. That kind of thing happens.

As I was saying, these were people who dared to tell the government things it did not want to hear. People like Kevin Page and Marc Mayrand, well-respected people whose actions were guided by wisdom and who told the truth. That is why I am here today with my colleagues. We think that we need to stand up for these agents of Parliament.

I watched some of the testimony from the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. During the study of the bill, my colleagues repeatedly asked the government for a definition of “partisan conduct” and for reasons why this bill was needed.

No satisfactory answer was given, which makes sense, because the fact is that there have been no proven cases of conflict of interest or even the appearance of conflict of interest in the offices this bill targets.

This is what the Information Commissioner of Canada says about this bill:

[It is] difficult to understand the need for the Bill or what problem it is attempting to resolve. [It] creates a duplication of regimes. Although the stated purpose is to avoid conflicts related to “partisan activities” that term is not defined or mentioned in the Bill. [It] creates an environment that may hinder the independence and the execution of the mandate of the Office of the Information Commissioner.

Currently, the partisan activities of public servants are already regulated by Part 7 of the Public Service Employment Act, the Political Activities Regulations, and the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector. This leads us to again question the legitimacy and the relevance of this bill.

Fortunately, with pressure from the NDP, the Conservatives have withdrawn major parts of the bill, including the ability of members of Parliament and senators to ask for investigations of officials working in the offices of parliamentary oversight bodies that demand accountability from government. However, the government's concessions are minimal compared to the concerns of the NDP and of the agents of Parliament.

I really find it quite disappointing that the government is using public officials as punching bags and is trying to make people believe that this bill will help increase transparency.

I have been here for three and a half years and what I notice is that, all too often, this government does the opposite of the definition of transparency. Some people also accused the government of coming up with this bill as a diversion from the problems in the Senate. To that accusation, the author of the bill replies that the intent is to increase people's trust in the agents of Parliament. Personally, I think that the main issue is to increase people's trust in the government.

Mary Dawson, the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, raised another interesting point before the parliamentary committee. She feels that the bill could allow anyone to attack the reputation of an employee because there is no clear definition of partisan activities or of the reasons that could justify opening an investigation.

Mary Dawson says that she is opposed to this bill because it has serious shortcomings in terms of respect for privacy and because it violates the merit principle in hiring in the public service. She adds that the Conservatives provided no witnesses in support of the bill and that they refused to answer the questions they were asked.

With the Conservatives, that does not strain belief at all.

This bill has nothing to do with transparency; its goal is to distract Canadians from this Conservative government’s repeated failures at making Parliament accountable by launching a baseless attack on the offices of the parliamentary watchdogs whose jobs are to hold the government to account.

I will close by quoting Jean-Pierre Kingsley, who headed Elections Canada from 1990 to 2007.

This bill aims to fix a problem that does not exist.

I absolutely agree with him that this bill is completely unnecessary.

Supporting Non-Partisan Agents of Parliament Act
Private Members' Business

October 9th, 2014 / 5:30 p.m.
See context

Conservative

Rick Norlock Northumberland—Quinte West, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have this opportunity to provide the government's response to Bill C-520, an act supporting non-partisan offices of agents of Parliament. I know that the member for York Centre has worked very hard on this bill, and I would like to assist the House in explaining the reasons he brought it forward.

The purpose of the bill is to avoid conflicts that could arise, or be perceived to arise, between partisan activities and the official duties and responsibilities of any person who works in the office of an agent of Parliament. For the record, this bill would apply to the offices of the Auditor General of Canada, the Chief Electoral Officer, the Privacy Commissioner, the Commissioner of Official Languages for Canada, the Information Commissioner, the Commissioner of Lobbying, the Senate Ethics Officer, the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, and the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner.

We all know these offices quite well. They oversee the activities of our public institutions. Their chief officers report directly to Parliament rather than to government or an individual minister, and as such, they support MPs in carrying out their important duties.

Some have been part of our system of government for a very long time. This includes the position of Auditor General, which was created shortly after Confederation to provide objective information and assurance regarding the use of public funds.

In 1920, the position of Chief Electoral Officer was created. Among its many duties, this office monitors compliance with electoral law and maintains readiness to conduct federal elections.

The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages has also been with us for some time. Established in 1969 with the adoption of the Official Languages Act, this office ensures recognition of the status of each official language in Canada. It also ensures compliance with the spirit and intent of the Official Languages Act in the administration of the affairs of federal institutions.

Then, in 1983, as issues related to personal privacy and access to information began to draw more and more attention, the positions of Information Commissioner and Privacy Commissioner were created.

More recently, the government created three additional agent of Parliament positions: a Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner and a Public Sector Integrity Commissioner in 2007, and a Commissioner of Lobbying in 2008.

Each office serves a specific function. They contribute enormously to the accountability of our system of government, and taken together, they provide Canadians with assurances that government programs and services are working as they should and that institutions and individuals are accountable for their actions and decisions.

Here are some of the important functions they ensure: that funds provided to a federal organization are fully accounted for and used in compliance with programs or project agreements, that public service employees and other officials adhere to standards of professionalism and ethics, that activities are conducted in accordance with an organization's legislative mandate and adopted policies, that government activities are conducted in the most efficient and effective manner, and that the inefficient use of resources is avoided.

In short, agents of parliament play an invaluable role in our Westminster style of government. As a whole, they oversee the activities of a vast array of public institutions and officials that provide countless services and benefits to Canadians around the world.

It is worth remembering that the federal government is the largest employer in Canada. Its range of activities is as broad as it is vital to the future of our country. Indeed, we have people working in hundreds of locations in all parts of Canada and around the globe. From hospital orderlies to research biologists, from economists to crews on naval ships, from ambassadors to correctional officers, from police officers in remote communities to aircraft pilots, the knowledge and skills demanded of public service employees are as varied as Canada itself. This all takes place in a complex and unpredictable environment.

It is part of our challenge as parliamentarians to ensure that the full range of what the government does for Canadians is run in an accountable and transparent way. It is a big job, and we could not do it without the support of agents of Parliament.

The government has taken steps to strengthen and enhance the role of agents of Parliament in recent years, in particular through the 2006 Federal Accountability Act. The act strengthened the powers of the Auditor General, toughened the office of the ethics commissioner, expanded the reach of the Access to Information Act, and tightened lobbying rules, among other measures. Thanks to such reforms, Canada has one of the most accountable and transparent systems of government in the world. This is something all Canadians can be rightly proud of.

The bill before us today gives us an opportunity to further enhance our accountability regime. It includes measures to help maintain the principle of merit and non-partisanship in the offices of agents of Parliament. For example, it would require every person who applies for a position in the office of an agent of Parliament to make a declaration with respect to past engagements in political partisan positions. Specifically, this declaration would state whether in the 10 years before applying for that position the person had occupied certain specific politically partisan positions. The declaration would indicate the nature of any such position as well as the period of time during which the person occupied it.

The bill would also require every person who works in the office of an agent of Parliament and who intends to occupy a politically partisan position while holding the position in that office to provide a written declaration of their intention to do so. The declaration would indicate the nature of the politically partisan position as well as the period of time during which the person intends to occupy it.

In addition, the bill would require persons who work in these offices to provide a written undertaking that they will conduct themselves in a non-partisan manner in fulfilling the official duties and responsibilities of their positions.

This bill would help to ensure that we continue to benefit from a system of government that is based on non-partisanship, an essential element of both a professional public administration and a responsible democratic government. It is for this reason that I urge all members to join me in supporting this legislation.

Supporting Non-Partisan Agents of Parliament Act
Private Members' Business

October 9th, 2014 / 5:35 p.m.
See context

NDP

Craig Scott Toronto—Danforth, ON

Mr. Speaker, I was hoping to be able rise to say that the previous speaker had persuaded me, but unfortunately he has not, and I will be opposing the bill.

I would like to start with a frame of reference that situates Bill C-520 within the whole question of the democratic functioning of this Parliament. I have four main points before I get to what are the specific problems with the bill in my view.

The first thing is that we cannot forget how central parliamentary officers—we often say parliamentary agents—have become to the functioning of this institution, but the House of Commons in particular. One only has to note the Auditor General, the Chief Electoral Officer, the Privacy Commissioner, the Information Commissioner as being among the officers to know how incredibly important their roles are.

It also speaks to why the leader of the official opposition, in a bill the Conservatives voted against, would have wanted to elevate the position of the Parliamentary Budget Officer to that of an officer of Parliament, as well.

Why am I mentioning this? The way in which our system has evolved, the incredible degree of influence, if not direct control, that the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister's Office, to an extent ministers have in the way in which this very legislative institution functions makes it all the more important that there are other avenues of accountability than the traditional ones that Parliament, the House of Commons, relied on for centuries.

That is why it is so important that the parliamentary officers have evolved in the way they have. Without the annual report of each of these officers, without the role of the Auditor General, we would be a much poorer institution. I believe most members across the way would agree with that.

However, my concern is that, directly or indirectly—and I honestly fear, despite my respect for my colleague who is sponsoring this, it is more directly than indirectly—this amounts to an attempt to almost intimidate, if not undermine, those institutions. If that at all is either the intent or unintentionally the result, then I think this is a huge problem from a democratic perspective.

The second point is that this is a private member's bill, among so many that we have seen. I am not going to guess whether it is one of the many examples we have seen of private member's bills that are, in effect, government bills. I am going to assume it is a pure private member's bill.

However, the concern is that we have no charter compliance mechanism in the House or in legislation for private member's bills. The only thing that might happen is that the subcommittee of the procedure and House affairs committee may actually, on occasion, look at the charter issue as being relevant to votability but, frankly, I do not think that happens.

The Minister of Justice's duty to vet, supposedly vet, the compliance of legislation being tabled in the House is limited to government bills and it does not include private member's bills.

Now, my colleague may well have sought advice from the law clerk, or others, about the compatibility with the charter of this legislation. However, the fact is that it is before us, with me at least having serious concerns about whether or not the questions around how it affects freedom of expression, because there is forced expression here, and how it affects discrimination or arbitrary treatment of one sector of public servants versus other sectors of public servants, how whether or not that actually does implicate the charter.

It may well be that, if the case were made that parliamentary officers are very different institutions from government departments and, therefore, their staff must somehow be subject to this new regime and others must not, if that case were really well made, then it might be saveable under section 1.

The fact is that I have not seen that analysis and I do not think it was even looked at in any serious way, if at all, by the committee.

The third thing is, unfortunately, I think this reveals, yet again, the general weakness of our legislative process when it comes to the work of committees, especially, in majority government situations.

I believe the bill is fact challenged. There has been no sign at all of a problem of partisanship of the staff, let alone of the parliamentary officers. Therefore, there is this issue of a solution in search of a problem.

If I am not mistaken, and I can be corrected on this, the committee did not hear from a single witness to support the bill.

Basically what we heard was all kinds of evidence, external and in the committee, about why this was unnecessary and potentially harmful. The harm includes confusion with existing regimes, and the broader harm of whether this in fact would act as a form of intimidation of either the agents of Parliament themselves or their staff.

Therefore, in my view the committee ultimately did not do its job, because, at a minimum, it should not be bringing this bill back unless there are very clear reasons that it should support it. Apart from collegiality with the sponsor, which I can understand as one motivation, there almost seems to be no reason the committee should not have basically killed the bill.

The fourth and final point is the democratic functioning point. I think I was a bit generous earlier and I will stay that way: I am going to assume that this bill is the pure emanation of the priorities of my colleague.

Nonetheless, private member's bills have often been used as extensions of the government's agenda ever since I arrived almost three years ago. I believe this to be an abuse, at least to the extent that they are not then subject to the kinds of scrutiny and caveats that government bills are. They get to committee in a very short period—two hours—and they are not subject to charter review, as I already suggested.

I still remember almost being floored two weeks ago when a Conservative member of Parliament whose private member's bill was before us stood up and had as his very first words something of the following sort: “When I first saw this bill, I didn't think I liked it.” However, gradually he read the bill and he began to decide that he could support it.

It was the first clear admission I have ever seen in the House of a member saying he had been given a bill.

I am not saying at all that this is the case here, but I wanted to put this in the context of the frailties of our system when it comes to private members' bills.

Why can I not support the bill? My colleague has just adequately summarized three main points.

First, it is a problem in search of a solution. There has never been a proven or recorded incident of a conflict of interest or perceived conflict of interest involving partisanship. No evidence whatsoever was brought forward in committee.

Second, it duplicates already-existing provisions that were adequately outlined earlier by my colleague, especially in part 7 of the Public Service Employment Act and relevant codes of conduct for at least two of the parliamentary officers' staff. At minimum, there is going to be this overlap-duplication-confusion issue with respect to how the two regimes apply. There is no mechanism in the bill for resolving that.

Even if I left it at an untidy piece of legislation, that would be a reason to vote against it, but the fact of the matter is that it is redundant, because the question of the admissibility of civil servants engaging in political activity is already covered in the rules of employment for those public servants. What it really amounts to is singling out with a very heavy-handed regime public servants of a certain kind: those who work for officers of Parliament.

This brings me back to my concern, the third problem with the bill, which is that there has been no analysis of charter rights and whether this could be upheld under section 1. The only way it could be upheld is if they made a really strong case that these civil servants are in a position that is different from that of all other civil servants, and I do not think we have come close to seeing that argument.

The fourth point is that whether it is intended this way or not by my colleague, it is turned into a Conservative talking point tool, in order not actually to seriously pursue transparency but to actually attack or undermine the offices of the agents of Parliament because of the central premise that there is a problem with partisanship. Why would there be a need for this bill unless there was a problem of partisanship?

I do believe that some of my colleagues on the other side believe there is a problem. They certainly did not prove it.

In that optic, despite a fairly fierce resistance from the NDP in committee and two amendments, this bill is not worthy of our support despite those amendments.

Supporting Non-Partisan Agents of Parliament Act
Private Members' Business

February 10th, 2014 / 11:05 a.m.
See context

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux Winnipeg North, MB

Mr. Speaker, it is with pleasure that I rise to speak to Bill C-520 this morning.

I find it most interesting that we have a Conservative member introducing legislation on issues surrounding oaths, if I can put it that way, that would have our commissioners or agents of Parliament be more transparent. We see that coming from the Conservatives. If there is a need for us to bring in legislation, I suggest that the member might want to consider legislation that would demonstrate more respect for those same official parliamentary agents that the government tends to want to attack. That is something I will focus some attention on in my comments today because Elections Canada and the Chief Electoral Officer are under attack by the Conservative majority government.

On the one hand we have a bill that is trying to say we should have the Chief Electoral Officer proclaim himself or herself as a completely neutral body that would not be politically engaged, in essence, attacking the integrity of our agents of Parliament. I do not see the merit in this bill and why there is the need for it. What offends me is the fact that it is coming today, at a time when we have the majority Conservative government bringing in time allocation on a piece of legislation that is going to have a profound negative impact overall on elections in Canada.

I would like to emphasize the degree to which I am making reference to this. Last week, I was in the procedures and House affairs committee. We had the Chief Electoral Officer, Mr. Mayrand, there. It was interesting to sit in my position, opposite the government, and watch the government verbally attack the Chief Electoral Officer. I found it interesting to compare that to the general behaviour of the government toward Elections Canada. It is consistent. It feels that it has the right to intimidate Elections Canada, which is an agent of this Parliament. That is something that Bill C-520 is trying to deal with, but in a reverse way.

On the one hand, in this legislation we have the Chief Electoral Officer, in an apolitical fashion, trying to improve the quality of our elections. The Chief Electoral Officer has brought forward ideas on how that could be done. For example, with the robocalls incident, Elections Canada brought forward recommendations on how that could be dealt with. Instead of demonstrating respect for Elections Canada, the government did the absolute opposite. It not only did not listen to what Elections Canada, an agent of Parliament, had to say, it changed the legislation to make it even more difficult for Elections Canada to be effective in regard to the Chief—

Supporting Non-Partisan Agents of Parliament Act
Private Members' Business

February 10th, 2014 / 11:05 a.m.
See context

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux Winnipeg North, MB

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate your comments.

I can appreciate why the Conservative member would be sensitive in terms of what is being said, which is to know exactly what Bill C-520 is proposing to do. It is talking about the parliamentary agents of this House. It is challenging those agents in a way that speaks to the integrity of those offices.

On the one hand the government is trying to say that it wants more integrity in its offices, in a backhanded way, by bringing in this legislation. On the other hand we have a government that demonstrates a lack of respect for those very agents that this legislation is trying to deal with. That is true. In order to demonstrate that truth, I am using a very specific example, that being Elections Canada, which is a topical issue today.

The member who stood on a point of order said the Conservatives are interested in hearing what I have to say about the elections act that they have introduced. That is not true either. They brought in time allocation to prevent members from being able to speak on that piece of legislation. It is being forced through after only a couple of days of debate, which is somewhat shameful in itself.

Before the interruption, I was suggesting to the House that we have to have confidence and faith in our agents of Parliament and we should be able to demonstrate that. The bill that is being proposed by the member is an underhanded way of suggesting that there is something wrong with our current agents of Parliament. That is not the case.

We in the Liberal Party, and I also suspect members of the New Democratic Party, have faith in our institutions, in our agents of Parliament. We look to the government to demonstrate more respect for those offices.

I was at the meeting where reference was made to the Chief Electoral Officer and saw first-hand how the Conservative government treats the independent office of Elections Canada, something Canadians have seen indirectly through media reports. The government needs to demonstrate a whole lot more goodwill. The way to do that is by ensuring that the agents are part of the process and that respect is demonstrated toward them. How does one do that? When election laws are changed, there is a responsibility to work with our parliamentary agents, in this case the Chief Electoral Officer. There is a responsibility to listen to what he or she has to say about election laws. That is something the government did not do; it did not have any form of consultation.

Therefore, when we look at Bill C-520, what the government is doing, through a backbench member of Parliament, is demonstrating a lack of respect for the positions we have that are important to all of Canada, whether that is the Chief Electoral Officer, the Auditor General, the Commissioner of Official Languages, the Privacy Commissioner, the Information Commissioner, the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, the Commissioner of Lobbying, or the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, all of whom play a critical role in the functioning of our democracy in Canada. We challenge the government to demonstrate more respect for those offices.

Supporting Non-Partisan Agents of Parliament Act
Private Members' Business

February 10th, 2014 / 11:10 a.m.
See context

Conservative

Bev Shipley Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have this opportunity to rise in support of Bill C-520, an act supporting non-partisan agents of Parliament.

The principle of the political impartiality of the public service, agents and officers of Parliament, is a fundamental element of our system of government and ensures that Canadians and parliamentarians benefit from the non-partisan delivery of services.

Agents of Parliament and their employees are given the important mandate to perform non-partisan duties in Parliament. The public has a right to know whether or not the agents, or those who work in their offices, have engaged in political activities.

The bill before us will help protect the institution of Parliament and bring more transparency and accountability into our political process. Bill C-520 is consistent with our government's long-standing commitment to increasing accountability and transparency, which is why our government is pleased to support it.

The bill provides that anyone applying to work in the office of an agent of Parliament would be required to disclose partisan political activities dating back 10 years.

Agents of Parliament and those who work in their offices must declare whether they intend to occupy a politically partisan position while continuing to occupy the position of agent of Parliament or work in the office of such an agent. They would also be required to make a written declaration that they will fulfill their duties in a non-partisan manner. The disclosures would be posted online, for transparency.

The bill would also allow any member of the Senate or the House of Commons to request that an agent of Parliament investigate allegations of partisan activity by the agent's staff.

The bill would apply to the Auditor General, the Chief Electoral Officer, the Commissioner of Official Languages, the Privacy Commissioner, the Information Commissioner, the Senate Ethics Officer, the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, the Commissioner of Lobbying, the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, as well as the staff employed under each agent of Parliament.

We know that a high degree of transparency makes government more accountable. That is why we have been working to make more information available to Canadians. By proactively making information available, it becomes accessible to anyone who may be interested, and this allows the public and parliamentarians to hold the government to account.

Allow me to speak to a number of the initiatives that our government has taken toward greater transparency. In April, the President of the Treasury Board unveiled the expenditure database, a searchable online database that for the first time ever consolidates all information on government spending in one place. We are talking about everything from spending on government programs to operational spending on things like personnel and equipment. What this means for Canadians is that they would have a more complete picture of how taxpayer money is spent. We, as parliamentarians, are now better equipped to do our jobs, which is to analyze, assess, and consider government expenditures.

We all know how difficult and time-consuming it can be to go through numerous and complex financial documents to try to get a whole-of-government picture of what is being spent and where. Now, with a few simple clicks, users can find out in one place what every department and agency is spending on items such as transfer payments to provinces.

This is in addition to the measures that our government has already taken to improve financial reporting and support parliamentary scrutiny of estimates and supply.

These measures include the following: one, publishing quarterly financial reports; two, posting financial datasets on the Treasury Board Secretariat website and the open data portal; and, three, making ongoing improvements to the form and content of reports on plans and priorities and departmental performance reports.

Our government believes that being accountable to taxpayers means being transparent about how their money is being spent.

That is why the President of the Treasury Board took steps just this past September to ensure that information disclosed about public service contracts is not only accessible but easy to understand. The new measures ensure that more detailed information is published on contracts for services, such as professional services and management consultant contracts. For example, rather than simply providing a generic description of the awarded contract, such as “management consulting contract”, a more detailed explanation of the type of work and context is now required.

We have been working hard to improve the flow of information through the access to information system. We have made incredibly large and major strides in ensuring that Canadians have access to government information, and we have set records when it comes to their requests. Approximately 6 million pages were released to the public last year. This is a record number and a record to be proud of, quite honestly. The number of requests that the government dealt with increased by 27% as well. That is another record. That is an increase of over 10,000 requests.

We are also more efficient. The turnaround rate for the government is one of the fastest in history. Our government is meeting Canadian expectations on access to information by being faster and by doing more.

The numbers are right there. Thanks to the Conservative government, our government of the day, Canadians are getting more, better, and faster access than ever before. That is what delivering on promises looks like.

We are also opening Government of Canada records. We have taken measures to post online 3 million pages of archived government records that were previously restricted. That is all new. Clearly, our government takes action to promote accountability in government and to ensure that the powers entrusted in all of us by our citizens are being exercised in the public interest.

The bill before us today would continue in that tradition by providing enhanced transparency and accountability for parliamentarians, who must have confidence that the work of agents of Parliament is impartial. We support the intent of this bill. Our government supports it, and I support it.

I thank the member for his presentation of this bill for our consideration, to ensure that nothing in this bill will diminish the effectiveness of the tools already in place to protect the impartiality of the public service.

Supporting Non-Partisan Agents of Parliament Act
Private Members' Business

February 10th, 2014 / 11:20 a.m.
See context

NDP

Charlie Angus Timmins—James Bay, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is a great honour to speak in this chamber, representing the people of Timmins—James Bay.

I am a strong believer in the Westminster system of government. I believe that it is a good system of government and that it could be one of the best in the world. However, we are seeing a continual undermining of the Westminster tradition by the current Conservative government.

Bill C-520 is called an act to support the non-partisan officers of Parliament, but anybody back home knows that in the Orwellian language of the current Conservative government, the opposite is involved.

In listening to the Conservatives here this morning, we have heard them talk about accountability and transparency. What they mean is accountability for everybody else and transparency for everybody else but secrecy for them and loopholes for their friends.

The bill is brought forward by the member for York Centre, who is now famous for his attempt to turn the most historic and sacred site of Judaism into a photo op for his re-election. Here is a man who is telling us it is all about making sure the systems of Parliament are able to do their job. However, it means that this backbencher would set up a system where the people whose job it is to investigate Parliament would now be investigated, not by Parliament but by the members of the governing party. There is a provision in the bill that would allow any backbench Conservative or any senator to demand an investigation of the Auditor General or the Lobbying Commissioner.

It is interesting that the Lobbying Commissioner has no power to investigate Conservative senators. It does not matter how many junkets they fly on, how many corporate boards they sit on, or how many times big oil takes average Conservative senators out to Hy's Steakhouse and wines and dines them. The Lobbying Commissioner has no ability to investigate a senator; a senator is protected. However, a senator would be able to demand an investigation of the Lobbying Commissioner. That is the intent of the bill.

The Ethics Commissioner has no ability to investigate whether Nigel Wright and Mike Duffy were involved in an illegal $90,000 payout, which is now being investigated by the RCMP. Why? It is because the Ethics Commissioner has no ability to touch Mike Duffy. However, with the proposed legislation, Mike Duffy could have demanded an investigation of the Ethics Commissioner.

Members might not realize it, but over in the supposed upper chamber, they actually do have an Ethics Commissioner. She is probably the quietest person in Ottawa, as she actually needs permission from her own senators to investigate. Therefore, if we are looking at the involvement of senators Tkachuk, LeBreton, Stewart Olsen, and Gerstein in this illegal cover-up, well, we cannot ask the Ethics Commissioner over in the Senate to investigate whether or not all those key people in the Conservative Party were involved in illegal activities, because she actually needs their permission to investigate. She has to beg the senators before she is allowed to launch an investigation.

However, Senator Gerstein, the bagman for the Conservative Party, and Senator Tkachuk, who is accused of telling Pamela Wallin to whitewash her calendar, so the RCMP would not find out, would have the power to demand an investigation into anything the ethics officer does. That is the world the Conservative government is bringing us into.

This is now a country where we see a supposedly stand-alone, non-partisan institution like Canada Revenue Agency being put to use investigating charities. Why is it investigating charities? It is because the Conservatives will use the levers of government against any charity that has the nerve to stand up and speak about the petro-state.

We have Canada's spy agency overseen by Chuck Strahl. A cabinet minister who stepped out and became an Enbridge lobbyist got appointed as the head of the spy agency. I guess it is a step up. The last guy the Conservatives had in charge of the spy agency was Arthur Porter. Is he not now hiding out in a Panama jail having been caught for money laundering and issues of gun running and fraud? This is the man who the Prime Minister of this country thought should oversee the spy agency, so I guess Chuck Strahl was a step up.

However, Chuck Strahl is working for Enbridge. Now the spy agency gets its orders from the National Energy Board to spy on Enbridge's enemies. They had a secure briefing, and the luncheon for the secure briefing with the National Energy Board and Canada's spy agency was actually sponsored and paid for by Enbridge.

This is the kind of insider access we are seeing now, and the government thought there were no problems with that.

Now other officers of Parliament could be investigated. The government could go after the Commissioner of Lobbying.

Let us look at the issue of the Privacy Commissioner. The Privacy Commissioner has an international reputation. She has taken on big data. She has asked for tools to be able to keep up, but the government does not want that. When the government lost the personal data of 500,000 Canadians, what was its response? It sat on it.

If we are to be accountable to Canadians, and if we find out that personal information has been either lost or stolen, the first thing we should do is alert those people, to protect them from identity theft and fraud. It is not so with the Conservative government. Its objective is to protect hapless ministers. It sat on the loss of information for over a month.

The New Democratic Party asked the Privacy Commissioner to investigate other breaches. We found out that over one million Canadians have had their data stolen, hacked, or lost, and of all those cases, only 10% were reported by the government to the commissioner. The Conservatives do not care if personal data is being stolen, because they do not want their ministers to look bad.

The next time the New Democratic Party asks the commissioner to investigate why data is being lost and why senior citizens' financial information may have been stolen under the government's watch, the government would be able to demand an investigation into the officer of Parliament whose job is to protect Canadians, just like what the member from York did and made himself famous.

With respect to access to information, we hear gibberish from the other side about all the data sets that the member for Parry Sound—Muskoka is handing out. The Access to Information Commissioner has talked about ministerial offices becoming black holes of information. She cannot touch the information. When the member for Parry Sound--Muskoka took $50 million in border infrastructure money—money that could have kept guns and drugs out of the country—and spent it on trinkets in his riding, he could say there was no paper trail, because he knew the access to information officer did not have the power to demand the paperwork that we knew was there.

Canada was a world leader in terms of access to information. Canada set the benchmark. Since the Conservatives have taken office, Canada has dropped to 41st place, to 51st place, and now we are at 55th place in the world. Angola and Colombia are further ahead.

What would the government do in response? It would make it possible to demand an investigation into the access to information commissioner should he or she put any heat on a government agency.

I could go on about Elections Canada. The government did not consult with Elections Canada. The Conservative government is a government of serial cheaters. Who did it hear from? The government heard from all the Conservative members who are under investigation for electoral crimes and misdemeanours, and they are the ones who have decided that the electoral officer will no longer be allowed anywhere near the ice to protect Canadians.

At the end of the day, this legislation is about undermining the fundamental pillars that support democratic accountability in this country. This legislation would allow backbenchers and senators to protect their own interests by attacking the officers whose job is to stand up for Canadians, to ensure accountability, to ensure transparency, and to stop the insiders, the well-heeled, and the big boys sitting in the back room from misrepresenting and undermining democracy in this country.

We in the NDP will be opposing this legislation.

Supporting Non-Partisan Agents of Parliament Act
Private Members' Business

February 10th, 2014 / 11:30 a.m.
See context

Conservative

Rick Norlock Northumberland—Quinte West, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is indeed a pleasure today to speak to Bill C-520.

The bill is in line with other measures our government has brought forward to eliminate conflict of interest and to strengthen transparency and accountability in Canada's public institutions. I believe that everyone who thinks as I do, which is that we must always fight to strengthen and protect our parliamentary democracy, should be in favour of it.

Allow me a few moments to go over the content of this bill.

Bill C-520 would require every person who applies for a job in the office of an agent of Parliament to make a declaration stating whether in the last 10 years before applying for that job he or she had occupied specific political partisan positions.

The bill would also require anyone who works in such an office, as well as the agents of Parliament themselves, to make a declaration if they intend to occupy a politically partisan position while continuing to be an agent of Parliament or to work in such an office. The bill would also require that these declarations be posted on a website of the office of the agent of Parliament in question. In addition, the bill would require an agent of Parliament and those who work for him to provide a written undertaking that they will conduct themselves in a non-partisan manner in fulfilling their official duties.

This a good bill, because it would uphold Canada's most noble parliamentary traditions. It proposes to avoid conflicts of interest that are likely to arise or would be perceived to have arisen between partisan activities and the official duties and responsibilities of an agent of Parliament or his or her staff. It would achieve this by supplementing all other applicable, relevant laws that seek to ensure the same thing, and not by detracting from or replacing these other laws.

Non-partisanship is a well-recognized principle in our modern public service and is expected of all public servants. Agents of Parliament, however, play a particularly important role in government oversight. These agents and their staff must work in a visibly non-partisan way to maintain the confidence of parliamentarians and Canadians, so it is even more important that these public servants be seen as not having any political affiliations. To this end, the public service disclosure provisions in the bill are meant to provide enhanced transparency and accountability.

Let me add that the values expressed in this bill are consistent with the focus on transparency and accountability we have committed to since being elected to office in 2006. As members will remember, the first thing we did upon coming into power was put in place measures to ensure greater accountability and transparency in our public institutions. We introduced the Federal Accountability Act and its accompanying action plan. The act and action plan provide Canadians with assurance that the power entrusted in government officials is being exercised fairly and in the public interest, and they provide for serious consequences in cases of proven wrongdoing. The result was substantial changes to some 45 federal statutes as well as amendments to more than 100 others touching virtually every part of government and beyond.

There are many examples of such measures, but certainly one that affected us directly was the new lobbying regulations that came into force in September 2010. As members know, lobbying is communication by an individual who is paid to communicate with a designated public officer-holder on behalf of a person or organization in relation to the development, introduction, or amendment of a bill, resolution, regulation, policy, or program; the awarding of a grant, contribution or any other financial benefit; and, in the case of a consultant lobbyist, the awarding of any contract or the arranging of a meeting with a public office-holder. The activity is not illegal, but abuses of it are, and such abuses are clearly counter to our democratic values. That is why we brought in legislation to regulate it.

As a result, today, to avoid conflict of interest, the act ensures that parliamentarians and their senior staff are subject to certain prohibitions on lobbying as well to requirements for reporting it. The Lobbying Act has been a good thing for the integrity of Parliament, just as this bill being considered today would be a good thing for the integrity of Parliament.

This bill is also in line with the democratic and professional principles of the broader public service. This is expressed in the “Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector”. The code requires that public servants carry out their duties in accordance with legislation, policies, and directives in a non-partisan, impartial manner. Indeed, agents and employees must sign offers of employment stating that they will abide by the code, and transgressions of the code can result in penalties up to and including dismissal.

Finally, let me add that Bill C-520 is consistent with the commitment to impartiality articulated in Part 7 of the Public Service Employment Act. The act places responsibilities on public servants, deputy heads, and the Public Service Commission to uphold the non-partisan character of the public service. This bill would carry forward the tradition of upholding the finest principles of democratic government in Canada. Its focus on impartiality and the appearance of impartiality in the offices of agents of Parliament would ensure that parliamentarians and Canadians could be confident in the neutrality of the executive and legislative branches of our public service.

To sum up, our government is steadfastly committed to bolstering the political neutrality of the public service. We understand that agents of Parliament and their staff must work in a non-partisan way to maintain the confidence of Canadians and parliamentarians. Our values and ethics code and the provisions of the Public Service Employment Act are helping to protect their impartiality. This bill is designed to supplement and add transparency to the existing rules and regulations.

In economic action plan 2013, we committed to reviewing and updating public service processes and systems to ensure that the public service would continue to serve Canadians well. Bill C-520 is the latest step in this fine Canadian tradition, and I am asking that all members support this bill and all it stands for.

Supporting Non-Partisan Agents of Parliament Act
Private Members' Business

February 10th, 2014 / 11:40 a.m.
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Conservative

Patricia Davidson Sarnia—Lambton, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to give my support to Bill C-520, An Act supporting non-partisan agents of Parliament. I would like to thank my colleague, the member for York Centre, for introducing this private member's bill.

The purpose of this bill is to help ensure that conflicts of interest do not compromise the trust Canadians have in their parliamentary institutions or prevent these institutions from functioning as they were meant to. In other words, the bill is meant to ensure a non-partisan public service.

A non-partisan public service is one in which appointments are based on merit and are free of influential political influence. It is one in which public servants perform their duties, and are seen to perform their duties, in a politically impartial manner.

To this end, Bill C-520 is designed to prevent conflicts of interest that may arise or are perceived to arise between partisan activities and the official duties and responsibilities of an agent of Parliament or any person who works for an agent of Parliament.

Specifically, the bill would require every person who applies for a position in the office of an agent of Parliament to make a declaration with respect to past engagement in politically partisan positions. This declaration would state whether, in the 10 years before applying for that position, the person had occupied certain specified politically partisan positions.

In the case of persons who work in the office of an agent of Parliament and the agents themselves, a declaration would state whether they intend to occupy a politically partisan position while continuing to occupy the position of agent of Parliament or to work in the office of such an agent. The declarations would be posted on the website of the office of the relevant agent of Parliament.

In addition, the bill would require an agent of Parliament and the persons who work in his or her office to provide a written undertaking that they will conduct themselves in a non-partisan manner in fulfilling the official duties and responsibilities of their positions. What is more, the bill would provide for the examination of alleged partisan conduct.

Non-partisanship is certainly expected of all public servants, but agents of Parliament play a particularly vital role in government oversight. Agents of Parliament, such as the Auditor General, the Commissioner of Official Languages, and the Information Commissioner are a unique group of independent, statutory officers who serve to scrutinize the activity of government. They report directly to Parliament rather than to the government or an individual minister, and as such, they exist to serve Parliament in relation to Parliament's oversight role. Agents normally produce a report to Parliament to account for their own activities, and their institutional heads are typically appointed through special resolutions of the House of Commons and the Senate.

Given the close relationship between agents of Parliament and their employees with parliamentarians, it is critical that in carrying out their duties, they are independent of political affiliation. Bill C-520 seeks to ensure that independence. Indeed, the political impartiality of the public service is one of the foundation stones of our system of democracy. It is a time-honoured tradition that has served us well for some 100 years.

Today, almost a century later, Canadians expect a lot of their public service. They expect the government to pursue policies and programs that take into account and are responsive to public priorities. They expect the government to operate in an open, transparent, and accountable manner.

Through legislation, we strengthened the powers of the Auditor General, toughened the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, reformed political party financing, dramatically tightened lobbying rules, and beefed up auditing and accountability within government departments. As a result, Canada now has one of the most accountable and transparent systems of governance in the entire world, and this is something Canadians are rightly proud of.

As part of this regime, the values and ethics code and the provisions in the Public Service Employment Act protect the impartiality of the public service and agents of Parliament.

However, accountability and transparency in public institutions are things we can never take for granted.

That is why Bill C-520 is so important. It would add transparency to the existing regime. It would not only continue to toughen rules and uphold our culture of accountability, but it would also highlight our government's ongoing commitment to ensure that these values continue into the future.

In addition, Bill C-520 would be consistent with our commitment in budget 2013 to review and update public services processes and systems to ensure that the public service continues to serve Canadians well.

It would be consistent with the government's focus on transparency and accountability in the management of public assets, and it would also reflect the value of public service impartiality.

Our government fully supports the bill's intent to augment the existing regime in ensuring that agents of Parliament and their employees do not engage in political activities that conflict with, or are seen to conflict with, their official duties and conduct.

We believe it would be in line with the values that have served this country well in the past, and would position the public service to serve Canadians well in the future.

We will support the bill and call upon parliamentarians to join with us to ensure that Canadians have the government they need to succeed in a competitive world.

Supporting Non-Partisan Agents of Parliament Act
Private Members' Business

February 10th, 2014 / 11:45 a.m.
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Conservative

Mark Adler York Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, I want to first of all thank my colleagues from the government side for their support of my private member's bill, Bill C-520, An Act supporting non-partisan agents of Parliament.

I was a bit taken aback by the comments by the member for Timmins—James Bay. This is a member of Parliament who talked about George Orwell. Orwell would be very proud today to have heard the speech by the member for Timmins—James Bay. If it were not for transparency, we would not know that the member was held in violation of the Canada Elections Act in 2008 for keeping his election bank account open through the 2011 election, a clear violation of elections law.

If it were not for transparency, we also would not know that he is a member of Parliament who went to his constituents before the 2011 election and said he would be supporting the long gun registry, but when he was elected and came to Parliament and had the chance to vote on it, he voted to keep the long gun registry. I suspect that his constituents will have time to deal with him in the forthcoming year.

It is with great pride that I rise today to respond to a number of the remarks that have been made and to ask for the support of the House in consideration of Bill C-520. As many members from the government have said, this bill is another step in our government's proposal for creating more transparency and more accountability within the machinery of government, within the public administration.

It began in 2006 with the Federal Accountability Act. As a government, we also made deputy ministers accounting officers, which means they have to go before parliamentary committees and account for the spending in their departments. We brought in the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act, which made it easier for public employees to disclose wrongdoing. It was our government that brought forward the Conflict of Interest Act and created the offices of the lobbying and ethics commissioners. We have extended access to information, making record numbers of documents available to the public, to the media, and to members of Parliament.

What is consistent, however, among all of these is that the opposition voted against every single one of them, which just goes to prove that accountability and transparency are of no interest to the opposition members. We, however, differ. We believe that the public has a right to know and that we, as a government, have an obligation to make as much known, as much public, and as much transparent as possible. That is why people sent us here as the majority government, and we are fulfilling the wishes of the Canadian people in making more transparent and more accountability available to them.

We will not be deterred from that task the public has given us. We are opening up the windows of government. We are letting fresh air in. We have to ask why is the opposition saying transparency and accountability is bad? That is a subject that hopefully will come up during committee hearings, when they can more fully answer, but from my perspective, transparency and accountability are great things. Bill C-520 makes a wonderful effort to move the ball forward in making government more accountable and more transparent.

I will not go into the details of the various sections of the bill. I see I have one more minute left to speak. We as a government, and I as a member of the governing party, with the support of my colleagues on the governing side and we hope with as many members of the opposition side as we can muster, that the opposition can see fit to release themselves from the shackles of their own partisanship and vote with us, to open the windows, because I know in their heart of hearts they believe in transparency and accountability.

Louis Brandeis said that nothing disinfects like sunlight. It is so important that we open those windows and let the light in, so that we can be more transparent and more accountable to the Canadian people.

Supporting Non-Partisan Agents of Parliament Act
Private Members' Business

November 20th, 2013 / 6:25 p.m.
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Conservative

Mark Adler York Centre, ON

moved that Bill C-520, an act supporting non-partisan agents of Parliament, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Mr. Speaker, it is my great honour to rise today, in this House, to speak to my private member's bill, Bill C-520, an act supporting non-partisan agents of Parliament.

I am certain most would agree that non-partisanship is an essential element of both a professional public administration and a responsible democratic government. A non-partisan public service is one where appointments are based upon merit and free of political influence and where public servants perform their duties and are seen to perform their duties in a politically impartial manner.

Our government values this vital feature of our Westminster style of democratic government, and we are committed to safeguarding the principle of political impartiality of the public service, agents of Parliament and officers of Parliament.

Supporting Non-Partisan Agents of Parliament Act
Private Members' Business

November 20th, 2013 / 6:25 p.m.
See context

Conservative

Mark Adler York Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, I stand in the House to represent the wishes of my constituents. When I go through the streets of York Centre and knock on doors and listen carefully to their ideas and concerns, what I am hearing on the doorstep is that Canadians want a strong economy, low taxes, safe streets and transparent government. That is what my constituents expect from me and from this Conservative government. That is why I have tabled this bill before us at this time.

I submit that the proposed legislation will supplement and add transparency to the regime governing political activities of public servants. I believe all members of the House will agree that, while non-partisanship is expected of all public servants, agents of Parliament play a particularly vital role in government oversight.

Agents of Parliament such as the Auditor General, the Commissioner of Official Languages and the Information Commissioner are a unique group of independent statutory officers who serve to scrutinize the activity of government.

They report directly to Parliament rather than to government or to an individual minister and so exist to serve Parliament in relation to Parliament's oversight role. This is extremely critical to the balance and fairness of our institutions.

Agents normally produce a report to Parliament to account for their own activities, and their institutional heads are typically appointed through special resolutions of the House of Commons and the Senate.

I submit that, given the close relationship of agents of Parliament and their employees with parliamentarians, it is critical that in carrying out their duties they be independent of any political affiliation.

Moreover, given their high level of political visibility, I believe it is crucial that agents and their staff work in a non-partisan way to maintain the confidence of parliamentarians and Canadians.

The elected officials and members of the House all know the difference between saying something innocuous and accidentally winding up on the front page of The Globe and Mail. Here in the House, perhaps more than anywhere else in Canada, words matter.

Words matter in reports as well. That is why neutrality in the office of an agent of Parliament is so critical to ensuring Canadians receive information as clear and as true as they expect.

At every step of the process in preparing a report or dealing with a case, from the selection of what to study, to the research, to the basic wording, neutrality and independence must be maintained. I believe, and I am sure we all would agree here, that this subconsciously would be challenging for former partisans.

Would the opposition trust a report issued out of an office staffed by former professional Conservative partisans? I do not believe so and it is understandable that they might not. The same goes for us on this side of the House. We would be suspicious of a report prepared by NDP partisans.

That is why the bill benefits all parliamentarians and all Canadians. It shines a light on potential conflicts of interest in the preparation of reports. It ensures that neutrality and even-handedness are being respected. It respects the process and ensures that these offices are being operated and populated as intended.

Politics is a tough business. It is like a tug-of-war that never ends. It is important that the referees be above the fray. I believe this is the case currently and would merely like to enshrine this expectation through disclosure.

With that goal in mind, the bill would require every person who applies for a position in the office of an agent of Parliament to make a declaration with respect to past engagement in politically partisan positions.

In particular, this declaration would state whether, in the 10-year period before applying for that position, the person occupied certain specified politically partisan positions.

The bill also prescribes a declaration in the case of persons who work in the office of an agent of Parliament and the agents themselves. Such a declaration would state whether these persons intend to occupy a politically partisan position while continuing to occupy the position of agent of Parliament or work in the office of such an agent.

To promote even more transparency, the declarations would be posted on the website of the office of the relevant agent of Parliament.

In addition, the bill would require an agent of Parliament and the persons who work in his or her office to provide a written undertaking that they will conduct themselves in a non-partisan manner in fulfilling the official duties and responsibilities of their positions. The bill also provides for the examination of alleged partisan conduct. These provisions would provide enhanced transparency and accountability for parliamentarians, who must have confidence that the work of agents of Parliament is impartial.

As the House knows, accountability and transparency in Canada's public and democratic institutions are the hallmarks of our Conservative government. That was part of our government's promise to Canadians when we were first elected in 2006, and it is why one of the first things we did on coming into power was bring in the Federal Accountability Act and its accompanying action plan. We committed, and we delivered. The act, along with its companion action plan, holds everyone accountable, from the Prime Minister to parliamentarians, from public sector employees to recipients of government funding.

Let me give the House a few examples. We designated deputy ministers accounting officers who must appear before the parliamentary committees to be accountable for the management of their departments. We did this for the simple reason that organizations paid for with public money should be open to public scrutiny.

We also introduced measures to strengthen ethical conduct in the public service. Through the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act, we empowered public service employees and Canadians to honestly and openly report government wrongdoing without fear of reprisal. We brought in reforms to the Lobbying Act and its regulations to respond to Canadians' desire for more transparency and ethical behaviour in lobbying activities. We also brought into force the Conflict of Interest Act and named a conflict of interest and ethics commissioner so that Canadians would have the opportunity to voice their concerns about unethical behaviour in government and hold violators accountable. To help give these accountability measures teeth, we introduced new criminal penalties and sanctions for anyone who commits fraud against the Crown.

Canadians also told us loud and clear that they wanted a government that is more open and transparent.

As former U.S. Supreme Justice Louis Brandeis once said, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Indeed, the Federal Accountability Act delivered, shining a light on the operations of the government. It has given Canadians broader and better access to more information from public organizations than ever before. It has extended the Access to Information Act to cover the Canadian Wheat Board, five foundations, five agents of Parliament and most crown corporations and their wholly owned subsidiaries.

The reforms contained in this act are in a direct line of descent from the political reforms that first brought responsible government to this country. We can show that our changes in governance are working.

Let us take a look at access to information, an area where the government is setting records here in Canada. In 2012, the Conservative government released a record number of materials through access to information requests. Six million pages were released to the public last year. That is not all. The number of requests processed increased by 27%. That is 10,000 more requests over the previous year, which set a new record.

One could be forgiven for thinking that these record numbers would have bogged the government down or slowed down turnaround times. I am happy to say that they did not. In fact, this year, the government had one of its fastest turnaround rates on record. More requests were filled and more materials were released, and it was all done more quickly and efficiently.

When Canadians say that they want openness and accountability, they expect results. These numbers do not lie. Thanks to this Conservative government, Canadians are getting more, better, and faster access than ever before. That is just one concrete example of how the government is delivering on its promises to Canadians and just one example of how the accountability act has opened up the doors of government to the public.

The bill I bring before the House today continues our efforts to make our system of government even better. Our government fully supports the bill's intent to augment and supplement the existing regime in ensuring that agents of Parliament and their employees do not engage in political activities that conflict or are seen to conflict with their official duties and conduct. I look forward to its examination in committee to further discuss its effectiveness and its relationship to the tools already in place to protect the impartiality of the public service.

I encourage all members of the House to support this bill. I hope my colleagues across the aisle see this as a way of protecting all of our rights as parliamentarians and as a means of ensuring that Canadians get the most fair and unbiased information possible, as they expect. I believe that we can all agree that this is an important step in ensuring transparency and accountability in the House.

Supporting Non-Partisan Agents of Parliament Act
Private Members' Business

November 20th, 2013 / 6:35 p.m.
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NDP

Robert Aubin Trois-Rivières, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my colleague from York Centre for his remarks. I admit that had I not known his political affiliation, I probably would have shed a tear.

However, once you know the context, it is practically absurd. When the government says that more pages have been made public under the Access to Information Act, it is probably because this government is the most secretive government ever and this is the only way to get even a shred of information.

I would like to ask the hon. member a question about his very specific bill. I think that transparency should be a two-way street.

How is it that his bill allows any senator's office to request an investigation into an agent of Parliament, while agents of Parliament cannot request the same kind of investigation into the Senate?