House of Commons Hansard #108 of the 36th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was hrdc.

Topics

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1:10 p.m.

Reform

Ken Epp Elk Island, AB

Mr. Speaker, it is interesting how the government, when faced with a problem, comes up with some sort of solution that can give the appearance of solving it without ever exposing any wrongdoing.

The Prime Minister has said over and over that his is a fine government that is totally free of scandal. The fact is that under Mr. Mulroney as prime minister these ministers would have been gone. This government does not even have the standards of the Mulroney Tories when it comes to ethics and accountability despite the promise in the 1993 election campaign.

With respect to dividing this into three parts, a pie can be cut it into many pieces and each piece still has the same ingredients. If the solution is to divide HRDC into three or more new departments, my question would immediately be: What will be the changes in the components of those new departments? What will be the changes in the procedures for accountability? What will be the changes in transparency? Will these new departments actually give out information more freely than the current department which does it only when we basically sit on it? What will be the change? If that change can be produced in three new departments individually, why can it not be changed in the department as it is now?

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1:15 p.m.

Reform

Diane Ablonczy Calgary—Nose Hill, AB

Mr. Speaker, I should like to ask my colleague a simple question with respect to the grants and contributions in the Prime Minister's riding.

My colleague will know that the amount of grants in the Prime Minister's riding alone is greater than those grants given to Manitoba, greater than anything given to Saskatchewan and greater than anything given to Alberta. In other words, one riding got more than any of those provinces. Would my colleague like to comment on that?

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1:15 p.m.

Reform

Ken Epp Elk Island, AB

Mr. Speaker, I am delighted to comment on that because it is a really sore point with me. I wrote a column in our local newspapers recently in which I talked about health care. I said that the problem would not be fixed nationally until we had a government in Ottawa that was more interested in buying MRI machines than in building a fountain in Shawinigan. That is exactly what I wrote in my column. That is the essence of the situation. Far too many, not all, of the grants and contributions are simply about politics.

I speak from memory and could be corrected, but I think recently the Prime Minister travelled to Cape Breton Island to make a big announcement about money the federal government was pouring into the area. If it is not about politics why did the Prime Minister have to go?

I had the same situation in my riding in terms of the infrastructure program. If the money was coming to my riding from taxpayers via the federal government, why do they not just get the cheque? It was required that the neighbouring minister, one of the two Alberta Liberals, make a trip into my riding to deliver the cheque. That is about politics. That is what is wrong about it. When these things are motivated by politics they get totally skewed.

I remember also in Prince Edward Island the person receiving the grant made a statement: “Mr. Prime Minister, you were here when we needed you and I can assure you at the next election we will be there for you”. That is on the public record.

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1:15 p.m.

Reform

Gary Lunn Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to the Canadian Alliance supply day motion which calls for the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry into the operations of the Department of Human Resources Development. This is all about accountability. It is about holding ministers and the Government of Canada accountable.

We have seen this story on the front page of newspapers since last summer. Canadian people are becoming increasingly frustrated. That is becoming evidently clear. They are absolutely beyond belief as to what has gone on.

We see the stories about the various grants. The Prime Minister's own riding receives more money in grants and contributions than any of the prairie provinces. There has to be something wrong. It is all about politics.

I am speaking on behalf of the residents of Saanich—Gulf Islands, but I think it goes much further than that and includes all Canadians. For months and months and months the government's only answer has been to deny, deny, deny. It absolutely refuses to accept that there is anything wrong.

For days we sat in the House of Commons and listened to the Prime Minister tell Canadians that $149 or $650 were missing when $1 billion were unaccounted for. It has cost, I would guess, hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, as the government tries to spin the issue and attach projects to the money that has gone askew.

We learned that something in the neighbourhood of 15% of all grant applications did not even have paperwork. They could not even find to whom the cheques went. They were in absolute panic mode trying to find solutions. That is why there has to be an independent inquiry. There needs to be answers.

I read this morning's paper in which the government says that this issue is absolutely exploding out of control once again. It just cannot seem to get control of this department. What is the solution? Its solution has been to deny, deny, deny. Now it seems most interested in creating a soft landing for the current minister.

Nevertheless the Prime Minister stood in the House in 1991 when he was leader of the opposition and said that ministers in his government would be held accountable if there is any boondoggle. There were to be no exceptions. They would be held accountable.

I have been following what has been going on in the House of Commons for the last 20 years. I do not think there has been a prime minister, for as long as I can remember, who has ever defended the indefensible. It is absolutely unbelievable. The Prime Minister will go to any length to protect his own.

What has he done now? The Prime Minister has decided that the best way to try to cover all this up, and that is what is the motivation, is to split the department into three. As one of my colleagues said in the House a few moments ago, if we take a pile of manure and split it into three we still have three piles that stink. This stinks. There is no other word for it. It is absolutely rotten.

The government is arrogant. It laughs. It smirks. It grins. It refuses to answer questions. The minister has been asked questions in the House of Commons by every opposition party, by all four opposition parties. The government laughs. It does not take it seriously.

Throughout the history of Canada, when governments start acting arrogant, refusing to answer questions and thinking they are above it all, there has been one consistent result. The voters throw them out. We watched it with the Tories in 1993 when one of the largest majority governments in the history of Canada was reduced to two seats. Why? It was because it believed it was sitting on a pedestal and did not have to answer to anyone, that it was completely unaccountable. It became arrogant. It forgot about the people who sent it here and whom it was representing. It did not take it seriously.

I am in absolute disbelief that we have a department with billions of dollars in its annual budget and the stuff that goes on is incomprehensible. It is unbelievable how this can go on and the government comes up with a nice fancy little talk about having a six point plan. Its six point plan seems to be deny, deny, deny. That is about the only thing the government seems to come up.

I sat in the House of Commons yesterday during Oral Question Period. When the minister was asked specifically if she knew prior to November 17, she refused to answer. The arrogance is incredible.

It is time that we have an independent inquiry. When four opposition parties of very diverse backgrounds agree 100% that this should happen so that Canadians can have some answers, it is time for it to happen.

Of course we know that government backbenchers will get their marching orders. The Prime Minister will probably stand on a chair in the government lobby tonight at 5.15 p.m. or 5.30 p.m. after the bells have rung and wave his finger at every government backbencher and tell them they know how they have to vote if they want him to sign their nomination papers. A great big club is held over their heads. That is wrong. It is absolutely undemocratic.

I am sure there are members on the opposite side who probably have a lot to offer, as do opposition members, to the governance of the country and the debates, but they have no voice. They do not have a voice, Mr. Speaker. You can look shocked, but you and I both know what really happens in this place. That is what needs to change.

This motion is about Human Resources Development Canada. That is just the tip of the iceberg. As many of my colleagues will say, it is rampant throughout other departments. We can see it in Canadian Heritage in the grants that go out from there. It is absolutely enough to make one's skin crawl, hanging dead rabbits in trees and many grants for other things.

It is about accountability and respect: accountability to the people who sent us here and respecting them. Change needs to be brought to this institution. There is no question that we are less than a year away from an election. The Canadian people will judge the government on what it has not done. It believes it is above everyone else. We need to elect a government which can change that and will be accountable.

I am proud to be a member of parliament with the Canadian Alliance because I truly believe that we can offer the vision and change the country so desperately needs. It will be interesting to listen to the Prime Minister's answers today on the latest revelations in the media that they want to take a pile of manure, split it into three and see if it still stinks. I would suggest that anyone would be able to tell them that they have not gone to the root of problem and have not done anything about solving it.

I encourage every government member to rise above the Prime Minister's finger, do what is right, show that they actually have some guts and principles, and vote in favour of this motion, as they know it needs to happen.

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1:25 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. McClelland)

Before we go into questions and comments, I would note that the use of the term guts in referring to other members of parliament has time and time again been ruled unparliamentary. I just bring that to the attention of all hon. members.

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1:25 p.m.

Reform

Diane Ablonczy Calgary—Nose Hill, AB

Mr. Speaker, I was interested in my colleague's remarks about the credibility of the House and members of the House and how the billion dollar boondoggle and the mess in HRDC have cheapened and diminished that credibility.

The hon. member mentioned the need for all members of parliament to show the Canadian public that this is a serious issue and one which they are determined to deal with in a vigorous manner on behalf of Canadians.

Because the hon. member has now been a member of parliament for a few years, I wonder if he would tell the House his own observations about the power and the influence that could be exerted by members of parliament on behalf of Canadians in a situation like this one if the majority on the government side would but choose to do that.

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1:30 p.m.

Reform

Gary Lunn Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

Mr. Speaker, with reference to your comment, I would quite happily change that to courage. I apologize to all members of the House.

The member is quite right. It gets down to the amount of influence we can have. It does not seem to matter whether we are in committee, in the House of Commons or wherever we are. I have been on committees and have spent countless hours with some members who are now ministers. The former chairman of the fisheries committee is now the Minister of Veterans Affairs.

Those committee reports sit on shelves and collect dust. I doubt if they are ever looked at unless the Prime Minister somehow gets his recommendations planted in those reports. He does not want to be seen as the mouthpiece pushing them. He wants someone else to do it, as we have seen in HRDC.

I have said this often before and it can be summarized in one sentence. One of the biggest problems in this institution is that we go to the polls once every four years or thereabouts to democratically elect a dictator. That is the democracy we have.

We have to change this institution so that there is accountability and respect, so that all members of the House can have meaningful input on the governance of the country. We are democratically elected to represent our constituents.

In some cases the government's own backbenchers have less input than the opposition MPs and we do not have very much. The Prime Minister cannot stand in our lobby and wave his finger in our faces, telling us how to vote or he will not sign our nomination papers. He cannot do that, but he can sure do it on the other side. We can see them walking out of the House after votes, sometimes almost in tears that they had to vote. We have seen it time and time again.

This institution needs to be changed. It is time to elect a government that will bring about meaningful change and show respect for Canadians who have sent us here.

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1:30 p.m.

Reform

Philip Mayfield Cariboo—Chilcotin, BC

Mr. Speaker, I commend the member for his remarks on this subject.

I have also listened to the Liberal members this morning who talked about how the money goes for such things as literacy and rehabilitation. What we are talking about is the misuse of the money. Money may be spent in the constituencies, as the minister has said. Wherever we spend money we can create jobs but can those jobs be sustained. The Liberals talk about the number of jobs that have been created but they have not necessarily been sustained. I regret to talk about constituents who have told me stories of their own employees receiving grants to go into competition with them.

As we talk about this commission and going beyond that to the election, could the member respond by describing the benefits of this $1 billion as it may be usefully used or left in the taxpayers' pockets for them to invest it?

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1:30 p.m.

Reform

Gary Lunn Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

Mr. Speaker, I want to emphasize that I am sure some of the money has gone to legitimate purposes, but very little of it. I do not know the exact numbers.

The Liberals have given one or two examples, that it has gone to some underprivileged people in our society, whom I agree should get government funding. I absolutely support that 100%. We are a caring and compassionate nation and it is an appropriate use of public funds.

What we are opposed to is building fountains in the Prime Minister's riding, the unconscionable grants that are given sometimes under Canadian citizenship, the grants that go into building hotels in the Prime Minister's riding. It is those types of grants across the country. That is what we are opposed to. That is the irresponsible, unacceptable use of taxpayer dollars.

I would favour the select few programs that they have brought up, maybe not under this program but under some other program that has accountability and is not a political slush fund. However it is the other hundreds of millions of dollars that are used for political patronage and to buy votes. That is what we are so vehemently opposed to.

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1:35 p.m.

Liberal

Ted McWhinney Vancouver Quadra, BC

Mr. Speaker, this has been a somewhat barren debate to date. It reminds me of the last several months of questions to the minister in the House. I am reminded of an old fashioned phonograph needle stuck in its place on a turning disk; it is the same sound with the same absence of ideas and the absence of scope ideas. This is regrettable.

I will note as I did in the debate on February 8 that the minister was still discussing Indian affairs and making changes in the federal enacting legislation which rendered, in my view, a much sounder constitutional measure, as late as August last year. She had not been in office very long. She faced a litany of complaints which might better have been addressed to previous ministers and previous governments. I will come back to that in a moment.

I note that the minister has made interim changes which I think are constructive and helpful and are a great credit to her staff for bringing them forward. The accountability of managers is an important principle in business. It should certainly be applied to government operations that are affected with the business interests where government competes in many ways and areas where private enterprise also operates. Another change is disciplinary action, meaning personal accountability of managers where there is mismanagement, fraud or gross incompetence. The creation of a special new audit group is another change. The review of all active files is being done intensively with a checklist of contracts and requests for payment.

I commented on the intellectual poverty of the contribution of the opposition to this debate. Let us go back into history. What is the history of HRDC? I listened with interest to the contributions made by the members of the Progressive Conservative Party. Of course they created HRDC. The Lady Jane Grey of Canadian politics, the queen for six days—remember the hiccup between the Mulroney government and this government—Kim Campbell decided to give trendy new titles to new government ministries. There was a haphazard, hasty grouping and regrouping of departmental portfolios. The department of human resources was created without any real thought of a rational structuring process for the new ministry.

It is a matter of record that the new government elected in October 1993 immediately considered restructuring HRDC. However, it concluded correctly with the economy in the use of time, as we were trying to balance the budget after inheriting the $42.8 billion deficit from the Mulroney government, that our priority was to get fiscal integrity back. It was decided that it would not be a good expenditure of government time to attempt the restructuring at that stage. The moment has arrived where we must consider doing that.

Much has been made of the majority report of the HRDC standing committee. I thought they were interesting proposals. I can see no Machiavellian plan here. If my colleagues put forward proposals, I tend to say that they have a good idea or that it needs more thought. It should not be taken as government policy, but as an interesting idea which I hope the government will study.

I will put the recommendations into the record. The functions of the HRDC ministry grouped together somewhat unnaturally three different areas of policy, statutory transfers and entitlement which really is old age security, Canada pensions, labour, employment and employment insurance, and social development programs. It is elementary that special technical skills are required for each of these. It is unusual to find a complement of the skills extending all across the department. This is one of the things we have to examine in this situation.

Anybody approaching new government as we enter the 21st century would agree that we have stood still in terms of administrative law reforms and structuring for the last 40 years. With the consent and engagement of all parties the main pre-emptive concern has been with issues of national integrity, the sovereignty issue, as in Quebec. It has killed off the modernization that should have gone on with the administrative processes. I reproach the opposition parties, including the Bloc which claims to be a reform party inside Quebec, with having no new ideas on governmental structure.

One very obvious issue is the breakup of the overly large departments. It is a reality that this government and the Mulroney government let some key ministers handle what might be called four or five different portfolios. It is too big a task. The McRuer commission in Ontario some years ago attempted to approach a solution to this problem. The Hoover commission in the United States is a great model.

Simply, we should be considering issues such as a uniform administrative procedure act applying to all government departments, but especially the spending departments or those with spending responsibilities and a conseil d'état special administrative law tribunal with jurisdiction over all such ministries. There is also the principle which is well accepted in civil law of the personal liability of civil servants and managers where they engage in misconduct that could either be described as delictual in itself or gross negligence in the administration of their office. I would have thought these would be issues that an opposition party, particularly the Conservative Party, which was the mother of the human resources ministry in its present form, should have put forward to debate.

They are available now. I hope we have some debate in the forthcoming election campaign, whenever it is, on this issue. This generation of Canadians has a rendezvous once more with the constitution, not the constitution narrowly defined in sections 91 and 92 or limited to the Quebec issue, but the fundamental modernization of the administering of processes and the study and perfecting of techniques for control of relationships of governmental authority with the citizen. That is a target for reform. That is a target or challenge which opposition parties could bring to us.

I am happy to raise the issues on the government side. Put in this perspective, the majority report of the HRDC committee offers interesting suggestions but they are no more than that. The matter is open for debate, but we cannot postpone the decision any longer.

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1:40 p.m.

Bloc

Ghislain Lebel Chambly, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank you for giving me the opportunity to question the member for Vancouver Quadra, who knows that, in this House, I have never lacked for praise in his regard, emeritus professor of law that he is, he is very knowledgeable about Quebec and he has taught from time to time at Laval University in Quebec City, where I myself did my law.

I listened attentively to his remarks. I know he is concerned about respect for order and good government, except that he has said nothing about the fact that a criminal investigation is underway into the activities of the management of Human Resources Development Canada concerning action taken in the past.

As a man concerned about respect for democracy, could he tell us, I would like to know, how democracy can be abused by a party in power—at the moment the Liberal Party, it could be another party at another time—which uses public funds collected from members of the public of all political stripes in order to put pressure or promote a single political viewpoint, in this case that of the Liberal Party of Canada.

How can democracy suffer in the 17 cases before us at the moment, the ones being investigated?

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June 6th, 2000 / 1:45 p.m.

Liberal

Ted McWhinney Vancouver Quadra, BC

Mr. Speaker, I readily accept the challenge of the hon. member, who has a lot of technical training in this area.

This is why I said that French thinking in administrative law is way ahead of Anglo-Saxon thinking. I regret, for these reasons, that Quebec's quiet revolution has not yet led to the development of a modern system of administrative law that would apply not only to Quebec, but to all of Canada.

We need a modern process for administrative law, for the monitoring of any government. This is why I pay attention to ideas in that area, to the concept of councils of state, patterned on the great model of Paris, created by Emperor Napoleon, a system in which public officials are accountable before the courts for their actions as members of the administration, for their wrongdoings and even for their negligence in administering the laws. We need Quebec's thinking—

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1:45 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. McClelland)

The hon. member for Calgary—Nose Hill.

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1:45 p.m.

Reform

Diane Ablonczy Calgary—Nose Hill, AB

Mr. Speaker, I too would like to draw on my colleague's expertise.

In his remarks he mentioned the personal liability for misconduct of people who serve the public trust. As he is aware, the Financial Administration Act and the treasury board guidelines were routinely flouted in the way public funds were managed by HRDC. This was confirmed by memos from officials in the department and by the department's own talking points which say that the rules now have to start being honoured. It was confirmed by the circumstances of a number of these grants where funds were held over past year end contrary to the Financial Administration Act, trust funds set up contrary to the Financial Administration Act, et cetera.

Section 37 of the Financial Administration Act not only says that this is illegal, but section 80 sets out some pretty stiff penalties for individuals holding public office or serving in the public service who allow the law to be broken.

Does the member think that the penalties in section 80 ought to be applied? Would he also give us his opinion as to why no penalties or consequences have ever been applied so far.

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1:45 p.m.

Liberal

Ted McWhinney Vancouver Quadra, BC

Mr. Speaker, the hon. member, as a very thoughtful graduate of law and a practitioner with some experience, knows that I cannot comment on individual cases.

However, I think I could direct her attention, as I have tried to direct the attention of the House, to the need for a more comprehensive system of administrative law responsibility and the need therefore for an administrative procedure code. It is not difficult to draft. Many countries have it but it would involve our collection in comprehensive form of the rules and responsibilities.

I also believe we need, and this is one of the problems of the Anglo-Saxon common law world where we feel we do not need it, I do think we need a special administrative law tribunal. The Conseil d'État is the model around the world. I hope that the member, with her professional background, will endorse that sort of proposal.