House of Commons Hansard #127 of the 37th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was tax.

Topics

Petitions
Routine Proceedings

10:20 a.m.

Liberal

Clifford Lincoln Lac-Saint-Louis, QC

Mr. Speaker, I have the pleasure of presenting two petitions. The first petition is from many hundreds of Canadians, including many from my riding. The petition state that scientists have demonstrated that growth factors can direct the evolvement of human embryonic cells into insulin producing cells that might help to cure juvenile diabetes type 1.

Therefore, the petitioners ask the Parliament of Canada to proceed using all types of stem cells, including embryonic stem cells, because it is impossible to predict which would provide the most medical benefits.

Petitions
Routine Proceedings

10:20 a.m.

Liberal

Clifford Lincoln Lac-Saint-Louis, QC

Mr. Speaker, the second petition is one from citizens of my riding and others. The petitioners call upon Parliament to protect our children by taking all necessary steps to ensure that all materials which promote or glorify pedophilia or sado-masochistic activities involving children be outlawed.

Questions on the Order Paper
Routine Proceedings

10:20 a.m.

Halifax West
Nova Scotia

Liberal

Geoff Regan Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, I ask that all questions be allowed to stand.

Questions on the Order Paper
Routine Proceedings

10:20 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

Is that agreed?

Questions on the Order Paper
Routine Proceedings

10:20 a.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

The House resumed from September 22, consideration of the motion that Bill C-34, an act to amend the Parliament of Canada Act (Ethics Commissioner and Senate Ethics Officer) and other Acts in consequence, be read the third time and passed, and of the amendment.

Parliament of Canada Act
Government Orders

September 25th, 2003 / 10:20 a.m.

Canadian Alliance

Reed Elley Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to join in today's debate on Bill C-34 regarding the ethics commissioner. I already spoke to the bill at second reading stage.

As members of the House know, the bill would appoint a Senate ethics officer whose duties and functions would be assigned by the Senate regarding the conduct of its members and most important to us here in the House of Commons, an ethics commissioner whose duties and functions would be assigned by the House of Commons.

All members, and indeed all constituents, are concerned with the conduct of its members and the administration of ethical principles by the members of Parliament in this place.

The return of the bill to the House of Commons for debate this week is very interesting and perhaps very timely. We all know that the bill is part of the Prime Minister's ethics initiative first announced in May of last year, a time when he and others in his caucus were increasingly under the ethics magnifying glass.

The bill was born out of public necessity, not through foresight and careful planning. Furthermore, and as is all too often the case with the government, the Liberals use the right words but shift the meanings in such a way that what most Canadians expect and what the Liberal government delivers are often two entirely different things.

They say “independent ethics commissioner” but we all know that since the prime minister would make the choice there is no real independence. The consultation process would be with the leaders of the parties in the House and then there would be a vote following in the House itself. Remember that the prime minister does not have to follow any recommendations that are made and the confirming vote in the House would undoubtedly be a vote in which all Liberals would mysteriously vote in favour of the prime minister's choice regardless of who the person is and what that person thinks about him.

The House of Commons ethics commissioner would work under the general direction of a committee of the House of Commons, presumably the committee on procedure and House affairs.

It is appropriate that the ethics commissioner would perform the duties and functions assigned by the House of Commons for governing the conduct of its members of the House of Commons. A code of standards would be established and at some point would become part of the Standing Orders by which we all abide.

I trust then that the committee responsible for drafting the code would take a truly a non-partisan and honest approach to this very important task.

I will commend one aspect of the bill that I certainly can support. I believe it is important to recognize that a ministerial investigation can be initiated by a formal complaint from a member of Parliament or Senator and the fact that the results of such an investigation will be made public.

That sounds very good and I certainly agree with it. However I am concerned that the public report could be sanitized by removing all confidential information and what power that report might have after that is a moot point.

If there has been a breach of ethics, I firmly believe that Canadians have a right to know. What I am not pleased with is the lack of clarity as to whether a minister of the crown, a minister of state or a parliamentary secretary would be held accountable under the same rules that would apply to all other members of Parliament. This is assumed but it is certainly not specific in the bill.

Many years ago the Canadian Alliance addressed the whole issue and in our policy statement we said:

We will facilitate the appointment of an independent Ethics Counsellor by the House of Commons. The Ethics Counsellor will report directly to the House of Commons and be given the mandate to investigate, and where applicable, recommend prosecution for conflict-of-interest infractions by a Member of Parliament and/or his/her staff.

I strongly favour a high standard of ethical conduct by government and parliamentarians. I believe this is a core value in our democracy and one of the main reasons why the Canadian public sometimes views many politicians and politics in general with disdain because we simply do not measure up to the mark.

There are members of the House, past and present, who have abused the trust that Canadians have placed in them. The end result is the democratic deficit that is apparent all across Canada today: voter apathy, low voter turnout and contempt for many politicians.

This is not to say that my Canadian Alliance colleagues and I are in any way opposed to a code of ethics. Quite the contrary, I believe that ethics and moral standards are at the very core of what we do, so much so that we must strive for and maintain the highest standards possible. The Liberal lowest common denominator is simply not acceptable to us.

If we truly want a code of ethics that applies to all current and future members of the House we must have an ethics commissioner who is chosen by all, not appointed by and answerable only to the Prime Minister himself. To do otherwise will do all Canadians a great disservice in this exercise.

I believe that we need to give active consideration to having a truly independent commissioner being approved not by just a simple House majority but by both government and opposition parties as well.

Unfortunately, when the final vote is scheduled for the bill the government majority will prevail here in this place and, in the end, the ethics commissioner will be nothing more than a political appointment of the Prime Minister and confirmed by the Liberal majority of the House.

The one way that this may be overcome, of course, is to make this a truly free vote. It would be most refreshing if we saw a truly free vote on the government benches, not the type of free vote that the Liberal government has shown time and time again, most recently in the vote on the traditional definition of marriage, which is so important to the country, when cabinet is whipped and pressure is exerted on backbenchers to violate their consciences and not stand up for the majority wishes of their constituents.

Once again I note that in my home province of British Columbia the ethics commissioner is chosen by an all party committee that makes a recommendation to the premier, who must then obtain a two-thirds confirming vote by the assembly in order to make the appointment. Alberta has a similar process.

Let us be clear: the bill is primarily a damage control exercise. When minister after minister was shown to be in conflict and either removed from his or her posting, and we see frequent changes on the government frontbench in this place, or shipped off to Denmark or shuffled off to be quiet on the backbenches, the Prime Minister simply was forced to act. The bill did not come out of the Liberal red book, although the Liberals made that promise back in 1993. It came from the anger of Canadians all across the country who are simply fed up with the way this government handles its ethical standards.

Like a good Liberal, the Prime Minister checked which way the wind was blowing and quickly came up with a poorly thought through plan. The result is the bill that we have before us today.

The ethics commissioner should be totally and completely politically neutral. I question whether under this bill that will ever be the case. For a government that has had a decade to draft and bring a bill forward for public debate, this is a poor, last minute approach to somehow substantiate the Prime Minister's legacy and leaves much to be desired.

If this is the best the Liberals can come up with in a decade of ministerial mishaps, then shame on them, and we really are concerned about the future of the country.

Parliament of Canada Act
Government Orders

10:30 a.m.

Canadian Alliance

Gurmant Grewal Surrey Central, BC

Mr. Speaker, I commend the hon. member for an excellent speech on this issue. We all know that in the 1993 red book the Liberals promised that they would have an independent ethics commissioner. They fought the election based on their red book promises, but now we know that they have broken many of their promises. One of them was the appointment of an independent ethics commissioner.

Since they did not do what they promised, we reminded them. The official opposition had a motion in the House on the appointment of an independent ethics commissioner and the Liberals voted against that. Does the hon. member think that the Liberals were opportunistic in getting elected and that their cynicism and their hypocritical attitude are shown by not doing what they promised? Does the hon. member think there is no political intent on the government side to have an independent ethics commissioner?

Parliament of Canada Act
Government Orders

10:30 a.m.

Canadian Alliance

Reed Elley Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Mr. Speaker, let me say to my hon. colleague that it has been my sad observation of the governing party that much of what it does is simply window dressing to gain the support of the electors at the time of an election. Government members make some great speeches, pass some great resolutions and have some great policies, but when it comes right down to it, they are not prepared to walk the talk. We have seen ample examples of that over the last 10 years.

I am sure all Canadians remember the great promise about the GST. The ethics commissioner is another example of this.

If we as political parties are to gain the confidence of all Canadians and not simply the 63% who bothered to vote in the last general election, we will have to put forward policies and programs that we actually enact when we get into government. The ethics commissioner of course is one of those.

As long as we have a government which, seemingly at the end of the mandate of the present Prime Minister, brings in these last minute pieces of legislation to somehow make it appear as if it is fulfilling some election pledges, it simply will not be good enough.

The people of Canada are not that dumb. They will see through this. Eventually it is going to catch up with this governing party. The ethics commissioner bill, as important a bill as it is, is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the kinds of reforms we need in this country to make government transparent and accountable.

Time after time in my riding I hear of people who are simply fed up, fed up with government and unfortunately fed up with all politicians of all stripes because of what the government does. They are simply opting out of the democratic process. If this goes on in this country, we are well on our way to having a process of government in which the public has little participation and little input. It simply becomes a dictatorship. Is that what we really want for this country?

Parliament of Canada Act
Government Orders

10:35 a.m.

Canadian Alliance

Ken Epp Elk Island, AB

Mr. Speaker, I really am disappointed in the fact that the Liberal members opposite do not express any interest in getting into this debate. They should be responding to the suggestions we are making, either by trying to defend the fact that they are not responding or by giving us an indication that they will support the amendment.

The amendment, as I hope all hon. members in the House know, is to send this thing back to the committee to make some very important and substantive changes to the method of appointment of the ethics commissioner. I really regret that members opposite are not responding to this. I suppose their minds are made up already.

I would like to get down to a question to my hon. colleague, who has given an excellent extemporaneous speech on the spur of the moment. I appreciate his willingness to do that. There is a question to which I would like a response from him. The members on the other side in committee suggest that having the Prime Minister appoint the ethics commissioner, but after consultation with the leaders of the other parties, somehow meets the criterion that the person is independent. It seems to me that such a process could still mean that a very partisan person gets into that position.

One of the objections we have heard is that members opposite feel that if there is a real agreement required among opposition parties, among all parties in the House, it will never happen. That is their only argument. I contend otherwise. I contend that certainly when it comes to having a person who will be making judgments and rulings on the ethical behaviour of all members in the House, we would find an individual who would meet that criterion. I would like my colleague to comment on the possibility of that happening.

Parliament of Canada Act
Government Orders

10:35 a.m.

Canadian Alliance

Reed Elley Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate my colleague's question and observations. I think it is quite clear that if we are going to have a truly independent ethics commissioner who is going to be able to have the backing of the House and the power to do something about the breaches of ethics that may occur on both sides of the House, that person has to be truly independent.

For this person to be truly independent, there has to be a process in place before the person is appointed, a process that will not be tainted by any kind of partisan wrangling. From our point of view, the kinds of suggestions the government has put forward simply do not make that process possible.

We want to ensure that the ethics commissioner himself, even before he is appointed, is not already tainted by the process that puts him in place. We do not believe, on this side and in this party, that this bill does that. That is the simple bottom line.

Parliament of Canada Act
Government Orders

10:40 a.m.

Progressive Conservative

Norman E. Doyle St. John's East, NL

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to say a few words on Bill C-34. I am particularly interested in saying a few words on the amendment:

It reads:

That the motion be amended by deleting all the words after the word “That” and substituting the following:

Bill C-34...be referred back to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs for the purpose of reconsidering Clause 4 with the view to ensure that:

(a) a standing or “an all party” committee of the House of Commons search for those persons who would be most suitably qualified and fit to hold the office of Ethics Commissioner; and

(b) the said committee recommend to the House of Commons the name of a person to hold such office”.

My party supports this amendment because it is a good amendment. I cannot see why anyone would not support it. After all, this is public money that the government is spending. It is the hard earned dollars of taxpayers that we are talking about here.

Why would we not want an independent individual, arm's length from government, to oversee the ethics of the people who are spending this money on behalf of the people of Canada? Why would the government not want an all party committee to do the search and find a truly independent individual who would report to Parliament?

The public would then know that we do not have an ethics commissioner who is the lapdog of government, or an individual who is a friend of the Liberal Party of Canada acting as an ethics commissioner for the people of Canada.

It is ridiculous that we should even be talking about this amendment today. The government should already have this amendment in its bill. An all party committee of the House of Commons should be the process to be used to appoint an ethics commissioner.

We all know that an ethics commissioner should have some ethics. If an ethics commissioner were to comment on and preside over the ethics of a minister or the Prime Minister of the country, then his or her own ethics should be above reproach and scrutiny.

One way we could ensure that the ethics commissioner is indeed above reproach is to have an all party committee of the House of Commons do the search. After all, we should have absolute confidence in the ethics commissioner to do what is right.

When we get right down to it, is it fair to ask any future ethics commissioner to go poking around and judging the very people who appointed the individual if that person is not a truly independent individual?

Therefore, one has to ask the question, is the government afraid to have a truly independent individual appointed? Is the government so caught up in scandal, wrongdoing, graft and corruption that it cannot bear the thought of allowing a truly independent person to be poking around in the government's bag of secrets?

We should not even be talking about this amendment today. The amendment should already be included in Bill C-34. After the numerous scandals of the government, it should be truly rushing to have an independent person appointed as the ethics commissioner.

We all remember the main feature of the 1993 election campaign was a promise by the Liberal Party to establish new standards of ethics. It has certainly done that. The Liberals have established new standards of graft and corruption, and standards which the people of Canada are very concerned with.

The Prime Minister, for instance, intervened with a Crown corporation to benefit a business of which he had once been a part owner. At least three ministers have been forced from office for conflicts of interest. A fourth has been given safe refuge as ambassador to Denmark. If we had a truly independent ethics commissioner, I wonder if these things would have occurred?

The Minister of Canadian of Heritage, for instance, broke the guidelines. According to the rules, she should have resigned her cabinet position. However, the Prime Minister, going against his own rules, chose to protect his cabinet colleague. One has to wonder if we had a truly independent ethics commissioner, whether that would have happened?

The government is now proposing new legislation establishing new ethics commissioners whose appointments can be controlled by the government majority. That is not the way to go if we want to give the people of Canada confidence that their money is being spent properly and that their ministers are acting in the way they should be.

Remember the observation on Shawinigate by Gordon Robertson, the distinguished former clerk of the Privy Council, who wrote the first conflict of interest guidelines for Prime Minister Pearson. Mr. Robertson noted that there had been no specific provisions governing the Prime Minister because it never occurred to anyone that a prime minister's actions would require guidelines. It was not until this government made a show of appointing an ethics counsellor and then made a sham of the office by having it report not to Parliament, as has been promised, but to the Prime Minister of Canada. That makes a sham of the ethics commissioner.

The most notorious loosening of the rules involved the so-called blind management trust. We are all very well aware of that. For decades cabinet ministers in the House were required to put their assets in an absolutely blind trust. If one pursued one's private interests, one stayed out of cabinet and if one served the public interest, one cut off all contact with one's private assets. A choice was made. That is the way it worked way back when.

The government changed that rule deliberately. It deliberately broke the separation between private interest and public interest. It created a system where a minister could look after his or her private interests and at the very same time he or she was purported to be acting in the public interest.

If we had a truly independent ethics commissioner acting for the people of Canada over the last four or five years in particular, I am convinced that the scandals that have plagued the government and the people of the country would not have occurred, or at least would have been a whole lot less serious than they were.

As a footnote, but to make matters worse, the Prime Minister told the House of Commons that this system had been used by ministers of former governments. He knows that is not true, but he has not had the rectitude to correct the record of Parliament.

I do not know why the government lets ministers abandon blind trusts. I do not know if that was done specifically to meet the requirements of the Prime Minister-in-waiting, the member for LaSalle-Émard, but he was certainly quick to take advantage of the looser system that had been established. As the Minister of Finance for the country, he knew very well how he could take advantage of that system.

Some time ago, under pressure, the member for LaSalle--Émard, the individual who will be the Prime Minister of Canada, announced that he was divesting himself from his giant shipping company, Canada Steamship Lines. He admitted that during the time he was Minister of Finance he held 12 separate private meetings with his company officials regarding business activities of the multi-national private company that he personally owned. I really do not know if people are truly aware of the seriousness of that.

The Prime Minister-in-waiting--the person who was second in command in this country, the most powerful position outside of the Prime Minister of Canada, the Minister of Finance--held 12 separate private meetings with officials of his own company while he was sitting around the cabinet table of Canada talking about tax havens, environmental problems, shipping standards, and all kinds of things pertaining to the operation of his own company. He sat around the table with his corporate officials on 12 different occasions and had 12 different meetings while he was number two in power in Canada.

For the record, I do not believe he had these meetings to make himself any richer than what he already was. He came here as a rich individual, and I do not believe he needed any more money. F. Scott Fitzgerald noted that the rich are not like the rest of us. He probably did it because he thought the rules that applied to others should not apply to him The former Minister of Finance felt that the rules that had been established really did not apply to him, but did apply to everyone else. If we had a truly independent ethics commissioner who was capable of delving into these problems, would this have happened?

Whatever the motive, the government broke down the wall between private and public interests. That is what it amounts to. Even the member himself, the Prime Minister-in-waiting, now admits that the system fails the test of appearing to be fair. We always hear that not only must the system be fair, but it must have the appearance of being fair as well. What is clear is that the tailor-made system was not recommended by independent, outside experts who could examine the current rules and regulations and come up with some really good ones to make cabinet ministers and the Prime Minister truly accountable to the people of Canada.

Justice Parker, who conducted a public formal inquiry into the Sinclair Stevens affair, which I am sure all members remember, warned specifically against the type of arrangement that we have today. Justice Parker defined conflict of interest in his report as:

--a situation in which a minister of the Crown has knowledge of a private economic interest that is sufficient to influence the exercise of his or her public duties and responsibilities.

The minister need not act on that knowledge. Justice Parker did not find that Mr. Stevens acted on that knowledge. He was required to resign simply because it was alleged that he had done nothing more than what the member for LaSalle--Émard has set limits on doing on 12 separate occasions. That is worth noting.

That was the standard in Canada before the Liberal government deliberately lowered the bar on ethics in this country. Simple knowledge of a private economic interest was enough to constitute a conflict of interest. Is that not interesting? Simple knowledge of a private economic interest was enough to constitute a conflict of interest. We are all very much aware that for eight years the member for LaSalle--Émard, the prime minister in waiting, regularly acquired that kind of knowledge. That is not in dispute. The member himself admitted that he regularly acquired that kind of knowledge.

According to the Prime Minister, Justice Parker's definition of conflict of interest is at the heart of the government's code of conduct for ministers. He has repeatedly said that in the House of Commons.

Here is a very interesting quote from former Liberal Prime Minister Turner who said in Parliament on May 12, 1986:

In public administration a minister has the burden of proof, the duty to show that what he is doing is beyond reproach. The burden of proof is not on Parliament. It is not on the opposition, nor the media. The burden of proof is on the minister.

That is what former Prime Minister John Turner said on May 12, 1986. But the new looser system of the managed blind trust does have its own clear rules. Canadians have a right to know whether even these rules were respected. Article 7 of the agreement stipulates that if at any time while this agreement remains in effect it appears that an extraordinary corporate event is proposed or threatened which might have a material effect on the shares of an asset, the supervisors may consult with and obtain the advice, direction or instruction of the public office holder.

The then minister of finance was allowed to be briefed only if first, Canada Steamship Lines had an extraordinary corporate event, second, if it had a material effect on the asset, and third, the supervisor was unable to handle it on his or her own. We are asked to believe that that happened 12 times in eight years, with the former minister of finance, the prime minister in waiting, and Canada Steamship Lines.

The Prime Minister says that while he has no knowledge of the subject of these 12 meetings, he is satisfied that each of them met the criteria of article 7. Why? Because Howard Wilson said so. The member for LaSalle--Émard agreed and the Prime Minister declined to do his duty and find out if his new loose rules were respected or whether they were broken. Again this points out the need to have a truly independent ethics commissioner who will be appointed by an all party committee of the House.

The member for LaSalle--Émard says he excused himself, that he stepped aside from the cabinet table whenever there was a possible conflict of interest. However, more than the vast majority of companies, Canada Steamship Lines is critically dependent upon a wide range of federal laws and regulations, including the tax system. The question has to be asked, was the then minister of finance outside the room whenever taxes were talked about, or environmental laws, or shipping regulations, or safety standards, or changes in international laws or treaties?

Hopefully the government will agree to have an all party committee of the House look at this issue and make recommendations for a truly independent ethics commissioner.

Parliament of Canada Act
Government Orders

11 a.m.

Canadian Alliance

Ken Epp Elk Island, AB

Mr. Speaker, I would like to commend my colleague from the other party on the opposition side of the House on a very well documented speech. He gave a number of good examples.

One of the things that we need to keep in focus here is that the government has undertaken to introduce rules of ethical conduct which will govern the behaviour of backbench and opposition members of Parliament. The problems which have plagued the government over the last 10 years in fact will not be addressed by this process, in other words, the issues that have been faced by the various cabinet ministers.

In particular there is the issue of the former minister of public works and government services who did an arabesque not only out of cabinet, not only out of government, not only out of Parliament, but right out of the whole country. That issue still will not be properly addressed in this new procedure.

I am very troubled by that. The government has chosen to solve a problem that does not exist in my view in order to deflect media attention from problems that do exist without offering a solution to the actual problems.

I would like our colleague to comment on this and perhaps to give his suggestions as to how this could be improved.

Parliament of Canada Act
Government Orders

11 a.m.

Progressive Conservative

Norman E. Doyle St. John's East, NL

Mr. Speaker, I could not agree more with the hon. member's observation. The real problems that the government will surely be faced with under the direction of the new prime minister when he comes to office will not be addressed unless we have a truly independent ethics commissioner.

I want to commend the member for putting forward this amendment because as I said a moment ago, not only must there be fairness but there must be an appearance of fairness as well. I cannot understand for the life of me how any government which has come under the fire that the government has come under over the last five years, in particular with the amount of graft and corruption and the number of scandals that have plagued it, would not be rushing a bill into the House that would create a truly independent ethics commissioner. We will be going into an election six months from now. One has no choice but to surmise from it all that the government is afraid to have a truly independent individual poking around in the bag of secrets that have yet to be revealed.

I agree with the hon. member. The problems that have plagued the country and the government over the last five or 10 years will not be addressed if the government does not agree to let an all party committee look at the ethics commissioner, have a search done, have the individual appointed by that committee and report to Parliament. This is the way it should be done.

There has to be a reason. The obvious reason is that the prime minister in waiting is afraid to have his record laid before the people of Canada. He is afraid that a truly independent ethics commissioner will go poking around and find some secrets that he does not want revealed. The onus is now on the government to do something about this and to have a truly independent individual put in place.

Parliament of Canada Act
Government Orders

11:05 a.m.

Canadian Alliance

Gurmant Grewal Surrey Central, BC

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the comments made by the hon. member for St. John's East. He did a very good job in articulating his point of view.

Contrary to the 1993 red book which was co-authored by the member for LaSalle—Émard, the Liberals are breaking their promise not to appoint an independent ethics counsellor. In fact they voted against the Canadian Alliance motion sometime ago to appoint an independent ethics commissioner.

As part of Bill C-34 that we are debating today, the ethics commissioner will be appointed by the Prime Minister. The ethics commissioner will be rubber stamped by the Liberal majority. The ethics commissioner will report to the Prime Minister in confidence and in private.

Does the hon. member think that the ethics commissioner will be a true watchdog overseeing the ethical standards which are already so low in the Liberal government?