House of Commons Hansard #54 of the 37th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was witnesses.

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3:55 p.m.

Kitchener—Waterloo
Ontario

Liberal

Andrew Telegdi Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister (Aboriginal Affairs)

Mr. Speaker, I too rise to pay tribute to the member. Certainly, in some small way, I assisted in his quest which received unanimous support in the House. Therefore, I think it bodes well to say it will come back, and there is no question the member's fingerprints are all over it.

I spoke about the member on other occasions. I called him really a member of this Parliament, a man of the House. I think Hansard aptly records his many contributions.

I fondly recall when the member and I served on the citizenship and immigration committee together. Come to think of it, Mr. Speaker, you were the whip at the time. We managed to derail a government bill that we believed was not in the best interest of Canadians. After the House passed it, we proceeded together with another member of the opposition to go to the Senate to argue against its passage.

Therefore, I say, through you, Mr. Speaker, to the member that since 1993 he has left a real mark in the House. He has contributed much above his weight. In a very real sense, and I guess in some cases I believe in the tooth fairy, I do hope that he comes back because I think the member still has a contribution to make.

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3:55 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, as always I enjoy to be in the House to listen to this member, to share his insight and his knowledge on a substantial amount of issues. We will miss him. We will miss his work ethic and the honourable way in which he discharged himself as a member of Parliament, since he has been in this place.

I simply wanted to rise to pay tribute to a man who I believe has been an excellent member of Parliament. I wish him all the best in his future career.

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3:55 p.m.

Yukon
Yukon

Liberal

Larry Bagnell Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development

Mr. Speaker, I too would like to briefly credit the member. When we have a House of 301, soon to be 308 members, it is sometimes difficult to be seen apart and different from the large group. However, definitely this member is a distinct individual. As the last member said, I too always listened intently to him because he always had a unique perspective. He has certainly served the House and democracy well and of course his constituents.

I would also like to pay tribute to all members who are leaving and who were paid tribute to before.

It may be my last opportunity to congratulate you, Mr. Speaker, on your ability to referee this rowdy raucous rabble in the House fairly over the term. You have been fair to everyone in the House, no matter where they have sat.

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4 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Jason Kenney Calgary Southeast, AB

Mr. Speaker, I would like to add my words to those of my hon. colleagues in praising the contributions made by the hon. member for Ancaster--Dundas--Flamborough--Aldershot to this place and the public life of this country over the past several years.

I have always had considerable regard for the talents of the member. I feel he is something close to being a model of what a legislator is supposed to be. Often we forget that. We get so focused on our role as politicians or members of parties that we forget our primary function here is to be legislators.

Even though I have not always agreed with him, he has always struck me as somebody who is diligent, honest and understands the legislative process in a fashion that a vast majority of us do not. He deserves great credit for the very substantive and thoughtful contributions he has made to public policy in this place over the better part of the last decade.

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4 p.m.

Conservative

John Bryden Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot, ON

Mr. Speaker, I do not have adequate words to respond to the fine things that were just said. Of all the things that one can acquire in life, material things, abstract things, there is no greater thing of value than the respect and the honour of one's colleagues and particularly our colleagues in this place.

I thank those who spoke. I can tell all of them and all the people who are watching that it has been a tremendous privilege to be a parliamentarian. I love this place. I wish that Canadians could somehow feel what I feel in my heart for the 10 years I have spent here. I know they will be unable to feel that, Mr. Speaker, but I will leave the House and I will always know it. I thank all.

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4 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker

During debate this morning the hon. member for Provencher rose to object to remarks made earlier by the hon. member for Kitchener--Waterloo and I undertook to return to the House. I have now had an opportunity to review the blues and wish to make a brief comment on the exchange.

Let me refer hon. members to page 534 of Marleau and Montpetit concerning the sub judice convention:

The sub judice convention is first and foremost a voluntary restraint [the emphasis is mine on voluntary restraint] on the part of the House to protect [a]...party to a court action or judicial inquiry, from suffering any prejudicial effect from public discussion of the issue. Secondly, the convention also exists, as Speaker Fraser noted, “to maintain a separation and mutual respect between legislative and judicial branches of government”. Thus, the perception and reality of the independence of the judiciary must be jealously guarded.

I believe that both hon. members have made their positions clear and the Chair need take the matter no further.

I do caution members to be judicious in their comments, however passionately they may believe in the differing positions they hold on issues.

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4 p.m.

Yukon
Yukon

Liberal

Larry Bagnell Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development

Mr. Speaker, I briefly want to add my tributes to the tributes we had after question period today to the right hon. member who has served a distinguished time in this Parliament and who dedicated a greater part of his career to Canadians. I think his family should be proud of him. His words were very well spoken. As a tribute to him, a lot of members stayed in the House to listen to his final words of wisdom as they go forward into their future roles in the House.

I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate today. I will begin by providing some background information on the sponsorship program. I will review some of the events that led up to the program's cancellation and I will discuss the measures taken by the government since the tabling of the Auditor General's report.

The sponsorship program was originally created in 1997. In 2000 it was subjected to an internal audit directed by the then deputy minister, Mr. Ranald Quail. Since then the sponsorship program has been a focus of extensive concern and criticism, both from within the government and outside, especially for the period between 1997 and 2000.

The 2000 internal audit found deficiencies in documentation, contracting, internal controls and management practices. An action plan was implemented and corrective measures were put in place, such as new guidelines, better documentation of files and post-mortem reports, to name a few. Both the audit and the action plan were made public on the Internet.

In March 2002, the Auditor General of Canada, Ms. Sheila Fraser, was asked by the then minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada to audit three contracts awarded between 1996 and 1999 to Groupaction. In May 2002, Ms. Fraser released her audit on the three contracts and referred the government's handling of these contracts to the RCMP for further investigation.

When the former minister was appointed on May 26, 2002, his first act was to impose an immediate moratorium on future sponsorship initiatives until he was satisfied that the program criteria was sound.

On July 3, 2002, the former minister lifted the moratorium on the sponsorship program for the balance of the fiscal year. It was also confirmed that the interim program would proceed without the use of external communications agencies to deliver it.

While the program was being reassessed, a detailed review of past sponsorship files was undertaken. Under the senior authority of the financial officer of Public Works and Government Services Canada, a quick response team was assembled comprising financial and procurement specialists within Public Works and Government Services Canada and auditors from Consulting and Audit Canada.

Between May and July 2002, a case by case review of 721 sponsorship files was carried out to determine their completeness and to report on any areas of concern. These files were from several agencies with which Public Works and Government Services Canada had sponsorship contracts.

The quick response team conducted a detailed review of 126 files which were deemed to be of primary interest because they were: of a high dollar value, that is over $500,000; had received media coverage; and had known deficiencies, such as absence of post-mortem reports.

The QRT file review yielded a great deal of useful information and recommendations, which the QRT presented in their final project report tabled in the House of Commons on October 10, 2002.

Members will note that this file review of the quick response team is in addition to the government-wide audit of advertising, sponsorship and public opinion research that was launched by the Auditor General. Our officials cooperated fully with the work of the Auditor General.

Throughout the review of the 721 files by the quick response team, when irregularities were discovered they were pursued. If there was evidence of wrongdoing, the authorities were called in.

The final review report of the quick response team included five recommendations, which have been acted upon. The first recommendation was that the files requiring the attention of Justice Canada and/or the RCMP be recommended for referral.

In addition to the three referrals made by the Auditor General, a number of additional cases are currently under investigation by the RCMP.

As the House knows, the RCMP has laid charges as a result of its ongoing investigations.

It should be noted that it is the RCMP that determines which files warrant investigation. I can assure hon. members that members of the RCMP are following the facts wherever they may lead.

The second recommendation was that time verification audits be carried out. Consulting and Audit Canada has pursued time verification audits at several communications agencies which previously did work under the sponsorship program. Through the time verification audits, the government exercised its right to examine these agencies' detailed records. Unfortunately, the records maintained by these contractors were not adequate to support proper investigations of this nature, and most of the audits have been closed or terminated.

The third recommendation was that the government initiate the recovery of funds where warranted. The government has written to five private sector firms requesting they provide evidence that the goods and/or services paid for by the government were delivered, and that no overpayments were made.

To safeguard taxpayer dollars, the sum of $3.65 million is being withheld to be used if necessary to offset the amounts which were previously paid out but for which appropriate deliverables to the government cannot be ascertained.

The fourth recommendation in the final report by the quick response team stipulated that potential breaches of the Financial Administration Act, and Treasury Board and Public Works and Government Services Canada departmental policies be investigated.

During testimony before the public accounts committee in June 2002, the former deputy minister committed to undertake an administrative review. Two reports were prepared by an independent forensic audit firm. They identified potential issues of non-compliance with the Financial Administration Act, government contracting policies and regulations, and delegated contracting authorities.

A departmental review committee then conducted employee interviews. None of the individuals involved in this review are currently Public Works and Government Services Canada employees. Recommendations were referred to the relevant departments and agencies that have taken appropriate disciplinary action.

The fifth recommendation called for the issue of subcontracting to be reviewed and recommended for referral to Justice Canada to determine if recovery action was appropriate. A number of subcontracting situations are being examined and we are pursuing these with Justice Canada officials.

In December 2002, the government announced that a redesigned sponsorship program would be put in place for a trial period of one year ending on March 31, 2004. The new program was to be limited to not for profit sporting, cultural and community events with the goal of achieving an equitable distribution of sponsorship funds in all provinces and territories. Communication Canada was responsible for managing the program, without the use of intermediaries.

Of course, all this has now changed. The Prime Minister's decision to cancel the sponsorship program reflects the government's belief that the program was fundamentally flawed. The Prime Minister also announced the disbandment of Communication Canada as of March 31, 2004.

Further, on February 10, 2004, in response to the Auditor General's report, the government announced a comprehensive set of measures to ensure that we get to the bottom of the matter. These measures include: the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry, which is fully mandated under the Inquiries Act; the appointment of a special counsel for financial recovery; the introduction of whistleblower legislation; measures to strengthen audit committees for crown corporations and the possible extension of access to information to crown corporations; the initiation of a review on changes to the governance of crown corporations, on changes to the Financial Administration Act and on the accountabilities of ministers and public servants; and the early start up of the public accounts committee.

The public accounts committee has been working hard for the last three months. Members from all sides should be applauded for this work. The government has cooperated fully with the work of the committee, including the unprecedented release of all cabinet documents.

If after three months of testimony from numerous witnesses, the committee decides to prepare an interim report, it would seem reasonable to me.

The government already has independent mechanisms in place for getting to the bottom of this. These mechanisms are working and will continue to provide Canadians with the answers they deserve.

The government recognizes the mistakes of the past and has taken measures to ensure that all aspects of the sponsorship program are thoroughly ventilated.

I now want to give my personal views on a couple of items. The member who spoke before me raised the issue of the democratic deficit and suggested there was none. I thoroughly agree with the member.

When I first arrived in Parliament I was very busy trying to keep up with my constituents' demands, but in the House there was all this conversation from the other side of the House related to the democratic deficit and the problems in Parliament.

Members have probably noticed that since the new Prime Minister has come in we have heard very little of this because there have been master changes in the House. Appointments are being reviewed, committees have more freedom and we have more free votes in the House, which the new Prime Minister promised. This was a new vision that he put forward and he has followed it. People have seen it.

Members just have to read Hansard to see the dramatic changes in the House in this respect. In fact, it is almost curious that if we look at Parliament now, the decisions on the country are largely being determined by the government party because the government party is voting freely on everything except the budget and confidence motions. The government is quite often voting on different sides of an issue, depending on members' beliefs and what their constituents direct. If we check the record, we see that opposition parties are more often all voting together. I think that is why this has been such an exciting change for me.

I have certainly taken the opportunity to vote against government initiatives. I want to tell a personal story about the Prime Minister. The first time I voted against the government was on a major initiative under this new government. I was mildly worried because it happened to be a project which I think was dear to the Prime Minister. We were in a private meeting, the time to air one's laundry but also the time when one would expect to be chastised for such an action. The Prime Minister spoke to us in private; he was not trying to convince the public or put on a show. He said to the people who had voted against the motion that it was fine, it was great, that was how the system was supposed to work. I say that for Canadians who are worried about the sincerity of his efforts to improve the democratic deficit.

Of course, people from different parties will say that more needs to be done in different areas and they will pick out specific situations, but I do not think there is anyone in the House who can deny that there has been major progress in some areas. I certainly pay tribute to the Prime Minister for taking that on and moving that file forward in the areas that he has.

I want to talk a bit about controls on government programs, when they go wrong and how we fix them. As everyone knows, there is a huge bureaucracy, hundreds of thousands of employees, and there are 301 of us here to try to make sense of and keep up with the programs. It is a very daunting task.

When I worked in one of the departments over the last decade there were a lot of central controls. The President of the Treasury Board brought up this very important point a few months ago. We have put some of them back in response to the problem with the sponsorship program.

There were a lot of central controls and things were very bureaucratic. If a department, including the one I worked in, wanted to do something, it would go through excessive mechanisms to get something done. Sometimes that is not very efficient. In theory, of course, there are economies of scale and controls on things, but one could see how it would aggravate people. Of course, the person on the street is aggravated to no end by delays because of the mechanisms.

At that time there was a modernization which put some authority back in the hands of the departments themselves so that they could make decisions from where they stood on local things relating to their department. Obviously too many controls were taken off in some areas and that opened up the situation we have now.

Everyone in the House has heard for a long time that the controls will be put back in place so that cannot happen again. It is a lot harder for individual fiefdoms to happen, but of course problems will always occur. When there is a huge operation of hundreds of thousands of employees and hundreds of politicians and their staff, there are going to be problems, but there are measures of success. What people are looking for is how those problems are dealt with. As we know, there is a huge list of items, some of which I mentioned, that we have put in place to deal with that problem. I think Canadians are happy with the efforts to put new mechanisms in place.

The last thing I want to say is we have to be careful when we deal with problems that we do not go overboard putting in many controls. The reason I raise this is related to another program that had a problem. A number of constituents and organizations have come to me because there is so much bureaucracy and so many controls that the clients who have limited financial resources who really need the service and access to those resources are being hurt. I want to caution everyone that as we come up with solutions for things like this that we do not go overboard so that we cannot do the business and we end up hurting the clients that we are meant to help.

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4:20 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Ken Epp Elk Island, AB

Mr. Speaker, I must say that when the member for Yukon was first elected, I was rather sorry to see him here. Prior to that, the riding had been represented by Louise Hardy, as I recall, from the NDP, a very fine, very gentle person. I was rather surprised that the member was able to displace her in the 2000 election. However, since he has been here, he has participated a lot in the debates in the House. He is usually a thoughtful member. I have appreciated his interventions. Now, let us put the nice things aside.

Having said that, he spoke for 20 minutes and essentially did not address the issue of the motion of the day. The motion of the day basically calls for the investigation that is being done by the public accounts committee to continue and that steps be taken so that would be permitted. Notwithstanding the usual rules of the House that all committees are dissolved the instant an election is called, the committee should continue its work. There is a very good reason for it.

Sure the committee has heard from approximately 50 witnesses, but the call has gone out that anybody with information should make themselves known to the committee and be prepared to come forward to shed light on what actually happened. The burning question for Canadians is, where did the money go and who has it? That is the question.

Another burning question is, where was the political direction for this? That is something which the Prime Minister acknowledged, that there had to have been political direction, but we do not know where it came from. That is another question which has to be answered.

I was watching a replay on CPAC the other night, around 2:00 in the morning. I guess I have some serious problems being awake at that time of the night watching CPAC replays. I noticed along the bottom of the screen there is a little tickertape line. It gives the phone number for the legal counsel of the committee and indicates that people who have any information and would like to come forward can phone that number in confidence and the committee counsel will talk to them to see whether or not they have relevant testimony.

There have been some 80 more witnesses identified by that means and other means. These witnesses have a right to be heard but more important, Canadian citizens have a right to hear them.

I say to the hon. member, hey, I loved the speech, it was wonderful, but it did not address the question. Is the reason that he avoided the question that the Liberals, and he is one of them, simply would like this problem to go away, to be swept under the rug and the truth to be hidden perpetually?

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4:25 p.m.

Liberal

Larry Bagnell Yukon, YT

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the first part of the member's comments, the tribute. I have to pay tribute to him as well. We have shared many late nights and he is the last person here on evening debates, until four in the morning. I congratulate him for that.

Then the member went on to ask tougher questions. What he suggested was that I did not talk to the motion of the day. I think I was trying to get at that in some of my items at the end of my speech. The reason is that out of thousands of government programs, on one program related to a limited number of individuals, we have had incessant and lengthy debates. We are debating it all day today, and it has been debated in committee for months. I do not think there is any lack of information or debate on that topic.

What I was trying to say is that I hope we do not lose sight of the rest of the governing, the other hundreds of thousands of things that hundreds of thousands of federal government employees are doing to help Canadians. We as politicians should have oversight. As the government, through our regular checking procedures we should make sure that they are working as efficiently, effectively and as productively as possible. The opposition should be spending a lot of time inquiring into a lot of those areas as well.

I have made the point a number of times previously in the House, that since Christmas there have been very few questions by the opposition relating to other things which suggests there is no platform. However with other things that are going on in the government I am sure the opposition does not think everything the government is doing is perfect, that the hundreds of other programs of the Government of Canada are working perfectly, that we are allocating our funds perfectly and that we are collecting the correct amount of funds. I want to make sure that we look at the bigger picture.

As we look at the remedies, there have not been many comments or discussions on the remedies. I do not know if the member has seen it in his riding, but in my riding groups of constituents have come in to my office to discuss how the remedies are harming them. I would think that the member would like to ensure that the remedies were effective but did not hurt the constituents.

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4:30 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Lynne Yelich Blackstrap, SK

Mr. Speaker, I am not sure if I heard correctly, but did the parliamentary secretary say that the government was putting legislation forward that crown corporations will be included in the access to information legislation?

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4:30 p.m.

Liberal

Larry Bagnell Yukon, YT

Mr. Speaker, I said we were reviewing that possibility.

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4:30 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, the premise to my question is that the motion is not clear and I would like to have the member's comments. It says that the Standing Committee on Public Accounts will continue after an election is called and until a new Parliament is started and the new public accounts committee is reconstituted.

I am trying to understand how it is possible for a committee that exists today to continue when some of its members are not running again in the next election and some of its members may not be elected in the next election. I do not understand how we could possibly link the current committee through a contiguous process. It just does not seem to make sense.

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4:30 p.m.

Liberal

Larry Bagnell Yukon, YT

Mr. Speaker, that is a very good question, but because it is the opposition's motion I will leave it to the opposition to answer. In fairness to the opposition members and so that they get most of the question period, I will let them have the time to ask more hard questions.

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4:30 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Ken Epp Elk Island, AB

Mr. Speaker, the member, in responding to my previous question, suggested that there were thousands of other little contracts and things going on and we should not focus totally on this program. Surely he is not suggesting to Canadian taxpayers that a $250 million program is trivial and petty cash.

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4:30 p.m.

Liberal

Larry Bagnell Yukon, YT

Mr. Speaker, I do not think I used the word contracts. I was referring to other programs, some of which are bigger than this program.