House of Commons Hansard #10 of the 39th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was forward.

Topics

Federal Accountability Act
Government Orders

3:40 p.m.

Bloc

Paul Crête Montmagny—L'Islet—Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup, QC

Mr. Speaker, the Bloc Québécois has already clearly said that it supports the bill in principle. However, given its scope and the number of subjects it deals with, it is important for us to take time to study them properly.

I do not believe that it is necessary to give the bill third reading between now and the summer recess. What is important is that we get to the bottom of things and that all witnesses have a chance to be heard.

Take the example of whistleblowers. There is a major step forward in the bill in terms of how this issue is to be handled. However, I think that we go too far when we say that we are going to offer rewards to whistleblowers, and I believe that a balance should be struck. We will therefore have to assess this situation, hear the witnesses, and perhaps consider amendments.

That is only one of the questions about this bill that is unanswered. I will mention a few others. For example, only three of the nine foundations are covered by the Access to Information Act. Is there not some way to expand that to the six others, or a portion of them? To do that, we have to know about the foundations that are not covered, what their mandate is, and determine whether they should be covered.

On the question of political party financing, there is still no ceiling for leadership races. Would it not be necessary for us to understand whether it is a good idea to have an amendment to do this?

In other words, it is obvious that this bill is going to need a lot of work in committee. The committees are not yet operational. I believe that the motion has just been introduced that will allow the committees to begin work. The chairs and vice-chairs have to be chosen, as do the committee members, priorities have to be set, and the committee that will be responsible for studying this bill has to be decided. The people who want to testify must also be given time to prepare properly.

Let us not do things in haste, let us rather do them properly so that we can be sure that the situations involving government corruption we have seen in the past never happen again, situations that were the result of loopholes in the law and problems that have not been solved.

When we have taken the time to study it thoroughly, let us hope that this bill will solve a majority of those problems. One month more or less will not make any difference.

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3:40 p.m.

Bloc

Raynald Blais Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to take the opportunity to sincerely thank my colleague for his clearsightedness, but in particular for his sense of responsibility, because I think his response to the question that was asked earlier demonstrates a good deal of responsibility. There is in fact no electoral timetable in mind. This bill must surely not be dictated by the electoral timetable of any party.

Given the preceding question, it was my impression that the government had an election timetable in mind. It wants to get this done quickly so that it can move into an election and say what good work it has done.

Furthermore, I think we should underscore the sense of responsibility that the members of the Bloc Québécois have shown, and my colleague in particular. I therefore invite his comments on what I have said on this issue.

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3:45 p.m.

Bloc

Paul Crête Montmagny—L'Islet—Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup, QC

Mr. Speaker, my colleague from Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine has clearly understood the spirit in which we intend to work on this bill. We are showing good will and we want this bill to be studied and passed with the appropriate amendments. So far as possible, this matter deserves to be studied in a way that rules out all partisanship and any short-term schedule. That way the government can say, in October or November when the election is called, that it promised an accountability act and, in the end, that is what it delivered.

Will the act be sufficiently clear, solid and precise so that we are not obliged to make amendments to it later? The message sent in the last election was clear: we have to do some housecleaning here, a thorough job, make sure we paint where painting is needed and restore the structure in the proper fashion. There is no urgency to have the bill passed in the short term, although it is important that it be adopted in the present Parliament.

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3:45 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker Bill Blaikie

Order, please. Before resuming debate, I just want to advise the House that we have reached the point in debate where there will be 10 minutes maximum on speeches and speeches are subject to a five minute question and comment period.

The hon. member for Charlottetown.

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3:45 p.m.

Liberal

Shawn Murphy Charlottetown, PE

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to stand in the House today to participate in the debate on the federal accountability act.

As everyone is now aware, this is what I would classify as an omnibus bill. It is large, it is complex and it will be referred to a committee. I think that is a good thing. I have confidence in the committee system and it will be studied and analyzed at the committee. Generally speaking, I support the thrust of the bill. Any time we clarify roles, define expectations and increase transparency and oversight, I think those principles are good. However, from my first reading of the bill, my fear is that the law of unintended consequences may creep in, which is why it is good to refer the matter to a committee.

I wholeheartedly support some provisions in the bill but others need refinement and others are downright silly which, hopefully, will be dropped by the committee.

I should point out that this is really not that groundbreaking. Many of the provisions in the bill are a continuation of initiatives in Bill C-24, the whistleblower legislation, which the previous speaker spoke to, legislation that had been debated, discussed and passed by the House in the last Parliament. It dealt with some of the major changes dealing with procurement in the federal government, the institution of the Comptroller General and some of the changes with the Ethics Commissioner.

I certainly support the provisions for dealing with donations to political parties and the whole idea of secret donations. I do not know how extensive they are. I have never received one and I do not know anyone else who has but anything like that should be stopped in its tracks.

The whole issue of lobbyists has bothered me since I arrived in the House. I had to call a deputy minister or someone else when I was in government but it was difficult to meet with them. However when I would go to Wilfrid's or other restaurants around town I would see them meeting with lobbyists, which has always concerned me. I think that is something that we should bring to light in the House.

The intention of government with regard to government appointments is probably a positive development, although it has not been followed by the government so far.

The area I have real concern about is the institution of the office of the public prosecutions official. Given the limited scope of what this person would do, which would be drug offences, income tax and shipping act violations, I see it as being somewhat silly.

The parliamentary budget authority is something that perhaps can be discussed in committee but it seems to me that has been the procedure followed over the last 10 years, but by taking an average of all the economists across Canada a lot of times the economists had it wrong. These things are subject to tremendous variations and it will be hard to pin it right on the nose. I believe it is a duplication and a waste of time and effort.

When we go forward as a House discussing this bill I think we need to bear in mind the balance between allowing public servants to take risks and to accept change and that one is not always looking out for one's back. We also need to differentiate between making a mistake and wrongdoing. We all make mistakes and in time when we take a risk, make a change or take an initiative a lot of times we do make mistakes.

I distinctly remember making a mistake in my first month practising law some 30 years ago. I thought it was serious so I went to the senior partner of the firm and I apologized for the mistake. He said that he did not see it as being that serious and he told me to show him a lawyer who did not make mistakes and he would show me a lawyer who did not make any money. We all make mistakes but we need to differentiate mistakes from wrongdoing. I think that will be very important with the bill.

Dealing with the whole issue of accountability, there are two measures that are not in the bill. If the two measures were in the bill, it would increase accountability in this town substantially. First, is the tenure of deputy ministers. One of the biggest problems in the administration of government is the short tenure for deputy ministers. They serve, on average, about a year and a half to a year and three-quarters, and there is no accountability.

If we look back at the function of departments, there are problems, but the deputy minister has only been there a year, and the deputy before that was there only a year and a half, so no one is accountable. They can always say they were not there or not there long enough. This was the recommendation which came forward in the Gomery report that the tenure of a deputy minister should be at least five years, so that there is accountability and that those deputies be held to account.

The second measure is the whole issue of sanctions. This is a tool that would be available to ministers and deputy ministers when we do have wrongdoing, not mistakes. This has been talked about in the accountability act with the financial administration and I agree with that, but it should be stronger than that. I have been on the public accounts committee for five and a half years now and I have seen problems. With a budget of $200 billion and 450,000 public servants, there are going to be problems. If anyone in the House thinks that they are going to correct all the problems of the world by one act, they are fooling themselves.

I have asked the question at least 40 or 50 times, when there is a problem and someone sees wrongdoing, of whether there has been any disciplinary action taken? Every time the answer has been “no”. Was there any disciplinary action taken with Mr. Guité? No. Was there any disciplinary action taken with Mr. Quail? No. No one has ever been disciplined, that I am aware of, in any of the cases of wrongdoing we have investigated in the public accounts committee.

Those two measures would increase and improve accountability tremendously in the House, although they are not in the bill. Having said that, this is why we debate these bills in the House. That is why they are referred to committee and it will come back, and I do look forward to the debate.

The only difficulty I see which disappoints me tremendously is what I call the pith and substance of what the accountability bill states is going on here in Ottawa. The government says it has five priorities but actually it has six.

The first priority of the Prime Minister was to appoint his co-chair to the Senate and then appoint him as the Minister of Public Works and Government Services. That absolutely destroys any line of accountability in the House. The House of Commons is an institution of accountability. Our job is to pass legislation, grant allocations for spending of money, and to hold the executive to account.

A very important part of the executive of the government is the Minister of Public Works and Government Services, who is not in the House. I asked a member who spoke to the bill yesterday and he said that there is nothing to worry about because the minister is accountable to another institution. That is not accountability. I find it offensive. I was disappointed. I thought the President of the Treasury Board would deal with that spectacle in this bill, but he did not. That is probably the situation I am most disappointed about and I do hope this spectacle does end very soon.

Regarding the whole issue of political fundraising, I agree with the pith and substance of what the bill says, but this Friday night, Mr. Speaker, if you have $1,000, I can get you into a dinner with the Prime Minister in my home town of Charlottetown. If you have $1,500, I can take you to Moncton the following night and you can have two dinners, and enjoy the company of the Prime Minister if you were so interested.

The bill talks about the Ethics Commissioner being of a judicial or quasi-judicial background. We had a spectacle a month ago where the Prime Minister was offering the job to an ex-member of the House. He was qualified, but he certainly did not have these qualifications. Again, it just goes to show that what the act says and what the government is doing are totally opposite and it is very disappointing.

I am thankful for this time to present my views on the bill. I look forward to further debate in the House and to the report of the committee.

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3:55 p.m.

Conservative

Kevin Sorenson Crowfoot, AB

Mr. Speaker, my hon. colleague across the way touched on a number of points within his speech and I have a couple of questions for him.

Before I ask the questions, I would like to say that when the government came forward with the federal accountability action plan, the whole purpose of the government's ideas were to bring forward accountability to government, not because of the former government, not just to the present government but to government, period, the government as a whole.

I know the government and the Conservative Party certainly have wanted to promote a whole culture of accountability. They wanted to ensure that Canadians across this country would be able to gain again confidence in government, not confidence in the Conservative Party or in any other party but confidence in government because across this land we are seeing more and more people lose confidence in politicians, politics and government.

I will now go to the question that the member caused me to bring forward. I had not thought of it, but he talked about the tenure of deputy ministers. He mentioned in his speech that the average deputy minister would spend approximately a year and a half in that position. I want to tell a quick story.

I jumped aboard one of the green buses on Parliament Hill once. There was a new minister who had been appointed after one of the famous four from the past government was asked to leave office by the then Prime Minister. As I talked to this new minister, I asked him if he would consider one or two things in the ministry that he might achieve while he was there. He had great plans. He had great ideas of what he could do. About two weeks later, I spoke to the same minister and he said that the bureaucracy basically was running his department.

My question is in regard to the year and a half. If ministers were to have the ability to request the Prime Minister to remove a deputy and to have someone in the position that they can work closely with, why then would they not be in favour of ministerial accountability and ensure that their ministry is set up the way they would like to see it set up? Why would ministers not do that?

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4 p.m.

Liberal

Shawn Murphy Charlottetown, PE

Mr. Speaker, the member across makes some interesting and valid points. I am not disagreeing with him, but there is a premise in his question that is erroneous. He seems to be under the impression that ministers under the present structure can appoint and discharge the deputies. That is not the way the system works. The deputies are appointed by the Prime Minister perhaps on the advice of the Clerk of the Privy Council and that is the problem.

One of the biggest problems which I identified in my speech dealt with increasing the tenure of the deputy ministers, so that they would have a tenure of, let us say, four, five or six years. We could then hold them to account. That is one of the biggest problems. If we were to ask any ministers or senior officials in any department to name the last five deputies they had, we would find that over the last six or seven years there have been five or six deputies. If there were any problems or any failure to get things done, there is no one deputy anyone could point a finger at. Again, that is something that I hope is brought up in these discussions.

I mentioned the other measure of sanctions too because I do not see any situation in Ottawa where people who have committed wrongdoing, as opposed to making a mistake, are disciplined by their superiors in the public service.

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April 26th, 2006 / 4 p.m.

Calgary—Nose Hill
Alberta

Conservative

Diane Ablonczy Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance

Mr. Speaker, I would like to begin by sincerely thanking the voters of Calgary—Nose Hill for their continued confidence in me and for being willing to have me represent them here in this House. I take that duty very seriously. Some of them did not vote for my party, but I want to be a good representative of all the constituents of Calgary--Nose Hill, whether they voted for me or not, and also to help Canada in shaping its future.

As members know, today we are talking about the first piece of legislation that has come before this new Parliament, the federal accountability act. For those Canadians who are watching this debate, I wish to go over very quickly what this act is all about. Sometimes there is a lot of rhetoric, but people are wondering exactly what it is all about.

Essentially, this bill would make changes in five areas of government operation. This bill would bring in political reform, parliamentary reform, public sector reform, procurement reform, and finally, measures to make the public sector more open.

With respect to political reform, the bill would limit donations so that there is not undue influence put on politicians because of funding. It would ban secret donations and trust funds to politicians. It would prevent the immediate move from government to lobbying, so members who were our seatmates one day could not be getting favours on behalf of clients the next day. It would enhance the role of the Ethics Commissioner and pass the conflict of interest code, which has been an unofficial guideline, into law.

With respect to parliamentary reform, the law would give more power to the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, the Information Commissioner and the Chief Electoral Officer, and would create the positions of commissioner of lobbying and the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner.

It would be great if we did not need all these watchdogs, would it not, if our watchdog was in our heart and in our commitment to do what is right. However, we have seen that this is not sufficient in areas of endeavour in the public and, sadly, even in this House, and so these watchdogs would be put into place to help boost the conscience of members in the political arena.

In addition, the Auditor General would now be able to follow the money. Instead of just saying money was misspent and it disappeared somewhere, somehow, the Auditor General would be able to take the steps to actually follow the money trail so that we know, and Canadians know, exactly what happened to the dollars that went missing.

There would also be an independent parliamentary budget authority that would provide a financial reality check on the nation's finances. This individual would also provide a reality check on proposals by House of Commons committees and proposals in private members' bills. Again, because numbers that have been given to the House in different other settings have been, shall we say, not as reliable as they should be, we will put another reality check and another balance in place.

All these appointments would be confirmed by a vote in Parliament. These watchdogs would be officers of Parliament. They would not be beholden to the government but to this House, and all the members of this House and all the parties in this House.

With respect to public sector reform, there would be a clearer accountability of ministers and deputy ministers. There would be real whistleblower protection, including a reward for those who expose wrongdoing. There would be an independent tribunal to adjudicate cases of reprisal, so that public servants would feel they could actually be public servants without suffering a mortal blow because of their integrity.

There would be a new Comptroller General to ensure proper audits of departments. There would be a blue ribbon panel to review grants and contributions, including reviewing fairness in these contributions. There would be a specific initiative to streamline financial management policies and practices.

On procurement reform, there will be a new procurement auditor to provide an independent review of procurement policies to ensure fairness and openness. There will be a code of conduct for procurement. Public opinion research paid for by the public will be made available to the public within six months.

On making the public sector more open, there are measures to expand coverage of the Access to Information Act, which is sometimes referred to as the ATI. This will now include crown corporations, agents of Parliament and the three federally created foundations. We will bring forward a draft bill containing the Information Commissioner's recommendations on ATI together with a paper on the issue for discussion and further action in the House of Commons.

We will establish a public appointments commission to set up a merit based appointments process.

This bill is about making everyone from the Prime Minister to MPs to public servants to grant recipients more accountable. The bill changes the way government works and makes it easier for Canadians to hold government accountable. Most important, it is a giant step in rebuilding Canadians' trust in their government.

We all need to be accountable. We have to remind ourselves of what happens when accountability is weak or non-existent as it was under the former Liberal government. There were misspent millions on the sponsorship program with everyone in government claiming total ignorance and no responsibility at all. There was a 1,000% cost overrun on the gun registry which failed to catch any criminals because criminals, being law breakers, do not obey registration laws. There were mismanaged billions in HRDC and other grants and contributions and loans programs. Then we saw the outrageous spending habits of those in high office spending money foolishly and unwisely, money that came straight out of the pockets of ordinary hard-working Canadians. We saw contracts for cronies and supporters of those in government. There were hundreds of specific examples of this kind of abuse of citizens' money and trust.

Canadians deserve so much better than this. No law can entirely weed out the bad apples, those who are on the lookout for what they can get for themselves. But we can move strongly to make sure that such actions do not remain hidden and do carry consequences.

Our government is committed to rebuilding trust and respect for leaders and for government. We are looking forward to working with all members of the House to make this a priority for Canadians.

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4:10 p.m.

Liberal

Keith Martin Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca, BC

Mr. Speaker, this issue is of interest to all members. There is a difference between accountability, conduct and responsibility. Accountability is what this bill is not about. Accountability is the obligation of elected office holders and senior unelected office holders to express freely to the public what they are going to do before they do it. That is entirely different from conduct and responsibility.

The hon. member is a very intelligent person. Does she agree that the definition of accountability is the obligation of elected office holders like us to announce to the public what we are going to do before we do it? Does she agree that true accountability is the root of public confidence that we have to instill and engage the public in?

If she agrees with that, does she also accept the fact that this so-called accountability bill does not have any definition of accountability in it whatsoever? In fact it is a bill that has everything to do with conduct and everything to do with causing gridlock within the public service and with our ability to do our job.

Does she not agree with the definition of accountability that I have given her which is commonly used by those who are experts in this field? Does she not agree that this is not what the bill is all about?

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4:10 p.m.

Conservative

Diane Ablonczy Calgary—Nose Hill, AB

Mr. Speaker, that definition which, I might add, is very individualistic and highly selective, is not what the bill is talking about at all.

The former government, of which the member was a part, often, every day, talked about openness and accountability. I never heard the member get up and say, “and this is what we mean by accountability”. He certainly never gave the definition which he just gave in the House before. And what is the reason? It is because we all know what accountability means. There are some things like honesty that we do not have to define.

Accountability means that when we do something, we take the responsibility for it. If we are not willing to take the responsibility and we are trying to duck it, there are other watchdogs and other checks and balances that will hold us accountable. That is what accountability is about.

I would say to the member that far from having any negative repercussions in the public service, like all of the measures on which the hon. member's former colleague, the former president of the treasury board, was working, this bill has been supported by the public servants. Why? Because it supports them.

Public officials now will be free to actually look their minister in the face and say, “I can't do that because now I am going to be held accountable for it”. There will be some real measures to protect whistleblowers.

This bill will help to hold politicians and public officials accountable and that is exactly what it should do.

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4:10 p.m.

Bloc

Robert Carrier Alfred-Pellan, QC

Mr. Speaker, I listened closely to the presentation by my colleague from Calgary—Nose Hill. The Bloc Québécois supports the principle of the bill, which should improve the credibility that is ascribed to politicians. They are in great need of it these days.

I am one of those members who have suffered greatly from the method of appointing returning officers. The bill would correct this problem in part. At the moment it is the Privy Council Office that appoints returning officers. My riding was notorious for having a political organizer as its returning officer. In letting such situations happen, we greatly damage the credibility of the entire democratic process and the trust placed in it.

I note, however, that under this bill, returning officers would be appointed by the Chief Electoral Officer, who would examine the qualifications. That approach is always one possible response. All the same, the best way of enhancing credibility is to hold a riding-wide competition for the purpose of staffing this position that is open to the general public. I would like to know my colleague’s opinion on this subject.

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4:15 p.m.

Conservative

Diane Ablonczy Calgary—Nose Hill, AB

Mr. Speaker, the responsibility for appointing returning officers has now been handed over to the Chief Electoral Officer, who will be an officer of Parliament.

My colleague is right in that there has been some real concern in certain ridings of the country that the returning officers were not there to make sure that there were fair and free elections, but were perhaps perceived in some cases as working for the interests of a particular party, the party that appointed them. That, of course, is against democratic principles. I look forward to that not happening in the future because of this bill.

I appreciate that other members of the House from other parties also see the need for these kinds of changes and are willing to support them and work with them.

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4:15 p.m.

Liberal

Andrew Telegdi Kitchener—Waterloo, ON

Mr. Speaker, let me say that I hold my colleague from Calgary—Nose Hill in high esteem. I really wish that she would have come back and served on the citizenship and immigration committee. When we talk about questions of accountability and holding the bureaucracy accountable, it is important that the government has members who know the issues of the department. She knows those issues very well.

Let me suggest that in terms of the bill the member talked about accountability, but what she is really talking about is conduct. This whole thing is in a lot of ways a charade. It does not matter what segment of society it is, whether it is a service club, a police department, a university, a law firm or a church, there will be some people who will engage in criminal conduct. That is why we have spent billions of dollars on the courts and the police and penal institutions for enforcement.

What really happened in the last Parliament is that the opposition parties were very successful in undermining people's belief in this place and in the role of government. I think our member from Vancouver Quadra spoke very eloquently on that subject.

What has to be remembered is that if the basic underpinnings in a system are undermined, we are all hurt. This Parliament is hurt, the government is hurt, the bureaucracy is hurt, and a bad impression is given to the rest of the world.

No one party has a monopoly on virtue. If we examine the record and if we want to talk about accountability, the first thing the Conservative government should have done when it came into the House was to apologize for the previous Conservative government that left office in 1993. I raise that because ministers and MPs were charged and convicted. Nine people went to jail.

Let me also underline a way that the Conservatives have undermined our belief in the legal system. I know the truth is not welcomed. I note that some of the members were not around. But the fact of the matter is that the Conservatives deeply undermined the system by trying to infer that all politicians are corrupt. This does not serve us well, Mr. Speaker. You would know more than virtually anyone else in this place since you are the dean of this Parliament.

The other canard that has been floated is that somehow former prime minister Mulroney was prosecuted by the government. In a democracy the prosecution is done by the police, the RCMP and the crown attorney. It is not done by politicians. Let me say that I would not want to live in a country where politicians can direct the police or can direct the prosecution to persecute someone.

I came from a country like that 49 years ago. This year will mark the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution. I can tell members that the basis of democracy is that government should never be in a position to single out an individual and say politically to the head of the RCMP or the head of the prosecution that it wants the person charged.

A lot of people have come to this country from places like I did. They came as refugees. They came as immigrants from oppressive regimes. We have to ensure they do not get the wrong impression that any political party can direct the police or the prosecution.

It was because of what happened with the sponsorship issue that the former Liberal government launched-

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4:20 p.m.

Conservative

Kevin Sorenson Crowfoot, AB

You guys are all crooked. That is why you are over there.

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4:20 p.m.

Liberal

Andrew Telegdi Kitchener—Waterloo, ON

I am going to pick up on that. Recently it was on W-FIVE that the former prime minister, Mr. Mulroney, received $300,000 from Mr. Schreiber. Surely we should have a Gomery type of inquiry on this because now this is an established fact. If the Conservatives want to be accountable, they would do the right thing. The Liberal Party did the right thing. The former prime minister called the Gomery inquiry.

However, even before the Gomery inquiry was called, we had the mother of all bills in terms of accountability, and that was Bill C-24. When we came into government in 1993, it was possible for corporations to give millions of dollars to political parties. It was possible for individuals to give millions of dollars to political parties. What this government did with its financing bill was limit corporations to $1,000 from untold millions that they could give. The other thing we did was limit the contribution from individuals to $5,000.

Those were the most sweeping changes that have ever been made. Whatever this bill now wants to do, it will be a small fraction of what we did. This is important because that is where we are coming from.

To get back to the whole issue of the bill, it gives me nightmares when I see that the Conservatives have introduced a part where they want to pay $1,000 to somebody to snitch on somebody else. I have trouble with that because of where I came from. I have trouble with that because, unfortunately, in totalitarian regimes people denounce each other. I have trouble with that because I worked in the courts. I know when testimony is given, it has to be given for the best of reasons, and certainly not because of $1,000. It is an insult to the law-abiding men and women of our country to think that $1,000 would be the reason they would do this. We are not talking about operation watch or rewards being offered for anonymous donations. We are talking about civil servants who have high ethics, for the most part. They are not perfect.

Our party will support the basic thrust of the bill, but I am particularly disturbed that we are going to be able to interfere in the affairs of the first nations, the section relating to the Auditor General. First nations have had a long and troubled history and we have to treat them with respect. We have to respect their leadership. We have to understand that we should no more to them than we do to the provinces.

The Liberals will support the bill. I look forward to further debate on it. We are all responsible for upholding the faith of Canadians in our elected institutions and other institutions.