House of Commons Hansard #45 of the 39th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was c-2.

Topics

Federal Accountability Act
Government Orders

4:35 p.m.

Liberal

Marlene Jennings Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, QC

Explain why you voted against the amendment.

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4:35 p.m.

Conservative

Tom Lukiwski Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre, SK

Obviously the member does not want to hear those words because one of her own members, a leadership candidate, has done this, but that is why the Conservative Party took the stance we did. It is reprehensible and every Canadian I know will agree with that, with respect.

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4:40 p.m.

Liberal

Stephen Owen Vancouver Quadra, BC

Mr. Speaker, I would ask the House for unanimous consent to split my time with my hon. colleague from Mississauga South.

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4:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Andrew Scheer

Is there unanimous consent for the member to split his time?

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4:40 p.m.

Some hon. member

Agreed.

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4:40 p.m.

Liberal

Stephen Owen Vancouver Quadra, BC

I am delighted to stand today, Mr. Speaker and colleagues from all parties, to address Bill C-2 at third reading.

First of all, as I said in our leading speech when the bill was first debated, we generally support the accountability act. In fact, in most areas of Bill C-2, it adds to and builds on a number of major issues that have been promoted by the Liberal government over the last 10 years. Of course, one of these was the most dramatic change in political financing in Canadian history, which was former Bill C-24 which passed and came into effect over two and a half years ago. Bill C-2 builds on it further and that is a good thing. We have to be careful in that area that we do not go too far and inhibit the free speech of Canadians, but generally that is certainly a continuation of something that the former Liberal government brought into effect.

The bill is also a continuation around the powers of independent officers of Parliament, such as the independent Ethics Commissioner brought in by the previous Liberal government who has served, I might say, with distinction.

The lobbyist registration rules are being tightened up in this bill and that is a good thing. I will speak in a moment of how they could be even better. That is something that progressed steadily over the last 10 years under the previous government. The bill also extends the powers of the Auditor General which I think all in the House believe is a good thing. We are very much in favour of the direction in which this bill is going.

I thank the member for Nepean--Carleton and the member for Regina--Lumsden--Lake Centre for their remarks in support of the members of the committee, myself included, but I think it is important for all members of the House to understand something that the hon. member for Regina--Lumsden--Lake Centre stressed. It is that members of the House are honourable, that public servants in Canada are honourable and that we need the requisite support of Canadians in believing that to have our democracy really work in a healthy way and not simply be looked at in a cynical way. I simply quote from Justice Gomery's first report, his fact finding report. He said at page 3:

Canadians should not forget that the vast majority of our public officials and politicians do their work honestly, diligently and effectively, and emerge from this inquiry free of any blame.

I do not say that to try to avoid the responsibility of the government at the time, of which I was a part, but I say it so that we keep this in balance and in perspective and that we do not sully our own reputations as public servants and politicians from all parties who, in the words of Mr. Justice Gomery, are honest, diligent and effective in their work. That is what we need to stress to Canadians, even while we find wrong, we admit fault and we put in new mechanisms to ensure that it will not happen again.

When we say that on this side of the House we support the general aims of the accountability act, it is a qualified support. We recognize that accountability is a work in progress. It has been going on for a long time. Often we hit bumps in the road. We learn some things; we do things better. I think there are many good steps forward in the bill. There are some things still to be done or things that could be corrected and we will be working to continually improve it, even while we support the bill.

Let me mention Motions Nos. 1, 3 and 6 which were passed this afternoon which relate to the autonomy and independence of the House of Commons and members of Parliament. We received testimony from the Law Clerk and Parliamentary Counsel at the Bill C-2 legislative committee that there were a number of difficulties with the way the bill was drafted.

The most serious difficulty was one that was unconstitutional. That was the part of the bill that called for secret votes to approve officers of Parliament. As a committee we took that as being unconstitutional and inappropriate and we agreed to remove that. That was an excellent collaborative response to an extremely important bit of advice from the Law Clerk.

There were other aspects that the Law Clerk and Parliamentary Counsel expressed concerns about, not because they are unconstitutional, but because they were against the traditional autonomy and independence of the legislative branch from the judiciary and the executive branch. Of course the three branches of government in our country under our Constitution which adopts the British parliamentary system are immensely important to the strength of our democracy. While the Law Clerk and Parliamentary Counsel said that it was possible for Parliament to counteract that or give away some of that autonomy, he felt it might weaken the strength of Parliament over time with respect to its independence and autonomy.

Motions Nos. 1, 3 and 6 were passed today quite constitutionally, but went against that advice. That is something members of the House on all sides will have to watch very carefully as we go forward to make sure that we are not eroding those essential three autonomous independent pillars of our democracy.

I would also like to comment briefly on the open government act. Over a year ago, a House of Commons committee invited the Information Commissioner to come up with recommendations for reform of the system after 23 years of experience with the Access to Information Act. The reforms are with respect to some of the basic principles of access to information.

One is that public information is owned by the public and should be accessible by the public. Another one is that exemptions carrying on from that should be limited. In the basic principles he brought forward in the open government act, not only should it be accessible and only have a few exemptions, but those exemptions should have to be discretionary and should have to pass an injury test, that even though they may be within the exceptions in the act, they do not cause injury to the person who might be protected, whether it is a private citizen, a commercial entity or another government. Even if there were injury, there would be a public interest override which is immensely important.

Those were in the open government act recommended by the Information Commissioner last fall. They were reviewed, debated and endorsed by the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. Then the Conservative Party, which was in opposition at the time, put that in black and white in its election platform, that the whole open government act would be included in the accountability act as the first act of a new Parliament if the Conservative Party formed government, but it has not included that. That is work for all of us to do to ensure in the fall when we further consider access to information that those important principles are enhanced.

The third area I would like to talk to briefly is the addition of new agencies of government to provide for greater accountability. I have no doubt these are well meaning but they do have the danger of adding new levels of bureaucracy and process to a system which needs air, needs light and needs to be fair. I think we all agree that the size of government is something we should be reducing and making more effective rather than simply adding to it to deal with another problem. Three of these areas deal with immensely important issues but there are institutions of government that could have taken on those mandates.

I speak first of all of the reprisal tribunal. That is fine but we do have the Canadian Industrial Relations Board which could have been asked to take on that role.

With respect to the nominations committee, there is very good legislation in the bill now which we support, but that could have been done by the Public Service Commission.

With respect to the director of public prosecutions, this country has one of the finest prosecution services federally and provincially than anywhere else in the world. To my knowledge, there has never been a suggestion, certainly in the modern history of Canada, that our federal prosecution service is not acting impartially within that special independent role of the Attorney General. The director of public prosecutions as a new entity is really not necessary. We could have improved the transparency around directions for an Attorney General and Minister of Justice but a new process was not necessary. That was certainly the way we looked at it.

I thank members on all sides of the House for their work at committee. It was a noble purpose, this bill. There were many things that were appropriate to begin with. There were many that could be strengthened and were strengthened by collaboration in committee. There are some aspects that still need to be addressed as this work in progress works to the benefit of all Canadians.

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4:50 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, I congratulate the member for Vancouver Quadra for taking the lead on this piece of legislation on behalf of the official opposition.

The committee has gone through a very unusual situation in that it was a legislative committee. It heard an enormous number of witnesses. From those witnesses came the widely held opinion that the process was too hasty, that it was a little sloppy, that a lot of details were not covered. Many of the witnesses who wanted to reappear to give more fulsome input into some of these important areas were not given that opportunity. When those things happen, when things are rushed, mistakes are made and things get sloppy.

This bill is probably one which we will have to revisit often to fix some of the deficiencies within it.

We say prayers in the morning that we make good laws and wise decisions. It appears that this is a law that is moving in the right direction, and we support many aspects of it, but I am not sure that it was given the kind of diligent study that the House of Commons should have given it.

I would ask the hon. member if he would comment on those allegations.

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4:50 p.m.

Liberal

Stephen Owen Vancouver Quadra, BC

Mr. Speaker, certainly this is a difficult balance. This is an immensely complicated bill with many clauses affecting many other pieces of legislation.

I must say that many of us had some real misgivings with the speed with which it was travelling through the process and the time that was limited for certain witnesses. I can quote two in particular, but many made similar observations, and without passing judgment on them I think they speak for themselves. I will just quote their observations.

One is Arthur Kroeger who is the dean of the bureaucratic core, having been deputy minister in a number of very senior portfolios over the years. He certainly expressed the opinion that the complexity and length of this bill should be given very careful consideration and that all the time that could possibly be used should be used to avoid any unintended consequences given the bill's complexity.

The other key person who commented on this is Ken Rubin, who is perhaps, outside of information commissioners themselves, one of the most knowledgeable people on freedom of information issues in our country. He felt the same thing, that he did not have enough time. He thought that the access provisions needed much more work and improvement.

They are people who are speaking from an independent point of view. We should all take note of their concerns as we diligently go forward to ensure that this act, if it is not as good as it can possibly be now, becomes so.

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4:55 p.m.

Liberal

Marlene Jennings Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, QC

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the comments of my colleague from Vancouver Quadra and I congratulate him on his able performance at the special legislative committee on Bill C-2. He led a team of four Liberal members of Parliament and gave us some wise counsel and leadership, and I would like to thank him for that. However, I do have a couple of questions.

He was asked by our colleague from Mississauga South about the pace at which the committee dealt with Bill C-2. The Parliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons made the point that people had said that the bill could not get through the House before the summer recess. It has been done and this is a great achievement.

I do not wish to speak to whether or not Bill C-2 is a good bill in its actual state. What I do wish to ask the member is did the committee allow a fulsome presentation on the part of the witnesses who are experts who came before the committee?

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4:55 p.m.

Liberal

Stephen Owen Vancouver Quadra, BC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my very dear colleague from Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine for her participation in the committee and her strong support for our team.

We certainly heard from many witnesses that they were frustrated by the short period of time that they had to participate in the committee's deliberations and give evidence. We heard from some as well who would have liked to return and have been asked to return but who did not have the chance.

When we weigh these things out, we have to be careful as parliamentarians to always do two things: first, ensure that we move things along as quickly as possible, particularly issues that deal with fundamental principles, as this act does; and second, ensure we do not--

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4:55 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Andrew Scheer

Please accept my apologies.

It is my duty pursuant to Standing Order 38 to inform the House that the questions to be raised tonight at the time of adjournment are as follows: the hon. member for Skeena—Bulkley Valley, the Environment; the hon. member for Madawaska—Restigouche, Supply Management.

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4:55 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, Bill C-2 is intended to address principles that all Canadians and all parliamentarians share and that is a wish for openness, transparency and accountability in our government institutions. Bill C-2 has made some progress in this regard, but at the same time, there has been a fair bit of hyperbole about how far it goes and how effective it will be.

We heard some suggestion from the previous speaker that there was some haste in dealing with this bill at committee stage and that some mistakes have been made. As the legislation continues after third reading, some serious questions will need to be addressed and this House may have to address them itself.

Just to give the House an idea of how open and transparent the government wants to be on this, I would like to read into the record the entire speech of the Parliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board leading off the debate at report stage yesterday. He said:

Mr. Speaker, I am thankful for the occasion to speak to these motions. I think most members of the House will agree that these amendments are largely technical in nature and fix the minor problems that the committee was not able to address.

I would invite any comments and questions from members across the way but I do not see these as being particularly controversial.

He had 10 minutes to speak at report stage and that was his entire speech. He had an opportunity to advise all hon. members, who were going to be asked to vote on important motions to amend the bill, as to the rationale for seven motions that were put forward by the President of Treasury Board just 12 hours earlier. We did not see those motions until the morning of the debate. This shows maybe a symptom of the wish for the government to have and to engage all parliamentarians on the importance of Bill C-2.

In the parliamentary secretary's speech he characterized people who donate money to candidates or political parties as big money and big corporate cash. To characterize those who participate and who support the democratic political process as somehow being a bad thing is quite unfortunate.

When Bill C-24 passed in this place with the support of all parties, the limits to donations were set at $5,000 for an individual and $1,000 for a corporation or a union. Is there anybody who honestly believes that someone who makes contributions at these levels has significant influence on the government? Of course not. They were fair and reasonable limits.

This bill says that a small businessman will not be allowed to make a contribution through his company to a local candidate who has worked hard for industrial or regional development or for improvements in the economic climate that will affect that individual's business or industry. Suddenly, anybody who is involved in a corporation is somehow supposed to be a bad person.

The parliamentary secretary also said that because of influence peddling somehow Bill C-2 would clean up the process. There may be some unintended consequences here. I would like to give the House an example.

For a member of Parliament such as myself to run in an election my spending limit is somewhere around $80,000. About 60% of this can be received through the Canada Elections Office, but half of it has to go to the party. This means I will have to raise $56,000 to run an average campaign to get to the over 50,000 homes in my riding. This is about $1 a home, not an exorbitant amount of money. Now I am going to have to raise $56,000, but I cannot get more than $1,000 from any one person.

We know some people are prepared to support the democratic process, but all the government has really done is force members of Parliament to get larger numbers of individual donors for this process. It is not enhancing the democratic process in terms of providing information to Canadians about the platforms of one's party, about a member's contribution as a past MP or what a person can do for new candidates.

This is not over. There are no transitional provisions in this with regard to the effectiveness or effective date of the changed limits on political donations. The way it sits right now the in force date would be basically the date of proclamation after royal assent. It means that it would be effective, theoretically, for the calendar year 2006.

The Chief Electoral Officer has indicated that should this bill pass in this form at all stages, including the Senate, and receive royal assent, in order for him to enforce the act he will have to go back and force people to get back some of the money they donated under the former law. This is a big problem. I can speak quite a bit more about it, but I just raise it. This is one issue that will have to come up.

Everybody who talked about it in committee was basically saying that the only way one can effectively control this matter and do it in a way which is the least disruptive to Canadians is to have the effective date of the change of the levels of political donations to be January 1 of the coming year. That way there will be no confusion or disruption to the overall process in a taxation year.

If one is going to be truthful and plain in disclosing what this bill really does, the parliamentary secretary maybe missed a couple of points. He said that this is a seminal event with the hyperbole about how all of these wonderful things are going to happen. He talked about whistleblowers and that the government is going to do this and that. That is not in this bill.

The creation of the Public Service Integrity Officer, the fact that there are reprisals as defined, the fact that there is a process, the fact that the anonymity is going to be protected, and the fact that there are all kinds of remedies available are in Bill C-11. Bill C-11 was passed in the last Parliament and received royal assent last November. If the government were absolutely committed to transparency and openness and an ethical approach to governing, Bill C-11 would have been proclaimed and there would be a law in force in Canada.

We could have that position filled. We could have had that kind of protection for employees already, but the government still has not done it. Why? There is one reason and it is totally political. Basically, the government wants to say that Bill C-2 is the bill that does this and somehow take credit for what parliamentarians worked on for three years.

When Bill C-2 becomes law in Canada, it will also enact Bill C-11 because Bill C-2 in fact makes some consequential amendments to Bill C-11. It tidies it up in a few areas which allows the government to say it has done this. It has not done it. The parliamentary secretary in fact misled the House as to what Bill C-2 does.

Then there is the Lobbyist Registration Act. After all of the foofaraw about people on the transition team not being able to be registered lobbyists for five years, what did the government do? It turned around and made amendments at report stage at the very last moment that established certain criteria, when the commissioner for lobbying has all kinds of latitude to make exceptions to the rules. With all of those problems, the government said it was going to tighten up on the lobbyists. Then it loosened it up.

What about the public appointments commission? Does everyone know what the bill says about the public appointments commission? The bill originally said:

The Governor in Council may establish a Public Appointments Commission consisting of a chairperson and not more than four other members.

That is all the bills says. It says it “may”. It did not say it “will”.

The opposition worked very hard and got the criteria put in with the details of what the commission will be able to do to bring transparency into the appointments process. What did the Prime Minister say immediately after it passed in committee? He said that he did not care because he would not appoint a commissioner and then we would not have anything.

The bill does absolutely nothing for the public appointments process. We will be reverting to Treasury Board guidelines, which have been updated in the last Parliament and have served us very well in providing for that.

Finally, with regard to the Access to Information Act, the bill is a failure in improving the accessibility of Canadians to information on their government. The Information Commissioner himself said that. I know all hon. members will want to look for other opportunities to ensure that important acts, such as the Access to Information Act, get the necessary amendments to make us truly open, transparent and accountable.

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5:10 p.m.

Conservative

Ed Fast Abbotsford, BC

Mr. Speaker, it seems that the comments of the hon. member indicate that he will vote against the accountability act. All the member has done is rail against the act.

I cannot help but compare the member's comments to the comments of his colleague from Vancouver Quadra. His colleague was cogent. He colleague understood that this was a major step forward in restoring accountability in government. His colleague also understood that further improvements could be made in the future.

All I hear from that member is complaint after complaint. It sounds as though he is against accountability.

The member mentioned in his reference that mistakes had been made. I do not know where he gets that. I certainly understand that each of the four parties in the House had an opportunity to submit amendments. Some of the amendments were supported and some were not. That is the political process.

However, I do not know where the member gets it, that somehow the process has failed. I sense from the members of the House that there is a consensus that Bill C-2 needs to move forward. Canadians are demanding it. We have come from 13 years of corruption and the undermining of the ethical framework of government.

Is the member going to support the legislation when it is voted on later tonight?

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5:10 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, the member does not know anything about the act. He certainly does not know anything about what has happened in the House because there is no vote tonight.

I might as well use the rest of time maybe to carry on with some other comments. The member for Vancouver Quadra spoke, he mentioned the haste in witness testimony from Mr. Arthur Kroeger and Mr. Ken Rubin. We have to take the bill at its face. The intent of the bill is good, but it has some problems.

I know that in committee the NDP and the government voted the same way throughout the whole process. Then the Conservative chair of the committee turned around and voted with the government. Every amendment, which tried to be put through in the committee, even setting the age of 18 as being the lowest age at which someone can make a political contribution, was opposed by the government.

When the member wants to suggest that somehow I have a problem with the act, I do not. I want the bill to pass because that is the only way I can get my Bill C-11 in action. Then we can get protection for public servants who are in jeopardy of reprisal if they bring allegations of wrongdoing to the proper attention. That was one of the most important elements. It was done in Bill C-11. It was not done in Bill C-2.

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5:10 p.m.

Liberal

Brian Murphy Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe, NB

Mr. Speaker, I am sure the member for Mississauga South heard the scuttlebutt from other members of the committee, such as the esteemed member for York South—Weston, the member for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, the member for Vancouver Quadra and myself, who all served on the Liberal side of the committee studying Bill C-2. I am sure he heard the story of how the government proceeded with sections of the act relating to the Auditor General's provenance over aboriginal groups, first nations and aboriginal peoples and the first nations that are self-governing.

I am sure the member was told that the government determined and described that the follow the money principle of the government over there, which means taxpayers of Canada want to know what is done with their money with respect to aboriginals and first nations. I am also sure the member was told how offensive that was to aboriginals and first nations and to this side. This side brought forward the amendment that got the government's claw off the first nations and aboriginals funds, which are theirs.

What are the member's comments on that?