House of Commons Hansard #125 of the 40th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was labour.

Topics

Questions on the Order Paper
Routine Proceedings

3:15 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Standing Committee on Finance
Privilege
Routine Proceedings

February 7th, 2011 / 3:15 p.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Peter Milliken

The Chair has received notice of a question of privilege from the hon. member for Kings—Hants. I will hear the hon. member now.

Standing Committee on Finance
Privilege
Routine Proceedings

3:15 p.m.

Liberal

Scott Brison Kings—Hants, NS

Mr. Speaker, I rise on a question of privilege in relation to the 10th report of the Standing Committee on Finance.

In our system of responsible government, the government must seek Parliament's authority to spend public funds. Parliament, in turn, has an obligation, a responsibility to hold the government to account and to scrutinize the government's books.

Recently, this government impeded the work of the Standing Committee on Finance by hindering its attempts to better understand the federal government's budget projections.

As you know, Mr. Speaker, Standing Order 108 empowers committees to send for persons, papers and records. House of Commons Procedure and Practice, second edition, describes Parliament's right to order the production of documents as a right that is “as old as Parliament itself”.

On November 17, 2010, the Standing Committee on Finance passed a motion ordering the Government of Canada to provide the commitment with five-year projections of total corporate profits before taxes and effective corporate tax rates from the 2010-11 fiscal year until the 2014-15 fiscal year, inclusive.

The November 17 motion also ordered the government to provide the committee with certain financial information pertaining to justice Bills C-4, C-5, C-16, C-17, C-21, C-22, C-23A, C-23B, C-39, C-48, C-50, C-51, C-52, S-2, S-6, S-7, S-9 and S-10.

Among other things, the motion specifically requested:

detailed cost accounting, analysis and projections, including assumptions, for each of the bills and Acts, conducted in accordance with the Treasury Board Guide to Costing.

The motion established a deadline of seven calendar days, which ended on November 24, 2010.

On November 24, the Department of Finance replied to the committee with the following. I will read the department's response in its entirety. It stated:

Projections of corporate profits before taxes and effective corporate income tax rates are a Cabinet confidence. As such, we are not in a position to provide these series to the Committee.

The government provided no further information to the committee before the deadline.

On December 1, 2010, one full week after the deadline, the committee received a letter from the Department of Justice regarding projected costs of the justice bills. Again, I will read the department's response in its entirety. It stated:

The issue of whether there are any costs associated with the implementation of any of the Government's Justice bills is a matter of Cabinet confidence and, as such, the Government is not in a position to provide such information or documents.

On December 7, 2010, after the government had refused to provide the information ordered by the committee by the established deadline, I provided the committee with written notice for a motion by which, if passed, the committee would draw the attention of the House to what appeared to be a breach of its privileges.

On December 10, 2010, perhaps in response to the written notice I had written on December 7, the committee received an additional response from the Department of Finance.

In its response, the department stated:

To the best of its knowledge, the Department of Finance has determined that “series” or projections of corporate profits before taxes or the effective corporate income tax rates have never been previously disclosed. These projections are from a comprehensive economic and fiscal projection that constitutes a Cabinet confidence. As a result, the Department of Finance has not been in a position to provide these "series" to the Committee.

This response appeared somewhat dubious. For, if any member of the House or if any Canadian wishes to Google the phrase “corporate profits before taxes” and restrict their search to the domain of the Department of Finance's website, he or she would get exactly two results: the HTML and PDF versions of “The Economic and Fiscal Update” from November 2005, in which they would find, on page 83, that the previous Liberal government had actually published projections of corporate profits before taxes from 2005 until 2010.

At this time, I would like to seek unanimous consent to table page 83 of “The Economic and Fiscal Update” from November 2005.

Standing Committee on Finance
Privilege
Routine Proceedings

3:20 p.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Peter Milliken

Does the hon. member for Kings—Hants have the unanimous consent of the House to table this document?

Standing Committee on Finance
Privilege
Routine Proceedings

3:20 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

No.

Standing Committee on Finance
Privilege
Routine Proceedings

3:20 p.m.

Liberal

Scott Brison Kings—Hants, NS

Mr. Speaker, I believe Canadians will have to rely on technology to find that information by Googling corporate profits before taxes and simply restricting that search to Finance Canada.

Not only have these projections been previously disclosed, they were disclosed by the Department of Finance itself under the previous Liberal government in November 2005.

The Standing Committee on Finance has an unambiguous and unlimited right to access the information it has ordered from the government.

As pointed out in the Speaker's ruling of April 27, 2010:

—procedural authorities are categorical in repeatedly asserting the powers of the House in ordering the production of documents. No exceptions are made for any category of government documents, even those related to national security.

In that ruling it was also noted that at page 281 of Bourinot's Parliamentary Procedure and Practice in the Dominion of Canada, fourth edition, it states:

But it must be remembered that under all circumstances it is for the house to consider whether the reasons given for refusing the information are sufficient. The right of Parliament to obtain every possible information on public questions is undoubted, and the circumstances must be exceptional, and the reasons very cogent, when it cannot be at once laid before the houses.

O'Brien and Bosc, at page 83, refers to a list of types of contempt of Parliament. Included in that list is:

without reasonable excuse, refusing to answer a question or provide information or produce papers formally required by the House or a committee;

In its replies to the committee, the government has said that it cannot provide the information the committee has ordered because of cabinet confidence. On what grounds is this information covered by cabinet confidence? On this matter, the government has been completely silent. No cogent reason or reasonable excuse has been provided. Instead, the committee has been left guessing.

What we do know is that in 2005, the previous Liberal government recognized that the projections of corporate profits before taxes were not covered by cabinet confidence. Such projections are not considered a cabinet confidence when, as is the case with Finance Canada's revenue model, these projections are used by the department in a manner that is not exclusively related to cabinet operations.

Therefore, what has changed between 2005 and today? On what grounds is the government claiming that these projections are now a cabinet confidence where before they were not?

With respect to the costs of the justice bills, we know that due diligence would have required that cabinet consider the cost implications of each of these bills before making a decision to proceed with each bill. Particularly today with a record $56 billion deficit, we would hope the government would carry on this type of due diligence.

We know that under normal practice, an analysis of the cost implications of each justice bill would have been included with a memorandum to cabinet prepared for each bill.

Section 69 of the Access to Information Act tells us that such analysis and background information is not a cabinet confidence if the cabinet decision to which the analysis relates has been made public.

Furthermore, in the Ethyl case, the Federal Court has been clear. This analysis and background information can be severed from a protected document and disclosed.

Legislation goes to cabinet for a decision before it is introduced to Parliament. The very act of introducing government legislation in Parliament is a public declaration of cabinet's decision to support that legislation. Therefore, the cost estimates for the justice legislation are no longer a matter of cabinet confidence.

Page 137 of O'Brien and Bosc states from a report of the Standing Committee on Privileges and Elections in 1991:

It is well-established that Parliament has the right to order any and all documents to be laid before it which it believes are necessary for its information.

...The power to call for persons, papers and records is absolute, but it is seldom exercised without consideration of the public interest.

The previous government recognized that it was in the public interest to publish projections of corporate profits before taxes. How would bringing these projections under cabinet confidence serve the public interest? The fact is that the public interest is not served by this change in the government's application of cabinet confidence.

In his testimony before the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates on February 1, 2011, the Parliamentary Budget Officer offered recent examples of where the public interest was served by the government's publishing details on additional planned resources for government programs and spending restraints before Parliament was asked to provide the financial authorities.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer went on to note:

This raises the question as to why the application of cabinet confidence with respect to restraint measures appears to have changed in a relatively short period of time.

Withholding the requested information from the committee clearly does not serve the public interest. In fact, withholding this information impedes Parliament's ability to fulfill its duty, responsibility to scrutinize the estimates, and to hold the government to account.

With that in mind, the government's claim that the requested information cannot be provided to the committee is without merit. Furthermore, the government's refusal to provide the information constitutes a breach of the House's privilege.

The government's refusal to provide a reasonable excuse as to why this information should be withheld also constitutes a contempt of Parliament.

Mr. Speaker, I would like to close by quoting from your April 27, 2010 ruling on the question of privilege surrounding the provision of information to the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan. You said:

In a system of responsible government, the fundamental right of the House of Commons to hold the government to account for its actions is an indisputable privilege and in fact an obligation.

In this case the House of Commons' efforts to hold the government to account have been unduly frustrated by the government itself.

I am therefore prepared to move an appropriate motion if, Mr. Speaker, you find a prima facie question of contempt.

Standing Committee on Finance
Privilege
Routine Proceedings

3:30 p.m.

Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre
Saskatchewan

Conservative

Tom Lukiwski Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, I would merely point out that the question of privilege that the member brings forward is with respect to the 10th report of the Standing Committee on Finance which was tabled in this House less than 30 minutes ago.

Therefore, our government has not had a chance to examine that report. Neither have you, Mr. Speaker, had a chance to examine that report.

I would humbly and respectfully submit that we should have that opportunity before making a more comprehensive response to the member's intervention of just a few moments ago.

Mr. Speaker, I would ask, with your permission, that you grant us some time. I would submit that we will get back as quickly as possible, to this House and to you, with a very comprehensive response to this intervention in order for you to have an opportunity to examine all the comments and make a subsequent ruling.

Standing Committee on Finance
Privilege
Routine Proceedings

3:30 p.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Peter Milliken

I thank the hon. parliamentary secretary for his intervention and the hon. member for Kings—Hants for his considered question of privilege.

I certainly will give the hon. parliamentary secretary some time to prepare. I, myself, have not seen the report, as he mentioned, so I am not in a position to comment on that matter at this stage. So, yes, there will be some time for further interventions from other members who wish to do so on this question.

Canada-Panama Free Trade Act
Government Orders

3:30 p.m.

Bloc

Thierry St-Cyr Jeanne-Le Ber, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to speak to Bill C-46, which would implement the free trade agreement negotiated between Canada and the Republic of Panama. First of all, I want to say that even though the Bloc Québécois is generally in favour of free trade, it will oppose Bill C-46 and, more specifically, the agreement with Panama.

I will start by providing a brief history of free trade and explain why a number of countries have signed agreements to freely exchange goods, without there being any customs duties or excessive restrictions on these goods.

The oldest major free trade agreement is the GATT, which was signed in 1947. If I recall correctly, that stands for the Global Agreement—

Canada-Panama Free Trade Act
Government Orders

3:30 p.m.

Bloc

Daniel Paillé Hochelaga, QC

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

Canada-Panama Free Trade Act
Government Orders

3:30 p.m.

Bloc

Thierry St-Cyr Jeanne-Le Ber, QC

That is it. I had forgotten what the letter g stood for.

Canada-Panama Free Trade Act
Government Orders

3:30 p.m.

Bloc

Daniel Paillé Hochelaga, QC

That g is spot-on.

Canada-Panama Free Trade Act
Government Orders

3:30 p.m.

Bloc

Thierry St-Cyr Jeanne-Le Ber, QC

I thank the member for Hochelaga for that very important clarification.

This agreement allowed access to the markets and resources of various countries, which constituted a major step in terms of both human and economic progress.

In the past, many countries waged wars because they wanted to access a resource found in a neighbouring country or because one country was looking for new markets to sell goods. Every empire was built on this desire to have as many places as possible to sell their goods and to accumulate wealth. By opening up trade and accessing our neighbours' resources, without having to invade them or declare war, we probably avoided wars and improved international relations. Over time, these agreements became increasingly important economically.

For an exporting country like Quebec, which essentially produces manufactured goods for export, free trade is attractive because it facilitates access to markets and helps make us more competitive. These agreements enable us to sell our companies' goods, our own creations, to foreign countries, to create jobs in Quebec and to bring in good revenue.

What is more, consumers gain access to these products. In the case of Quebec, imported products often, but not always, have less value added and cost less than usual.

Every country has its strengths and weaknesses. In theory, the underlying principle of free trade is to draw on the strengths of each country to benefit all the partners.

If everything is done properly and Quebec definitely benefits, then the Bloc Québécois will support an agreement. However, let us not get carried away by ideology and say we are for or against free trade no matter what they are trying to sell us. The situation needs to be analyzed and assessed. Obviously, that did not happen in the case of the Panama agreement. In fact, officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and from the Department of Industry admitted when they appeared before committee that they did not conduct any studies to determine whether these agreements would be beneficial to our economy. The government is blindly entering this agreement with the attitude that, because we are all in favour of free trade, we will always support agreements of this kind. The Bloc is not prepared to go down that road.

They want so badly to sign a host of bilateral free trade agreements at any cost that they are prepared to consider any and all markets. The government is considering concluding an agreement with China, when we have a $26 billion trade deficit with that country. The Chinese sell us goods worth $26 billion more than what we sell to them. Before considering freer trade with countries like China, we should start by looking at how we could restore trade balance with them.

The Bloc Québécois proposes taking a multilateral approach, in other words, negotiating trade agreements at the international level, or at least with larger blocks of countries. That would help establish a better balance between the economic advantages that each country hopes to draw from the agreement and all the social, human and environmental considerations, which often are not included in these very specific bilateral agreements.

With regard to Panama in particular, we are concerned about the issue of workers' rights. The government of Panama has moved even farther to the right and has passed legislation that many consider to be extremely anti-union, since it will make it illegal for workers to demonstrate, protest or lobby to improve their salary conditions.

Another concern we have about this free trade agreement is the issue of tax havens. Panama is on France's blacklist and the OECD's grey list of tax havens. At least in theory, we do not want companies to be able to do business in Panama, not because of economic opportunities but because of laughably low taxes and the banking system's lack of transparency. We are worried that companies will take advantage of this to avoid paying taxes that they should legitimately be paying to Canada. In addition, if we sign a free trade agreement, we will make it even easier for people who want to use these tax havens. That is a big concern for us.

The Bloc Québécois has long been fighting to put an end to tax havens like Bermuda, Barbados, Panama and many others.

I kept a close eye on the whole saga of Barbados and the shipping company former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin operated there. He even voted for retroactive legislation that allowed him to repatriate profits to Canada tax-free. This was money he had laundered through Barbados. We criticized it then and we have ever since. And apparently it still does not bother the Liberal Party very much to sign a free trade agreement with a tax haven.

There is another reason to fight against tax havens. Yes, we need to recover the billions of dollars theoretically owed to our governments, but we also need to keep criminals from hiding their money in these tax havens. Even if they are caught, once they get out of prison, they can recover the money because we have no way of intervening and checking what money is flowing in and out of these countries.

For all these reasons, the Bloc Québécois cannot support the bill that is before us today. We invite the Liberals, in particular, to rethink the advisability of supporting the government and instead vote against this bill in order to send the government back to the drawing board and have it negotiate multilateral agreements that are good for Quebec, Canada and all working people.

Canada-Panama Free Trade Act
Government Orders

3:40 p.m.

NDP

Jim Maloway Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Mr. Speaker, the member is absolutely right. According to American statistics, Panama has 350,000 foreign companies registered. They are registered in large part because of the tax haven status. That is one of the reasons why a good number of American Congress members refuse to ratify a similar agreement with the United States and Panama.

Until the American government gets tough with Panama and forces it to start co-operating and shuts down the money laundering facilities and the tax haven activities of Panama, this is going to continue.

We are rewarding bad behaviour by simply promoting and passing this legislation. The Americans are holding it up. They are refusing to act.

Last year France was tough and put heavy taxes on companies doing business with Panama. Panama came to the table immediately and signed a double taxation agreement with France as a result of that pressure. It is about time the Canadian government gets tough and quits rolling over to countries like Panama.