Mr. Speaker, you have my firm promise that I will be referring only to you in the course of my comments, tempted though I am.
I would like to refer back to the debate that occurred between the member for Toronto--Danforth and the Conservative House leader and to address one of the issues they had raised in their comments. The member for Toronto--Danforth suggested to the Conservative House leader that there is no distinction between a minister's position and that of an ordinary member and that ministers ought not to be restricted in how they represent their constituents and to what degree they work as ombudsmen on behalf of their constituents.
There is a fundamental distinction here. It used to be traditional for members of parliament to step down and seek re-election when they were becoming cabinet ministers on the understanding that they would be incapable of representing their constituents to the same degree as an ombudsman because they would have the power to represent the interests of their constituents over the interests of the people of Canada.
That was a practice which was abandoned in the early 20th century because we believed we had other protections that would ensure that ministers could no longer represent the interests of their constituents over the interests of the people of Canada who they were representing as ministers of the crown. I am afraid that we are seeing some of those protections being eroded.
More particularly and further to the point the hon. member was making, when the Prime Minister defended the solicitor general he was referring to the fact that the minister was representing the people of Prince Edward Island in his capacity as a regional minister. The solicitor general is a regional minister charged with the task of bringing home the goodies that are dispensed on a discretionary basis by the government to his part of the country in competition with various other regional ministers who have these non official but apparently extremely important portfolios. They are so important in the mind of the Prime Minister that they override their official functions. They override their duty to the crown and their duty to the people of Canada.
They bring home the pork and in consequence exercise discretion in such a way that they pay people in the area where regional ministers are official pork dispensers to hire members of their family to be in parts of their institution to ensure the pork will come to their institution when it is being delivered to the region. That is the fundamental problem and that is the distinction between ministers and ordinary members of parliament, be they on the government side or the opposition side, who are not in the position of power to disburse public funds.
Tonight we will be voting on well over $1 billion in government spending in the form of several votes on several different issues. Due to the vagaries in the way members of parliament submit their motions of objection, it turns out we will almost certainly spend the entire period of time debating the first motion. As it turned out the member for Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough submitted first and therefore we will focus not only on his motion but also on the item which he selected to put in a motion. The result is we will talk about the privy council.
I would like to go through the various votes that will come up tonight and point out the number of dollars involved in each. Under Vote No. 1, which we are debating, $101 million; Vote No. 2 is $3,423,000; Vote No. 3 is $426 million; Vote No. 4 is $110 million; Vote No. 5 is $325 million; and Vote No. 6, grants and contributions from the justice department in the amount of $399 million.
The item we are debating is not the largest item on tonight's agenda and for that reason my remarks will stray a little into some of the other areas other than the privy council. We cannot therefore just focus, as the hon. Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister did, on a civics course essay on what the Privy Council Office does, informative as it is for those who are enrolled in civics courses.
To me what is happening tonight with these votes is symptomatic of a problem which affects so many votes in this place. We find ourselves debating whatever is first on the agenda and then we are simply unable to deal in detail with votes that come up later on the agenda, notwithstanding their importance.
I can give a couple of examples. When Bill C-36, the Anti-terrorism Act, was up for debate, the House got hung up on a motion that I had put forward when time allocation and closure was put in place. The motion was not outstandingly important and the result was that it got debated far more than it deserved and we never got on to the other items, many of which were important. Something like that is happening tonight. With Bill C-5 something similar has occurred.
If I were to pick out the item that seems to me to deserve the greatest consideration among the various votes that are occurring tonight, I would probably say that it would be the grants and contributions, vote 6, in the order of just under $400 million in the justice department. I say that because there is a crisis in the country of confidence in the government, and as polls show, a crisis in the faith that Canadians have in their government not to be corrupt. It is based on the assumption, which is backed up by an outstandingly large amount of evidence, that when governments have the capacity to spend funds in a discretionary manner and when individual ministers have the capacity to allocate in a discretionary manner, and grants and contributions of course fall under this category, then we see the tendency for them not merely to bring the pork home to their region but the bring the pork home to those who might just happen to make contributions to their party or to their own campaigns or indeed in certain cases to their own leadership campaigns.
That is a serious problem. It is more than a serious problem. It is verging on a national crisis.
There are vast amounts of government grants and contributions in other departments, not just the ones we are voting on tonight. I want to give some examples tonight, taking the estimates for this year in three other departments: in the ministry of finance, $675 million in grants and contributions; in the human resources department, just shy of $1 billion in grants and contributions, $925 million to be precise; and in industry, $933 million in grants and contributions.
What this involves of course is money that is given out on a discretionary basis. I do not mean to suggest, and no doubt someone on the other side will insinuate that this is what I mean to suggest, that this is all in the form of grants and contributions to Liberal contributors. However, when we have this amount of money, we have a very large haystack in which more than one or two needles can be buried and of course huge opportunities for abuse.
We all know that these grants and contributions are recorded in the public accounts of Canada. How much does that actually mean? The Public Accounts of Canada list the various grants and contributions given out by the Government of Canada. To give an idea of what it means and how it is supposed to protect the public interest, let me quote from a recent article in the National Post , written by Andrew Coyne. He says:
An informed electorate, so the theory goes, should then be able to decide for itself [by reading the public accounts] whether politicians are too cozy with business or other interests, and punish them at the next election. It's perfectly simple, really. Voters have only to check the list of recipients of grants and subsidies in the public accounts, keep tabs on all untendered contracts issued by Public Works, sift through the files of the various federal lending agencies to see which companies have received government loans, scan the text of each piece of legislation or order-in-council, then cross-reference these with the list of donors maintained at Elections Canada, not only for the current year, but previous years as well.
Presumably we could do this through access to some kind of teleporting device into future political contributions as well. That is what we are up against.
To make things worse than that, we do not get access to all grants and contributions, only those over the amount of $100,000. Any grant or contribution up to $99,000 is completely off the public accounts.
That is a change, incidentally, which occurred during the lifetime of this government. It used to be any grant or contribution over $10,000 but then the rules changed. Why did they change? We were told that there was a problem with the size of the public accounts books being produced. They were getting too large so rules changed to save paper.
This change came through just about the time the Internet came into use and these things were being posted on the Internet. The argument was that too much paper was being used and it was expedient to make this change. It is expedient all right but not perhaps for the reasons suggested by the government at that time.
Is there an opportunity for needles to be hidden in these vast haystacks? There certainly is. The way these accounts are put together, there is not merely one big haystack out there. We have to go through elaborate cross-referencing and we have to have access to information requests to get this information which is not readily or quickly available. Having launched over a 100 access to information requests last year, I am well aware of the fact that they can be delayed, deferred or any number of tactics to deny information to the person seeking it, particularly when it is something worth seeking.
All these things are designed to ensure that there is a separate haystack for every needle out there. As a result, we only ever see what I would like to say is the tip of the iceberg, but actually 10% of the iceberg is actually shows. It is the tip of something much larger with much less showing. That is what is going on.
Here is the tip of the iceberg as it stands now. This is a partial list because I do have limited time. There is something fishy going on with the various Groupaction contracts. There is the new Groupe Everest contract. Media IDA Vision controlled 75% of government advertising contracts last year, when only 25% can be permitted to one company under the rules. There was the overspending on the promotion of the La FrancophonieGames, which has been raised so eloquently by our colleagues in the Bloc Quebecois.
There was a $101 million untendered contract for new jets for our ministers. The Cascade Data Services incipient scandal is emerging in which Cascade Data Services is receiving money when it has no website, no public telephone number and no address known to people who live in the immediate vicinity of its supposed location.
Faced with this situation and all this administrative convenience we have a serious problem. Even if it were the intention of MPs, and more particularly of ministers in the House, to try to be as clean as they possibly could be, the temptations and competitive pressure under such a system for a person to veer from the straight and narrow would be overwhelming, particularly anyone running for the leadership of the governing party when all their competitors are out there raising money with the potential to give favours.
I suggest the only solution is to raise the political costs to the actors who seek to become the leader of the Liberal Party to the point where it no longer pays to get involved in any kind of trading of favours. When this is done, there will be an elimination of any hint or threat of the misuse of public funds.
In my remaining time let me suggest one way in which this sort of thing could be done so that we could improve the public access to the information that would raise the political costs for getting involved in the kinds of conflict of interests that we see emerging. I would suggest we eliminate the $100,000 floor for reporting. I do not suggest taking it down to $10,000 but taking it down to zero.
If a grant or contribution is given out, I suggest it would be recorded in the public accounts, period. Moreover, I suggest it should be placed on the government's website. I would suggest one step further. Being on the website, it should be placed in the form of a manipulable database so individuals can do a few experiments and see, for example, if there are any commonalities in the names of the individuals who are recipients. It can be manipulated by name of recipient.
I would suggest that would make a huge difference. It would greatly reduce the potential for hiding money from the public view. Moreover it would make access instant. It would substantially reduce the costs to those who are looking for this kind of information.
If this were done, I think we would see a tremendous increase in transparency. I think we would see a great reduction in the temptations for people, who perhaps might otherwise be the most honest people in the world, to get ahead in politics and in their search for the leadership of their party without finding any need to put themselves in either a conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest.