Mr. Speaker, we are being asked to debate a bill today that is long overdue, many would say 10 years overdue, and after all that time, it is a half a loaf. We are being asked to support a bill that has been desperately needed in this country for at least a decade and falls short in so many ways.
That is the dilemma we are all facing today. Do we support something because it is better than nothing, and try to address this paucity of action, this lack of decisive initiative by the government, or do we send it back to the drawing board and start again? It is a terrible dilemma to be in.
It is an unacceptable position to have to face, given the amount of time the government has had to deal with this matter, and to consider the concerns of parliamentarians and the views of Canadians. However, we are in that position today and we have to make that decision.
My colleagues in the New Democratic Party have wrestled with this decision around Bill C-34 long and hard. We have many concerns with this bill. We have made many amendments that have been rejected and we are disappointed in the process, but in the final analysis we know that we need an ethics commissioner for Parliament that has some independence and is different than the present arrangement. We desperately need that.
When all is said and done, we will have to support this bill. We will have to hold our noses and say that it is too bad that we had this great opportunity, that we had a moment before us where we could have made such a difference and we had to go for second best. We had to lower our expectations and we had to subject ourselves to true Liberal politics in this country today which is to never do the best when the situation presents itself, to always go for the bare minimum and keep the standards low. That is what we are dealing with today.
I want the record to be clear and I want members of other parties to know that while we will end up supporting this bill, we do so reluctantly and we share many of the concerns raised in the House today.
What will it mean if we pass Bill C-34? How will it change the situation and will it endure the test of time? I asked the question earlier of the government House leader about how long this new initiative would likely last given the new regime that is about to take over on the government's side and for good reason. I asked that question because we know that when it comes to the Prime Minister's legacy agenda, the Prime Minister and leader to be of the Liberal Party has said that he is not above tampering with legislation that the House is either in the process of implementing or considering.
We heard the former finance minister say last week, after we had the big debate on same sex marriage that whatever Parliament decides, he might make some necessary changes despite the will of Parliament. We heard the former finance minister also say that whatever this place decides on the decriminalization of marijuana, he might have something else in mind and he might just ignore or disregard what Parliament does.
The logical question is, if we proceed with Bill C-34, no matter what the government House leader says, what guarantees are there that the next Prime Minister of Canada will not find some way to alter or change this legislation, this idea, this important initiative?
It is a legacy agenda for the Prime Minister, that is for sure. The Prime Minister has said that he wants to see the bill through, no matter how flawed, as part of his legacy. Some would ask, what legacy? Others would say, though, that if it is his legacy agenda, given what the former finance minister has said it is doomed anyway. It is probably going to be changed, watered down, weakened and tampered with.
So let us put that in perspective. Let us keep that in mind as we deal with this legislation at a time when it is so difficult for us as parliamentarians to know how to pursue the issues on which Canadians sent us here in the first place, to pursue change and to pursue important public policies, when in fact we are dealing with a two-headed government. We are dealing with a Prime Minister who is intent on accomplishing a legacy agenda that is questionable and which the next prime minister of the day is likely to in fact take apart anyway, so what do we do as parliamentarians?
I guess we do the best we can with what we have. We continue to speak out on behalf of the concerns of Canadians. Today we have that opportunity. We have an opportunity to say to Canadians that we recognize this is vital for democracy in the land, that it is incumbent upon us as parliamentarians to deal with growing cynicism and skepticism among Canadians about the work of parliamentarians and about the influences they have in their day to day lives. It is critical for us to at least validate those concerns and to say it makes absolute sense and we will fight with everything we have to implement those changes and ensure that this place has an ethics commissioner who will in fact work to ensure that parliamentarians are operating at the highest levels of integrity, honesty and decency.
That is really what this is all about it. Others have said it today. This is about restoring faith in democracy. It is about giving people reason to believe that when they participate in elections those who are elected fulfill promises, operate at the highest standards and are not influenced by money and influence and power for the sake of power.
Canadians have asked for this for a long time and the Liberals have promised it for a long time. As others have said, in 1993 there was the red book promise. It is just like the promise for national home care and national pharmacare. It is like all kinds of promises that just sort of disappeared and are gathering dust somewhere. In fact, I would like to hear some day from a Liberal across the way how many of those red book promises in 1993 actually were implemented. I have a feeling that it is not a very high percentage. Let us go back to the 1993 red book and remind members across the way and all Canadians of just what was promised to them.
Liberals in that election said they would:
--appoint an independent Ethics Counsellor to advise both public officials and lobbyists in the day-to-day application of the Code of Conduct for Public Officials.
That is one thing the red book said. It also said that Liberals would enshrine the principles and commitments of political non-interference in public decisions and free access to public office holders and, it stated, the Liberals:
--will develop a Code of Conduct for Public Officials to guide Cabinet ministers, members of Parliament, senators, political staff, and public servants in their dealings with lobbyists.
They were fine words. It was a commitment made for good reason. There were enough examples even back then of influence peddling and of corruption within government. The need for this was clear. Ten years later, we are debating legislation to establish an ethics counsellor, legislation that is flawed, falls short of what is required and does not reflect the will of most parliamentarians.
Probably the red book of 1997 repeated the same promises. I do not know. I do not have that in front of me, but I do know what the Speech from the Throne said in 1997. I was here, newly elected, and naive, I suppose, and a former colleague, in response to the Speech from the Throne, said:
So many of our citizens have become so discouraged with our politicians and our political system that they have chosen not to exercise the basic rights for which our forefathers fought and died. But the sad reality is, and it came across loudly and clearly to me during the election campaign, that many citizens have lost faith in their politicians. Politicians were described to me as not really caring, being in it only for themselves or for the money, being dishonest or full of empty promises....As I stand here today I pledge that I will do my best to put a new face on politics.
That was in response to the throne speech of 1997. Here we are in 2003 debating legislation to establish an ethics counsellor, legislation that is imperfect, flawed and falls short of the mark. Why?
Those were wonderful statements about Canadians' concerns with democracy and faith in politicians, but these statements, by not being acted upon, in fact add to that cynicism and skepticism. There seems to be more disillusionment than ever. It is another set of fine words from politicians, which no one acted on.
There have been attempts in the House over the last decade to get this government off its duff and get it started doing something with respect to the red book promise of 1993 and the throne speech promise of 1997. I do not need to remind members in the House that it was one of my former colleagues as the member for Halifax West who twice brought forward legislation in the House to convince the government to act. He would have been happy if the government had taken the idea and acted on it. It did not have to be his bill. It did not have to be that private member's initiative. But he brought forward legislation that did not go anywhere. I want to quote from Gordon Earle's speech of December 16, 1999. He stated:
This bill is realistic. It is reflected in provincial legislatures and other nations' national assemblies. This code of conduct would raise the level of integrity of our Parliament. This bill is rooted in very practical and legitimate concerns Canadians hold about their Parliament.
He went on to say that he was very disappointed that the issue had not been acted on to that point in December 1999. He talked about everything that Parliament should be, and which we think it is, but he talked about how it fell short because we did not have the framework in place, we did not have the proper legislation in place and we did not have an effective model for an ethics commissioner in place. That was in December 1999. At that time, even though the Liberals made the promise in 1993, the parliamentary secretary stood up in the House in that debate and said, “This is not a priority”. It was not a priority.
We did not give up with the loss of that opportunity. Gordon Earle was unsuccessful in the 2000 election. The cause was taken up by our member for Halifax, then leader of the New Democratic Party, who reintroduced this private member's initiative, which became Bill C-299, with a view to pushing the government, giving government the tools it needed to make an election commitment a reality. We did the homework. We made it possible. We said, “Steal the idea. Run with it.” Did anything happen on that front? No.
Finally, I guess, enough scandals happened, with enough rumblings and speculation about ministerial involvement in the sponsorship contracts. We got more and more examples of lack of ethical standards in the high echelons of the bureaucracy. We were talking earlier about Charles Boyer, but we should also remember that we recently had the case of Paul Cochrane, the former ADM at the Department of Health, and others of his colleagues who are charged with criminal wrongdoing, numerous counts of fraud, corruption and bribery, and who have now experienced charges in this case, which will be heard soon.
There have been all kinds of examples that have caused this issue to stay at the top of the political agenda. Finally, and I guess because of that, the Prime Minister decided in the spring of 2002 to move on this area. He introduced his package around election guidelines, election donations and leadership contributions, a code of conduct for parliamentarians, and some sort of legislation on an ethics commissioner. Was he serious? I think he was. I do not want to question his motives.
However, by that point it really ended up being a band-aid on a pretty big sore, a pretty big open wound, with all kinds of festering happening as more of these scandals came to life, more allegations were made and more Canadians became cynical about this place.
On the one hand one could argue that yes, in fact, the Prime Minister finally, after a decade, was deciding to put into action what he believed in all along. Or one could argue that perhaps he was trying to make life a little difficult for the former finance minister, the member for LaSalle—Émard, who was in the middle of all of this at the time with the concerns around Canadian Steamship Lines, concerns around money going into Barbados, and concerns around numbers of donations he was getting and the lack of a system to disclose those donations. All of that was coming to a head at the same time and perhaps the Prime Minister was really just trying to make life a bit difficult for the member for LaSalle—Émard. Who knows?
Needless to say, we are here today with a less than perfect piece of legislation. It is less than perfect on a number of fronts.
We have heard today particular concerns about the fact that this position is not really independent. The ethics commissioner is to be appointed following a simple majority vote in this place. It is an improvement from the way in which the ethics counsellor now operates; he was appointed by the Prime Minister. But will someone who receives 50% plus one be accountable to all of us and be open to all our suggestions and concerns? Or would that person in effect still be manipulated by the Prime Minister's Office?
What members, at least those on this side of the House, wanted to see was an amendment to the bill such that it would require a two-thirds majority for an ethics commissioner to be accepted by Parliament. A two-thirds majority makes sense, right? It would mean that we would have to involve all parties. It would go beyond the control of the government of the day. It would certainly carry the hope for more independence.
A simple majority vote in the House to support the appointment of an ethics commissioner is simply not effective. That is what members have been saying today and all through this debate: the ethics commissioner must have the trust and support of all members of Parliament to have the confidence of the House of Commons.
That amendment was presented in good faith and with good rationale and good reason. Members of the government side, the Liberal Party, turned down that amendment. Why? Why turn down something that would allow for more independence? That is a major concern.
Let me also reference the concern about the fact we had hoped that this legislation would ensure that the position would be able to incorporate a regime for the disclosure of private interests of MPs and senators and would include their immediate family. We have a couple of concerns on that front.
First, we understand that separate codes of conduct would be established by each of the respective Houses. That clearly begs the question, and there is a lot of history here to justify this, of whether there will be two sets of standards for parliamentarians and senators. Will there be one set for MPs and another set for senators? Are we not talking about basically the same thing, which is a way to ensure that conflict of interest is declared in an open and meaningful way?
Second, we are very concerned that we have not resolved the issue of family members, in particular the question of the spouse of the MP or the Senator, with respect to disclosure provisions and the code of conduct to be developed.
Finally, there is a very legitimate concern that has not been addressed by the bill and that is the public ought to have some way to access the system.
I will just conclude by saying we believe that receiving and investigating complaints of improper behaviour by the public should be part of the regime. The public should be able to make complaints directly to the ethics commissioner not just through a member of Parliament. The public should have some input in this process. It goes without saying that frivolous accusations should not be party to this kind of system.
We are very concerned. We hate being put in the position of accepting something because it is better than nothing. However we want to see an ethics counsellor. We will support the bill but we register vehemently our concerns with the process and the dragging of heels by the Liberals. We urge them to address these concerns immediately.