Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in the debate on Bill C-2, the federal accountability act.
First, I do not think there is any member in this place who does not share a common objective, which I believe the President of the Treasury Board said in his opening speech on April 25 of this year at the lead speech on second reading. He said, “Our goal, our commitment, simply put, is to make government more accountable”.
On this basis, I believe Bill C-2 had that goal as its fundamental principle and, as such, it received the unanimous support of all parties at second reading and through the rest of the process. I am sure all hon. members will support the bill.
However, members will know that there have been a lot of discussions over a great period of time about how the bill was done. There were concerns when the bill was first tabled. The government put forward a very significant document. I do not believe there is any other bill, which I have had to work on as a parliamentarian, that touches so many other acts. It is an omnibus bill.
The bill touches a very large number of acts and it is difficult to read. We cannot start at the beginning, go through and see the story, the lead up, the plot, the end of it and everybody lives happily ever after. It is not like that. Every section of it refers to amending some other piece of existing legislation. There are also some transitional positions, et cetera, but in the main we are basically amending a very large number of other legislation.
When we looked at Bill C-2, we had something over 200 pages. Then we were told at the outset that the government wanted it passed. I believe April 25 was the first debate, and it wanted it passed by the summer.
It begs the question about how parliamentarians discharge their responsibilities. In the prayer we start the House with every day we say that we make good laws and wise decisions. It is not possible to have done this bill justice in such a short time and yet it was at the government's insistence that we push this matter because it wanted the bill passed by the summer. It is now November.
There have been a lot of questions about whether someone has been delaying the process, whether it be in the House or in the Senate. Parliamentarians not only have the right but they have the duty to do the job as they see fit, to make good laws and wise decisions. I do not think any member of Parliament, except those possibly who were on the special legislative committee to deal with Bill C-2, had the opportunity and the time to get into the detail. However, we all had an opportunity to look at aspects of the bill in which we may have had some background.
Canadians should understand, when parliamentarians rise to vote on Bill C-2 tonight on the subamendment, on the amendment, on the concurrence and on the passage of the bill to be sent back to the Senate, that members of Parliament have had to rely on many other people in this chamber who have done the work in a great bit of detail.
I wanted to make that point because we have, with a very large bill, a situation where members of Parliament have been asked to rely on the work of others in order for them to make an informed decision. It is very difficult, and I have some reservation about some of the areas of the bill. However, because there was an alliance formed by the government and another party, the amount of time that was available for the debate and to consider amendments, even at report stage, was truncated substantially. There was a forced position. In fact, we did not even have a final vote before it went to the Senate. Basically, we deemed that the question was put and deemed that it was passed. There was no recorded division on it.
It suggests to me, and I am sure it suggests to those observers who watch the legislative process, that when a bill is put together in such haste, there will be mistakes. I do not think anyone in this place will deny the fact that there were mistakes made in the bill that Parliament passed and referred to the Senate.
In fact, the President of the Treasury Board, in dealing with the work of the Senate, estimated that there were about 154 amendments proposed by senators. The Senate is composed of Liberal and Conservative senators, and 42 of those amendments came from Conservative senators. Of the 150-some odd amendments, the President of the Treasury Board accepted, without debate, without further consideration, 57 amendments.
The fact is the President of the Treasury Board, who is the minister responsible for Bill C-2, accepted some 57 amendments proposed by the Senate to make this a better bill. For that to happen, I think the Senate demonstrated that it did the job it was put there to do.
The Senate reviewed the legislation. It came up with changes, and we are still considering other amendments. The President of the Treasury Board has laid out, and the members can see, some of the brief reasons why some of the other proposed amendments are not acceptable to the government. That is his job. I believe this debate will find there are still a couple of items that yet remain unresolved.
In the main, I think all members of Parliament understand that Bill C-2 will pass the House and go back to the Senate. I want to advise members that the Senate has already made some consideration as to what happens when it goes back to the Senate. It has decided to have the bill immediately referred back to its legislative committee to advise the Senate on the appropriate course of action to take. The Senate is ready and waiting for this bill.
I am hopeful we will see Bill C-2 pass at all stages, get it through the Senate and receive royal assent prior to the House rising. The proclamation of the bill is up to the government.
I want to make one explanation. Even though a bill passes through the House of Commons and the Senate and receives royal assent, it is not in force. It is law but it is not in force until it is proclaimed. I raise that because we have the same issue with regard to another bill, Bill C-11, the whistleblower legislation, which passed and received royal assent in the last Parliament, and I will comment on that bill.
Bill C-2 is about accountability. I think we know that we have the support of all hon. members in the House to make the bill as good as possible, to ensure that it passes and that we get some of the important provisions started. Much of the legislation will require a lot of changes within the public service of Canada, within the administration of political parties and within all these acts. The Chief Electoral Officer will to have quite a job to do.
A week ago Friday, I was pleased to participate as a panellist at a special conference in Ottawa on the subject matter of accountability, with specific reference to Bill C-2. It was a four day conference and I followed some of it. I found out that many of the panellists and presenters were law scholars, professors from universities and experts on various aspects of law such as access to information. Members of Parliament and senators participated as well.
I found it fascinating that a debate was going on as to what we meant by accountability. It was interesting how different speakers had different definitions for accountability. Having recognized that, I went to the dictionary to find out what a lay dictionary would say about someone who is accountable. If we look up the word “accountable”, accountability is a form of usage. It basically said that accountability has to do with someone who is required to explain or justify his or her actions or decisions. That was the short definition of “accountable”.
As a chartered accountant, I worked a lot on public financing. There is a document called a prospectus which goes out to potential investors to give them all the information they need to make an informed decision about whether they want to invest in an offering. One of the principles in terms of requirements of a prospectus, which is very important, is that it give true, full and plain disclosure.
With that as background, I spoke at this conference and defined, for our purposes, accountability as a government or as anyone explaining and/or justifying their actions or decisions with true, full and plain disclosure. We can see all of a sudden that the definition is building because someone can be accountable to different degrees. We can be accountable by giving some part of a true, full and plain disclosure but the degree to which one is accountable comes into question.
I went on that theme but also wanted to look at some examples. A very simple example was in the throne speech that the government presented at the beginning of this Parliament. The Minister of Finance announced that there would be a decrease in taxes to 15.5% on the first marginal tax rate. In fact, the tax rate actually went up. It had been reduced in the last Parliament to 15% and the throne speech increased the tax rate on the first marginal bracket to 15.5%. It was an increase in taxes for Canadians.
The finance minister subsequently explained that the change in the tax rate by the previous government from 16% down to 15% was only in a ways and means motion that had not yet passed in the House. Mr. Speaker, you will know that when a finance minister announces changes, like what was done with the income trust, those things are all of a sudden in effect. Subsequently, as Parliament gets a chance to review and vote on the ways and means motion, it will formally ratify it but, if it should be defeated, we cannot go back retroactively. Therefore, the rate that was announced by the previous government was 15% and the tax returns of Canadians for the 2005 tax year showed an initial tax rate of 15%.
Had Parliament continued and not been interrupted by an election, the ways and means motion would have been voted on. Had it been defeated, the tax rate would have reverted to 16% but only from the date of the vote in Parliament that defeated the ways and means motion.
The finance minister said that since it did not pass in Parliament, as far as he was concerned the rate was still 16% and he reduced it to 15.5%. It is wordsmithing. It is semantics. There is no question that Canadians paid a tax rate of 15% on their 2005 return but the government in its throne speech and in the budget that was passed increased that tax rate to 15.5%.
Now we need to ask whether the government was accountable. Was it accountable to Canadians? The Conservatives said that they had decreased taxes but they in fact increased the taxes. When we go through that explanation, we do not get the chance to explain it to everyone and I am not sure everyone would understand. I am not even sure anyone will understand what I just said.
However, we need to apply the definition of accountability, which is explaining or justifying our actions or decisions in true full and plain disclosure, but this was not done. On that item the government was not fully accountable. It was sort of accountable but with an explanation or a qualification. It was not pure and true accountability.
With regard to income trusts, the government made a promise during the election campaign. At that point, the Conservative Party, wanting to form a government, was not accountable. Do members know why? It was because the making of a promise not to raise taxes on income trusts was interfering in the marketplace and any finance minister knows that the predictability and stability of the marketplace is the responsibility of a finance minister not to impact the marketplace unduly, not to jaundice or bias it so that there is no government interference in the financial markets.
The first decision to make that promise was to give some assurances, which would have affected the decision of investors. When they saw that as part of the Conservatives' platform, they decided that if those people were elected they would make that happen. If we look at the numbers on income trusts, more Canadians buy into income trusts because it offers a substantial opportunity for high return and a regular cashflow, which many seniors like because it allows them to emulate a pension plan.
The first promise not to tax income trusts was unaccountable but the second one was the broken promise, the so-called double-cross, which was to all of a sudden tax income trusts. The ethical question comes up about whether a government is responsible for keeping its promises or, if it must break its promises, to at least explain and justify them in true, full and plain disclosure. However, that did not happen. In fact, the implications to the marketplace were clear. It was the mother of all free falls in the financial markets. Thirty-five billion dollars of the wealth of Canadians was wiped out in a day and half.
The government made two mistakes. The first one was interfering in the marketplace by making such a promise. The second one was breaking the promise, notwithstanding that there was some argument that the problem had to be dealt with. Even today the Canadian Association of Income Funds is providing analyses that refute the fact that there is a significant disparity between the tax treatment of income trusts and of dividend paying corporations.
On the question of accountability, it would have been a greater degree of accountability had the announcement of that decision been taken, say, on a Friday. At least the people who would be impacted would have had the opportunity to do something before the opening of the market on Monday. Instead, the government made the announcement mid-week and Canadians did not have an opportunity to consider the change and many people lost money. Was there accountability there? I would say not.
I wish I had more time to talk to hon. members about some of the aspects of the bill. I have problems with some areas. I wish the access to information provisions were stronger, as recommended by the former commissioner, Mr. Reid. There are some other matters that I believe we can deal with at a future time, so that is not critical.
On the whole, we are moving in the right direction and I congratulate all hon. members for doing as good a job as possible in the time allotted.