Mr. Speaker, I was hoping to be able rise to say that the previous speaker had persuaded me, but unfortunately he has not, and I will be opposing the bill.
I would like to start with a frame of reference that situates Bill C-520 within the whole question of the democratic functioning of this Parliament. I have four main points before I get to what are the specific problems with the bill in my view.
The first thing is that we cannot forget how central parliamentary officers—we often say parliamentary agents—have become to the functioning of this institution, but the House of Commons in particular. One only has to note the Auditor General, the Chief Electoral Officer, the Privacy Commissioner, the Information Commissioner as being among the officers to know how incredibly important their roles are.
It also speaks to why the leader of the official opposition, in a bill the Conservatives voted against, would have wanted to elevate the position of the Parliamentary Budget Officer to that of an officer of Parliament, as well.
Why am I mentioning this? The way in which our system has evolved, the incredible degree of influence, if not direct control, that the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister's Office, to an extent ministers have in the way in which this very legislative institution functions makes it all the more important that there are other avenues of accountability than the traditional ones that Parliament, the House of Commons, relied on for centuries.
That is why it is so important that the parliamentary officers have evolved in the way they have. Without the annual report of each of these officers, without the role of the Auditor General, we would be a much poorer institution. I believe most members across the way would agree with that.
However, my concern is that, directly or indirectly—and I honestly fear, despite my respect for my colleague who is sponsoring this, it is more directly than indirectly—this amounts to an attempt to almost intimidate, if not undermine, those institutions. If that at all is either the intent or unintentionally the result, then I think this is a huge problem from a democratic perspective.
The second point is that this is a private member's bill, among so many that we have seen. I am not going to guess whether it is one of the many examples we have seen of private member's bills that are, in effect, government bills. I am going to assume it is a pure private member's bill.
However, the concern is that we have no charter compliance mechanism in the House or in legislation for private member's bills. The only thing that might happen is that the subcommittee of the procedure and House affairs committee may actually, on occasion, look at the charter issue as being relevant to votability but, frankly, I do not think that happens.
The Minister of Justice's duty to vet, supposedly vet, the compliance of legislation being tabled in the House is limited to government bills and it does not include private member's bills.
Now, my colleague may well have sought advice from the law clerk, or others, about the compatibility with the charter of this legislation. However, the fact is that it is before us, with me at least having serious concerns about whether or not the questions around how it affects freedom of expression, because there is forced expression here, and how it affects discrimination or arbitrary treatment of one sector of public servants versus other sectors of public servants, how whether or not that actually does implicate the charter.
It may well be that, if the case were made that parliamentary officers are very different institutions from government departments and, therefore, their staff must somehow be subject to this new regime and others must not, if that case were really well made, then it might be saveable under section 1.
The fact is that I have not seen that analysis and I do not think it was even looked at in any serious way, if at all, by the committee.
The third thing is, unfortunately, I think this reveals, yet again, the general weakness of our legislative process when it comes to the work of committees, especially, in majority government situations.
I believe the bill is fact challenged. There has been no sign at all of a problem of partisanship of the staff, let alone of the parliamentary officers. Therefore, there is this issue of a solution in search of a problem.
If I am not mistaken, and I can be corrected on this, the committee did not hear from a single witness to support the bill.
Basically what we heard was all kinds of evidence, external and in the committee, about why this was unnecessary and potentially harmful. The harm includes confusion with existing regimes, and the broader harm of whether this in fact would act as a form of intimidation of either the agents of Parliament themselves or their staff.
Therefore, in my view the committee ultimately did not do its job, because, at a minimum, it should not be bringing this bill back unless there are very clear reasons that it should support it. Apart from collegiality with the sponsor, which I can understand as one motivation, there almost seems to be no reason the committee should not have basically killed the bill.
The fourth and final point is the democratic functioning point. I think I was a bit generous earlier and I will stay that way: I am going to assume that this bill is the pure emanation of the priorities of my colleague.
Nonetheless, private member's bills have often been used as extensions of the government's agenda ever since I arrived almost three years ago. I believe this to be an abuse, at least to the extent that they are not then subject to the kinds of scrutiny and caveats that government bills are. They get to committee in a very short period—two hours—and they are not subject to charter review, as I already suggested.
I still remember almost being floored two weeks ago when a Conservative member of Parliament whose private member's bill was before us stood up and had as his very first words something of the following sort: “When I first saw this bill, I didn't think I liked it.” However, gradually he read the bill and he began to decide that he could support it.
It was the first clear admission I have ever seen in the House of a member saying he had been given a bill.
I am not saying at all that this is the case here, but I wanted to put this in the context of the frailties of our system when it comes to private members' bills.
Why can I not support the bill? My colleague has just adequately summarized three main points.
First, it is a problem in search of a solution. There has never been a proven or recorded incident of a conflict of interest or perceived conflict of interest involving partisanship. No evidence whatsoever was brought forward in committee.
Second, it duplicates already-existing provisions that were adequately outlined earlier by my colleague, especially in part 7 of the Public Service Employment Act and relevant codes of conduct for at least two of the parliamentary officers' staff. At minimum, there is going to be this overlap-duplication-confusion issue with respect to how the two regimes apply. There is no mechanism in the bill for resolving that.
Even if I left it at an untidy piece of legislation, that would be a reason to vote against it, but the fact of the matter is that it is redundant, because the question of the admissibility of civil servants engaging in political activity is already covered in the rules of employment for those public servants. What it really amounts to is singling out with a very heavy-handed regime public servants of a certain kind: those who work for officers of Parliament.
This brings me back to my concern, the third problem with the bill, which is that there has been no analysis of charter rights and whether this could be upheld under section 1. The only way it could be upheld is if they made a really strong case that these civil servants are in a position that is different from that of all other civil servants, and I do not think we have come close to seeing that argument.
The fourth point is that whether it is intended this way or not by my colleague, it is turned into a Conservative talking point tool, in order not actually to seriously pursue transparency but to actually attack or undermine the offices of the agents of Parliament because of the central premise that there is a problem with partisanship. Why would there be a need for this bill unless there was a problem of partisanship?
I do believe that some of my colleagues on the other side believe there is a problem. They certainly did not prove it.
In that optic, despite a fairly fierce resistance from the NDP in committee and two amendments, this bill is not worthy of our support despite those amendments.