Mr. Speaker, this is my opportunity to add to my remarks and perhaps to answer some of the questions from the hon. member for York Centre.
The title of Bill C-520 is “An Act supporting non-partisan agents of Parliament”. The short title I would have given it is “An Act avoiding the real issue”.
The system of democracy is based on a number of mechanisms that guarantee its legitimacy: the right to vote, the right to be elected, the right to be represented, the division of powers, accountability—of course—transparency, and so on. I will take a few minutes to explore some of these elements in more depth.
It goes without saying that, in a modern democracy, representatives, elected officials, parliamentarians as a whole, derive their legitimacy from an election. Election by universal suffrage is one of the basic principles of democracy. The Conservative government today is the government of Canada because our electoral system gave it a majority of votes, even though that majority was by no means the same as the majority of the votes cast by Canadians. Do I need to remind the House that this majority government was elected with 39% of the popular vote? Voter turnout was right around 60%. We are a long way from a full voter turnout. However, that is the way our political system works. The right to govern is based on an election.
Without any doubt, people are also aware that our parliamentary system has a long historical tradition and that some significant anachronisms remain. The most significant of them will probably be solved in 2015, when the New Democrats come to power. Canada is one of the last democratic countries in the world to have a chamber of its Parliament made up of unelected people. I refer, of course, to the Senate. As I was looking through the parliamentary website, I came upon a definition that I really want to quote:
In a democratic country, all eligible citizens have the right to participate, either directly or indirectly, in making the decisions that affect them. Canadian citizens normally elect someone to represent them in making decisions at the different levels of government. This is called a representative democracy. Countries like Canada, the United States of America and the United Kingdom all have representative democracies.
Let us look at this definition of democracy as it relates to the Senate. In Canada, some representatives make decisions without being elected by the people. It looks like we must either tailor the definition of democracy to the reality of Canada or remove it from our own website.
The other pillar of democracy is the power to hold any institution accountable. The Senate scandal would have remained hidden from Canadians if not for the mechanisms of accountability, oversight and transparency. Despite this, we are unfortunately still far from knowing the sad truth about this affair.
In this context, Bill C-520, An Act supporting non-partisan agents of Parliament is apparently intended to mitigate partisanship in Parliament and enhance government transparency. That is a good plan. It is true that on this second point, something has to be done. After all, this is the same government that repeatedly relies on gag orders—there were over 50 of them during the last session—often stays silent during debates in the House, conducts far too many committee meetings in camera and uses omnibus bills to bury even deeper everything that Canadians are entitled to know. The Conservatives are trying to tell us about transparency. I am certainly willing to talk about it, but as we often say back home, it would be nice if they could walk the talk.
In our Parliament there are people we sometimes call “officers of Parliament”. We know them well and greatly appreciate the work they do. I am referring to such people as the Auditor General, the Chief Electoral Officer, the Commissioner of Official Languages and the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner. These people take on responsibilities to serve Parliament, and they report to Parliament. It is obviously necessary to preserve their independence from the government in power, so they can assume the responsibilities conferred on them under the law.
The bill introduced by the Conservatives is somewhat underhanded in that it suggests that these agents of Parliament are not really impartial and calls for increased transparency in how they do their work.
Bill C-520 claims that its purpose is to avoid conflicts that are likely to arise or be perceived to arise between partisan activities and the official duties and responsibilities of agents of Parliament or their staff.
The bill also requires agents of Parliament and anyone who applies for a position in the office of an agent of Parliament to declare any politically partisan positions they held in the previous 10 years—as though people are not allowed to have a life before Parliament—and any politically partisan positions they currently hold or intend to hold in the future. The government seems less strict or less demanding when it comes to former Conservative MPs who resign, decide to change careers and then return as consultants for their friends. No matter.
What exactly constitutes a politically partisan position? For the Conservatives, it means being an electoral candidate, an electoral district association officer, a member of a ministerial staff, a member of the House of Commons, a member of a parliamentary staff, or a member of a political staff.
Once again, the bill's main goal seems commendable, but in reality the bill is very dangerous to our democracy. First, we are concerned that such a bill would discourage many candidates who have expressed their opinions publicly or actively participated in our democracy over the course of their lives. Ten years is a long time.
This bill could also be seen as an attempt to intimidate agents of Parliament.
The bill goes off the rails when it indicates that any senator or MP can ask that an agent of Parliament investigate the partisan activities of his or her staff.
I must say that, personally, I am not a big fan of this way of doing things, which could be compared to a witch hunt. We have seen other examples of this. There has been an increasing number of witch hunts.
Need I remind hon. members of the case of Ms. Therrien, who lost her job as a result of a witch hunt when she put the public good or the good of all Canadians ahead of political partisanship? She is still paying a high price for her actions today. Since she was dismissed, she is not eligible for employment insurance. As a result, she has only the solidarity and generosity of Canadians to help her through this difficult time when she is looking for a new job and needs support. That is just one example.
We live in a country where everyone can express their political opinions without fear that their careers will be affected, especially in the public service or in our Parliament, as long as their political opinions do not affect or influence the work those agents or public servants are supposed to do.
Part 7 of the Public Service Employment Act already allows public servants to engage in political activities as long as those activities do not affect or appear to affect their ability to fulfill their duties in a politically impartial fashion. That is already covered.
The Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service also broadly states that public servants must carry out their duties in a non-partisan and impartial manner. With the exception of unfounded politically motivated witch hunts, there have never been any proven incidents of partisan activities or apparent conflicts in those offices. As I was saying, the activities of those offices are already regulated by the Public Service Employment Act, the Political Activities Regulations and the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service.
Mr. Speaker, you are telling me that I have one minute left. If I did not believe you were fully impartial, I would say that time is running out faster for me than for others, but I believe you.
In short, there are three measures that already guarantee the impartiality of the agents of Parliament whose work we greatly appreciate. At the same time, no incident has been reported. As a result, we cannot help but ask: what is the point of this bill?
In conclusion, let me say that the Conservatives' idea of accountability consists of making Canadians forget the government's repeated lack of parliamentary accountability by irrationally attacking and intimidating the parliamentary watchdogs whose job is to hold the government accountable.
I could also tell you about Mr. Page, but I know I do not have time.
Bill C-520 is just another example of the political cynicism of the Conservatives, who are attacking Parliament's oversight mechanisms for a problem that has never been proven to exist, while protecting and hiding the corruption of their own members—in the Senate, for example.