Mr. Speaker, I am rising today to contribute to the debate on Bill C-24.
I am always interested when governments present bills. We have to understand the motivation of a bill in order to really judge its worth. Part of my comments today are going to be about what I think the motivation for this bill really is, and hopefully in assessing that, we will be able to get a better sense of the worth of the bill.
The government would have us believe that there is an important principle of equality at stake in this bill, but in fact, the bill fails to manifest any greater equality between ministers or between men and women in cabinet, for that matter, than the existing legislative regime. It entrenches an important regional inequality created by the new Liberal government.
In the press release issued by the government when it introduced the bill, it said that the legislation is meant to show that “The Government of Canada is committed to creating a one-tier ministry that recognizes the equality of all Cabinet members.”
That statement strikes me as a little strange. I wonder how many governments regularly issue statements affirming that they do, in fact, value the opinion of the people they put around the cabinet table. I cannot imagine that there are that many. I would think it goes without saying, that if prime ministers put people at the cabinet table, they do in fact value the opinion of those members of cabinet.
I found it passing strange that the government felt the need to let Canadians know that it does actually take cabinet members seriously. In the post-2015 world, I suppose anything really is possible.
In addition to being odd, the statement about a one-tier ministry is also vague. It is not exactly clear in what sense the legislation will make all cabinet ministers equal. For instance, there are a number of ways in which cabinet ministers might be found to be equal or unequal. They might be equal or unequal, as the case may be, with respect to pay, experience, title, resources, competence, and so on.
Some of these things are obviously not fixable by way of legislation and some are. It is clear to me that the bill, obviously, has to deal with those equalities or inequalities that could be established by legislation.
We still have to figure out what exactly is the relevant sense of equality that the government is trying to zero in on here. The kinds of inequalities between ministers that could be addressed through legislation are differences in resources, pay, level of responsibility, and in title. I want to come to those in a little bit.
First, I want to give members some of the context for the bill as I see it, and briefly explain the changes contained in the bill. The origin of the bill goes back to a year ago today, after the election, when the Prime Minister said, about building his cabinet, and having committed in the Liberal platform to include an equal number of women in cabinet.
When he announced the new cabinet, observers quickly noticed that, excluding himself, there were 15 male ministers, 10 female ministers, and 5 female ministers of state to assist other ministers. Ministers of state are not department heads, and before the election received less pay than ministers. This meant that five of the female cabinet members were to be paid less, and enjoy less responsibility than their male colleagues.
Despite having almost, but not quite, achieved his promise of including an equal number of men and women in cabinet, for the benefit of the Prime Minister and other members who may wonder, 16 is not equal to 15. Despite that, he had clearly not achieved gender equality in cabinet.
It is fair to say that this was an embarrassment for the Prime Minister. If he did not feel embarrassed, he probably should have. It was an embarrassment because the Prime Minister showed a lack of competence in simple math, failing to recognize that 16 men is not the same as 15 women, and that it does not balance.
It was also an embarrassment because the Prime Minister, who went out of his way to promote himself as a feminist, filled all his junior cabinet posts with women, thereby creating a gender gap in both pay and responsibility inside his cabinet.
Either that is embarrassing because it exposes a rather superficial feminism, and shows that the Prime Minister is willing to do just enough to get credit for being a feminist and no more, or it is embarrassing because it shows a complete lack of comprehension of the different cabinet posts that were available to him, and the tools that were available to him to build a cabinet. He clearly did not understand, if he was sincere in his feminist intention, the difference between a minister of state and a minister.
It may, in fact, be a bit of both. That would be even more embarrassing. The bill, as it stands, seems to suggest that it is actually a little bit of both. I will get into why.
Consider that the Prime Minister could have avoided this embarrassment by simply adding, or eliminating, one minister of state, and ensuring that those positions were distributed equally between men and women. That would have solved the gender difference in cabinet.
He could also have avoided the embarrassment if he knew his options a little better, and apparently he did, or does, because the bill, I think, adds to the confusion about what the options are for building a cabinet. He could have established, under the authority of the existing Ministries and Ministers of State Act, ministries of state for the five ministers of state. These could have functioned, essentially, as mini-departments resourced by reallocating staff and funds from other departments.
A minister of state responsible for a ministry of state would be the head of that ministry of state and not assigned to assist another minister. Furthermore, under existing legislation, ministers of state responsible for a ministry state are already mandated to receive the same pay as ministers or department heads. That is another way that the Prime Minister could have avoided both the pay gap, and alleviated that gap in responsibility between those positions.
For those keeping score, now, in terms of cabinet positions, I have mentioned three. There are ministers, ministers of state for a ministry of state, and ministers of state to assist.
This bill purports to create a further type of cabinet member, currently referred to in legislation simply as minister. If Bill C-24 were to pass, cabinet members would now be referred to as ministers for a department. Then a new type of minister would be created called ministers for whom a department is designated. Those ministers who are currently ministers of state would be converted to this new kind of minister, minister for whom a department is designated.
Bill C-24 allows that:
The appropriate Minister for a department...may delegate, to a minister in respect of whom that department is designated, any of the appropriate Minister’s powers, duties or functions...A minister in respect of whom a department is designated...may use the services and facilities of that department.
That might sound familiar, because I know all members are very familiar with the Ministries and Ministers of State Act, and they would have noticed, I am sure, that it sounds a lot like section 11 of the Ministries and Ministers of State Act that states that a minister of state to assist:
...shall exercise or perform such of the powers, duties or functions of any minister or ministers having responsibilities for any department or other portion of the federal public administration as may be assigned or transferred to him...shall make use of the services and facilities of the department or portion of the federal public administration concerned.
The language is very similar because the positions, at the end of the day, are very similar. They enjoy a similar level of responsibility, and are resourced in pretty much exactly the same way.
When we read it, it is a little bit like the first time we see an infomercial for a Snuggie, where they are saying, “Here's this blanket, with a lot of great conceptual innovation and new features”. We are sitting there thinking, “Isn't that just a backwards bathrobe, really, made of fleece?” There is this awkward tension where we are thinking, “No, this is not really a new thing, it's just a repackaged old thing, and I've already got one, so I don't need to buy a new one”.
There is no practical difference between ministers of state to assist and ministers for whom a department is designated.
If the government insists on having a new name for the same old thing, I would like to submit a different one. I think ministers formerly known as ministers of state would be a much catchier and probably more to the point title for these new ministers. Perhaps there will be an amendment at committee to that effect.
Bill C-24 is the government's response to the Prime Minister's awkward cabinet launch last fall where he pretty much fell flat on his face, but it is not clear how the bill really fixes anything. We know it is a response to that. We know that is where it comes from. The question is, “Does it fix any of that? Does it actually do the work that the government has identified as needed doing?”
If the idea is simply to close the gender wage gap, needlessly created by the Prime Minister, the bill is unnecessary.
First, the Prime Minister did not have to choose to appoint only women to minister of state positions. The gap could be closed by making more women full ministers and some men ministers of state. That would be fine.
Second, existing legislation allows the government to pay ministers of state the same as ministers. In fact, it has been doing that for years, so legislation is not required to do that.
Third, as I mentioned earlier, the Prime Minister could have created ministries of state out of the resources of existing departments, giving those ministers of state more authority and responsibility within the government and the current legislation would have required that the government pay them the same as ministers, not just choose to, but require them to do so.
If the idea of this bill is to close the gender responsibility gap needlessly created by the Prime Minister when he appointed only women to positions of ministers of state, then the bill is also unnecessary. This, too, could be solved simply by making more women full ministers and some men ministers of state or by establishing ministries of state.
If the idea is to eliminate the difference in administrative responsibility between ministers and in that sense make them equal, then the bill fails to do that, too. There will continue to be a difference between ministers for departments, on the one hand, and ministers of state to assist ministers for whom a department is designated, ministers formerly known as ministers of state or whatever the government ultimately chooses to call them. There is still going to be a real difference of administrative responsibility between those positions. They will not be equal in that sense, so the bill, if that is the point, is a failure.
Keep in mind that what I am trying to do is identify the relevant sense of “equal”, in which this bill would make them equal. As everyone can see, I have given it a lot of thought and I have not been able to come up with anything. I do not think it is because it is there and I cannot find it. I think it is because the conclusion of my study of the bill shows that it is not there.
Moreover, there is nothing wrong with having people at the cabinet table who have different levels of administrative responsibility. When the Prime Minister fell flat on his face in his cabinet unveiling because he did not manage to create gender equality in the cabinet, people were not outraged at the fact that there were ministers of state and ministers. No one said, “I can't believe the ministers aren't equal.” They said, “I can't believe that the Prime Minister, who calls himself a feminist, is not treating female members of the cabinet equally, because he's giving them junior roles in cabinet instead of senior roles in cabinet.” That was the issue. The issue was not that there were legitimate differences in administrative responsibility and corresponding titles. Again, it is not clear what real problem the bill is trying to solve.
The fact that ministers of state do not have a department or are called ministers of state instead of ministers should not detract from their contributions to discussions about war and peace, budgets, or other policy issues around the cabinet table. They are all entitled to sit there and if other cabinet ministers do not take them seriously simply because of their difference in title, that is not a legislative problem, that is a problem in organizational culture, and this bill will not fix that either. That would require real leadership from the Prime Minister.
Somewhere deep down, I think the government actually knows this. That is why it is not repealing the Ministries and Ministers of State Act. It is keeping that option open. In fact, in the speech by the member for Winnipeg North, he made a point of pointing out that the government is not repealing that act. It is keeping the option of ministers of state around.
There is an awkward tension in the principle that it is stating there. On the one hand, the government is saying that there is something wrong with having ministers of state, because that creates an inequality in cabinet. If, in the future of this ministry, the government wants to appoint ministers of state, I think Canadians should rightly say that, by the government's own standards, it has now decided to have inferior cabinet ministers and superior cabinet ministers.
I do not think that would be right, because I think there is a role for legitimate differences in administrative responsibility, but the government is arguing against that and yet not repealing the act, which I find strange. It helps right now to make a grand show of not having ministers of state, because what is driving the bill is this need to make up for and reduce the sense of shame and embarrassment by the Prime Minister for having failed to do something that he said he really wanted to do, which was to bring gender equality to cabinet.
If having ministers of state is not compatible with having a one-tier ministry, and having a one-tier ministry is an important matter of principle for the Liberals, I do not see why they would not just repeal the Ministries and Ministers of State Act, although, for the record, I want to say I think that would be a terrible idea. It is just a logical consequence of the arguments that they have been advancing on Bill C-24.
Interestingly, Liberals are locking in another choice they made: the choice not to have stand-alone ministers for regional economic development. This is another sense of equality we might talk about: regional equality.
Here the government is actually locking in a bad decision that goes hand in hand with the decision it made to centralize the management of the various regional economic development agencies in one minister. That means only one region of the country gets a minister from the region who understands the needs of the region, because he or she, and in this case it is a he, lives there and represents that area. All the other regions do not get that benefit and so they are not being treated equally.
Granted, it is the government's prerogative to experiment with new ways of doing this, but I think it made a poor decision. This kind of centralizing of decision-making for agencies that have a deliberately regional mandate does not make sense and ultimately is not helpful. The government wants to try something new and it is doing that, but I think the government will find that it does not work. Why are the Liberals closing the door behind them and making it harder to go back to a model which I think works better, which is actually having ministers from the regions in charge of the local regional development agencies? Particularly in tough economic times, the government may find in time that it is worth making it a full-time job of a cabinet minister to do that. That is what the government is taking away by doing this and that does not make sense.
The Liberals are leaving their options open with slush ministries or extra ministries that have not been designated yet. They are leaving their options open, even though they are saying there is some matter of principle at stake in not having ministers of state, but they are keeping the act around just in case they want to appoint some anyway. The Liberals embarked on a centralizing experiment when it comes to regional economic development, and they have decided instead to tie their hands. That does not make sense to me. They have their priorities backward.
People in Elmwood—Transcona would prefer to have a minister from western Canada who knows and understands western Canada's economy making the detailed decisions about how the government is going to encourage western economic diversification. I believe that people in other parts of the country feel the same way about their own region. The government should leave itself with more options, not less, when it comes to managing regional economic development. The government is creating three as yet unspecified ministries in the name of flexibility, so why not retain the flexibility it already has with respect to regional economic development?
Where does this leave us? It seems to me this bill was drafted by the minster's personal communications team with the full dearth of understanding of legislative and parliamentary process that that implies. The bill is not really about furthering any principle of equality. For any of the government's proposed goals in the bill with respect to equality, and I have gone through an exhaustive list of different senses of equality that the government might mean, Bill C-24 either fails or is completely unnecessary.
The bill would create an expanded and more complicated set of cabinet-building options for a Prime Minister who already did not understand the options that were available to him, while tending to mask real differences in responsibility by maintaining the tradition of junior and senior cabinet posts, and let me be clear that is what a minister for whom a department is designated is, while conferring the same title on each cabinet member.
The Prime Minister wants to be lauded for bringing real gender equality to cabinet, but in order to do that, and instead of taking real action on that, he is just glossing over the fact that his ministers formerly known as ministers of state really are just ministers of state with a better salary and a better title.
It is no secret that where the Prime Minister is concerned, style trumps substance. It is shocking to see that tendency drilled down to the level where it is starting to interfere with a relatively straightforward administrative matter such as determining what act of Parliament would authorize the payment of ministers of state. That is something else.
The end result is that we are forced to consider a bill that is a colossal waste of time. The Liberal government has been criticized for having a notoriously light legislative agenda, but the goal of those critics was not to encourage it to produce nonsense bills that would not change anything but rather that we might spur the Liberals on to introduce meaningful legislation that would help move the country forward. For instance, if they want a quick short list off the top of my head, they could move to repeal Bill C-51. They could move to to protect Canadian water by reinstating the Navigable Waters Protection Act which was decimated in the last Parliament. They could reinstate the Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act. That would get us back to a baseline of where we were before the last 10 years of government.
If the Liberals wanted to go further and begin improving on that baseline, they could bring forward legislation granting pay equity for Canadian women, which they have said they are going to wait until the end of 2018 to do. They could bring in a meaningful rail safety regime instead of continuing to rely on industry self-regulation, and the list goes on.
There are so many important issues facing the country that are crying out for government action and we are stuck with a bill that is really just about easing the Prime Minister sense of shame at having botched his own cabinet debut.