I'd like to. Thank you, Mr. Chair.
I move the following motion:
That this committee call upon the government to bring forward legislation to strengthen the role of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development by:
—making the commissioner a full and independent agent of Parliament, to be called “Office of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development”, reporting to Parliament directly through the Speakers of both the House of Commons and the Senate;
—by clearly affirming and appropriately circumscribing the duty of the Office of the Commissioner to advocate on environmental and sustainable development issues;
—by requiring that the appointment of a commissioner be approved by both the House and the Senate;
—by ensuring that a funding mechanism at arm's length from the government be established for the Office of the Commissioner;
—by protecting the right of the commissioner to name the office's staff, including environmental auditors, without government influence; and
—that the committee adopt these recommendations as a report to the House and that the Chair present this report to the House.
If I could, Mr. Chair, I would like to take a few minutes to just recap what we know about the position of the environment commissioner and to elaborate on my motion.
The first thing to remind ourselves I think is that the creation of this position was largely part of the response the government made in response to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, when as a country we signed on to the Rio Declaration and to a forestry statement and declaration and of course to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
In 1993, the Liberal campaign red book contained a new, innovative proposal for the creation of this Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development.
To the best of our knowledge, and having gone back through some of the debate with parliamentarians at the time, Mr. Chair, there seemed to be significant resistance in the senior ranks of the federal public service to the creation of this post. I recall that the Auditor General at the time, Denis Desautels, appeared to have offered to host the position in order to anchor it in an auditing type of office.
In April 1995, the government proposed the creation of the Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development in the Office of the Auditor General. At about the same time, our government was among the first in the world to require ministers to prepare and table sustainable development strategies for their departments.
In my mind, there's no doubt that locating the post in the Auditor General's office lent immediate credibility and stability to a new, fledgling post. We were one of maybe two countries in the world that were creating such a post at the time.
The evidence I have around this is only anecdotal, but I think now there are also problems with the structure. As we've just seen, we're not quite sure what happened this past week with the Auditor General and whether there were professional or interpersonal differences—that's speculative on my part—but clearly we're seeing that there are problems with the position's still remaining inside the Auditor General's office.
It's clear that the legislation, upon my reading, allows the Auditor General, and not the environment commissioner, to retain the final say on environmental matters. We don't know whether there is possible interference in the commissioner's work by the Auditor General or not. We haven't really had forthcoming answers from the Auditor General. I think we would all agree as committee members that we're left to guess, to surmise, what those difficulties might be.
In any case, to repeat myself, there's enough evidence, in my view, to say that there's a structural problem or issue.
I think after 12 years of important reports and progress it's time to take this office and the role of the commissioner to the next level, a new iteration. We would be best guided, in my view, by looking at the mandate, for example, of the Commissioner of Official Language as a possible precedent.
As set out in the Official Languages Act, the Commissioner of Official Languages acts as an independent agent of Parliament. That office plays several key roles in promoting and achieving the objectives of the Official Languages Act. It ensures, for example, that federal institutions comply with the act, upholding the language rights of Canadians, promoting linguistic duality, promoting bilingualism.
The Commissioner of Official Languages may initiate a review of any regulations or directives made under that act and of any other regulations or directives that affect or may affect the status or use of the official languages, for example.
I think these duties and powers might serve as a helpful model as we consider how to construct a more effective, fully independent environment commissioner.
I was struck by what Auditor General Fraser said last week in indicating that she intended to take some time before appointing the next commissioner, and that the interim commissioner might be there until at least next fall, which I understand is six, eight, maybe ten months away.
I think we would want to seize upon a wonderful moment here. Maybe the best time to act is now to examine the structure, to bolster the role of the commissioner, and to examine hiving off the position from the Auditor General's office itself.
In any event, I'm hoping that if we are able and successful, Mr. Chair, in this regard, there will be a new and transparent recruitment process for whoever is to succeed Madame Gélinas ultimately as the commissioner; that the position will be properly gazetted; that there would be a hiring panel and an interview panel; and that we would establish core competencies, even perhaps let the committee have an opportunity to vet or to meet the final candidate. This certainly reflects the importance of the big job ahead, and I think it would go some distance in ensuring transparency and effectiveness for Canadians.
To conclude, I hope we would all agree that the commissioner's role is probably now more important than ever before, so this might be a wonderful moment for us to strike.
Those are my remarks, Mr. Chair.