This week, I changed much of the tech behind this site. If you see anything that looks like a bug, please let me know!

Evidence of meeting #26 for Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was consider.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Roger Scott-Douglas  Assistant Secretary, Priorities and Planning, Treasury Board Secretariat
Janice Young  Senior Advisor, Strategic Policy, Treasury Board Secretariat
Clerk of the Committee  Mr. Chad Mariage

11 a.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Jean Crowder

Good morning, committee members. Could you take your seats so we can start?

We're on meeting number 26, continuing our statutory review of the Lobbying Act.

I would like to welcome Mr. Saxton, the parliamentary secretary for the Treasury Board, who will be presenting to committee today.

Mr. Saxton, if you could introduce your colleagues, I will turn the floor over to you.

March 1st, 2012 / 11 a.m.

North Vancouver B.C.

Conservative

Andrew Saxton ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board and for Western Economic Diversification

Thank you, Madam Chair, and I'd be happy to.

With me today is Roger Scott-Douglas, the assistant secretary, priorities and planning, at the Treasury Board Secretariat; Janice Young, the senior advisor of strategic initiatives at the Treasury Board Secretariat; and David Dollar, the director of strategic initiatives at the Treasury Board Secretariat.

Thank you, Madam Chair, and thank you, members, for inviting me here today.

I'm pleased to be here on behalf of the President of the Treasury Board and to speak to this committee as you approach the end of this phase of the legislative review of the Lobbying Act.

First, let me thank the committee members for your hard work on this important matter. You have heard input from various parties, and I appreciate your efforts in seeking out the views of stakeholders on this important piece of legislation.

As you know, lobbying public office holders in this country is a legitimate activity and a necessary part of the democratic decision-making process. This is recognized in the legislation itself.

At the same time, Canadians have the right to know who is lobbying their public officials. The provisions of the Lobbying Act, which is largely oriented toward the lobbying industry, assist in ensuring that this activity is carried out ethically and transparently.

In my view, the current legislation functions well, providing Canadians with transparency around lobbying activities.

Indeed, Madam Chair, at the federal level, we have one of the toughest and most sophisticated lobbying regimes in the world.

This government is committed to transparent and accountable public institutions and has taken steps to ensure this since first being elected in 2006.

One of these steps was strengthening the rules and guidelines that regulate lobbying at the federal level to ensure lobbying is conducted ethically and transparently.

On coming to power, our first priority was passing the Federal Accountability Act. The Lobbying Act, which is a key component of the Federal Accountability Act, came into force in July 2008.

The Lobbying Act toughened the rules and ensured Canadians had access to more information about interaction between lobbyists and senior government officials. The changes that came into force in 2008 represent a significant step forward in providing clarity to Canadians about who is lobbying their public officials.

As you know, the legislation was further expanded in September 2010 to include all members of Parliament, senators, and exempt staff in the offices of the leaders of the opposition in the House and in the Senate.

Today at the federal level, the system works well and it is meeting the overarching objectives of the Lobbying Act. However, this legislative review, mandated by the act, provides the opportunity to consider whether in the committee's view the rules and guidelines governing lobbying remain current and easily understood. It also gives stakeholders the opportunity to provide their opinion on this issue.

The current regime seeks to ensure that the interests of all stakeholders—the rights of lobbyists to advocate, the rights of those they represent, and the rights of Canadians to know how their government does business—are respected and balanced against the overarching objectives of the act.

As the committee considers possible recommendations regarding the Lobbying Act, I would ask that you bear in mind these overarching objectives while maintaining the act's focus on regulating the activities of lobbyists rather than those they lobby.

As a government, we are committed to openness and transparency. We support this review and we continue to place a priority on ensuring Canadians have the clarity they rightly seek in regard to lobbying activities.

Madam Chair, I look forward to hearing your recommendations regarding the Lobbying Act.

Thank you. Merci beaucoup.

Thank you very much.

11:05 a.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Jean Crowder

Thank you very much, Mr. Saxton.

We'll now hear from members, starting with Mr. Dusseault.

11:05 a.m.

NDP

Pierre-Luc Dusseault NDP Sherbrooke, QC

Thank you, Madam Chair.

First of all, thank you for being here. Of course, we would have liked to have the President of the Treasury Board here, but we will still ask you a few questions since you are here with us.

I would first like to explore the role of the RCMP with respect to this legislation. As you know, a number of witnesses have discussed that issue at length. They have told us that the RCMP was not doing its work properly and that there was never any follow-up when the commissioner referred cases to the RCMP.

Do you believe that the RCMP is not doing its work properly? Do you think that we should call for RCMP representatives to appear before the committee, as we have already requested?

11:05 a.m.

Conservative

Andrew Saxton Conservative North Vancouver, BC

Madam Chair, first of all, when it comes to the list of witnesses, that's up to the committee to decide. The committee is the master of its own destiny in that regard.

Regarding contravention of the Lobbying Act and the Lobbyists' Code of Conduct, they are to be taken very seriously. When the Lobbying Act came into force in 2008, we provided the Commissioner of Lobbying, an independent agent of Parliament, with the tools and a mandate to ensure compliance with the act. The Commissioner of Lobbying has tabled a number of reports in Parliament dealing with contraventions of the Lobbyists' Code of Conduct, and I expect the RCMP to continue to take allegations of contravention of this legislation seriously when it comes to contraventions of the act.

11:05 a.m.

NDP

Pierre-Luc Dusseault NDP Sherbrooke, QC

I am not sure of the exact number of cases that have been referred, but do you find it reasonable that the RCMP has not done follow-up for each of them? In your opinion, is there a loophole in the law that prevents people from enforcing it properly, from prosecuting cases and imposing fines?

There would seem to be some kind of loophole in the legislation and a problem with the RCMP. Do you believe that this is really the case? Is the fact that there is never any follow-up a problem that the committee should address in the future and try to make changes to correct?

11:05 a.m.

Conservative

Andrew Saxton Conservative North Vancouver, BC

First of all, Madam Chair, I take the work of the RCMP very seriously, and I have a great deal of respect for the work they do and the decisions they make. It's certainly up to them to come up with their own recommendations.

If the committee feels there's a gap in the act, that's up to the committee to make a recommendation as part of their final report on the subject.

11:05 a.m.

NDP

Pierre-Luc Dusseault NDP Sherbrooke, QC

Thank you for that clarification.

I would like to raise another issue. You alluded to it yourself, but I would like to have more specifics on your role and the role of the President of the Treasury Board. Perhaps your colleagues could comment as well. What exactly is your role? Your role as the person responsible for this legislation is not very clear for us. Could you go into more detail about what exactly you do in connection with this act?

11:05 a.m.

Conservative

Andrew Saxton Conservative North Vancouver, BC

I think what I'll do is refer that to my colleague.

Roger, would you like to take that question, please?

11:05 a.m.

Roger Scott-Douglas Assistant Secretary, Priorities and Planning, Treasury Board Secretariat

Under the act, it is the President of the Treasury Board who is the responsible minister for the act. That said, the unique and important feature is that it is an independent agent of Parliament, the Commissioner of Lobbying, who is responsible for the specific administration and operation of the act. That commissioner reports directly to Parliament on those matters.

11:05 a.m.

NDP

Pierre-Luc Dusseault NDP Sherbrooke, QC

Of course, the Lobbying Commissioner does most of the work, because the commissioner is appointed by Parliament for that purpose. However, as parliamentary secretary to the President of the Treasury Board and the person responsible for this legislation, as you have said, what exactly do you do? Do you provide oversight?

11:05 a.m.

Assistant Secretary, Priorities and Planning, Treasury Board Secretariat

Roger Scott-Douglas

No, there's no sense in which the Treasury Board would supervise the work of the commissioner. The role played by the Treasury Board Secretariat would be to support the president in any amendments that were made by the government to the legislation.

Mr. Saxton spoke about changes that were initially made by the government in 2006, when the Lobbying Act itself was introduced, and it came into force in 2008. On the subsequent amendments that took place in 2010, the content of those would have been prepared by officials within the Treasury Board Secretariat and supporting the minister responsible for that legislation who introduced them to the House. But it's not a supervisory role over the commissioner.

11:10 a.m.

NDP

Pierre-Luc Dusseault NDP Sherbrooke, QC

So the President of the Treasury Board would actually be the person who would introduce a bill on behalf of the government to amend the Lobbying Act. That is something he could do.

11:10 a.m.

Assistant Secretary, Priorities and Planning, Treasury Board Secretariat

Roger Scott-Douglas

That's absolutely correct, it would be the president. Obviously, in so doing, the president would be particularly interested, as the parliamentary secretary has indicated in the recommendations made by the standing committee. Indeed, it would also obviously be very interested in the recommendations made by the Commissioner of Lobbying in the course of the government formulating its position and whatever amendments it chose to bring forward to the House.

11:10 a.m.

NDP

Pierre-Luc Dusseault NDP Sherbrooke, QC

As parliamentary secretary to the President of the Treasury Board, do you have any recommendations? Would you like to share any questions with the committee in connection with the Lobbying Act? You may have some recommendations to make. Perhaps you have identified a flaw in the legislation that should be examined by the committee and corrected at some point.

11:10 a.m.

Assistant Secretary, Priorities and Planning, Treasury Board Secretariat

Roger Scott-Douglas

As officials supporting the president, we'd obviously be particularly interested in hearing the recommendations that come forward from the standing committee. Indeed, we would be providing advice and counsel to the president and the parliamentary secretary as the government formulates its position on responding to that. But we don't have anything to recommend in specific terms to the standing committee at this point.

11:10 a.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Jean Crowder

Mr. Del Mastro, you have the floor for seven minutes.

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

Dean Del Mastro Conservative Peterborough, ON

Thank you very much, Madam Chair.

Thank you to the witnesses. Thank you to my colleague, the parliamentary secretary, for making the time to appear before committee today.

I would argue we've had a very good discussion on the Lobbying Act. We've heard from the lobbying commissioner and others who have come forward to talk about how, in very general terms, the Lobbying Act is working quite well and it is delivering a much greater level of transparency and accountability, which was the intent of the act.

We have heard a couple of recommendations that I'd like to bounce off you on which you might provide some direction or some advice to the committee.

My feeling is that wherever possible the rules should be as clear as they can possibly be so that people have a clear understanding of what is okay and what is not, what is expected of them and what is not. I think that is a goal of the Treasury Board as well.

Specifically, I wanted to ask—this might be a question for the officials—with respect to rule 8, which was a rule that was extended by the lobbying commissioner. It dealt with government or government relations representatives and the fact that they may or may not be able to participate in elections, may or may not be able to—essentially it is a conduct rule around things like elections signs and so forth. The problem with it is, and this is what I think they've indicated, they don't know what's okay and what is not until perhaps somebody comes forward and complains, or perhaps somebody comes forward and asks if what they did was—they can't get any advance notice.

They can't write to the lobbying commissioner to say they're thinking about putting an election sign for Scott Andrews on their lawn and is that okay. The lobbying commissioner will say she doesn't know. It might be. If somebody complains, they'll look into it. That doesn't make a lot of sense. In my view, we either need to codify what rule 8 means or we need to strike it, because there is no clarity in what it's trying to establish.

Can you provide me some background on that, what your impressions are in that regard?

11:15 a.m.

Assistant Secretary, Priorities and Planning, Treasury Board Secretariat

Roger Scott-Douglas

I will certainly do my best.

The principle by which you began, the principle of clarity and transparency about the rules, is terribly important. That is absolutely true. I know the commissioner feels that way also.

As you know, rule 8, as is possible for other rules within the Lobbyists' Code of Conduct, is the subject of a number of interpretations put out by the commissioner where efforts have been made to clarify exactly what that means. Anything that can be done while respecting the facts of the case, making sure that whatever is being said about what is appropriate or inappropriate, is done in the clearest possible terms. That would be the position, and I think the committee, in formulating recommendations to that effect, would wish to consider specifically how things could be clarified.

In so doing, any deviation from encouraging interpretations and encouraging positions taken by the commissioner to be distanced from the facts of any particular case might be something the committee would want to take particular care about, but I don't specifically at this point have a recommendation or a view on what specific changes need to be made to rule 8.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Dean Del Mastro Conservative Peterborough, ON

Thank you.

One of the things we can be very proud of as a government is the compliance rate we're seeing. The rules that were set in place through the Accountability Act have been followed, and they have been followed pretty meticulously. According to the lobbying commissioner, there have been very few incidents. The lobbying commissioner did indicate, in the case where there might be an infraction, there is very little she can do other than refer these matters to the RCMP.

Has Treasury Board or have any of the officials contemplated the idea of what the lobbying commissioner has discussed with respect to administrative monetary penalties? Would you have any recommendations in that regard?

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Andrew Saxton Conservative North Vancouver, BC

Madam Chair, I'll be happy to take that question.

The Commissioner of Lobbying has recommended the introduction of a scheme of administrative monetary penalties. A number of witnesses, I understand, have come before the committee in this regard with various recommendations.

When the Lobbying Act came into force in 2008, the rules around lobbying were toughened. This included doubling the monetary penalties for breaches of the Lobbying Act and extending the timeframe for investigations. At the same time, the act requires the commissioner to table reports to Parliament about her investigations of breaches. These reports to Parliament represent a significant sanction, particularly in this type of industry where the reputation of somebody is very important.

With respect to additional enforcement tools, such as administrative monetary penalties, the committee may wish to consider issues regarding due process, which other witnesses have identified, specifically an appeal process, whether there is sufficient clarity about the requirements and obligations under the Lobbyists' Code of Conduct, and issues related to ministerial accountability over an area where an independent agent of Parliament is acting. This is a rather unusual situation where you have an independent agent of Parliament who is actually requesting the power to sanction or to levy fines on private individuals or private entities.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Dean Del Mastro Conservative Peterborough, ON

So if the committee makes such a recommendation, you will take that into consideration at Treasury Board as far as the act is concerned?

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Andrew Saxton Conservative North Vancouver, BC

The work the committee has been doing—I think you've had seven meetings, 14 hours worth of meetings—is very significant. This is the five-year review, and the purpose of this review is to make sure that the act is working and that it is clear to those people who are affected by the act what their obligations are under the act. So certainly the report of this committee is extremely important, and it will be taken very seriously when it's received by the Treasury Board president.

11:15 a.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Jean Crowder

Thanks very much, Mr. Del Mastro. Your time is up. Thank you, Mr. Saxton.

Mr. Andrews for seven minutes.

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Scott Andrews Liberal Avalon, NL

Thank you, Madam Chair.

I'm really not going to ask the parliamentary secretary any questions today. We're very disappointed that the minister wouldn't come before this committee and answer our questions today. It leads into a systemic problem in Parliament right now. We have ministers brushing off question period and avoiding committees. We have parliamentary secretaries come in and read out notes that they were given hours before their committee appearance.

I really only have one question for you, Mr. Parliamentary Secretary. Why didn't the minister want to come and appear before this committee today? What is he afraid of? What did he have to hide?