Mr. Chair, it's an honour and privilege for me to be here today before the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics to speak on my private member's bill, Bill C-520, an act supporting non-partisan agents of Parliament.
The purpose of my bill is to improve transparency. Bill C-520 requires agents of Parliament and the employees in their offices to make a public declaration if they occupied a politically partisan position in the 10 years before their appointment. It also serves to affirm their commitment to conducting themselves in a non-partisan manner while employed in these specific offices.
This bill identifies nine specific offices with unique responsibilities and roles. Given their specific watchdog duties, it is imperative that the so-called agents of Parliament be seen to be non-partisan and free of political influence. At every step of the process in preparing a report or dealing with a case, from the selection of what to study to the research to the basic wording used, neutrality and independence must be maintained.
Let me clear. The intent of this bill is not to limit any person's ability or freedom to engage fully in the political process of Canada; rather, the intent is to create a measure of trust and confidence in the neutrality and non-partisan nature of the offices of the agents of Parliament. I submit that the proposed legislation will enhance the legitimacy of the agents of Parliament and will make sure that the public is aware of any professional partisan position held by the agents and their staff.
The nine specific offices that my private member's bill focuses on include the office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, the Chief Electoral Officer, the office of the Auditor General, the office of the Commissioner of Lobbying of Canada, the office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, the office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada, the office of the Senate Ethics Officer, the office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, and the office of the Commissioner of Official Languages.
These agents of Parliament are a sole group of independent statutory officers who serve to scrutinize the activity of legislators and the government. I submit to you that their offices will only be enhanced by the public confidence Bill C-520 will provide.
All of the offices I mentioned report directly to Parliament rather than to government or to an individual minister and as such exist to serve Parliament in relation to Parliament's oversight role. The oversight role played by the agents is a crucial component of the balance and fairness of our institutions and the legitimacy of our Westminster style of democracy. It is critical that in carrying out their duties, the agents be independent of political affiliation. Neutrality in the office of an agent of Parliament is imperative to ensuring that Canadians receive information in a manner that is clear and trustworthy.
Mr. Chair, I would like to emphasize again the special role the nine agencies identified in my bill play in the democratic system. We already hold these groups to the highest standard of objectivity. We require them to sign an oath of impartiality and we ask them to take measures to guard against partisanship either real or perceived. The Chief Electoral Officer is even banned from voting in elections in order to maintain these standards. Bill C-520 simply suggests that given these exceptional standards, the agents and their employees should be required to disclose past or future partisan positions and continue to build transparency and openness into our democracy.
To further promote transparency, all declarations from employees would be posted on the website of the office of the relevant agent of Parliament. The declarations would state whether, in the 10 years before applying for that position, the person had occupied certain specified political partisan positions. Such a declaration would also state whether these persons intended to occupy a politically partisan position while continuing to occupy the position of agent of Parliament or to work in the office of such an agent.
In addition, the bill would require an agent of Parliament and the persons who work in his or her office to provide a written undertaking that they will conduct themselves in a non-partisan manner in fulfilling the official duties and responsibilities of their positions.
Canadians said they wanted a transparent government. Time and time again, I am proud to say, our government has brought into force legislation that increases transparency and accountability. Our government brought Canadians the Federal Accountability Act. We reformed the Lobbying Act. We brought into force the Conflict of Interest Act which named the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner. Our government eased the process of information disclosure, making it easier for Canadians to call to account their representatives.
The number of records that our government has released has increased, while the turnaround time has decreased. The numbers speak for themselves. Our government is committed to increasing government transparency and accountability.
Mr. Chair, this call for transparency and accountability is not something we can take lightly. The statutes that created these agents of Parliament do not imply the need for impartiality; they demand impartiality. With great power comes great responsibility.
If we look at some of the legislation about the agents themselves, the need for objectivity is clear. Subsection 15(1) of the Auditor General Act states:
The officers and employees that are necessary to enable the Auditor General to perform his or her duties are to be appointed in accordance with the Public Service Employment Act and...the provisions of that Act apply to those offices and employees.
The act goes on to make explicit the call for impartiality.
Before commencing his or her functions, a commissioner shall take an oath or make a solemn affirmation in the following form before the Clerk of the Privy Council or the person designated by the clerk:
I...do swear (or solemnly affirm) that I will faithfully, truly and impartially, to the best of my judgment, skill and ability, execute and perform the office of... of the Public Service Commission.
Further to that, subsection 23(1) of the Canada Elections Act states:
Before assuming duties, an election officer shall swear an oath in writing, in the prescribed form, to perform the duties of the office in an impartial manner.
In addition, the commissioners of privacy, conflict of interest and ethics, information, lobbying, public sector integrity, and official languages are all deemed to be employed in the public service and thus are bound to the same oath found in the Public Service Employment Act when carrying out their duties.
Mr. Chair, I submit that the requirements found within my private member's bill, Bill C-520, expect from these agents the highest level of transparency and that they are already swearing to it in their oath; moreover, that they improve these laws by adding transparency and making all declarations available for the public to see.
Legislation similar to my private member's bill exists in other Commonwealth nations.
In Australia, for example, the national integrity commission bill, Bill 2013, in paragraph 7(1)(a), prohibits “any conduct of any person that adversely affects, or that could adversely affect, either directly or indirectly, the honest or impartial exercise of official functions by the Parliament, a Commonwealth agency, any public official or any group or body of public officials” and continues by prohibiting “any conduct of a public official that constitutes or involves the dishonest or partial exercise of any of his or her official functions.”
In conclusion, Bill C-520 will enhance transparency. This bill is line with our government's efforts towards transparency and accountability. I hope that the committee sees the value of my proposed legislation.
I believe we can all agree this is an important step to strengthening our democracy. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis has said, sunshine is the best disinfectant.