Thank you very much.
Democracy Watch is calling on the members of the committee today not only to recommend many changes to prevent conflicts of interest in government decisions with regard to spending but also to work together and actually draft and propose a bill, and to introduce it in the House of Commons this fall. Hopefully it will pass by the end of the year in this minority government.
You could easily work together to sponsor a bill that would lower the political donation and loan limit to $100, as in Quebec, to stop the unethical influence of big money in Canadian federal politics and to close loopholes that allow for secret, unethical lobbying, excessive government secrecy, spending without competitive bidding, and politicians and top government officials profiting from their decisions in secret. The bill must also strengthen enforcement by establishing an independent commission to appoint our democracy and good government watchdogs; requiring the watchdogs to audit everyone regularly and issue public rulings on all questionable situations instead of making secret rulings or ignoring complaints; allowing anyone to challenge the rulings of any watchdog in court; extending whistle-blower protection to everyone in federal politics, including political staff and the staff of political parties; and imposing high fines for ethics violations, including dishonesty.
Secret and unethical lobbying, excessive government secrecy, unethical big-money influence campaigns, and unethical decision-making and spending are all legal in federal politics and generally across the country. Canadians are more likely to get caught parking their car illegally than politicians are to get caught violating key ethics rules and spending rules. Incredibly, across the country, the penalties for illegally parking your car or vehicle are higher than are those for serious ethics violations by federal politicians and top government officials.
This dangerously undemocratic and corrupt system is the scandal, and it's not surprising that it encourages dishonest, unethical, secretive, unrepresentative and wasteful decisions by politicians and government officials. It must finally be cleaned up by closing all the loopholes, increasing transparency, strengthening political ethics and spending rules and their enforcement, and increasing penalties.
I have been before this committee about 15 times in the last 20 to 25 years. I'm not going to say anything very different from what I said those other 15 times, but I'm going to go through a few of the details, based on the summary I just gave, of the six key areas that need to be cleaned up in order to actually prevent conflicts of interest.
First of all, stop big money in politics. Stopping big money in politics is key because the favours organizations and their lobbyists can do for parties and candidates by funnelling and bundling donations unethically influence the decisions of cabinet ministers and other decision-makers in the federal government. Clinical testing by psychologists worldwide has shown that even small gifts and favours have influence and are the best way to actually influence someone's decisions. The only way to stop the unethical influence of big money in politics is to stop big-money donations and loans, as Quebec has, to ban gifts, including sponsored travel, which it is illegal for MPs to accept even from lobbyists as the lobbying commissioner ruled last year, and to restrict and require disclosure of all favours, including volunteer help on campaigns.
There are many other detailed changes that would democratize our political finance system. Democracy Watch issued a news release today, which has also been submitted to the committee with all the links, including one to the testing done by clinical psychologists showing that giving gifts and doing favours, including making donations, is the best way to influence someone's decision because it creates a sense of obligation to return the favour. That's why it's deeply unethical and has to be stopped through lowering the donation limit and banning gifts, including sponsored travel.
Stopping secret, unethical lobbying is the second of the six key areas.
The House ethics committee—this committee—recommended some of the changes back in 2012 to close secret lobbying loopholes, but not all of them. They need to be closed.
If even some of the loopholes that allow for secret lobbying had been closed years ago, everyone at WE Charity would have been prohibited from lobbying the Prime Minister's Office and the finance minister's office and department, because of their connections to those ministers. However, because the loopholes are open, not only did they not have to register the lobbying for this funding that they received, but it's also legal for them to be giving gifts, doing favours, campaigning and helping on political campaigns for any federal politician. Only registered lobbyists have to follow the lobbyists' ethics code. If you don't stop secret lobbying, you will not stop unethical lobbying because those who can still legally lobby in secret will also be able to lobby unethically.
Secret lobbying is only a part of the excessive federal government secrecy. The Trudeau Liberals promised that government information would be open by default and promised to apply the Access to Information Act to ministers' offices. Neither promise has been kept. Past governments have also not kept their open government promises.
There are many loopholes in the Access to Information Act. It really should be called “the guide to keeping information secret act” because that's really what it is—it's so full of loopholes. Those loopholes must be closed to end the culture of excessive secrecy that often hides wrongdoing and wrongdoers in the federal government.
The fourth area is to stop unethical decision-making. It is legal under the Conflict of Interest Act for ministers and top government officials to profit from their decisions. As long as the decision applies generally, which 99% of their decisions do, they are not required to step aside when they have a conflict of interest. They are actually allowed to have a financial conflict of interest and still participate in making the decision. This was proven most recently by finance minister Bill Morneau, who introduced a bill that would have helped his own family's pension management company make more money. Since he was a shareholder at the time, Mr. Morneau would have made more money. The Ethics Commissioner ruled that this was all fine because of this giant loophole in the Conflict of Interest Act. That loophole also exists in the MPs' ethics code and in the Senate ethics code.
The Conflict of Interest Act is a key law that protects the public's money and protects our democracy. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 1996 that if it is not strictly and strongly enforced, along with other laws like the Criminal Code anti-bribery provisions, we do not have a democracy. This key law does not apply 99% of the time to decisions made by the most powerful people in the federal government. This loophole must be closed and everyone in federal politics must be prohibited from participating in any decision-making process when they have even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
As well, a rule requiring honesty should be added to the federal ethics law and to the codes, to ensure that politicians and government officials are penalized if they mislead voters about anything, including their own wrongdoing.
Unbelievably, the rules and codes that cabinet ministers have imposed on the lowest level of government employees in the federal government, who have very little decision-making power at all, prohibit those employees from participating in all decisions if they have even a potential or apparent conflict of interest, even when the decision applies generally. Those lower-level employees are also required to be honest and to provide honest advice. They can be suspended or fined if they break those rules.
This is a truly perverse system, where the lowest level, least powerful people in the federal government and in federal politics are the ones who actually have the highest ethics standards and the highest penalties.
As well, so-called blind trusts must be banned, as was recommended by the 1984 Starr-Sharp report, as well as the 1987 Parker commission. The person who sets up a trust knows what they put in it, so it's not a blind trust. It's a complete sham. It's a facade. Instead, politicians and government officials should be required to sell their investments while in office, as again the Parker commission recommended.
Conflict of interest screens should also be banned because they are smokescreens that hide whether someone is actually stepping aside from decisions when they have a conflict of interest.
Then the last two areas—areas five and six—are, first, to stop questionable sole-source spending. There are far too many loopholes that allow for sole-source spending. A way to check them is to close some of them, but also to require, if it is significant spending, that the institution doing the spending check with the Auditor General and do a little compliance check before it actually initiates the spending process. Then the Auditor General could say, “No, you can't do that. You have to have a competitive bid or I'm going to rule when I audit it five years from now and find that you've broken all the rules.”
Finally, we need to strengthen enforcement. The watchdogs are hand-picked by the cabinet ministers and top government officials they watch over. They usually don't have the power to impose penalties. They're allowed to do secret rulings, and, as a result, it's not surprising that they have acted like lapdogs, letting many people off the hook. Everyone needs to be able to challenge their rulings in court. They need to be chosen by an independent commission. They must be required to conduct audits and issue public rulings on every questionable situation, and they must be empowered to impose high fines for violations of these key good government rules.
Finally, whistle-blower protection, as I mentioned, must be extended to everyone who works as political staff or for political parties. A House of Commons committee unanimously recommended in June 2017 several key changes to strengthen the whistle-blower protection system. The government ignored those recommendations, as they ignored this committee's recommendations to strengthen the Access to Information Act, and as the Harper Conservative government, back in 2012, ignored the recommendations made by this committee to close many of the secret lobbying loopholes.
I welcome your questions about any of these six areas. All of these changes are needed to close the loopholes and to stop conflicts of interest in government spending decisions. I hope committee members will work together to draft a bill, propose it in the House and, in this minority government, recruit your colleagues to pass it this fall and finally clean up this undemocratic and corrupt—