Evidence of meeting #6 for Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics in the 43rd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was chair.

A video is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

1:15 p.m.

NDP

Matthew Green NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

I'm very careful so as not to overstay my very early welcome here on this committee, and I do appreciate the sensitivities around it, as I did the most illuminating lectures on the segments of the mandate of this committee, as well as the act.

I do want to draw attention to what is determined to be a material gift, which I recall to be very clear. You can correct me if I'm wrong, Madam Chair, but I believe the materiality of that was $200. When we talk about honorariums, when we talk about conflict of interest, when we talk about the act's definition of relatives, when we look at section 4 and section 9, and then when we get into what compliance looks like as it relates to gifts, I think there is plenty for this committee.

Hopefully, if I'm given an opportunity in the future to be here in an official way, I do believe those are of public interest and well within the mandate of this committee, notwithstanding the modal scope fallacy that has been presented by what I'll call liberal—small L, so as not to be confused—definitions of the terms that have been put forward.

That being said, I did want to take my time, as I've been here listening so closely, to ask this committee to consider, when we are presenting aspects of the act, aspects of the mandate, that we do it in a full way that doesn't omit material definitions that have already been put before the House and are included in the Standing Orders.

Those are my comments, and I do appreciate your indulgence for allowing me to say the same.

Thank you.

1:15 p.m.

NDP

Charlie Angus NDP Timmins—James Bay, ON

On a point of order, Madam Chair, I just want a clarification, because he mentioned the gift under the Conflict of Interest Act being $200. He mentioned “honorarium”. Is he suggesting that anyone in the Prime Minister's family was paid more than $200 for their work with WE?

1:15 p.m.

NDP

Matthew Green NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

Well, what I'm suggesting is that these are all—

1:15 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Rachael Harder

Sorry, Mr. Green, I actually have to allow the questioner just to throw it out there. Thank you.

Do you have a point of order, Mr. Fergus?

1:15 p.m.

Liberal

Greg Fergus Liberal Hull—Aylmer, QC

I do, and it's about relevance. The restrictions on honorariums refer to members of Parliament and public office holders only.

1:15 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Rachael Harder

Thank you, Mr. Fergus.

Mrs. Shanahan, you have the floor.

1:15 p.m.

Liberal

Brenda Shanahan Liberal Châteauguay—Lacolle, QC

Can you clarify the speaking order again, Madam Chair?

1:15 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Rachael Harder

I certainly can, absolutely.

Next up, after Madame Shanahan, we have Mr. Scarpaleggia. Then we have Mr. Barrett, Mr. Angus, Madame Gaudreau and Mr. Kurek.

1:15 p.m.

Liberal

Brenda Shanahan Liberal Châteauguay—Lacolle, QC

Okay, very good.

Thank you, Madam Chair.

1:15 p.m.

Bloc

Marie-Hélène Gaudreau Bloc Laurentides—Labelle, QC

A point of order, Madam Chair.

I gave up my spot. Some people are speaking for the second or third time. I wanted to check that the speaking order was okay.

1:15 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Rachael Harder

Madame Gaudreau, I have done my best to keep good track of everybody's hands as they have gone up, and I have had the capable help of the clerk. Thank you very much for raising that point of order. I'm pretty sure we have it handled.

Mrs. Shanahan.

1:15 p.m.

Liberal

Brenda Shanahan Liberal Châteauguay—Lacolle, QC

Thank you, Madam Chair.

I know that this is the second time I've spoken and I want to make sure that everyone has a chance to speak.

What I wanted to bring up was the part of our mandate that concerns.... We have a statutory review that is due. It was very interesting to look at the last statutory review that was done in 2014, I believe, and to look at some of the elements that were introduced there as recommendations, both in the majority report and in the minority report.

I think it goes to the point I was making earlier about the very important work of this committee to ensure that indeed.... I think we have two separate things we're talking about here: the act itself, with all the clauses and provisions therein, and then the fact that it is the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner who is charged with fulfilling the act or executing it—someone else may have better words than I do for that. The commissioner is to carry out the intentions, the will of Parliament, in making sure that the act is respected, bearing in mind that any finding by the commissioner is indeed a violation, and he or she is then able to.... I believe it's $500; I may be incorrect. This is why I'm looking forward to the time when we are going to do a study of the act itself, because I think there's some—

1:20 p.m.

Bloc

Marie-Hélène Gaudreau Bloc Laurentides—Labelle, QC

On a point of order, Madam Chair.

Unfortunately, I can't hear what is being said. In passing, you are doing a very good job. I know that it's difficult.

1:20 p.m.

Liberal

Brenda Shanahan Liberal Châteauguay—Lacolle, QC

Yes, excuse me, Ms. Gaudreau.

I believe that things are now working properly for the interpreter.

I just wanted to put into the record, actually, some of the very interesting recommendations from, again, someone whom I have huge respect for on this committee and who is, I believe, the doyen or dean of this committee, and that is Mr. Angus. He can correct me if it wasn't him who was present on the statutory review.

The 10 recommendations put forward, I think, give us much pause for thought. I believe a couple of recommendations have been adopted. They include adding public office holders such as the Governor of the Bank of Canada. That is very important.

This is the first recommendation:

Give the Commissioner the power to administer financial penalties and other penalties for breaches of the Act where an examination results in the finding of contravention, including but not limited to:

a) Suspension for a specified period

b) Suspension of Member's right to vote for a specified period

c) Require reimbursement of the value of the gift, hospitality or benefit received

d) Impose a fine not exceeding $5,000.

That's really coming to the heart of what we're trying to do here. We're trying to dissuade members of Parliament from contravening the act.

Recommendation two states:

Enshrine Ministerial accountability guidelines into the Act: Amend section 16 of the Act to include Annex B entitled: “Fundraising and Dealing with Lobbyists: Best Practices for Ministers, Ministers of State and Parliamentary Secretaries”, as follows:

a) Ministers, Ministers of State and Parliamentary Secretaries should not seek to have departmental stakeholders included on fundraising or campaign teams or on the boards of electoral district associations.

b) Ministers, Ministers of State and Parliamentary Secretaries should ensure that government facilities and equipment, including ministerial or departmental letterhead, are not used for or in connection with fundraising activities.

c) Ministers, Ministers of State and Parliamentary Secretaries and their staff should not discuss departmental business at any fundraising event, and should refer any person who wishes to discuss departmental business to make an appointment with the Minister's office or department as appropriate.

d) Ministers, Ministers of State and Parliamentary Secretaries should ensure that fundraising communications issued on their behalf do not suggest any connection between fundraising and official government business.

Recommendation three in the minority report is very interesting:

Allow members of the public to bring complaints, not just MPs.

Recommendation four states:

Extend the definition of “Ministerial staff” to include all work including contract and volunteer work.

Recommendation five states:

Expand the definition of Public Office Holder to include all Governor in Council appointees, including the Governor of the Bank of Canada.

I believe that has been done.

Some of these recommendations, Madam Chair, came from well-known organizations like Democracy Watch and experts in the field. I think it was a very comprehensive study, although clearly one that was quite controversial, because there are two minority reports. It just gives us an idea or a flavour of the kinds of discussions we can look forward to having.

Recommendation six states:

Empower the Commissioner to continue investigations that have been referred to the RCMP.

Recommendation seven states:

Reduce the value of a gift that requires disclosure from $200 to $100.

Recommendation eight states:

Maintain automatic divestment rules for reporting public office holders with significant decision-making power or access to privileged information, including, but not limited to, Ministers, Ministers of State, Parliamentary Secretaries, Chiefs of Staff, Deputy Ministers, Ministerial staff and employees of Ministers' offices. Maintain automatic divestment for appointees to agencies and bodies with broad mandates. All other appointees should be subject to a case-by-case divestment of controlled assets.

Recommendation nine states:

Define and toughen post-employment and secondary employment rules for MPs and Senators.

Finally, recommendation 10 states:

Include an apparent conflict of interest in the definition of a conflict of interest.

I think there's much food for thought there. I thank the New Democratic Party for the work they have done in the past and continue to do in this very important area.

As I put aside the idea that we should...and I look forward to us doing the statutory review of the act. It is the question of whether or not we have full confidence in the Ethics Commissioner to carry out his duties. To that, I would say that in the act we have the qualifications and the standards that the commissioner must hold for the seven-year term. I, for one, am very satisfied that we have someone in whom we can have full faith.

I will leave it at that. Thank you.

1:25 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Rachael Harder

Mr. Scarpaleggia.

1:25 p.m.

Liberal

Francis Scarpaleggia Liberal Lac-Saint-Louis, QC

Thank you, Madam Chair.

I, too, would like to commend you on the manner in which you are chairing this committee. I'm not normally a member of this committee, and I'm here today substituting for another member, but I'm very pleased to be part of the discussion on a very important issue.

I, too, would like to salute a university in my riding. I happen to be fortunate enough to have part of a university in my riding. I have the faculty of agricultural and environmental sciences of McGill University in my riding, in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue. Of course, they are leaders in both areas, not only nationally but internationally.

I think the point that's being made by different members is that we have an incredible education system in this country, and I think that's one of the reasons we have such a strong economy and such a bright future as a nation.

In the amount of time I have today, I would like to talk about politics. I believe that what I have to say relates in many ways to what Mrs. Shanahan has said, what Ms. Brière has said, what Mr. Fergus has said, and, in fact, what Mr. Angus has said, who I know is a formidable debater. I know him to be someone who seeks the truth but is also a very able political debater in the House. I think—

1:25 p.m.

NDP

Charlie Angus NDP Timmins—James Bay, ON

Madam Chair, a point of order. If people are going to be saying nice things about me, could you at least turn the camera on me? My mom might be watching.

Actually, it's not true; my mom never watches Parliament, but I'm going to call her tonight and tell her that Francis.... She'll love it was Francis, because she loves Pope Francis and she'll like you, Francis, so thank you. If you're going to filibuster, keep talking about me.

1:25 p.m.

Liberal

Francis Scarpaleggia Liberal Lac-Saint-Louis, QC

The point I was trying to make was that I know you put a political lens on many things.

But we're here because we believe in politics. We're here because we like politics. When we got involved in politics, we knew what we were getting into. We knew that it would be our name on the ballot, that we would be responsible for what we said, whether in the House or in committee or in a newspaper article, and we understood that if sometimes we don't say things the way we should or if we slip on a banana peel, we would have to deal with the consequences and the embarrassment sometimes of being so-called misquoted or what have you. So we got into this line of work very cognizant of what it involves, and I would say that our immediate families did as well.

I would imagine that anyone who has entered politics has had discussions with immediate family, especially with spouses, because sometimes children are too young to really have a say in our decision to enter politics. I hope that everyone would have the agreement of their spouse to enter politics; if not, I think that could lead to trouble down the road. But that's not the topic of discussion here.

This is a political committee. I think we've conducted ourselves in a very respectful manner today and with a lot of professionalism, but that should not obscure the fact that this is fundamentally a political committee. The Ethics Commissioner, on the other hand, is not a political person, and that's a very important distinction to keep in mind as we discuss this issue.

This is a political committee. The role of the opposition is to score political points. I know this because I've been in opposition. I've been on the government side. I was on the government side when I was first elected, and then I sat in opposition for 10 years. When you go from government to opposition, you leave the responsibility of governing, which takes up a lot of time for members and cabinet ministers on the other side. You leave that responsibility, and your focus becomes almost entirely political.

I'd like to add that there's nothing wrong with that, because politics is fundamental to our democratic system. It's how the will of the people, the priorities and concerns of the people, get translated into government decisions. How does that happen? It happens because we have election campaigns and parties put forth platforms that are intended to reflect the wishes of the voters in order to be elected on those platforms, and the opposition's role is to point out imperfections in the government's approach. Oftentimes we've seen that persistent opposition attention to an issue will result in the government modifying its approach to the issue, and that's what makes our democracy so effective and efficient and so wonderful. So there is nothing wrong with the fact that there's a political angle in this committee and in the House of Commons.

Politics is as old as the hills, Madam Chair. It predates democracy. It is everywhere: in corporations, in educational institutions, in non-profit organizations, in sports. I would submit to you that probably the most difficult political decision in sport is being coach of the Montreal Canadiens. So politics is everywhere.

Mr. Fergus was speaking before, so eloquently and with great erudition, on the arc of history. I know that others have touched on this in their comments.

1:30 p.m.

Liberal

Greg Fergus Liberal Hull—Aylmer, QC

I hope my mother is watching.

July 17th, 2020 / 1:30 p.m.

Liberal

Francis Scarpaleggia Liberal Lac-Saint-Louis, QC

What has really been the common thread through the evolution of society over the last how many hundreds or thousands of years? It is that we have been moving away from a system that was arbitrary, sometimes cruelly arbitrary, where power resided in a tyrant or a king who could make decisions on a whim that caused great harm to some people. We are moving slowly—and sometimes up and down, I agree, as Mr. Fergus said—towards a system that is not governed by the subjective but by the objective, a system that is not arbitrary but system-based, a system that is rational, I should say, a system where, while we recognize that politics is fundamental to democracy, we also recognize that there are certain instances when, for the greater good of the system itself, for the integrity of the system itself and for the faith that people who vote place in the system, we have to take politics out of the process. We do this with courts of law.

You know, there's a misunderstanding generally, I think, in many quarters—and this is natural, in a way—that when a judge hands down a decision, somehow it's a matter of opinion, like, “Oh, yes, the court decided this because that's the judge. Whatever, that's his or her experience, and his or her bias.” But the system we've built painfully over decades and centuries is a system whereby those who are making decisions of that nature must take themselves out of the decision. They must base their decision on logic, on law, on rules, on evidence, on precedence, and of course, we know that precedence is very important in our system.

This is the kind of world that we are wisely moving towards every day, and as part of that process, we've taken many important steps forward since the time Mr. Angus and I came to this House. When I arrived here, I sat on the government operations committee. I would actually encourage every new member to try to sit on that committee, because it looks at the essence of how government operates and it deals with all kinds of ethical questions as well.

One of the first things we did on that committee, after I was elected, was to review a law called the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act, which was another attempt to take politics out of important matters of government. We heard from witnesses who had been whistle-blowers and had been treated the way that subjects might have been treated under kings and queens 500 or 600 years ago. They were humiliated because they brought a wrong to the fore. They were mistreated. They lost their jobs. They were under incredible mental stress, and this law was brought in to give them due process, to make sure that they could lodge a complaint without experiencing retribution, but that law is a non-political law. That's a non-political process because it's a very important part of maintaining a system of government based on rule and integrity.

The Ethics Commissioner's position is very much the same. It's an attempt, and a successful one, to have someone who is not political make decisions about very important matters. I think this is very important to keep in mind. We're a political committee. I know I'm not normally a member of this committee, but it's a political committee, and the Ethics Commissioner is a non-political person who cannot afford to let politics enter into the process that he oversees.

I think it's very important that we understand that the public is very cognizant of what constitutes overreach. I've been in politics for a number of years, and you can tell right way that the public can see through a ruse or some kind of situation that really goes beyond what is necessary. I think the public understands that dragging those who are not part of the immediate family of a politician before a political committee for the purpose of maybe scoring political points and exposing their employment activities may not be fair and that it is best left to a non-political person to examine those relationships and those employment activities and to report on them.

I think the public understands what is fair and decent. I would submit that to examine the contracts of someone who is not part of the immediate family that would normally have to report their activities anyway to the Ethics Commissioner, and to extend that scope to people who are really not directly related to the situation at hand is not necessarily the most effective and decent approach.

I would also like to take a couple of minutes to talk about the current context in which we are living. This is the greatest national emergency situation since the Second World War. I think everyone recognizes that. The government is not perfect. That's why we have an opposition. The government has rolled out a series of programs—in electric speed, really—designed them and rolled them out with great alacrity in a very short period of time. Yes, there will be bumps in the road.

The government recognizes that no program will be perfect and, therefore, it has adjusted a number of programs. It adjusted the CERB when it realized that those whose incomes might have dropped by 90% but who were still working would have no support. It decided that there should be a ceiling on how much you could earn before you lost the CERB. That ceiling was determined to be $1,000. It then adapted the wage subsidy program, including extending the timeline for the wage subsidy program.

It brought in a special loan program for small and medium-sized businesses, and when it found that some of the criteria were too restrictive, it admitted that it was not a perfect design and it adapted the program so that more business people could benefit from it.

Then it realized that students were put in a very difficult position. Students, by the way, whose unemployment rate is over 30%, were in a very difficult position because, through no fault of their own, they saw the prospects of their summer employment evaporate overnight, summer employment on which they depend to earn money to pay tuition but also other living expenses. The government brought out a program very quickly to help students as well. Again, it allowed students to earn up to $1,000 and still benefit from the Canadian student emergency benefit.

It's often said that youth, our students, are our future. It's not just a cliché. We were talking about universities and the education system. We have one of the best in the world. The more students who benefit from an education, the better our country will be in the short, medium and long term, so it's very important to support students. We know that through the introduction of all of these programs—I think Canadians know this, they know it deep down—the intent of the Prime Minister and of the government was first and foremost, in every case, to stand by Canadians in their moment of need, including students.

We've heard, for example, from the volunteer sector. We all have many non-profit groups and charities in our ridings, and I think, as members of Parliament regardless of party, we know these groups very well. We know the important work that they do, and we know that there is a crisis in volunteering, Madam Chair. A generation that ardently contributed to the voluntary sector is now retired, and they have to pass the torch to another generation.

We've heard anecdotally, but also I think it's in serious studies, that there's a shortage of volunteers and that maybe not as many young people are stepping in to take up the challenge of volunteering. We know that, when a person volunteers, the impact on them is profound. The feeling they get of doing good and of contributing is so powerful that they remain volunteers for the rest of their lives.

This program was designed in good faith and it was not perfect but had to be rolled out very quickly. This program was intended to connect young people to the volunteer experience, not only to allow them to acquire skills that would help them in their careers but also to create a lifelong engagement towards volunteering activities, which will only be of positive benefit to our society in the long run.

I think it bears mentioning that government cannot do everything. I know my colleagues across the way—

1:40 p.m.

NDP

Matthew Green NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

You have colleagues here, too.

1:40 p.m.

Liberal

Francis Scarpaleggia Liberal Lac-Saint-Louis, QC

There, too, but my colleagues across the way have often said....

I apologize. I am raising a somewhat ideological question here.

My colleagues across the way often say governments cannot do everything, and I agree. I agree that governments cannot do everything. That is why, when the government, at the beginning of this crisis, understood that food banks were facing increased requests from those in need and it decided that it wanted to support food banks, it went to organizations that had broad reach, national scope. It went to Food Banks Canada and it went to the Salvation Army, and when the government decided that it wanted to help the non-profit sector because their revenues from donations were dropping precipitously, the government said, “We can't do this ourselves. We can't do everything”, and they went to see organizations like United Way, Centraide in Quebec.

Clearly, when it came time to roll out in very quick time a national volunteer program for youth, the public service recognized that the WE organization—and it was said at the finance committee yesterday—had the reach, the network, the goodwill of youth and the technological capability to handle that kind of rollout. Were there bumps in the road? Yes, Madam Chair, there were, and there always will be in government.

That is essentially the context in which we are having this discussion today. However, the main point I'm trying to make, and that my other colleagues have made, is that we have a very robust system for examining and investigating questions of ethics. We as a Parliament, as previous Parliaments, thought this matter of ethics was so important that it should be put in the hands of a qualified non-political person to conduct due process and that these matters needed to be dealt with in that way so that the political dimension does not interfere with due process. If it does, it does not serve our democracy well because it diminishes the faith that Canadians have in the systems and the institutions we've given ourselves as a democracy.

We need to recognize that this committee has important work to do. It has an important mandate. Also it's important to point out that when Ms. Shanahan spoke about mandate, what she was getting at is that this committee has a non-partisan role to play. Despite the fact, as Mr. Angus said, that committees can decide what they want to do, nonetheless they operate within frameworks and, especially a committee as important as the ethics committee, they have an interest in focusing on the broader principles and due process.

That is the point that Ms. Shanahan was making. It was not that committees are somehow constrained and do not have the liberty to look into what they want, but that it is very important that the ethics committee act in a professional and maybe a little less political manner than perhaps other committees, because it is important that the ethics committee maintains the faith of Canadians.

Madam Speaker—

1:50 p.m.

NDP

Charlie Angus NDP Timmins—James Bay, ON

I have a point of order. Are you getting to the end? If you're going to finish, I will withhold my question.

1:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Rachael Harder

Mr. Angus, I'm afraid that is not a point of order.

1:50 p.m.

Liberal

Francis Scarpaleggia Liberal Lac-Saint-Louis, QC

Yet he's so experienced in the House, he should know this by now.