Evidence of meeting #80 for Procedure and House Affairs in the 41st Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was gift.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Peter Milliken  Former Speaker of the House of Commons, As an Individual

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Joe Preston

This is the 80th meeting of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. We're here, pursuant to Standing Order 108(3)(a)(viii), in a review of the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons.

We have with us today one of my favourite witnesses. We're always happy to have former Speaker Milliken here with us to share his knowledge, as he does and will. We know that will happen.

Speaker, you don't have an opening statement today, so we'll go directly to questions, if someone on the government side would tell me who's going first.

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

Dave MacKenzie Conservative Oxford, ON

We're worried. We don't know what he's going to say.

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Joe Preston

Mr. Lukiwski isn't with us today to guide them through this, so Mr. MacKenzie is going to start.

Mr. MacKenzie, we have seven minutes for you. Go ahead, please.

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

Dave MacKenzie Conservative Oxford, ON

I don't think I'll need the full seven minutes. I know that the Speaker is very succinct in his answers.

My question is this, Mr. Speaker. You held that role for a number of years, and in that position I'm sure you received a number of gifts, in your travels and when folks came here. Would you have reported the gifts you received to the Office of the Ethics Commissioner?

11:10 a.m.

Peter Milliken Former Speaker of the House of Commons, As an Individual

I think so. My staff looked after that stuff mostly. Was there a restriction? Did the gift not have to be of more than $500 value before you had to report it? I think that was the case.

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

Dave MacKenzie Conservative Oxford, ON

Go ahead. I like your answers.

11:10 a.m.

Former Speaker of the House of Commons, As an Individual

Peter Milliken

I remember, certainly, that if it was over that much, you had to do a report. Whether it was to that office or to somebody else, I don't know, but I certainly was aware of that issue. I remember, when it happened once, that I had to make a report because of information I found out at the duty-free shop on my way out of the country. I saw in the liquor store there something I had received and I saw the price on it. That's how I knew; otherwise I wouldn't have had the faintest idea.

It's an issue, I'd say, but I thought the limit was $500 and so if it was less than $500 you didn't have to report. And if you did, my staff looked after that reporting.

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

Dave MacKenzie Conservative Oxford, ON

I concur with everything you said, because I think the answer to my next question is a more critical one. Would receiving any of those gifts have changed your view or your role, or if you had been in the position, which I know you were frequently in, of breaking a tie, would it have influenced you in how you voted?

11:10 a.m.

Former Speaker of the House of Commons, As an Individual

Peter Milliken

Well, those gifts wouldn't have, because of course these were received during visits to speakers in other countries normally, so the gifts were coming from the speaker or some other official in that country whom you met. They didn't normally have much impact on Canadian law in that sense. That was the bulk of the kinds of gifts we're talking about.

I did get some at events here in Ottawa on occasion too, but I wouldn't say that I ever felt that a gift affected my inclination to support or not support any particular bill that was before the House, if I had any say in it.

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

Dave MacKenzie Conservative Oxford, ON

This is one of the issues we're wrestling with. It could be a token gift. It could be a meal. It could be some small gift left behind when you have been to events. Sometimes it's not even when you've met people. We might receive an unsolicited package, and we don't even necessarily know which organization sent it to us. It might be a variety of sample products. If we are looking at it from the point of view of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, does it seem logical to you, given your role here during the time you spent in this place, that that kind of thing would influence members of this House in the delivery of their duties?

11:15 a.m.

Former Speaker of the House of Commons, As an Individual

Peter Milliken

I don't think so.

As an example, I remember that you would get invited to a lunch or a dinner or a reception organized by some lobby group or some corporation that is promoting its work or some point of policy that it's pressing the government to act on or something like that. That sometimes happens. You'd get invited to those things, and you'd go, but I don't feel that they influenced my view on the issue, unless something was put out by way of a talk or documents that were given out on that issue. But going to a reception or a lunch, where it's mostly social, I don't think has much impact on the way you think about an issue. It never seemed to for me. I don't know why there would be an argument that this is a gift that needs to be dealt with in some other way because it might influence your decision.

The limit of $500 makes sense, because if somebody is giving you something worth that much or more, it's fair enough, in my view, that the public hear about the fact that you have received such a gift, because it may be perceived as something that was given to you to influence you and to, in effect, buy your support for a certain cause or issue.

If it's less than that—or maybe that figure is bad, but I think it's a reasonable one—and if it's something that a lot of MPs are being given, then I don't see that it has much influence on public policy. That's my view. I just didn't see it as something that affected members that way.

As I recall, in discussions with members even before I was Speaker, I never heard them say they had gone to such-and-such a party and were now going to vote for something because of what happened there.

If you went to a committee hearing and the person who had hosted the party was at the committee and gave an article that was compelling, you might be influenced, but it wasn't the social event that did it; it was the argument in evidence and testimony that was persuasive, in my view. That's what I always seemed to hear.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Dave MacKenzie Conservative Oxford, ON

I think a number of people believe the same thing you do or something along those lines. You spent a number of years in the House both as the Speaker and not as the Speaker, and so you have had the opportunity to see the view from different seats.

It would seem logical, to me anyway, that if you were looking to influence somebody, those small things would not mean anything. Currently election spending limits and donation limits are $1,500. It would seem that we accept that the $1,500 is not enough to curry favour, then small amounts in bags with a bunch of samples would likewise not be. I can't think that I'm going to buy more chocolate bars because there was one in a box, or whatever—

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Joe Preston

I beg to differ.

11:15 a.m.

Some hon. members

Oh, oh!

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Dave MacKenzie Conservative Oxford, ON

You've already had enough. You're not getting any more.

We used to have the Hilloween bags of candy. There was probably a good dollar value in there, but other than for staff to have an opportunity to get chocolate bars or whatever the case may be—and not all staff, Colin....

I think we sometimes get ourselves into a position in which we're in a race to the bottom, and we make some of these things pretty onerous on the members here. I'm not blaming anybody, but I think sometimes we have people making decisions or interpreting the situation who haven't had the opportunity to sit in this House and know what's expected of a member of Parliament. There are events in your riding that you'll go to when you might rather be somewhere else and likely would be except for the fact that you're a member of Parliament. Getting a gift there is not like getting a gift. Typically it's a token gift, I think.

11:15 a.m.

Former Speaker of the House of Commons, As an Individual

Peter Milliken

And even if it's not, even if it's some fancy book or a fancy bottle of wine or whatever the gift may be, I think it's really important that, if it is going to be declared, you do it because it's worth more than a certain amount. Making that figure very low will make it very time-consuming and difficult—not because you have to fill out forms but because you have to figure out what the thing is worth. If somebody gives you a bottle of wine, how do you know what it's worth? As I say, I found out on one of my trips when I was going through the duty-free. I had no idea it was worth that much money.

If you get a box of chocolates or whatever, you have no idea what the price is. It might be from some very fancy chocolatier and be very expensive. I've noticed some differences in prices of chocolates at different places. You wonder how you are supposed to declare these, if you don't know what the value is. They're not going to tell you, “This is a $150 box of chocolates. Enjoy it.” They aren't going to say that. It's just there for you as you walk out, and everyone who is there is getting one.

I think it's important to have a declaration for stuff that is very valuable, but I think it's reasonable to have the limit set quite high, just to avoid the inconvenience of going to get appraisals of all this stuff. It would be ridiculous for members to have to go to that expense, rather than saying, “I can't take this. I'm sorry, you're going to have to keep it.” People like to give these kinds of gifts, and I don't know what's wrong with it, because they're not trying to buy your vote; they're just having a party. They might not give you a gift, but they might give you free food or free wine at the party. Who knows what wine they're giving you? You don't know whether it's expensive or not.

11:20 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Joe Preston

Thank you.

Madame Latendresse.

I gave Mr. MacKenzie quite a bit of extra time there.

11:20 a.m.

NDP

Alexandrine Latendresse NDP Louis-Saint-Laurent, QC

Thank you very much, Mr. Milliken, for being here today.

First of all, I imagine you received a copy of Ms. Dawson's recommendations.

11:20 a.m.

Former Speaker of the House of Commons, As an Individual

Peter Milliken

I saw them, but I haven't read the whole document.

11:20 a.m.

NDP

Alexandrine Latendresse NDP Louis-Saint-Laurent, QC

In fact, I was wondering if you had specific or general recommendations to make to the committee. Do you think that some changes to the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons could be beneficial?

11:20 a.m.

Former Speaker of the House of Commons, As an Individual

Peter Milliken

In my opinion, big changes aren't needed. In fact, I don't know why it would be necessary.

As I have already mentioned, rules were already in place when I was Speaker of the House, and I'm certain that they haven't changed since.

Asking members to submit documents stating the value of gifts they have received is challenging. As I have already said, determining the value of small gifts they have received and that they have to report is not easy. The people who gave those things could perhaps do so. Another person might have bought similar things to give to other members.

I don't support the recommendation that members report such small gifts. Regarding high-value gifts, I think that should be done, but how can we determine what that is?

For example, when we go to a restaurant, we don't know the amount that was paid. Do we have to mention that it is mandatory for us to report the cost of the evening and that it is essential to know the amount that was paid for the meal? In my opinion, it is not necessary.

It is the same thing with embassies. I received a lot of invitations from embassies from other countries in Canada when I was Speaker of the House of Commons. There were meals and receptions all the time. Why should I have had to report the amount or the value of such meals?

They weren't hosted to try to convince me to do something for another country. Some mentioned some problems they had with Canada so I would talk about them with the minister, or something like that, but that is all.

However, it is not up to me to decide whether to change the rules.

May 5th, 2015 / 11:20 a.m.

NDP

Alexandrine Latendresse NDP Louis-Saint-Laurent, QC

Here is what we have understood on the thinking behind Ms. Dawson's proposal to reduce the amount for mandatory reporting. Officially, according to the current code, members are supposed to report all gifts they receive, no matter their value. According to what is written here, it is only when the value is $500 or more that we are required to do so.

Normally, even if the amount is less than $500, we have to report it if there's the possibility of a conflict of interest or undue influence. I do agree with you that having that obligation for too low an amount can be problematic. In fact, as has already been mentioned, it is possible to not know the value of a gift and to not have had the opportunity to know.

However, I think it is possible to reduce this amount to maintain a sort of balance. For the general public, a $500 gift is a lot. Personally, as a member of Parliament, I would not be very comfortable with receiving a $400 or $500 gift and not having to report it. In any case, we don't necessarily have to decide that we have to refuse it. We would just have to report that we received a gift and ensure that the person responsible for conflicts of interest is aware and can verify that it is acceptable.

Do you have an idea of what could constitute a reasonable and balanced limit? The idea is not necessarily to report something that is worth $5, $10 or even $50, but I think that $500 is rather high.

11:25 a.m.

Former Speaker of the House of Commons, As an Individual

Peter Milliken

In my opinion, you need to consider the formula that was applied in the past. When did we start to consider gifts of $500? I am not an expert in this field, but if this formula and this amount have been applied for a long time—and I believe that that's the case, although I'm not sure—it would be better not to change the amount at this time.

If that amount was set 25 years ago, $500 is worth much less now. Over the years, I do not believe that we had any problems involving MPs who received gifts of that scope. Since we almost never had problems, why should you have to declare every small gift now? We're talking about small gifts, but I don't know what the value should be. Regardless of what it is, I wonder why it should be less than $500 when $500 was acceptable 25 years ago.

11:25 a.m.

NDP

Alexandrine Latendresse NDP Louis-Saint-Laurent, QC

It's perhaps because the ethics rules have evolved over time, among other things.

11:25 a.m.

Former Speaker of the House of Commons, As an Individual

Peter Milliken

Perhaps, but I don't think that it's necessary to tighten the rules all that much in this area. In fact, it will not require the MP to make a decision on a issue related to what was proposed during a reception or a meal.