Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in the debate on the bill to establish the Department of Public Works and Government Services. As you know, this is an incorporating act which, by tradition, is not considered to be very controversial legislation. Not so with this bill. The Bloc Quebecois does not have to follow any such tradition: We are here to question everything, even what appears to be a mere formality.
In fact, the seemingly neutral character of this legislation conceals very important considerations. This tool to restructure the Department of Public Works and Government Services should have been used to develop procedures ensuring true transparency regarding the management of public money. Such transparency is conditional on extending the role of MPs. Let us not forget that this department is among the top solicitors of goods and services.
In the 1994-95 budget, expenditures for this department were expected to reach $2.3 billion, under the program for real property services, supplies and Crown corporations. In 1992-93, through the Quebec procurement directorate alone, a total of 17,400 contracts representing an estimated value of $269.9 million were awarded. Cheques totalling over $34 million were also sent out in the form of benefits, payments and tax refunds.
Stocked items representing $3 billion were sold, as well as $4 million worth of surplus assets, through the Crown Assets Distribution Centre. But are there any monitoring measures involving elected representatives?
In other words, this bill should be based on the fundamentals of government transparency, follow-up and monitoring, in the riding, by the member concerned. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Early last summer, I asked the Minister of Public Works to provide me with information on his department's activities in my riding of Châteauguay. Like my colleagues from the Bloc Quebecois, I thought this was a very reasonable request, since one of the major roles of a member of Parliament is to ensure proper management of the taxpayers' money spent on federal government operations.
After a long wait, I was really surprised to get from the minister a rather terse and disappointing answer. He told us, and I quote: "Unfortunately, the information you are requesting cannot be found in a single document only- In short, your request would represent an excessive workload for our department-" This goes to show what the government thinks of follow-ups by members on expenditures made in their ridings. How can a member of Parliament carry out his or her duties and functions when he is unable to get follow-up reports or information on the operations of this department in his or her riding?
This lack of transparency is what people concerned by the integrity of the public system have been decrying for some time now. This lack of transparency can be noticed even in our ridings as it affects civil servants and contractors. Let me give you two examples from my riding of Châteauguay. Early this year, the director of the Canada Employment Centre in Châteauguay called me to ask if I had any objection to the Centre being moved. The offices were getting crowded it seems. Of course, I said I saw no drawbacks, but I would have liked to know the
criteria that were used and be informed before the decision was made.
Some time later, the manager of the building told me that he could have provided more space to the Centre, making the move unnecessary. How much did this move cost? How could I check and interfere in this matter without the proper documentation? At a time when it is no longer possible to waste taxpayers' money, why is the member constantly fighting to obtain information?
I have another example. I have learned recently that the Canada Employment Centre in Châteauguay had asked a non-profit organization, namely the Société de développement économique de Roussillon or SODER, to manage the independent workers assistance program. It did not take long for some people to come to my office complaining about decisions made under the program. When I asked the director of SODER for information regarding the budget, the number of applications turned down, the reason they were turned down, the name of the applicants, etc., he told me that all this information was confidential.
According to him, he was the one who made the decisions. Is it possible that an employee working under contract for a federal government agency can decide what an elected member of Parliament has the right to know? I talked to the director of the Employment Centre. He was supposed to know whether this situation was normal. I have been waiting for his answer for several weeks. I am now convinced that I should go to the minister and ask him again to be more open and to have more respect for the role of the member of Parliament.
Similar examples speak for themselves. It is not surprising, in these circumstances, that about 87 per cent of Canadians no longer believe in politicians. What do we do? What can we do? The bill before us today gives us a golden opportunity to change direction. With this merger which, according to the government, will lead to savings, it would be possible to put in place control mechanisms accessible to members of Parliament in order to make the system more transparent.
The minister was worried about the cost of transparency. He even used this as an excuse to turn down my request. I suggest that transparency, and to me there are no ifs and buts, is a real way to save money. Today, how can we be sure that budget limits are observed? This is not about challenging the way public servants implement policies and regulations. It is about exercising our vigilance as elected representatives.
The government should use this bill to set up the appropriate mechanism for exercising that vigilance. The Auditor General of Canada has already pointed out the department's shortcomings in this respect. In 1991, leased office space represented over 40 per cent of the total and required annual rental expenditures of $379 million. The Government of Canada procured goods and services for a total of $8 billion annually and participated in the administration of major projects valued at $23 billion.
According to the Auditor General, the department awarded $3 billion worth of non-competitive contracts annually-three billion dollars that were not subject to the rules for competitive bidding. Furthermore, there was no corporate system to record and report on supplier and product performance. What action was taken on the comments and recommendations made by the Auditor General?
Whether the project is in its initial stages, during the bidding process, or in its final stages, when the books are closed, access to information is not available as a matter of course. Much depends on the good will of public servants, whose workload was not planned to accommodate this much needed transparency. However, whether we are talking about agencies or individuals, when funds are allocated from the public purse, public funds and the public interest are involved, so we must be able to account for the ways such funds are spent.
This lack of transparency casts some doubts on the integrity of the entire system for awarding contracts. Transparency is essential to prevent any possibility of patronage, conflict of interest or undue privilege. Look at the Pearson Airport case. Look at the bill to control lobbyists, a bill was watered down as a result of very effective representations made by those same lobbyists. Look at the proposal concerning grassroots funding of political parties which was dismissed out of hand by the Liberals.
The management and control of government contracts must be a priority for us, for the sake of both fiscal responsibility and openness. Recently, a Canadian Press dispatch indicated that in 1993, that Coopers & Lybrand, a very prestigious firm, contributed to the then leading federal parties: $107,000 to the Liberal Party of Canada, and $150,000 to the Progressive Conservative Party. During the 1992-93 fiscal year, that same firm was awarded government contracts for a total value of $3,771,917. If you are good with arithmetics, you can figure out that Coopers & Lybrand's total contribution of $257,000 is approximately 6.8 per cent of all the contracts awarded. A pretty good return!
I have another similar example. Again according to the Canadian Press, Ernst & Young also participated in the funding of the two major federal political parties in 1993. It gave $64,000 to the Progressive Conservative Party and $44,000 to the Liberal Party of Canada. During the 1992-93 fiscal year, that firm was awarded government contracts worth $272,132. The ratio is much higher in this case since the total of $108,000
contributed is 39.6 per cent of the contracts awarded. I leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions.
These two examples stress the need for openness in the government contracting business. As things stand right now, all government contracts over $25,000 for goods purchased or over $60,000 for capital projects are handled through the Open Bidding Service, the OBS, which is an electronic service available only through subscription. If contracts are less than $25,000 or $60,000, invitations to bid are sent to the chosen few who are listed on the suppliers file.
Of course, there are transfer payments published in the Public Accounts, but that is not readily available and is out-of-date when you want answers on what is happening right now, today. I must admit that the Minister of Public Works and Government Services is right when he says that these tools are meant to ensure the efficient management of the tendering process, they were not designed to give members of Parliament or the general public access to information on that process.
This is precisely for that reason that the parliamentary wing of the Bloc Quebecois is asking for a monitoring mechanism which would scrutinize the contracts and implement what we are asking for in our amendment: openness. A contracting-out code must be included in the bill. In particular we demand that all members of Parliament, irrespective of their political affiliation, be consulted or at the very least informed, when government contracts are awarded through this process in their ridings. Finally, the Department of Public Works and Government Services must establish a system whereby periodic summaries would be made widely available.
I would like to mention another particularly damning fact about the way the federal government manages public spending, and consequently the questionable administrative practises used in the Department of Public Works and Government Services.
One of these practices, unfortunately not publicized enough, is to accept advance payments by government agencies to allow them to keep their annual budget allocation. In order to do so, they pay in advance for services to be provided in subsequent years and, as a result, they can maintain the integrity of their resource envelope for the fiscal year.
Last month, the President of the Treasury Board wrote a letter to the Minister of Public Works and Government Services indicating that questionable practices, namely advance payments, were going on in his department. In so doing, the President of the Treasury Board was forcing the Minister of Public Works and Government Services to look into this practice involving among others the Canada Communication Group.
In a press release dated September 19, he said the following: "In mid-August, officials from Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC) contacted Treasury Board officials with information indicating that an internal audit showed that the Canada Communication Group (CCG) might have accepted irregular advance payments. They asked for advice and direction on this issue. Treasury Board officials responded by explaining that this practice was indeed contrary to government policies, and gave direction on the actions required to rectify the situation".
By emphasizing the seriousness of the situation, the President of the Treasury Board drew attention to a problem inherent to the administrative practices of this government. In a letter to the Minister of Public Works and Government Services accompanying the press release, he even made the following comments: "This situation is, of course, very serious. Of particular concern to me is the question of apparent disregard for existing principles of financial management and control within government and Treasury Board policy. Therefore, I am asking you to look into this matter personnally; have an independent review of the matter undertaken by your internal audit organization and report back to me within a month on your findings".
In summary, we have here a convincing and damning example of shameful waste of public finances. It is really regrettable that the ongoing inquiry was limited to the internal level. I doubt that this inquiry is being done correctly; it is obvious that the procedure used to examine this serious problem of fraud is deficient because it is limited to the internal level. How many such cases never get discussed in public?
A conclusion must be drawn immediately about this major incident. The administrative practices of the government, as they appear in the present case, are in no way transparent. This is why the Bloc Quebecois asks in its amendment that all the expenses of the Department of Public Works and Governmental Services be made known to the public. I find deplorable and charged with consequences the fact that the government has not considered amending Bill C-52 in this way. The same thing could be said of the transparency, so often promised by the Liberal Party of Canada during the last election campaign, but which has gone unheeded since the Liberals took office.
The control of public finances necessitates such mechanisms. Without them, members of Parliament cannot have free access to government contracts that are in effect in their own ridings. Without transparency mechanisms, how can we make officials accountable for their spending?
The amendment of the Bloc Quebecois is therefore the expression of that new philosophy which should inhabit us all: to find a new way of administering public affairs in order to put
aside the old traditional practices that are responsible for our $508 billion deficit.