Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to participate in the debate at third reading of the bill on lobbyists. I think that it is important to reflect on the role of lobbies. Their role is essentially to attempt to influence the positions taken by the government and parliamentarians on policy issues and to defend private interests.
I would also say that lobbyists end up reducing the direct influence that citizens have on their representatives. We have seen some instances of this in the past year, for example the lobby that formed around the somatotropin issue. One company that wanted to see somatotropin approved went so far as to hire a manager who was on leave without pay to lobby the government machine. There are also very obvious cases where Canadian banks are systematically making representations to MPs in an effort to either effect changes or to maintain the status quo in taxes and regulations.
I do not think that anyone is against the fact that lobbyists exist. The same thing goes on in all parliaments. What should be looked at, however, is their methods, because so many things have come about mysteriously in the past which could have been the result of lobbying. Parliamentary history, be it in Canada, England, the United States, or almost anywhere else in the world, is characterized by blatant examples of this. This has led other parliaments to reflect on the best way to monitor this activity to prevent abuses.
Other examples of this have cropped up recently in the news here in Canada. For instance, there is the connection between the Liberals, Power Corporation and certain decisions. Today, it is DTH television services. Yesterday, it was the railways. It is always there and it is always connected with important decisions. Under the Conservatives a major debate began on this issue because the Tory party was very close to the business community and there had been quite a few instances of practices that were doubtful, to say the least, the latest and most notorious example being the privatization of Pearson airport.
During the election campaign, the Liberal Party promised that it would make some major changes in this respect, and that was before it formed the government. Unfortunately, Bill C-43 is a typical example of much ado about apparently nothing. They promised us a transparent system, and what we get is, for instance, an ethics counsellor appointed by the Prime Minister and accountable to the Prime Minister. To the Bloc, this does not denote transparency. It is not the way to establish a code of conduct and restore public confidence in our democratic institutions, because how can you ask an ethics counsellor who is appointed by the Prime Minister to judge the actions of the government and the Prime Minister?
In the past, in fact this year, we saw situations where the ethics counsellor was put on the spot when he could not really give an independent opinion. We would have preferred the government to consider the Bloc's recommendations, including a request that the ethics counsellor be appointed by Parliament so that he or she is directly accountable to the members of this House and is free to criticize the government and in fact any parliamentarian, irrespective of the connection that is there.
We have a situation where a lobbyist approaches a member of the government, the counsellor evaluates the government's transparency in all this, gives an opinion and then reports to the Prime Minister who is himself a party to the case.
This is entirely unacceptable, and perpetuates the image that politicians are always looking out for their own interests. I think this government will assess this later on during debate. I think there is support in Canada to improve the situation, and the bill does not satisfactorily do so. Considering the commitments the Liberals had set out in the red book, it was very clear that they wanted to go a lot further.
Once it crossed the floor, how is it that the government did not manage to drop its old habits? We can only guess at what influenced it. I think the answer lies in the fact that, in Canada, political party funding is still very unstructured. Companies, unions, groups and pressure groups can all contribute to party funding. So, once a party is in power, it is forced to pay careful attention to the comments and suggestions of those who funded it.
I think that the big companies, such as the Canadian banking network, for example, want to make sure that their lobbyists have a lot of leeway.
We parliamentarians must ask ourselves the following question: Is this advantageous for Canadians? It is advantageous for Quebecers to leave all this leeway to lobbyists and to end up cancelling out the direct effect the public must have on the people they elected to represent them?
The second indication that a government has not let go of its old habits is the action of the lobbyists themselves. They are a highly polished group. We can see very clearly in the business of the Pearson airport that lobbying firms have interchangeable people. When the government changes, they have someone from the right family and the right school, who has access to a particular ear. When another party comes to power, they bring out of mothballs someone from the right family and thus ensure uninterrupted influence.
We in the Bloc Quebecois feel that the government should have given a much stronger message to the public that it wanted to ensure that the people of Canada were the primary agents of democracy and that they had the greatest influence on their members. To this end, we made some very constructive suggestions, which the government rejected. This is rather sad.
Let me give you examples of that situation. The Bloc Quebecois is in favour of registration for lobbyists, regardless of the tier to which they belong. Currently, some lobbyists make representations to ministers, while others are in contact with senior officials or MPs.
The existing rules regarding the disclosure of the fact that these people are lobbyists vary. These people should all have to register in the same manner, so that we know exactly who is lobbying, not just those who are paid specifically to do it, but also all those who do it under cover, as director of public relations, director of governmental relations, etc. We want to have an accurate and comprehensive overview of the situation.
It is important, for reasons of transparency, to know about all the activities and dealings which relate to government contracts. Lobbyists should be required to disclose, on a regular basis, which contracts they are working on, so that we could have a clear idea of how such representations are made and how contracts are awarded. The process must appear relatively fair, and there must be sufficient transparency to be able to determine whether the most deserving group or company was awarded a contract, in compliance with acceptable standards and criteria.
We also think that meetings with senior officials should be reported. After being elected to the House of Commons 18 months ago, one of the first changes I noticed compared to my previous job was that lobbyists were calling us and knocking on our doors asking, "Could we meet with you to discuss this or that situation?"
I think that this type of relationship with elected officials is normal and should be reported. What is a little more nebulous, however, is the representations made to senior officials. One of the ways lobbyists can exert influence is by becoming involved in the drafting of bills or regulations before decisions are made.
It would be interesting to receive a list of these interventions to see whether or not a given clause has been included in a bill as a result of lobbying. The disclosure requirement alone may even reduce the number of such meetings. Again, I think it would be interesting because it would allow elected officials to have more control over, and more direct contact with, senior officials, thus allowing the people they represent to exert, through them, greater influence on the work done by senior officials.
Therein may lie one of the causes of the current situation in which high level bureaucrats, senior public servants, often seem to govern through a third party and exert some control over ministers instead of the other way around. Much about this type of influence remains unknown and unclear at the present time.
Another decision, which was suggested by the Bloc and which, I think, is very important because money has been described as the root of war, is to eliminate tax deductions for lobbying expenses.
Paradoxically, companies can now obtain tax deductions for lobbying expenses often incurred to influence policies to their advantage even when these policies are not in the public interest. It is a government incentive to spend money on this kind of lobbying, while ordinary citizens trying to get organized to apply pressure often cannot obtain similar services.
We could look at this in the context of the ongoing debate on gun control, without getting into too much detail. There is lobbying around this issue, lobbying by those who want more gun control and by major associations which oppose gun control. For my part, what I see mainly is citizens trying to express opinions, one way or the other, on this issue. But they cannot
exert the same influence, mainly because the companies or corporations on either side of the debate can claim income tax deductions for their lobbying expenses, while the residents of a village cannot.
Here is an example. I met in Saint-Médard-de-Rivière-du-Loup, a locality in my riding, with 25 or 30 people who wanted to talk to me about this bill. It was not possible for them to form an organized group and defray the cost this entails. Still, they had worthwhile arguments that made good horse sense to put forward and they should be given the chance to do so.
That is why I think it would be important to reinstate the relative balance between stakeholders and one good way of doing so would be to stop encouraging companies to hire lobbyists by making sure that no tax deduction can be claimed for this purpose, as it acts as an incentive to hire lobbyists.
How could we finally get a government that would stand up and seriously tackle problems like this one? This would have a direct impact on the way people perceive their elected representatives. Just look at the degree of confidence the people have in their elected representatives, I would say it is far from satisfactory and we have to do something about it. One way is to show all Canadians that there is no hidden force acting within the system, that nobody has more power than they should have because of the rules of the system.
What fundamental change should be made? It all boils down to party financing. If we want a responsible government that will make changes in this area, we have to make sure that political parties do not owe anything to anybody. We have this model in Quebec where only individuals can contribute to the financing of political parties, which makes the government much more at arm's length with companies, unions and other groups.
If federal political parties would agree to this kind of financing, the party elected to office would be under a lot less pressure in terms of keeping its election promises, instead of feeling the kind of pressure that has forced this government to introduce such a weak bill.
The subcommittee report on Bill C-43 is coyly entitled "Rebuilding Trust". The way to rebuild trust is to make sure that the public knows everything there is to know and has an complete overview of the situation, that there is nothing secret going on. The only way to achieve this goal would have been for the government to do almost exactly what it had promised during the election campaign so that Canadians could see a clear relationship between what the Liberals said and what they are doing.
Unfortunately, in this case as in several others, this government has a double standard. It campaigned to be elected, but today it is implementing the agenda of a party that the public completely rejected, that is the Conservative Party. This is as true in the case of lobbyists as in the other areas. This is why the Bloc Quebecois is very disappointed with the choices made by the government and wants the public to be aware of it. For once, it can be said that this has nothing to do with the constitutional or with the national issue.
We should realize that for the federal Parliament to serve Canadians well-and this is true for any provincial legislature, any government-the appearance of justice and the citizens' confidence in government are of critical importance. But as with many other issues, the government has lost an opportunity to make history. It is our hope that it will have the courage to go back to the drawing board.