Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak today to Bill S-2. For the benefit of those watching, this bill was originally introduced by the government on March 6, 1997 as Bill C-86 but died on the order paper when the last federal election was called on April 26, 1997.
I would first off like to say that our party, the Bloc Quebecois, will support the bill. I give the government the option of proceeding to second and third reading this morning to permit the bill to be passed quickly before the summer recess.
Even though elements of the bill are of interest to our party, there is a procedure not often used in the House, which is sometimes a problem, but which is permitted, namely, the introduction of bills directly in the Senate. This is why this bill is known as Bill S-2. So, exceptionally, the government decided, with the co-operation of the Leader of the Government in the Senate, to introduce this bill in the Senate first, rather than in the House first.
Like most Quebeckers, we in the Bloc Quebecois are totally opposed to the institution that is the Senate. We deplore the fact that, showing a degree of contempt for democracy, the government chose to introduce the bill before unelected parliamentarians. Bear in mind that this archaic institution from another era is made up of 104 individuals appointed by the government of the day, who are currently almost equally divided into two groups: a Liberal majority and a Conservative official opposition.
To us, as a party, it is absolutely indecent for such a bill to be initiated by unelected senators. The government should have followed the usual procedure and introduced the bill here, in the House of Commons, the house of the people, where we represent democracy as it was clearly expressed in the June 2, 1997 general election. Whether we get along or not, or have differences of opinion about Canada's or Quebec's place on the international scene, we are all democratically elected members of parliament.
There is no ambiguity about the political colour of the 44 members of the Bloc Quebecois: we are sovereignists. We have said so before, during and every day we have a chance to do so in this House since the election. We consider ourselves democrats, to the same extent as our colleagues from the four other parties represented in the House. This concludes the aside I wanted to make regarding the unusual procedure used.
I hope the government will not make it a habit. We work hard in this place. We have a number of bills to examine. Unfortunately, it is rumoured that we will adjourn soon, earlier than scheduled on the parliamentary calendar, because our legislative agenda is so light. I see the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration laughing across the way. But it is true, there is not much to work on. We are prepared to work hard, night and day and on weekends if necessary, but we need a legislative agenda to work on. I believe members of this House have shown that they can be serious and work hard. There is no need to have bills introduced directly in the Senate.
I go back to the fact that the Canadian Transportation Accident Investigation and Safety Board Act was passed in 1989 and proclaimed in 1990. That legislation provided for a review mechanism. The board that conducted the review tabled its report in 1994, and the bill before us reflects these recommendations, those of the Moshansky commission of inquiry, and also takes into account various consultations.
I want to deal with three specific issues: the board's independence, the role given to the provinces in this bill, and the members of the board.
First, the bill does strengthen the board's independence, and our party is very pleased with that. The board will deal at arms' length with the minister. Its independence is also encouraged by promoting non coercive methods to gain the co-operation of witnesses and to better protect the confidential nature of the information provided by witnesses, and by providing greater protection in legal proceedings, following statements made by witnesses.
The object of the board is to advance transportation safety by conducting independent investigations, identifying safety deficiencies, making recommendations and reporting publicly on investigations. These responsibilities are stated in clause 7 of Bill S-2. The idea is not necessarily to find guilty parties. Rather, it is to find out what happened, why and what conditions led to the accident.
The board must play an inquisitive but not necessarily accusatory role to find out what happened. It must find out the facts to understand the incident and, of course, to write reports, which is the important element in clause 7. This will help to define prevention measures, so that such incidents do not recur. The issue is transportation safety, it is about saving human lives.
When we use a means of transportation in Canada or in Quebec, we expect the company to be serious, reasonable and professional. Since we naturally trust it, it could be tempted to try to stretch increasingly limited financial resources a little further by trying to keep costs down—by cutting a few corners, as my mother would say, not bothering with every little detail—to the detriment of safety.
The government therefore has the important legislative and regulatory role of ensuring that Canadians and Quebeckers have an efficient, effective and, above all, safe transportation system.
No matter how many regulations are in place, accidents are still going to happen. But they must be well documented; we must look into them, make reports and recommendations so that, when these accidents occur, we really know what went wrong. And I hope that that will not be the end of it, that these recommendations will not gather dust on library shelves and never be consulted again. It has to have a certain documentary value if prevention is to be served.
The board's purpose is not to cast blame. Right now, the board can press charges against individuals refusing to testify. The issue is one of being compelled to testify. In future, it will be possible to make an application to the Superior Court or the Federal Court in order to require an individual to disclose information or be found in contempt. Our party is pleased with this procedure. It is faster, less costly and more effective.
We in the Bloc Quebecois are not narrow-minded. We are not in the opposition for the sole purpose of criticizing and complaining. When the government gets something right, we say so. That is a sign of political maturity.
However, when it is wrong, I hope we have to right to sat so, and I hope the government does not think it is perfect. For instance, in clause 19, paragraph 15.1, the government is proposing a faster, less expensive and more efficient process, that we support, because we think it is a good thing.
On the independence issue, the bill confirms the exclusive jurisdiction of the board over investigating the causes of a transportation occurrence. That is stipulated in clause 14.4. The wording is also changed to show that the board is not an administrative or quasi-judicial tribunal.
I do not remember the exact wording and I do not have the time to start looking for it in the bill, but we wanted to decriminalize the whole process as it concerns the witnesses. If memory serves, we no longer talk about briefs and witnesses, but about people giving testimony.
That might sound like a technicality, but still it decriminalizes the whole process and it indicates that the main purpose of the board is to investigate the facts and to come up with recommendations to once again improve safety.
With this bill, the government wanted to eliminate the quasi-judicial aspect of the proceedings of the board. We support this move.
My second remark concerns the role of the provinces. Since we are still in a heavily centralized federal system, it is unfortunate that the Canadian pact should provide for a strong central government and provinces that are nearly powerless. This is one problem. And, partly because of that, Quebec looks forward to the day when it has full power and does not have to come begging to the federal government all the time.
This is the system we have to live with for the time being, and our party being a democratic party has said that it would keep looking for ways to improve the Canadian federal system from within.
The provinces will now be allowed to ask the board to investigate accidents in transportation areas that are under their own jurisdiction. Paragraphe 15.1 provides that provinces can use the board.
I think that this provision could be interesting under the new approach being used with railways in Canada and especially in Quebec, where we have a number of railway lines. The process is underway. This procedure could be used in the case of so-called short line railroads. The board will be empowered to investigate accidents in transportation areas under provincial jurisdiction. The fact is that short line railroads are entirely under provincial jurisdiction when they are not involved in interprovincial operations.
Of course, the costs of the investigation must then be recovered from the provinces. Our party does hope the board will be reasonable in assessing the costs to the provinces. I hope it will not try to pass on to them the cost of the three inch thick carpeting which I am sure covers the floor in the board's offices. If, however, the costs incurred during the course of an investigation on a means of transportation under provincial jurisdiction are reasonable, I do not foresee any problem.
This bill encourages co-operation between the board's investigators and provincial coroners as opposed to peace officers.
My third and last point, before I conclude, deals with board members. The bill provides for the appointment of part time members and a full board of no more than five members. We acknowledge that this is bound to make the board more cost efficient.
However, this is another case of bouquets and brickbats. We must raise an issue that the government really fails to understand or refuses to accept. When the Liberals were in the opposition, under the Conservatives, they took issue with the many partisan appointments made by Prime Minister Mulroney, as can be seen in Hansard for the years 1984 to 1993, at which point the Liberals came to power. When they formed the opposition, the Liberals kept on lambasting Prime Minister Mulroney and his Tory government for their partisan appointments.
In 1993, the Liberals were voted in, but the practice was maintained. Today, it is alive and well. Our party would have hoped that with Bill S-2 the government would have shown an openness and transparency it has not shown since 1993. We would have liked to see an open appointment process under which board's members would be chosen for their skills and expertise, and not for being a member of the Liberal Party of Canada or a candidate in a general election.
The Bloc Quebecois is well aware of how the government rewarded the Liberal candidates who ran against us unsuccessfully in the Quebec City area. I remember a lady by the name of Margo Brousseau, who ran in 1993 for the Liberal Party in Louis-Hébert. Shortly after her defeat to my former colleague, Philippe Paré, Mrs. Brousseau was appointed to the board of directors of the port of Quebec City.
We know also that in the last election Jacques Portelance, a councillor in the municipality of Charlesbourg, was defeated by my colleague from Charlesbourg. A few months ago, he was appointed to the board of directors of the port of Quebec City. I have nothing against Mr. Portelance. And my colleague from Argenteuil—Papineau is telling me that Stéphane Hébert was also a Liberal candidate who was rewarded by the government.
The government should have used this bill to say “Enough is enough”, as Reform members like to say. It should have taken the opportunity to provide for transparency in the appointment process. But no, the partisan appointment process lives on.
Everyone will find some benefit in my last comment on the issue. The Liberals are continuing what the Conservatives were doing and now, with the Conservatives in opposition, the few Conservative members we see in this House, because they are often missing in action, starting with their former leader—