Madam Speaker, as Parliament reconvenes, I am delighted to rise in this House to speak to Bill C-310 introduced by my hon. colleague, the Reform member for Souris—Moose Mountain, the short title of which is the Special Interest Groups Funding Accountability Act.
With this bill, organizations in receipt of federal grants would be required to report to the minister on the use made of the grant funds and the minister would table this report in the House.
The bill reminds us that our primary role as legislators is first and foremost to represent the people and not our party, and to ensure the sound management of public affairs. That is why the Bloc Quebecois supports this bill.
I remember that, soon after I was elected in 1993, the auditor general's report examined the responsibility of the various departments to be accountable for their activities. The auditor general suggested there was an urgent need to define more precisely the specific objectives and expected results of departmental programs. The auditor general wrote, and I quote: “Parliament may wish to consider more radical solutions to obtain more timely, relevant and reliable effectiveness information”.
The bill before us today, while far from being a radical solution, could be useful to both departmental managers and members of Parliament in determining whether grant funds were indeed spent on achieving the stated objectives. This requirement to table a report on the use made of these funds would fill the inexplicable vacuum whereby, at present, organizations receiving contributions are required to report on how their activities are funded, while those receiving grants are not.
A specific issue—and an infamous one—allowed us to show the major flaws that prevent the auditing of the actual use of public funds by the organizations benefiting from grants. This example helps us understand why, unlike the Liberal member, I feel this bill is essential to sound democracy in Canada. I am referring to Option Canada.
This organization received $4.8 million from the Department of Canadian Heritage to promote Canadian unity. That money was granted in the fall of 1995, over a 33 day period, during the referendum campaign, in contempt of the legislation on the financing of public consultations passed by the Quebec National Assembly.
Three years later, no one, including the Minister of Canadian Heritage, can tell us where that money went, money that was taken from the budget for the official languages support program. This is unbelievable. It is not known what use was actually made of that money, nor whether that investment produced the anticipated results.
In the letters accompanying the payment of millions of dollars to Option Canada, Michel Dupuy, the then Minister of Canadian Heritage, used rather protracted and trivial formulas to express his expectations, such as “I do hope this additional grant will allow you to complete all your activities and to reach your objectives under the official languages support program”. This “I do hope” shows remarkable rigour on the part of a manager of public funds.
Option Canada did not submit any report and no one in the Department of Canadian Heritage expressed any concerns about the situation until the matter was reported in the newspapers and the Bloc Quebecois began questioning the minister in the House. The cat was out of the bag and the Minister of Canadian Heritage ordered an internal investigation in March 1997, one and a half years after the fact.
Even after seeing internal reports pointing out numerous irregularities in how grants were issued to Option Canada, the Minister of Canadian Heritage refused to take action. Worse still, when she appeared before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage in November 1997, the minister tried to conceal the truth by saying, and I quote: “I checked to see if these funds were spent in accordance with Treasury Board regulations. It would appear that they were.”
Yet, when the minister made this statement to committee members, she had in her possession a briefing note prepared by her officials that said quite the opposite. Following a request under the Access to Information Act, the minister finally resigned herself to releasing the results of her internal investigations into the grants paid to Option Canada.
Consultant Bill Coleman was tasked with conducting the investigation and his report was explicit and devastating with respect to the lax approach and the degree to which Treasury Board regulations were followed. He established the following facts clearly: Option Canada did not fill out any form to obtain its grants; Option Canada met only two of the 22 conditions for obtaining a grant; Option Canada did not supply a piece of information as essential as the name of a person with signing authority; Option Canada did not undertake to provide a report on activities and a financial report; Option Canada did not undertake to return unused funds.
The Minister of Canadian Heritage did not act in accordance with the program's funding conditions and failed to follow her own procedures requiring that specific forms be completed in order to obtain a grant. It was only a matter of days before Option Canada received approval and obtained its grants, without being required to provide any justification as to how the amounts previously received had been spent.
It would appear, then, that 33 days were all that was required to receive, study, recommend and approve three grant applications totalling $4.8 million.
Finally, after several months of insistence by the Bloc and the auditor general, Option Canada was forced to produce two reports that proved to be very imprecise and fragmentary on how funding had been spent, or rather misspent.
The auditor general's conclusion on the first report, tabled in January 1998, was that it was minimal and that it could not be determined from it whether what was involved was a deficiency or a misappropriation of funds.
As for the second Option Canada report, tabled in March 1998, the Principal in the Auditor General's office reached the conclusion that, without better information, it was not possible to have any assurance that this funding had indeed been used as authorized.
In a CBC radio interview, the Auditor General of Canada went so far as to state that fraud could not be ruled out without access to all information concerning Option Canada spending.
Given the flagrant lack of political will on the part of the Liberal government to at last bring the funding and spending of Option Canada fully out into the open, doubts must still remain. According to the documents obtained under the Access to Information Act, at the time of the 1995 referendum, Option Canada was supposed to organize VIP visits, have organizers in place, organize federalist rallies, and even purchase media space.
Allow me to review all the coincidences in this matter: $4.8 million in public funds spent in the fall of 1995 by Option Canada, made up of friends of the regime, in the thick of the referendum campaign on the future of Quebec, in order to attain the objectives of the program supporting linguistic duality. So, who was being led down the garden path? I will let you be the judge.
What are we to conclude from this adventure? That Option Canada had people like Guy Bertrand and Howard Galganov on its payroll? That Option Canada financed some of the employees or some of the activities on the no side? Did Option Canada resolve the financial difficulties of a number of friends of the regime with ties to the Council for Canadian Unity?
No one can answer these and many other questions. The Liberal government refused and still refuses to act responsibly and explain the use of the $4.8 million in public funds.
In his 1995 report, the auditor general wondered whether financial management and control were all they ought to be. He wrote, and I quote “I believe there are good reasons for concern. My staff continue to find significant problems in financial management and control across a broad range of government operations. [—] There is increasing delegation of authority and empowerment of employees, but without corresponding accountability for financial results within organizations”.
It is high time the Liberal government moved to improve political practices and improve government efficiency. Scrutiny must not be left to officials or organizations receiving grants. It must be mandatory.
Passage of this bill will enable us to ensure that the millions of dollars of funding given out each year by the government to various organizations is really spent for the purposes intended.