Mr. Speaker, let me begin by congratulating the government on actually making an announcement of policy here in the House of Commons. That was not so difficult. I hope the government will turn that now into a practice, as was the case when this Parliament was a more respected institution.
The Progressive Conservative Party is pleased that the Prime Minister has finally recognized the need to appoint an independent ethics commissioner reporting to Parliament. This has come after a decade of amnesia and a clear failure to deliver on one of the government's fundamental campaign promises. It is unfortunate that it took four ministerial resignations, and perhaps counting, to get to this point.
Almost ten years ago, the Prime Minister campaigned on the theme of ethics in politics. He was going to change the way government operated. He certainly succeeded, but definitely not for the better.
Now we have a government whose reputation has been so seriously tarnished by the behaviour of its ministers that it has to account for its actions.
Today's tabling of this draft bill is proof positive that, however difficult, Parliament can hold the government to account.
I note there is no change in the conflict of interest code that will be applied. It is worth noting on this point that the code is loose enough that it allows the Prime Minister of Canada to lobby the president of crown corporations in the interests of his constituents. The code itself needs strengthening, not just the person or the office who enforces it.
This is just a draft bill. We welcome the opportunity to amend it in the House but I make the point that it may take some time before Canadians actually see an independent ethics commissioner. There is opportunity for the government to delay here and it may well do that.
The ethics commissioner will have powers to investigate ethical issues, analyze the facts and draw conclusions. That information will be released to the Prime Minister, to the person who made the complaint, including a member of Parliament in either Chamber, and to the minister being investigated.
Officials tell us that the information will also be released simultaneously to the public. However the ethics commissioner will also provide the Prime Minister with confidential information that will not be part of the public record. That is another way of saying that the reports to the public may well be edited. We would want to have an assurance that the reports that this House receives, the reports that are made public, contain all the relevant information and are not edited by the government or by the Prime Minister on the way to the public domain.
Of course under this provision it is the Prime Minister who remains the one who makes the decision as to whether a minister goes or stays. That is hard to change in our system, except that the spirit must be understood that if improper behaviour is found, the overwhelming weight of responsibility on the government is to dismiss a minister whose conduct has been found inappropriate.
This new package calls for an annual report to Parliament. We will want to know in great detail what will be contained in that report. It must be more than simply a listing of how many investigations were initiated, discarded or completed. It should provide details of the investigations that were started but discarded.
I regret, as did my colleague, the leader of the New Democratic Party, that there is no provision here for a citizen's initiative of inquiry. I think the world has changed and the expectations of democracy have reached the point that we cannot continue to ignore the rights of citizens on questions of this kind.
As for the code of conduct, I am happy the government based its bill on the Milliken-Oliver report, a report that was ignored for four years.
We look forward to examining what the government is introducing and comparing it with what the joint committee recommended.
With respect to the appointment of the commissioner himself or herself, let me ask the Deputy Prime Minister to consider a method of appointment that may find support in the House and would certainly add to the stature of the person named. Would the government consider having a committee of justices of the Supreme Court convene to nominate a person who might serve in the capacity of ethics commissioner of the House of Commons? I think that would be one step that could ensure we had an officer whose credibility and reliability were respected generally in the country.
Finally, the amendments to the Lobbyists Registration Act are long overdue. We will want to examine this legislation closely so as to ensure that the amendments accomplish the goal of strengthening the act. I am a little surprised to note that the penalties for abusing the act will not change. We will want to ensure that those penalties are adequate, particularly in an age when the role of lobbyists becomes much more significant, certainly more significant than the role of members of this House, and the law must reflect that reality.