moved that Bill C-388, an act to regulate conflict of interest situations for ministers and to provide for a code of ethics for ministers, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I would have liked to have started by saying that I am happy to speak to this debate on Bill C-388, the result of just over two years of work. However, I can only conclude, after the sad spectacle the government treated us to, that the amount of work and the number of years we spend working on a bill do not count for much here in the House. This is a grievous affront to private members' business and to the rights of parliamentarians to raise in the House issues of concern to their constituents.
That said, I will go through the motions of my presentation because I believe this bill contains provisions that deserve to be heard, even though, unfortunately, we will not have the opportunity to vote on it.
The summary of the bill states that:
The purpose of the bill is to regulate the conduct of ministers with respect to conflicts of interest and post-employment. It is primarily based on the Conflict of Interest and Post-Employment Code for Public Office Holders and the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament of the United Kingdom.
The purpose of this bill is to regulate the conduct of ministers with respect to conflicts of interest during the exercise of their duties and post-employment.
To that end, it provides for the introduction of a code of ethics, primarily based on the Conflict of Interest and Post-Employment Code for Public Office Holders and the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament of the United Kingdom, which would henceforth be part of Canadian legislation. Any breach could then be the subject of penalties.
The bill begins with a detailed description of how ministers' assets are to be managed. A clear definition is provided of the difference between exempt assets, which are the assets for private use of the minister and his or her family, and assets which must be divested, such as companies and publicly traded securities, which must be disposed of or administered by a third party, such as a trust. Over and above the question of assets and regulatory statements relating thereto, the bill also defines the pertinent family relationships in order to avoid any confusion.
Part of the information on ministers' assets disclosed under the provisions of this bill would be made public, thus guaranteeing the transparency of the system, a sine qua non which ought to allow the public to regain a degree of trust in our political institutions and the integrity of its key figures, that is the ministers.
The public's cynicism about public institutions, which is already very much evident from the polls, is translated in election after election by a growing disaffection and a more and more anemic voter turnout. A government can hardly pat itself on the back if it is elected by close to 40% of the 60% of people who bothered to turn out to vote.
A phenomenon such as this is evidence of a sick system, one that must not be accepted with complacency because it suits us, but rather must be a cause of considerable concern.
Major changes concerning ethics and conflict of interest are therefore more indicated than ever, particularly since the muddled affair of Auberge Grand-Mère and the precipitous departure of Alfonso Gagliano for Denmark, after allegations of nepotism and favouritism. These incidents have only further eroded the already shaky confidence our fellow citizens have in politicians.
Incidentally, clause 3 of Bill C-388 clearly describes the purpose of this initiative, and I quote:
The purpose of this Act is to enhance public confidence in the integrity of ministers and in the decision-making process in the federal government:
It is obvious that such a measure can only increase public confidence in the government and change the very negative impression that our fellow citizens have of politicians.
Indeed, the weekly La voix de L'Est , reported on February 25 that a survey conducted by Léger Marketing shows that public confidence in politicians has never been so low. The article referred to:
—a historic low of 18%—
The pollster noted that people “trust a car salesman more than a politician”. Indeed, politicians come last in the 20 professions mentioned—
As we can see and feel, public confidence in us is at an all time low. Personally, I think this situation is extremely serious and we should be concerned as parliamentarians, because it is probably the worst threat that our institutions have faced in a long time. This threat is all the more insidious, because it may seem trivial, temporary or cyclical.
As I already mentioned in the House, democracy is a blessing that must never be taken for granted and that must always be cherished.
Therefore, measures that require a bit more transparency on the part of cabinet members, as provides the bill before us this evening, should not only be concerns, but should also be part of the government's legislative agenda, this as quickly as possible. We all know that this government truly needs to improve its image with the public, in terms of integrity and credibility.
By adopting a code of ethics regulating the conduct of ministers while they hold office and post-employment, the House of Commons would acquire a useful tool with respect to public integrity, which could only earn the respect of our fellow citizens. This would always be a good start in winning back their trust.
As members of society, we must take responsibility for our actions, as well as assume the obligations resulting from our choices. As responsible citizens, members of government must act in the public interest, and not with their own personal interests in mind. In order to ensure that ministers always act in the public interest and with integrity, their responsibilities and obligations should logically be part of Canadian legislation.
In addition to the oath of office which they must swear before taking up their duties, ministers would be formally called upon, under this bill, to file a confidential statement and a statement of divestment.
Finally, Bill C-388 would create the position of commissioner of ethics, a real one. This individual would be appointed by the House and accountable to it. He would be appointed for a term of seven years, renewable once only, and his duties would essentially be, and I quote:
(a) to receive ministers' statements and reports;
(b) to give directives and provide advice to ministers on the actions that must be taken to ensure fulfillment of the ministers' obligations under this Act;
(c) to maintain a public register in which the ministers' public statements are kept;
(d) to make studies and hold inquiries; and
(e) to monitor the operation of this Act.
The commissioner would therefore have a real power of investigation and could launch an investigation on his own initiative or at the suggestion of parliamentarians or even ordinary members of the public, if he felt that the facts uncovered warranted it.
In addition to the annual statutory meeting provided for in this bill, the commissioner of ethics could at any time request a meeting with a minister, and vice versa. At such a meeting, the commissioner would provide advice and issue directives to the minister, who would be required to comply with them or face a penalty.
It is important to point out, for the benefit of those following this debate, that bills and motions introduced in the House of Commons by members are examined by a sub-committee of parliamentarians, the Sub-committee on Private Members' Business of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. It is mandated to decide which items will be votable.
We have had numerous debates on this matter, that is on whether it would be appropriate to have all private members' business votable, but unfortunately the recent mini-renovation, or modernization, of the standing orders will not allow us to go any further in that direction.
For a member to have his or her bill or motion declared a votable item, it must comply with a series of six mandatory criteria, from which I will spare you except for the one that reads:
Bills should concern issues not part of the current legislative agenda of the government or that have not been voted on or otherwise addressed in the current session of parliament.
It would appear that the bill we are debating here has been deemed not to be votable by the Sub-committee on Private Members Business, because it did not meet the above criterion.
The Canadian Alliance, we are told, moved a motion on the same subject as that raised in Bill C-388. Could I have forgotten, when I was working on the bill, work that took more than two years, incidentally, to check if my bill met all six of the criteria used to determine if it would be deemed votable?
I think not. After numerous inquiries and lengthy research, all that I concluded was that there was no other motion moved by the Canadian Alliance or any other party that proposed establishing a bill to regulate the conduct of ministers, with respect to conflict of interest and post employment.
There was, however, a motion moved by the Alliance, which may have produced this error. This motion, which was moved by the member for Okanagan--Coquihalla on February 8, 2001, and voted down on February 13 by the Liberal majority in the House, read as follows:
That this House adopt the following policy from Liberal Redbook 1 and call for its implementation by the government: “A Liberal Government will appoint an independent Ethics Counsellor to advise both public officials and lobbyists in the day-to-day application of the Code of Conduct for Public Officials. The Ethics Counsellor will be appointed after consultation with the leaders of all parties in the House of Commons and will report directly to Parliament”.
It is understandable that, to some people, the terms used in that motion may be confusing, since it includes similar terms such as “code”, “counsellor” and “conduct”.
The purpose of this Canadian Alliance motion was simply to ask the Liberals to keep one of their own promises and to make good on it. Incidentally, the government amended that motion, to avoid having to vote against its own election promise. Our credibility with the public can only suffer whenever the government resorts to partisan schemes and tries to avoid keeping its promises.
It would be very deceitful to try to convince anyone that Bill C-388 and the Canadian Alliance motion are similar, and to argue that the House has already dealt with this issue in this session. This evening, we had a unique opportunity to meet the expectations of the public, which would love to put its trust in our political institutions, if only we would show some will to ensure greater transparency and integrity in the decision-making process.
Unfortunately, this is a missed opportunity, because once again, the Liberals will have manoeuvered to skirt the issue.
In 1993, the Liberals had made the commitment, before being elected, to increase the level of confidence in our institutions by making integrity and public accountability the cornerstone of their election campaign. In fact, in the spring of 1993, the Prime Minister said, and I quote, “Giving a job to my barber, his wife, the person who took care of the kids when we were not home or my favourite innkeeper, that will not happen again”.
This type of behaviour, which favours friends of the government at the expense of other people, can tarnish the reputation of the government itself, that of ministers and that of MPs as a group but, above all, these actions undermine the very foundations of our democracy.
To meet public expectations that were created by these previous comments by the Prime Minister and certain ministers, we must put in place without delay one or several mechanisms to ensure transparency and accountability on the part of this same Prime Minister and his ministers. That is exactly what Bill C-388 proposed to do.
We must prevent embarrassing situations such as the Auberge Grand-Mère scandal, the allegations of patronage still hanging over the former Minister of Public Works and Government Services, Alphonso Gagliano, and having taxpayers pay three times for the same report, as was the case with the Groupaction report, from happening again and again.
It is high time the government acted to save the reputation of ministers and that of their political party for the benefit of all members of this House, the public and our democratic institutions. It must impose a strict and clear code of conduct to legitimize its actions in the eyes of the public.