That, in the opinion of this House, the government should immediately suspend application of the Canadian Firearms Program in order to hold a public inquiry into the reasons for the Program’s extraordinary cost overruns, and to submit a structured and detailed strategic plan that would have to be approved in advance by this House.
Mr. Speaker, I am very happy to begin this first hour of debate on Motion M-387 moved in my name, regarding the Canadian firearms control program. In addition to the fact that we are going to debate my motion, I must say how happy I am to take part in my first debate as a independent Bloc Quebecois member.
On February 17, during members' statements, I promised my constituents that I would seize every available opportunity to hound this government. Today's debate is therefore a wonderful opportunity to proudly honour, without hindrance, the promise I made. I am also pleased because this debate is being held in a new context that respects and recognizes, finally, the role of members of Parliament as well as the importance of their initiatives, thanks to the implementation of a new provisional standing order that makes all items of private members' business votable.
On countless occasions I denounced the unfairness of the former procedural rules that discouraged any initiative and frustrated members. This did not further democracy and only hindered Parliament. Accordingly, I hope this new standing order will become permanent.
That said, let me return to today's subject, which is gun control. Incidentally, I have been involved in this issue since the very beginning, that is, since 1989, the year of the massacre at École polytechnique de Montréal, which led to legislation introduced by Kim Campbell, Minister of Justice at the time.
The purpose of that bill was to prohibit automatic weapons converted to semi-automatic weapons, to establish new controls that would apply to military and paramilitary firearms and to introduce greater scrutiny of those applying for authorization to acquire firearms.
Fourteen years later I am moving this motion because the issue is still important and it concerns me on three levels. First, as a parliamentarian and citizen who is interested in public safety; second as a firearm owner and big game hunter; and finally, as a taxpayer who cannot accept the government wasting our money as shamefully as it has.
First, let us be clear. In 1995, when Parliament passed the Firearms Act, and I am still very much in favour of gun control, I had to force my colleagues in the Bloc Quebecois to support gun control. This was very divisive for our caucus, because many members, mainly from rural ridings, opposed gun control.
I then believed, maybe because I was too confident or optimistic, that the federal government would be able to effectively manage this program, which is under its constitutional jurisdiction.
Incidentally, before infringing upon areas of provincial jurisdiction, the federal government should make sure that it is able to effectively manage programs under its own jurisdiction.
Note that gun control is not an exception in terms of mismanagement of public funds. We only have to think about the sponsorship scandal which resurfaced only a few weeks ago, after a report from the Standing Committee on Public Accounts came to the conclusion that there had been negligence, misconduct and mismanagement of public funds by Public Works Canada. I know someone who must be very happy to be in Denmark right now.
But let us come back to the topic, because if we were to list all cases of mismanagement of federal programs and government cover-ups, it would be hours before we got anywhere near gun control.
Therefore, the purpose of my motion is not to cancel the gun control program but rather to suspend it in order to identify clearly what went wrong and what caused it to go wrong. It is sometimes necessary to take stock and then draw the necessary conclusions.
In the case of gun control, that time has come and the only conclusion we can draw is that this program was a monumental financial failure. It is no use hiding one's head in the sand. It is a tough pronouncement, but a realistic one. The figures say it all.
Unfortunately, it has become obvious that the way the government operates has nothing to do with the rigour and rationality which underlie sound management.
Is it because it is easier to spend other people's money? Is it because of a systemic lack of transparency throughout the government machine? Or is it because of the lack of accountability of senior bureaucrats?
To all three questions, there is only one answer: yes. This shows how deep the malaise is and that it is not exclusive to the firearms program. It is a problem common to the public service as a whole.
As a matter of fact when she published her most-recent report on the quality of financial information, the auditor general said and I quote:
--the systems, policies, and practises for reporting full cost information are not adequate.
Moreover, she stated the obvious when she said:
Being able to associate costs with results makes for more informed choices; but without knowing the full costs of delivering program, the government cannot fully assess the results of these programs.
This is exactly what happened with the firearms program. However, the government insists on keeping everybody in the dark and investing millions of dollars in this program without knowing where and when this waste will stop.
Apart from the officials at the Department of Justice, a few members threatened with expulsion by their leader and some afraid of a snap election, no manager with the least bit of common sense would have accepted to keep on putting money into such a financial disaster without first reassessing the business plan.
In this case, however, there is no business plan. Since its inception, the program has been an comedy of errors replete with improvisation and administrative blunders. As a result, when, on March 25 the government asked us to vote a further $59 million for the management of this program, it wanted nothing less than another blank cheque while the House was still in the dark as to the reasons for this huge money pit.
Therefore, it is to prevent the government from periodically asking for more money that will only be used to fill in new money pits, or older ones that might reappear, that I am moving this motion today .
There is also another type of confusion going on. Some people confuse the objectives of the gun control program with its management. The gun control program should not be considered a bad program because of the fact that it will have cost us one billion dollars. On the contrary, it is a good program, way too expensive of course, but that is because it was mismanaged.
Of course, by itself, the program will not eliminate crime. However, combined with other measures, it will make an essential contribution to the reduction of the crime rate. The very existence of this program should therefore not be jeopardized.
Besides, apart from the billion dollar cost predicted by the Auditor General, the program has been relatively successful and we have to admit that it is still useful. As of March 8 of this year, 6,100,000 firearms had been registered by 1,446,065 owners. According to some figures, that represents almost 90% of owners.
Moreover, on December 1, 1998, the Canadian firearms registry on-line had received 2,328,360 information requests from police officers or other law enforcement representatives. In fact, last March 25, the Canadian Police Association lobbying day, all the police officers I met reiterated their support for the program, saying how useful it was for them in their work.
On another note, as far as accountability and transparency are concerned, the government has a lot of work to do and this is mainly where we have a problem. Since 1995, after the adoption of the Firearms Act, we have had three justice ministers and seen one Auditor General's report, two private reports, one action plan and eventually one billion dollars down the drain. And we still do not know whom to blame.
We are talking about millions of dollars magically disappearing. Worst still, in spite of this scandal that nobody seems to be responsible for, some senior public officials have also been given performance bonuses.
It is really incredible and quite disgusting. There are some very serious weaknesses in the bureaucracy. Obviously, some fundamental management principles are not known or ignored. The time might have come to seriously reassess the capabilities and knowledge of the people in charge of managing the millions of dollars we pay in taxes.
And please do not tell me that we are on the right track with the government action plan that was announced jointly by the justice minister and the solicitor general on February 21. I have never heard such a lot of empty rhetoric and meaningless clichés. In the press release he issued at the time, the justice minister stated, and I quote:
The plan I am announcing today will deliver a gun control program that provides significant public safety benefits, while setting the program on a path to lower costs. The plan will streamline management, improve service to legitimate users of firearms, seek stakeholder, parliamentarian, and public input, and strengthen accountability and transparency to Parliament and Canadians.
First, to say that it will set “the program on a path to lower costs” is totally unwarranted since the government has recently approved an additional $59 million for this program.
Moreover, we already know that the management of this program for the next fiscal year will cost $13 million more than last year, that is $113 million instead of $100 million. So where are the savings? If anybody understands this, I would appreciate it if they could explain it to me because I am convinced that I am not the only one who has difficulty understanding what the minister meant when he talked about “lower costs”.
Also, according to the minister, the plan is supposed to streamline management of the program. In this regard, here is the gibberish used by the minister to explain this streamlining. This is also a quote from the press release issued by the Department of Justice on February 21. It said, and I quote:
—to align enforcement operations; streamlining headquarter functions and consolidating processing sites; creating a continuous improvement plan to generate ongoing program efficiencies; establishing national work performance measurements and cost standards; and limiting computer system changes to projects that improve the efficiency of the program.
I want to know if there is a translator in the House. Management will be improved through better management. This is incredible. To me, it means absolutely nothing.
What we should have been told about are the gains and savings that will result from this so-called action plan. I doubt very much that it is by transferring people to other offices or by replacing one bunch of bureaucrats with another one that the government will improve the management of the program.
Considering the scale of the fiasco, we were entitled to expect something structured, dramatic and innovative from the minister, such as turning gun registration over to the private sector. However, it would be out of the question to replace 140 bureaucrats from the Canadian Firearms Centre, located in Miramichi, with 140 employees under contract. This would be like changing four quarters for a dollar.
What I would support instead is placing the management of the registration procedure in the hands of people who have knowledge in this field, that is gunsmiths and firearms dealers. Naturally they would be compensated for their services, as is the case when game is registered.
In short, the last action plan is a perfect illustration of the improvised management that is so typical of the federal government.
For all these reasons, it is essential and even urgent that the government suspend application of the Canadian firearms program, in order to devise a strategy that, for once, will demonstrate a long-term vision. This would be a change from what we are used to seeing from the government these past years.
Consequently, the process must start with a public inquiry into the reasons for the program's extraordinary cost overruns, to ensure that the same mistakes are not repeated. Later on, we will able to devise a strategic plan that will respect all the criteria on quality of financial information, as defined in the last Auditor General's report. Of course, to be implemented, this new plan will have to be approved by the House.
In conclusion, I urge all members who believe in the principles of transparency, accountability and sound management to participate constructively in this debate.