House of Commons Hansard #114 of the 37th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was parties.


Canada Elections ActGovernment Orders

5:40 p.m.


Alexa McDonough NDP Halifax, NS

Mr. Speaker, the member perhaps would want to enter the debate and clear up the record, because I said clearly that I do not want to be either misinformed or misinforming, but if there are seven different franchisees of Tim Hortons, it is my understanding from the legal interpretation we have been given that it potentially could result in $7,000, that is, $1,000 from each of those separate franchisees if they are owned by separate persons. In the instance of that particular example I used, I believe this would not apply.

In contrast to that, there could be seven different union locals in that same riding of Hillsborough that would not be free to make a penny of a contribution, let alone $1,000 contributions, to perhaps an opposing candidate who was running in that election.

I cannot for the life of me understand how the Liberal government can call that a levelling of the playing field or even-handed treatment between corporations or businesses and unions. It is just simply no such thing. Quite rightly, my colleague from Winnipeg Centre stood here proudly in his place and said the government should be looking at the Manitoba legislation, which actually has done what it said it would do: create a true level playing field.

When we get to Group No. 3 we again will have an opportunity to address the disgrace of the government and this legislation for not dealing in a proper, transparent, full disclosure manner with trust funds. That is potentially a scandal, and a scandal that will be very difficult to unearth, yet the government says that the purpose of the legislation is to remove big money, to make transparent who is funding what candidates and what political parties. It does no such thing.

For that reason we should have a review after the fact, but before the legislation is even implemented we should address those two fundamental flaws that make the legislation a fiction and a farce without actually dealing with those fundamental flaws.

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5:45 p.m.

Chicoutimi—Le Fjord Québec


André Harvey LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Cooperation

Mr. Speaker, I am really pleased to say a few words to Bill C-24, particularly on Motion No. 11 of Group No. 2, which helps to alleviate recent concerns about this bill. Of course, it will always be possible, even considering the financial implications of the bill, to have a review which might be very constructive.

I am all the more happy as some members, although a minority, and in particular one of our Canadian Alliance colleagues, consider this exercise a waste of time. As if we could not deal with the Canadian beef issue and the problems it creates, the SARS outbreak and, at the same time, the government's credibility.

This is an extremely serious matter. This is why I was somewhat saddened to hear my colleague from the Alliance say that it was a waste of time to try to improve the perception our fellow citizens have of politicians. I deliberately use the word perception, because I have the opportunity, every day, to live in the real world and it is not true that our colleagues, from whatever party, are not doing their work effectively and honestly.

This is why I was happy to hear my colleague from the Bloc Quebecois, with whom I have the opportunity to work as a member of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, pay tribute to the Prime Minister who said that the cleaning up of politics had been enhanced in Quebec by the action of former premier René Lévesque.

The Prime Minister truly deserved that tribute and still does, because it would have been very easy for him to give up. This bill still is not an easy one. It went through an extremely difficult infancy. Yet, we needed someone who could stay the course. We needed someone who was able to step back and tell us all, members of the government as well as members of other political parties, “It appears essential to me, with this bill, to take a major step towards the cleaning up of political party funding all across the country”. However, this does not preclude us from doing other things.

However, it is effectively a bill that has emerged following the political experience of all members of this Parliament, including ourselves. It is obvious that, with this bill, things that we have experienced and that we are experiencing now will not be experienced in the future, because of the constraints of the bill.

Personally, I feel that it is really something that the Prime Minister has stayed the course and has kept it on the government's agenda, despite universal protest. I repeat that it would have been very easy for the Prime Minister, who no longer has electoral ambitions, to say, “We will put this aside; there is too much criticism internally and externally”. Despite it all, he has stayed the course and kept it on the agenda, and we will reach a compromise that will reassure all our fellow citizens.

There is something wrong when, with respect to a profession that I consider very noble, serving as a member of the House of Commons, the reputation of all of my colleagues, as well as my own—we must include ourselves in this—ranks lowest in surveys. There is something wrong when all those who work in politics are despised and considered dishonest.

This is why Bill C-24 will send a crystal clear message, with major constraints imposed on corporations and unions. This will affect all political parties. It is not a waste of money to include public financing; it is an investment in the credibility of all politicians. This will put all future parliaments and governments in a better position, I dare say, to get involved even more effectively in issues that are extremely important in the environmental or health sectors than we do now.

In every respect, this bill will give credibility to all Canadian politicians and that makes me extremely proud. That is democracy, but democracy has a cost. It is much more costly for a government to lose its credibility or for politicians not to have any credibility than to receive $20 to $25 million annually. In any event, such an investment is largely shouldered by our fellow citizens when contributions come from corporations. At the end of the day, it is always our fellow citizens who pay.

I think that Bill C-24 is a major step forward. As my colleagues pointed out earlier, look at what is happening with political financing in the United States. Look at the lobbies in the United States who, with their the financial clout, have direct access to all the political parties. We see this daily in all the difficulties in our trade relations with the United States in several key sectors. We realize that it is not always political objectivity that predominates, but the power of lobbyists.

That is why I am convinced that Canada, which is a model throughout the world in several areas including our political democracy, will continue to play an even greater role by cleaning up political financing. I am convinced that the Canadian example will have an even greater impact with our American neighbours and our fellow citizens of the world because there will be legislation governing political financing. I think this is extremely important.

That is why I thought it was deplorable of one of our Canadian Alliance colleagues to say it was a waste of time to legislate political financing. In a democratic country there is nothing more important than a government with full credibility to take action in key sectors for our future.

That is why the Prime Minister felt this bill was important from the beginning. He could not have been elected for 40 years if he did not have certain qualities or judgment. We have to applaud him for that as my Bloc Quebecois colleague pointed out earlier. It took a lot of perseverance and judgment to be able to bring this bill forward near the end of his term.

I am convinced that all political parties and all politicians in this country will benefit from it because it will give us more credibility with the people whom we represent. I sincerely believe that the great majority of my colleagues in this House do extraordinary work for their constituents, regardless of political stripe. However, unfortunately, in politics as is often the case in other areas, perception is a vehicle that can be very harmful. This is why it was important for us to debate this issue in the House.

I hope that this bill, which will considerably increase our personal credibility as politicians and also that of all political parties, will be passed almost unanimously. The perception that Canadians will have is that we are financing, in part, our democracy. Increasing our credibility has no price since it will enable us to manage, to administer and to take action on issues where a government really needs to have the confidence of the people.

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to speak to this issue, which I find most important. I am convinced that Motion No. 11 in Group No. 2 will help reassure those who had concerns. In the very short term, after the first election that will be conducted under the new legislation, we, as parliamentarians, will have the opportunity to make further changes to the legislation if necessary.

What is interesting is that the government is not being pretentious. I think that it is showing objectivity and understanding. I believe that passing this motion will enable us to say so. As parliamentarians, we have not often see flawless bills. This bill will not be flawless, but we will have the opportunity to improve it as we go along.

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5:55 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

James Lunney Canadian Alliance Nanaimo—Alberni, BC

Mr. Speaker, I am glad to enter the debate tonight on Bill C-24. It seems a little ironic that again, as we approach the summer session, we are debating another bill that has a huge impact on the way political parties conduct themselves. It reminds me of the MPs' pay raise that we dealt with a couple of short years ago which we rammed through just before we closed for summer break.

We have to wonder why we are discussing a bill, which would have such a dramatic effect on the way political parties conduct their business and receive their funding, in the last week and a half or two weeks of the sitting of the House with closure over our heads as to how much debate we might have.

The bill, of course, is a response to a perception. We have heard a lot of members use that language tonight: a perception that maybe something is wrong in the way that huge corporate and union donations are made to political parties and whether that might influence government decisions. We might wonder where people get this perception from.

Certainly we know that the outgoing Prime Minister, who has benefited all the way through his career from corporate donations for his party, now seems determined that his successor, be it the member for LaSalle—Émard or one of his colleagues and competitors, will not benefit in the same way. Perhaps that is part of a legacy that he is trying to leave behind.

However where did this perception come from? We have to wonder why Canadians have become so cynical.

In the short time that I have been in the House there has been a neverending stream of very bad news coming out of the government regarding dollars: the sponsorship programs for advertising, Groupe Everest, Groupaction, huge government contracts for advertising for very questionable venues, some of which never even happened; and huge awards to companies that make big donations to a political party, in this case the government side, of course the government having the power to administer public funds.

Let us look at a paper that I was reading on the way in. It is from a couple of days ago. The headline reads “Refugee board member tied to bribe scam”. Is it any wonder that Canadians have lost confidence in the way the political process works in Canada and the influence the government comes under?

If that is not enough, in this morning's paper we read that the son of the former public accounts minister, the minister who was shipped off to Denmark, may be appointed as an advisor on Canada's behalf to the Vatican, if I understood that right, and maybe I did not. The son of the former public accounts minister worked for a printing company that received contracts from these same sponsorship and advertising companies that received large government grants and then money goes to family members or into funds that go back to the Liberal Party.

We know the governing party is not the only party that has been guilty of this. I think the government before was also quite well-known for a similar process. Therefore this bill is an attempt to assure the public that something is being done to rectify this situation.

My concern is that it is a nasty piece of business that will in fact put the taxpayers on the tab to support political parties that they may not endorse. While we respect all members in the House as having honourable intentions, we have had some very bad examples of integrity not being followed through. I think when the hon. member for Elk Island spoke a few moments ago he talked about integrity and the fact that people either had it or they did not. I think the language he used was that putting this kind of arbitrary limit on how much one could be bought for would probably not have the desired outcome.

However something that I have noticed since I have been in the House is the disturbing trend that I see in so many of the bills that come before the House, where the language purports to do one thing but in reality the effect of the bill will be something else, such as the child pornography bill that we dealt with recently in which the government said that we would be taking away artistic merit.

In my part of the country on the west coast we had the John Robin Sharpe case. People were outraged that a man was in possession of vile images of children being abused sexually. The judges refused to deal with it because of artistic merit. Now the government has moved to correct it because the public was sensitized to artistic merit.

However, it replaced the artistic merit defence with the defence of public good. This will sadly allow lawyers to make the same argument that a man who is abusing this graphic material which depicts the abuse of children is somehow satisfying himself and therefore not acting out his feelings on somebody, and that maybe there is some public good in that.

I do not think it is good enough. The government says it will get tough on the people who commit these crimes by increasing maximum penalties. We all know that the courts hardly ever impose maximum penalties. If the government were to get tough it would increase minimum penalties. What is wrong with the picture when the song says we are doing something but the reality says the same things will go on under different labels?

The Prime Minister said not long ago that he defended the interests of his riding all the time and he has nothing else to say about it. It is the role of a member of Parliament. He did not deny calling the head of the federal Business Development Bank of Canada in 1997 to press for a loan of nearly $1 million for a hotel owner in the Saint-Maurice riding, a Shawinigan accountant who recently pleaded guilty to fraudulently syphoning money to an off-shore bank account in the Bahamas.

Then there was the Grand-Mère fiasco and François Beaudoin of the Business Development Bank of Canada stating he followed the normal stages for a loan authorization, but without the intervention of the federal MP the project would never have been accepted. We know that the Prime Minister, in his famous story about the Grand-Mère, had shares that he sold but for which he never received any payment. He had an interest when he was lobbying for the inn next to his golf course. It seems kind of funny. If somebody sold an asset for $300,000 and seven years later had not been paid, did they really sell anything at all and indeed did any transaction take place regardless of what was written on a piece of paper that was handwritten and not witnessed?

We have a Youth Criminal Justice Act and frankly, I see the same problems there as I see in Bill C-24. The old law was dysfunctional, but the new law will be no better. In fact, it is likely to make things even worse because there are no provisions to notify the public of dangerous young offenders. There are no provisions to assist young people under 12 who get into trouble with the law. It does nothing for victims' rights.

People are frustrated when they see a message that says we are going one way and in reality it does not seem to pan out.

We are debating Motion No. 11 in Group No. 2. It is a motion that authorizes a review of the act to assess the impact after the first election. I suppose it is a good idea that we should assess the impact of Bill C-24 after the first election. The problem is that all of a sudden we have the taxpayers on the hook to replace the money that people formerly gave voluntarily to the party of their choice.

It is interesting that the first contribution from the taxpayers is due in January 2004. That is very convenient because the governing party has a substantial debt right now that it wants to look after. There will be another donation some months later, in April. That will put a lot of money into the coffers in preparation for the next election. It is based on the percentage of the vote in the last election.

Taxpayers should not be on the hook to support a party to which they may be opposed philosophically. It does not matter which party it is. I am sure there are members opposite who feel as badly about supporting some of the parties on this side of the House as some of the people who support us would feel about supporting government members on the other side. People should be free to give where their heart is and to the party they support, but they should not be forced to use their tax dollars to support political processes that they may not endorse.

Canada Elections ActGovernment Orders

6:05 p.m.


Paul Crête Bloc Kamouraska—Rivière-Du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to speak today on this group of amendments, among which we find Motion No. 11. We should put this debate in context.

We have a bill before us that will finally make improvements in the way political parties are funded. The hon. members in the Bloc are particularly proud of this result. I am speaking of those hon. members who, in previous years, systematically introduced bills in order to try to clean up political party financing at the federal level, since we have some expertise in Quebec, gained in the past 25 years. In fact, we proposed the measures the government is now supporting.

This is not the only item in this file, but it is an important one if we wish to avoid scandals in the future such as those involving HRDC or sponsorships. or all sorts of situations where there have been very close connections between businesses and government contracts. Government money was going to the companies who, it just happened, were making almost identical contributions to the Liberal party of Canada. This kind of situation should be under somewhat more control with the bill before us.

This is important, particularly when the next Prime Minister of Canada, the member for LaSalle—Émard, seems in no rush to move toward democratization of political party financing. His approach is to try to stop this bill from getting through, because he himself has a corporate background. He has on several occasions tabled obstructive measures to prevent any improvements to political party financing. We have also seen his behaviour in such instances as the way the EI fund surplus was handled, and the approach for paying tax for the group, or holding company, for which he is ultimately responsible, even though he made sure it was in trust during his time in cabinet. He still had influence and that is still seen today. He is quite reluctant to see this bill passed. But in fact it must be.

I am in favour of the amendment before the House, because I believe that it is important for all current legislation to have a provision, when new approaches are introduced, to assess them after a time and make the necessary corrections. I must admit, however, that I do have one fear. If that reassessment were done under the member for LaSalle—Émard when he is Prime Minister, he will certainly be sorely tempted to revert to corporate funding and hidden slush funds. He has no interest in seeing the provision continue and expand.

In fact, we have seen past results. The present problem of governmental credibility has a lot to do with the laxity of the federal government which we have seen perpetuated throughout all the years this government has been in power. Scandal has followed scandal, and the federal government has opted for referring the demands for investigation to the RCMP. They are not necessarily the ones acting in bad faith, but the result at the end of the day, whether it is the Human Resources Development scandal or the sponsorship scandal, is that there are maybe 10, 15 or 20 RCMP investigations under way and none of them ever comes to an end.

Is this bill before us not one that would correct part of the problem? Obviously, it will not prevent situations from happening anyway, if a government has questionable practices or members of cabinet whose practices are questionable. There is one such situation which has been going on for quite some time.

The Canadian ambassador to Denmark, Mr. Gagliano, is still making the headlines regularly because of past actions of his and because he put in place a system which was even described as a tightly knit in the internal control report. In other words, a system with many connections between the minister's office, his relatives and the Liberal Party of Canada. This is an aberration and we definitely do not want anything like that to happen again.

We are debating a proposed amendment which will ensure that once the report provided for at section 535 with respect to the general election following the coming into force of that article has been tabled, the committee of this House to which the report is referred for consideration also considers the impact of the party financing provisions of the existing legislation which came into force at the same time as that section.

In other words, as of January 2004, we will be subject to the bill we are debating, which was improved in committee and should ultimately produce some interesting results. After the election and a few years of practice, we will be able to determine whether some minor changes would be appropriate. This is our challenge, as parliamentarians, and everything must be done in a manner consistent with the spirit of the act per se.

We should not be presented with changes designed to take us back to approaches of the Liberal Party of Canada such as slush funds. It is imperative that the spirit of the act be respected when we make these changes to the act.

The Bloc Quebecois therefore supports this amendment. We also believe it is important that we act as watchdogs. When the committee assesses what has been done, it will not be a matter of simply checking whether, technically, the act was enforced properly, but also ensuring that the act does not contain any loopholes making it possible to circumvent it or provisions which have proven to be unacceptable in practice.

In the past, the government often had its own interpretation of how to do things. For years, the issue of the ethics counsellor was dragged out, even though the Liberal government had guaranteed, back in 1993, that there would be an ethics counsellor who would report to the House, and that there would finally be some degree of transparency. After many scandals, we finally managed to get some changes. Today, we are just starting to see the benefits of these changes.

The same applies to funding of political parties. It is important to make sure we have the best legislation possible.

I would like to digress briefly. Earlier, in response to a member from the Canadian Alliance, the member for Chicoutimi—Le Fjord said that nothing prevented us from dealing with the main issues while examining this bill. Among those he neglected to mention, there is the whole softwood lumber issue. This is remarkable, because if any region has been hit particularly hard hit by this crisis, it is the Saguenay—Lac-Saint-Jean, the Lower St. Lawrence, the North Shore and Abitibi-Témiscamingue. These regions are going through very hard times.

I believe that indeed we can debate the financing of political parties but at the same time this kind of issue can be dealt with. It is not a valid argument. I only wanted to remind the member for Chicoutimi—Le Fjord that he had forgotten to mention the softwood lumber dispute, which is quite a problem in his riding, in his area. It must be resolved as early as possible to everybody's advantage.

Canada Elections ActGovernment Orders

6:10 p.m.


Jean-Yves Roy Bloc Matapédia—Matane, QC

What we want is action.

Canada Elections ActGovernment Orders

6:10 p.m.


Paul Crête Bloc Kamouraska—Rivière-Du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, QC

We need action in the softwood lumber file. We must help businesses and workers in the short term. We are routinely bringing this up during oral question period.

That being said, I will get back to the proposed amendment before us, Motion No. 11. I believe this amendment improves the bill.

During the review of the bill, the Bloc Quebecois was very constructive. From the very beginning, we said that the principle of the bill was good and that it would improve how democracy works in our province. In committee, we put forward constructive amendments. We were successful on one or two points. I believe that in the end it will result in an act regulating the whole issue of political party financing that will be of a better quality than what we have now.

In conclusion, I would just like to ask my colleagues to vote for this amendment. Indeed, once we have experienced the new situation during an election year and in subsequent years, we will reassess it keeping in mind that we want to improve the quality of democratic life for ourselves and our fellow citizens.

Canada Elections ActGovernment Orders

6:15 p.m.


Joe McGuire Liberal Egmont, PE

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to say a few words on Bill C-24 in this stage of debate. I believe the bill was inevitable in our Canadian political experience. The process has been going on for quite some time and we could say that this is a bill whose time has come. This is probably one of the final stages of the public financing of elections in Canada.

The people of Canada approve of the bill. They approve moving the financing of Canadian elections from the private sector to the public sector. The people of Canada approve the principle of the bill and they approve the process that has been put in place in the House of Commons for this to occur.

With Bill C-24, we will have a clear, transparent and fair process to underwrite the cost of elections. The general public realizes this and fully endorses the transparency of this method of election financing.

To speak on Motion No. 11, the mandatory review of this bill after the next election is necessary because there are always things that we forgot. When we changed the enumeration process in elections, there were a lot of changes that had to be made afterward. That was a learning experience and I anticipate there will be some wrinkles in this bill which we have not thought of either.

The proposed motion will require a mandatory committee review and the bill will bring about important changes to the way political financing occurs. This is a very important reform that will have a significant impact on our political system. The new rules governing political contributions are essential to ensure that the system of political contributions is fully transparent at all levels and to remove any concerns or perception of undue influence by corporations, large donors or unions.

To achieve this purpose, the bill proposes comprehensive rules governing the financing of nomination contests, candidates, election district associations, registered parties, including provincial and territorial divisions of registered parties, as well as leadership contests.

The proposed bill provides for the reporting of contributions made to all political participants, including quarterly reports of contributions made to registered political parties, a measure that was introduced following suggestions in committee. It also provides for a regime where contributions are generally reserved to individuals up to a limit of $5,000 while at the same time allowing for more limited corporate and union contributions at the local level.

As a result of these new restrictions imposed by the bill on political contributions, a number of measures are proposed to ensure that the new regime is revenue neutral for political parties.

Let me simply review the most significant of these measures. The reimbursement of election expenses for registered parties would be increased from 22.5% to 50% with a one time reimbursement of 60% for the next election to assist parties as a transitional measure.

The threshold for candidates to qualify for the reimbursement of part of their election expenses would be lowered from 15% at present to 10%. The rate of reimbursement of the election expenses of candidates would increase by 50% to 60%, and the amendments to the Income Tax Act would double the amount of an individual's political contributions that is eligible for a 75% tax credit from $200 to $400. All other brackets of tax credit would be adjusted accordingly.

The proposed legislation will also introduce an annual allowance for registered parties of $1.75 per vote received. In this way the amount of public money given to a party under the allowance will be determined directly by Canadian electors. There will be in other words a direct link between a citizen's vote and the portion of his or her income tax that will be used in support of a democratic system. This may be a harbinger of proportional representation in our House of Commons but that is another debate.

The allowance of $1.75 per vote would be indexed to allow for inflation. Exceptionally, as a transitional measure, parties would receive the 2004 allowance in a lump sum as soon as practical after the coming into force of the bill, instead of quarterly as will be the case afterwards.

It is fair to say that the public financing provisions in the bill, and in particular the public allowance, are the provisions that have generated the most discussion here in the House of Commons.

Much has been said about the importance of ensuring adequate funding for political parties, given the key functions that they perform in a democratic system such as ours. Political parties serve to mobilize the electorate, provide an avenue for the representation of groups and articulation of their interests in concrete party policy proposals and their electoral platforms.

Strong parties and party organizations are critical to a healthy and dynamic democracy. If parties are not adequately funded, it is our entire electoral democracy that will be impoverished.

It must be remembered that political parties also play a fundamental role by providing a link between the state and its citizenry. They are essential structures for individual participation in our system of democratic governance. Providing basic funding for political parties allows competing political organizations to develop their platforms and programs. It allows them to conduct research and to develop policy options that citizens will then vote upon.

Bill C-24, by addressing on the one hand the concerns with the undue influence of corporations, as well as large individual donors and on the other hand, ensuring that parties have the necessary financial resources to perform their important function, will result in a healthier and more dynamic democracy.

By regulating the financial resources that contributors may provide to parties, in combination with public funding, as is being proposed in the bill, we can ensure that a level playing field is created for all participants.

Finally, we must recognize the enormous cost of running a political party in a modern democracy. Everyone in this House is certainly aware that the costs of running an effective party organization are rising, and this is a fact that was certainly made clear by party presidents who appeared before committee during the public hearings.

Particularly over the past few decades, parties have been faced with increasing costs of technology and the impact of media on party politics. It has been increasingly costly to maintain the necessary staff and institutionalized expertise that parties require to remain up to date on a wide range of issues and policy sectors.

The amendment to add polling to the definition of eligible expenditures is certainly a reflection of the modern cost of maintaining a political party. I do not believe there is any party that does not poll before, during and after elections, and this is a huge cost.

In addition, it must be recognized that the funding provided to parties to date, while beneficial, has had the shortcoming of kicking in after an election. As we are all aware, the functions of a party do not begin and end with an election. They are ongoing and that is why the public allowance is so essential to these reforms.

As an added benefit, the public allowance would be based on the number of votes received in the previous election. If a member has no public support, then there is no public financing. This should result in the encouragement of a greater connection between Canadians and parties. At the same time, we must not forget that there will be a need for parties to raise private funds from individuals, and this will also encourage them to maintain a vibrant connection with individual Canadians.

In conclusion, there are many important reasons for the public financing of political parties. Public financing contributes to a level playing field and an equality of opportunity and electoral competitiveness. It also allows parties to compete effectively regardless of the socio-economic condition of their supporters.

Public funding strengthens the autonomy of parties, reduces the perception of some groups that have undue influence and enhances financial transparency.

Public funding also provides parties with resources that are essential for democratic activities. There are at least equally important reasons for the measures dealing with the limits on contributions and the rules governing transparency.

Together these different rules will have a profound effect on our system of political financing but will in the short and long term be good for Canada.

A motion to adjourn the House under Standing Order 38 deemed to have been moved.

Canada Elections ActAdjournment Proceedings

6:30 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

Gerald Keddy Progressive Conservative South Shore, NS

Mr. Speaker, I am standing on debate tonight on what we call, in the vernacular here in Parliament, the late show. For anyone who happens to be watching this and does not understand what the late show is, the late show is about asking a question in the House but not getting an answer.

On April 8, 2003, this being June 9, I asked the Prime Minister the following question:

Mr. Speaker, today, in the Auditor General's 2003 annual report, she indicated that her office was facing a $1 million shortfall.

Two years ago the member for Calgary Centre mentioned in the House: “There are several ways to muzzle the watchdogs of parliament. One way is to deny...adequate funding to the auditor general....”

Will the Prime Minister indicate to the House whether the Auditor General will be receiving additional resources in order to keep up with the audits on programs such as the failed long gun registry?

The answer I received was that if I thought the Auditor General needed more money she should just simply apply for it. I certainly thought that answer was a glib statement.

The issue here is critical to the ongoing ability of Parliament to function, and especially for the officers of Parliament to function. The most important issue for me in the debate tonight is the issue that in order to do their jobs, the officers of Parliament, the Auditor General being one of those officers, need to be independent. In order to be independent they need adequate budgets, which means they cannot go on bended knee to the Prime Minister, who has the final say, every time they need extra funding to continue their work as watchdogs for the Parliament of Canada. Part of that independence is providing them with the funding they need to do their jobs, plain and simple.

The issue goes further than that. The government has consistently displayed a culture of secrecy and a continued determination to bypass Parliament. It is part of a pattern of the government as it attempts to shut down normal scrutiny. When the information commissioner seeks records, the Prime Minister takes him to court. Excuse me. It seems to me there is something wrong there.

When the Liberals promise an independent ethics commissioner, they break their word and turn the councillor into a clerk for the Prime Minister. The privacy commissioner is regularly ignored and the Auditor General's recommendations are habitually set aside.

Even the Auditor General's office, which is supposed to be independent of Parliament, has been attacked by Liberal members of Parliament because she has caught them breaking just about every rule in the book, and plans and intends to, as is her responsibility, to investigate these breaches of the law.

As far as I am concerned and my party is concerned, the only way to secure the dignity and responsibility of Parliament is to make sure the officers of Parliament are properly funded. That is absolutely what we need to do with the Auditor General.

Canada Elections ActAdjournment Proceedings

6:30 p.m.

Niagara Centre Ontario


Tony Tirabassi LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board

Mr. Speaker, it gives me great pleasure to take part in this debate tonight with my hon. colleague in the House. The issue being debated tonight is an important one. It is central to the operation of this institution of Parliament. One of the most fundamental missions of the House is to provide a forum in which the government can be held accountable for its actions, especially for how it spends public funds.

The people's right to control how public funds are collected and spent is one of the cornerstones of democratic government. In Canada, like other parliamentary democracies, this control is carried out on behalf of the people by their elected representatives, and that is us, the members of Parliament.

Over the years, Parliament has given itself the tools it needs to make sure that the government remains accountable to the people of this country, that the government lives up to its commitments to deliver results to Canadians, and achieves the best possible value for money with every decision, with every policy, with every program. The Auditor General has played an invaluable role in this regard.

When the Office of the Auditor General was created by legislation, coincidentally 125 years ago today, it was seen as a means to promote good and effective governance in this country by ensuring that public funds would be spent wisely and effectively. The fundamental mission has remained unchanged to this day. For 125 years, a dialogue has been ongoing among the Office of the Auditor General, the government and Parliament. This dialogue is partly responsible for Canada being recognized today as having one of the most modern and efficient public services in the world, if not one of the best systems of government in the world.

The issue raised tonight by the member for South Shore is whether, given this important role, the Office of the Auditor General is being supplied an adequate level of funding by Parliament. It must be said that funding for the Auditor General's office already has increased considerably in recent years. Like most other government departments and agencies, the Auditor General's budget was reduced in the 1990s, after hitting a high of $60 million in the 1993-94 fiscal year. As the public accounts records will show, the entire shortfall was made up fully by fiscal year 2000-01. Since then, the Auditor General's budget has climbed steadily from $60 million to nearly $72.5 million in 2002-03. This represents a 20% increase over three years.

In 2002-03 alone, the OAG was granted a $9.2 million increase by Treasury Board. This represents a 13% increase in one year alone. I am sure that most members of the House and certainly most ministers who sit around the cabinet table would characterize a 13% increase as very sympathetic.

There is a process in place for the Auditor General to request additional funds from Parliament and it is through the Treasury Board. If recent practice by the government is any indication, it would seem that the Treasury Board has responded quite actively and supportively to requests for additional funding from the Auditor General.

Canada Elections ActAdjournment Proceedings

6:35 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

Gerald Keddy Progressive Conservative South Shore, NS

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the comments from the member for Niagara Centre and the fact that he actually did some research and came back with some answers.

I am going to use my minute to wrap up my remarks. I want to say one more time that I appreciate the fact that funding has increased. It needed to be increased. The roles of the Auditor General and the Privacy Commissioner are much busier than they were a decade ago or even half a decade ago. There are more and more scandals about which Parliament has a right to know.

Again, I want to go back to the closing comments by the right hon. member for Calgary Centre. What he stated in Hansard on April 30, 2001 sums it up very succinctly:

There are several ways to muzzle the watchdogs of Parliament. One way is to deny information to the Information Commissioner. The other is to deny adequate funding to the Auditor General and to other agencies. The Auditor General's office needs at least $8 million more to provide its in-depth audits of government departments. The government says no. Why is the Prime Minister trying to starve the Auditor General and keep her from doing the work that Parliament explicitly charged her and her office to do?

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6:35 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

I am sorry to interrupt. The hon. parliamentary secretary has the last word.

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6:35 p.m.


Tony Tirabassi Liberal Niagara Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, the hon. member mentioned that the roles of officers of Parliament have become increasingly complex and busier through the years, and the OAG is one. As the hon. member knows, it was this government that recognized that.

Under the former Progressive Conservative government, the Auditor General reported to Parliament once a year. It was this government that decided it was time to bring the Auditor General in four times a year. That was to increase accountability and to increase transparency. He or she, and she in this case, would report more often so we could identify the challenges and deal with them. As I said in my statement, the funding has been increased accordingly to help cover that.

Canada Elections ActAdjournment Proceedings

6:40 p.m.


Svend Robinson NDP Burnaby—Douglas, BC

Mr. Speaker, it was on March 20 at the outbreak of the United States-led invasion of Iraq that I asked a question of the Prime Minister. I pointed out that federal New Democrats, our leader Jack Layton and New Democrats across the country believed that the war was both illegal and immoral.

I called on the Prime Minister at that time to, if he was not prepared to condemn the war, at the very least agree that the use of depleted uranium and cluster bombs would be inhumane and illegal. I called on the Prime Minister to ask both George Bush and Tony Blair not to use these weapons, which have already taken a terrible toll on innocent human lives in Iraq and elsewhere.

I personally witnessed the horrors of depleted uranium when I visited a hospital in Basra in the south of Iraq and met with a doctor there who showed me photographs of the children who had been born with massive congenital defects as a result of depleted uranium. There has been a huge increase in the number of children born with congenital defects in the Basra area as a result of depleted uranium. As well, we know that cluster bombs have been used already to devastating effects in Kosovo, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The response of the Minister of Foreign Affairs was to say that the government was not going to suggest to the Americans that there was any problem at all in the use of cluster bombs or depleted uranium. The Minister of Foreign Affairs also said he was quite confident that the Americans would conduct themselves in accordance with the rules of humanitarian war.

The evidence is now clear. There is a humanitarian disaster unfolding in Iraq as a result of the presence of cluster bombs and unexploded anti-personnel mines and anti-tank mines. According to a report prepared by the humanitarian operations centre based in Kuwait and staffed by military personnel from the U.S., Britain and Kuwait, its intelligence assessment shows that there is a grave danger of unexploded weapons. There are literally thousands of these unexploded weapons, which pose a grave threat to innocent civilians, particularly those in built up areas such as Baghdad and Basra. Already civilians have been killed, including a number of children.

I am calling on the Canadian government to speak out and to once again call for the abolition of these cluster bombs and to call for the banning of the use of depleted uranium, and to call as well for the freeing of Dr. Huda Ammash, a respected Iraqi environmental biologist who has been held by the United States. So far we have no information on her whereabouts.

In closing, I as well want to urge the government to call upon the United States and the United Kingdom to grant access to POWs to the Red Cross. So far some 3,000 Iraqis, a number of them civilians, have been gagged, bound, hooded and beaten at U.S. camps close to the Baghdad airport. The Red Cross has asked for access to these camps, but its request has been denied.

It is up to the Government of Canada to speak out strongly for the respect of international law, to call for an end to the use of cluster bombs and depleted uranium, and to contribute as much as possible to the clearing of these weapons that have such a devastating impact on innocent civilians in Iraq and elsewhere.

Canada Elections ActAdjournment Proceedings

6:40 p.m.

Barrie—Simcoe—Bradford Ontario


Aileen Carroll LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs

Mr. Speaker, concerning the recent conflict in Iraq, I wish to respond to the hon. member's concerns about cluster bombs and the military use of depleted uranium.

Minister Graham clearly expressed the government's view when he spoke in the House--

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6:40 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

Order, please. It may be an honest mistake, but the member cannot use the minister's name. It is the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

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6:45 p.m.


Aileen Carroll Liberal Barrie—Simcoe—Bradford, ON

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The minister clearly expressed the government's view when he spoke in the House on this issue in March 20. He said:

--we are confident that the Americans will conduct themselves in accordance with the rules of humanitarian war to which they are obliged under the Geneva conventions and other conventions. Our American allies have always observed the rules of law and the rules of international law with respect to conflict and we expect that they would do so in this case as well.

In the aftermath of the conflict, this remains the government's view. Depleted uranium is even less radioactive than natural uranium. Although we are a large producer and processor of natural uranium, which we only use and export for peaceful purposes, Canada does not produce depleted uranium, which is the product of the enrichment of natural uranium.

In view of its low level of radioactivity, the main concerns about depleted uranium munitions are about its chemical toxicity and the affect of this on human health and the environment. The relationship between the use of such munitions and subsequent health problems experienced by veterans in the first gulf war and the Balkans, and civilians in both regions have been extensively studied by Canada, the U.S.A., the U.K., various other western countries, the World Health Organization, NATO, the UN environment program, and indeed, the International Atomic Energy Agency. None of these expert studies have to date found any conclusive linkage between the use of depleted uranium munitions and health problems experienced by veterans or civilians in the areas where they were used.

Indeed, since the hon. member initially asked his question, the latest findings on the use of depleted uranium munitions in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the mid-1990s have been released by the UN environment program. Although it could still find traces of depleted uranium in the dust and even in ground water where it was used, the UNEP concluded the level of contamination was very low and did not present immediate radioactive or toxic risks for the environment or human health.

Although the Canadian Forces stopped using depleted uranium munitions several years ago, it is still used by the armed forces of the U.S.A., the United Kingdom and others. The use of depleted uranium munitions is not prohibited or restricted under the 1980 UN convention on prohibitions or restrictions on the use of certain conventional weapons and related protocols, nor is it otherwise prohibited by international humanitarian law. This is because it is not deemed to be excessively injurious or to have indiscriminate effects. I would emphasize as well that it has not been deemed a weapon of mass destruction by the United Nations, as some concerned Canadians have erroneously asserted.

In view of the foregoing, and as indicated by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, there is no justification, nor would it be appropriate in the current circumstances for Canada to call upon the U.S.A. and the U.K. to renounce their use of depleted uranium.

On the broader issue of cluster bombs, it should be noted that cluster munitions are considered throughout the international community to be legitimate and lawful weapons when they are used against military targets. Indeed, the international committee of the Red Cross has not called for a prohibition on these weapons and considers them as legitimate when used in accordance with existing international humanitarian law.

Our forces tell us that these can be very important munitions in specific circumstances and the removal of this capability could have a detrimental effect requiring the use of a less appropriate weapons system which could cause greater risk of collateral damage in order to achieve the same military advantage.

I would like to inform the House that the international community is undertaking steps to address the key problems associated with this type of weapon, that is, the humanitarian impact presented when the unexploded munitions remain on the battlefield after the end of active hostilities presenting a threat to civilian populations who may unwittingly detonate them causing injury and death.

However, this problem is not unique to cluster bombs and all types of weapons can malfunction or become duds. Canada has been playing a leading role in the processes leading up to these negotiations and will continue to do so. The U.S. is working closely with Canada in this regard.

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6:45 p.m.


Svend Robinson NDP Burnaby—Douglas, BC

Mr. Speaker, that answer shows an absolutely appalling disregard for human health and for the lives of innocent civilians in Iraq, and elsewhere, where depleted uranium and cluster bombs are used.

I want to ask a question of the parliamentary secretary who is speaking on behalf of the minister. She talks about the United States having always respected international law and the rules of war. I would remind her of the use of agent orange in Vietnam which continues to take a terrible toll on the environment and on human health.

Could the hon. member clarify the position of the Government of Canada with respect to the use of cluster bombs in built up, urban areas, such as Baghdad and Basra? Is it the position of the Canadian government that this is legal? Is this acceptable and what steps are being taken to ensure that civilians are protected against the aftermath of the use of cluster bombs in those areas in defiance of international law?

Canada Elections ActAdjournment Proceedings

6:50 p.m.


Aileen Carroll Liberal Barrie—Simcoe—Bradford, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is difficult to respond to all of the hon. member's concerns in the space of one minute, but I want to refer to a comment that he made at the outset about children being found in Iraq with congenital defects as a result of these weapons.

I draw the member's attention to the fact that there is no empirical data that exists to support that. There has been no peer review. I would be suspicious of such sources which indeed were the same sources that claimed, before the war--as the bodies of dead children were paraded--that these children had starved to death due to the embargo by the United Nations. We now know, and it has been shown, that the children had died in hospital and this despicable regime used them and paraded them to create such a charade.

Canada Elections ActAdjournment Proceedings

6:50 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

The motion to adjourn the House is now deemed to have been adopted. Accordingly, the House stands adjourned until tomorrow at 10 a.m. pursuant to Standing Order 24(1).

(The House adjourned at 6:51 p.m.)