Mr. Speaker, I am happy to talk about Bill C-34 which is an act to amend the Parliament of Canada Act and other acts in consequence in respect of providing for the appointment of a Senate ethics officer and providing for the appointment of an ethics commissioner for the House of Commons regarding the conduct of its members.
There is a jurisdiction in Canada that has really been at the forefront in terms of conflict of interest and behaviour of its elected officials and that is the province of British Columbia. I would like to quote from a commentary prepared by Gregory J. Levine, who is general counsel for the Office of the Ombudsman for the province of British Columbia. The following is an interesting capsule from his commentary on Bill C-34:
The current package is part of a dance of denial, a dithering that does not instill confidence. The Canadian people deserve better. What circumstances demand are clear rules forthrightly enforced by an ethics commissioner who is truly independent and powerful.
In other words, the bill simply does not cut it. It was brought forward in June of last year amid allegations of scandal and corruption in the seventh year of the reign of an ethics counsellor who has become known in the media as a lapdog, not a watchdog. He was appointed by the Prime Minister and reports to the Prime Minister. There are multiple scandals which have never been gotten to the bottom of and the cynicism within the public has expanded over the term of the Prime Minister. In many ways the current Prime Minister's legacy will be all about the abuses that were allowed to occur in this place despite the fact that for the first time there was somebody whose mandate was ethics. It was an abysmal failure.
That sets the stage for the fact that this legislation really does not do it. While the high-sounding bill would suggest that it is addressing a real problem in an objective manner, the reality is quite different. It is essentially smoke and mirrors.
Any of the scandals that have occurred around the government would not be addressed by the new scenario. The ethics commissioner envisioned by the bill for the House of Commons would not be independent. The ethics counsellor who has been in place for a number of years was not independent and neither would he be under the new scenario.
What has become abundantly clear is that the current Prime Minister has placed his personal interests and the interests of the Liberal Party of Canada ahead of the interests of Canadians and the national interest.
I can point to the loophole we addressed last week. The Bloc supply day motion had to do with the well known Barbados loophole utilized by the former finance minister's company, CSL. We now know that hundreds of Canadian companies are utilizing that loophole and exploiting it.
We know that this was all a part of the Liberal Party of Canada's courting of some interests within the business community. These friends of the former finance minister were well-informed as to the existence of the loophole. This glaring exception was allowed to continue to and it became and continues to be a glaring problem for the country.
The bill would not address the democratic deficit. It would contribute to it, from the standpoint that our committees are still overwhelmed by government members. We know that in almost every case appeals to the ethics commissioner have been largely not useful.
This initiative would create two new officers, which I consider to be largely window-dressing. One could ask the question: Why all of a sudden are backbench and opposition members of Parliament somehow responsible to someone who reports essentially to cabinet and the Prime Minister? This is ripe for abuse. As an opposition member of Parliament, I believe this is ripe for my privileges being abused and is an inherent conflict of interest in itself.
If we want to look at an example of how we could change all that, let us make an officer of Parliament who is elected in the same way as the House of Commons elects our Speaker. That is the model we should follow. Not the model that was promoted in this legislation or the model that the previous speaker suggested this morning. Let us fix this because what we have in place in this bill is completely inadequate.
The ethics counsellor envisioned by this would be appointed by the Prime Minister, would report to the Prime Minister and would be responsible to the Prime Minister and his cabinet. That essentially is still the way it is.
This conflict of interest is so obvious as to laughable. It breaks the Liberal red book promise of 1993 and has thoroughly discredited the office, in the public mind. One can only assume that the Prime Minister wishes to divert attention onto these two new ethics officers without fixing the crucial ethical questions which hang over the Prime Minister and his cabinet, despite government spin.
The Prime Minister would make the choice of this new commissioner. There would be so-called consultation with the leaders of the parties in the House and there would be a confirming vote in the House. Of course all this means that the Prime Minister would determine who would be appointed and the government members of Parliament would vote in favour of the Prime Minister's choice. Remember, the Prime Minister likes to say that he consulted with opposition leaders before appointing Howard Wilson, as his personal ethics commissioner, and we all know where that has led.
Contrast this with the red book promise and the way the House of Commons chooses the Speakers, as I just mentioned: a secret ballot and a Speaker who is responsible to the members, not to the Prime Minister, not to the cabinet, not to the Prime Minister and cabinet.
One might ask the question: What would happen under the legislation to address any of the scandals that have plagued the government? Would the new arrangement somehow make any of that any different? I think it is very clear that it would not prevent this activity. Nor would it make it any more subject to exposure.
I am very concerned about potential abuse of the new power because we now have a situation where complaints from members of Parliament, or in the case of the Senate officer, must be acted upon. We see, now that opposition members of Parliament are covered under the new umbrella, an opportunity for misbehaviour on the part of the government which basically controls the process. Through the Prime Minister and cabinet, there is now an opportunity to manipulate this with a timing such that it can be used for mischief making during critical times such as elections. We think this is a very obvious abuse and a singular enough reason why it needs to be changed.
Bill C-34 would also create a situation that would be problematic from the standpoint that we would now have the growth of two standards, one for the House of Commons and one for the Senate, simply because we would have two different appointees. Objective concerns about the bill have been expressed by people dealing with conflict of interest in ethics. They suggest this is very problematic. I subscribe to that as well.
Another issue deals with payment for services. The remuneration for both officers is to be set by cabinet. This is also a law inconsistent with removing a conflict of interest and government control over this process because obviously remuneration levels can be used as a lever. The mere fact that can occur or would have the appearance of being able to occur is enough to suggest that it is a conflict of interest and that should not be allowed to occur. Therefore it is one more reason why we would oppose the legislation.
The two individuals who would be given these new positions would also be given the rank of deputy heads of a government department for the purpose of operating their respective offices. It is very unclear and completely unaddressed as to what this really means in terms of independence because it would suggest that they are tied to government process. Once again, we have to make a clear distinction here.
We are opposition members of Parliament. We are not members of the government. This is another conflict of interest. This is a natural problem. This has not been well thought out. This is not addressed appropriately in the way the legislation is put forward. I object because I believe this is one more way in which opposition members of Parliament's privileges are being abused potentially by the legislation.
We currently have rules regarding our conduct within the Parliament of Canada Act which pertain to the Senate and the House of Commons and the members. These rules of conduct prohibit involvement in government contracts, prohibit employment in government services and prohibit us from taking money with respect to issues before the Senate or the House of Commons. Many of these rules will be repealed under the bill. Once again, objective, independent analysis of the bill suggests that we are weakening the rules of conduct with this proposed legislation and not strengthening them.
Once again this gives currency to my opening statement which is that the bill is an abysmal performance that does not do what it purports to do in terms of strengthening our ethics situation which we know has been very tarnished by the performance of the government over the last 10 years, 10 years next month. Those are some of the broader aspects of the bill.
I would like to remind people who are listening to the debate of some of the problems that are inherent in how the government has been operating. For example, we have heard major criticism in the last week or two about Charles Boyer and his expense accounts and the fact that the Minister of Canadian Heritage signed for every one of his expense accounts on the account of the taxpayers.
This has really resonated with the public. When George Radwanski carried on this kind of behaviour, the statement I got from the public was “Under this government as a senior employee we expect that kind of behaviour”. However when they saw the same kind of behaviour from a junior employee, directly approved by a minister who should know better, it drove them wild. There is no direction from the government to change it.
As a matter of fact, I quote from the Winnipeg Sun . It states, “Leading the nation by shining example, [the current finance minister] has given his blessing to fellow cabinet colleagues who routinely file hefty expense claims without providing a single receipt. Heck, he does it himself”. Other ministers are mentioned also.
There are many other references to ethical lapses in the government. We know Alfonso Gagliano, the former minister of public works, now enshrined in Denmark, was never ever caught up in his ethical lapses because the Prime Minister got him out of the country. We have seen similar behaviour and the ethics commissioner has certainly not been as independent as we would like to see.
In summary, the bill does not do it. Canadians deserve better and parliamentarians deserve better.