Mr. Speaker, my constituents have long desired ethics and honesty in government and I think I have been able to give it to them through my leadership by example with honest representation as an opposition MP. However the government certainly has not set a good example.
I am motivated by the hope of most Canadians that some day Canada will have an ethical political culture. Some day I hope that any parliamentarian who is tempted to behave wrongly will be quickly found out and denounced. That illusive hope is the backdrop to the bill before us today.
Historically, both the Liberal and Conservative governments of the past have been too easily tempted to break or bend the rules for what they thought was in their political interest or to their advantage. The long term record is that Canadians have been inadequately served by ethically challenged governments. In contrast to what the Canadian Alliance has emphasized, local accountability and grassroots democracy, the Liberals: greased palm bureaucracy.
The recent revelations in the media of the dark inner workings of the Liberal Party are just the latest manifestation of its ethical deficit. The Liberals approach to the public service integrity office for whistleblowing is similar to the way they handled the ethics counsellor position. The promise had been made to create an ethics commissioner reporting directly to Parliament. The Prime Minister opted instead for a counsellor who reports directly to him, an act in itself that was not ethical. It took a series of scandals and ongoing pressure from our party to get some movement on that policy.
The way the current inadequate position operates, the ethics counsellor seems to go out of his way to try and interpret the rules as liberally, pardon the pun, as he possibly can. This is not any real surprise but is a continuation of the marginal usefulness of the ethics counsellor function under the current set up.
Patronage and special favour have been the boastful stock practices of every federal and provincial party that has ever taken office and, even to a very small degree, in regimes of such sanitary former premiers as W.A.C. Bennett of B.C. and E.C. Manning of Alberta.
Rule bending is considered more a Liberal trait or sin because such rewards for the faithful are very predictably given and could be counted upon without shame from Liberal governments. Mulroney rightly said to Turner in the 1993 TV election debate that he had an option not to deliver the long list of Liberal favours. Sadly, it did not take the new incoming Prime Minister long to stoop to the very same thing.
Parliamentary reformers always talk about open competition for posts with hiring choices made on merit, not on partisan standing, but the pleas have not diminished the practice, even for diplomatic posts where a neutral record might seem advantageous. We remember Mr. Gagliano.
The old line parties simply cannot seem to do without such rewards. Why should they? Patronage and favouritism have their roots in human nature and they have been evident in the governance of society since recorded history. It is so human to help one's relatives, friends and fellows in a common cause, and the practice is not confined to partisan politics.
No one has been making a big deal of it, but the Treasury Board policy, entitled “Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service”, is supposed to be in the hands of every federal official, great and small. Treasury Board rules and guidelines fill the shelves but seem to be routinely ignored by the government.
Repeatedly over the years, acquaintances within the bureaucracy have told me that there is patronage in filling jobs and awarding promotions in the public service as the Prime Minister's Office sets the tone at the behest of ministers and insider MPs.
When participating in any decision making related to a staffing process, public servants should ensure that they do not grant preferential treatment or assistance to family or friends. When making decisions that will result in a financial reward to an external party, public servants should not grant preferential treatment or assistance to insiders or entities who were not selected purely on objective merit. The problem of awarding purchasing contracts only on merit in an ethical manner remains a big stumbling block for the government.
The scale of public service appointments and promotions runs into the tens of thousands each year, whereas the so-called political posts monitored by the ethics counsellor only numbered several thousand. Therefore we need a culture change for the whole public service as well as a new tone in the House of Commons.
The Prime Minister is leaving so, true to form, last week or so some 50 plum appointments were made. In this transition phase we will see a lot of this Liberal unfairness for some of the most cherished appointments, including, of course, the usual dumping ground of the Senate.
Liberal MPs, bagmen, and Prime Minister cronies salivate at the prospect of a Senate place where the pace is easy and without electoral risk until the age of 75. Despite this, there are some good people there who do good things, but it is how one gets there that is the big problem.
Long ago I lost my surprise at encountering MPs and party apparatchiks on Parliament Hill who dreamed of quietly pressing for a place in the red chamber. Most aspirants rank it ahead of all other gifts at the Prime Minister's command. Since Confederation, the Senate bonanza has been a prime lure into partisan activity, encouraging continuous party loyalty.
Our party, and certainly most of the folk in my constituency, abhor political partisan and bureaucratic patronage. Unfortunately, people, being people will be tempted. The real power in federal Ottawa is now wielded by a presidential kind of Prime Minister and a Supreme Court that, since the recent charter's advent, has superceded Parliament as the highest court in the land.
In view of this wrong trend, I hope Canadians will vote in the next election as much on the ethics question as much as other things. When we talk about ethics in a public office holder context, it is more than just appearing to be honest. The object of a code is to enhance public confidence in the integrity of public office holders and the decision making process of government. The rules should encourage experienced and competent persons to seek public office. The rules should facilitate interchange between the private and public sector, and establish clarity respecting conflict of interest for post-employment practices, applicable to all public office holders. The rules should minimize the possibility of conflicts arising between private interests and public duties of public office holders, and provide for the resolution of conflicts for the public interest should they arise.
Every public office holder should conform to the following principles. Public office holders should act with honesty and uphold the highest ethical standards so that public confidence and trust in the integrity, objectivity and impartiality of government are conserved and enhanced.
Public office holders have an obligation to perform their official duties and arrange their private affairs in a manner that will bear the closest public scrutiny, an obligation that is not fully discharged by simply acting within the law. Public office holders, in fulfilling their official duties, should make decisions in the public interest with regard to the merits of each case without consideration for advantage to themselves or their political party.
Public office holders should not have private interests, other than those permitted pursuant to the code, that would be affected particularly or significantly by government actions in which they participate. On coming into office, public office holders should arrange their private affairs in a manner that will prevent real or apparent conflicts of interest from arising, but if such a conflict does arise between private interests and official duties, the conflict must be resolved in favour of the Canadian public interest.
Public office holders should not solicit or accept transfers of economic benefit, other than incidental gifts, customary hospitality or other benefits of nominal value, unless the transfer is pursuant to an enforceable contract or property right of the public office-holder.
Public office holders should not step out of their official roles to assist private entities or persons in their dealings with the government where this would result in preferential treatment to any person.
Public office holders should not knowingly take advantage or benefit from information that is obtained in the course of their official duties that is not generally available to the public. It is the so-called insider trading principle.
Public office holders should not directly or indirectly use or allow the use of government property of any kind, including property leased to the government for anything other than officially approved activities.
Finally, public office holders should not act after they leave public office in such a manner as to take improper advantage of their previous office.
We must look at these standards that I have outlined and then examine the Liberal record. The Liberals have all too often talked about ethical rules, but mostly for show. They have not had a deep commitment to transparency of activity that would naturally arise from a belief in self-control and ethical self-governance.
Sadly, it has taken years to get even this somewhat and inadequate bill entitled, an act to amend the Parliament of Canada Act (Ethics Commissioner and Senate Ethics Officers).
The Liberals promised back in the 1993 red book. However when we quoted from that book in the form a votable motion, incredibly the Liberals voted in the House against their own published red book policy.
That smiling Liberal fellow who was collecting leadership delegates this past week did that insincere flip back then by voting against the very policy that he wrote. Therefore, how can we trust anything that he may say in the future?
Briefly, the bill claims to amend the Parliament of Canada Act to provide for the appointment of a Senate ethics officer. It also requires the Senate ethics officer to perform the duties and functions assigned by the Senate regarding the conduct of its members. However the bill also amends the act to provide for the appointment of an ethics commissioner for the House of Commons. It provides for this commissioner to perform the duties and functions assigned by the House of Commons regarding the conduct of its members and to administer any ethical principles, rules or obligations established by the Prime Minister for public office holders.
The imperfections are already evident, as it is an independent Parliament as a whole that should establish the rules for self-governance, not the Prime Minister.
Bill C-34 talks about independent ethics commissioner but the term is misleading since the Prime Minister will make the choice and there will only be consultation with the leaders of the parties in the House with a confirming vote in the House.
As far as I can tell, there will be no standing committee examinations or official committee report to the House. Sadly, consultation with the other party leaders does not mandate that the Prime Minister must change his mind if they disagree. The operative word is only “consult”, rather than “obtain approval”.
The confirming vote in the House will undoubtedly be a vote in which all government MPs will be required, by their leader and party membership, to vote in favour of the Prime Minister's choice. The whip will be on.
The Senate ethics officer is appointed for an initial seven year term and is eligible for reappointment for one or more terms of up to seven years each. It is not clear to me if the senators themselves get to nominate, examine in committee and vote on their own House officer. They currently cannot even vote to select their own Speaker of their chamber.
The House of Commons ethics commissioner is appointed for an initial five year term and is eligible for reappointment for one or more terms of up to five years each. The House of Commons ethics commissioner will work under the general direction of a committee of the House of Commons, presumably the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.
This commissioner will perform the duties and functions assigned by the House of Commons for governing the conduct of its members when carrying out their duties and functions of the office as members of that House. This means that a separate code will be established and will become part of the standing orders which the commissioner will enforce.
The commissioner's supervision of cabinet ministers will be about the same as it is now. No news there. This is private, confidential advice to them and to the Prime Minister.
However, the new fact that an investigation of a minister can be triggered by a formal complaint by a member of Parliament or senator is positive. The results of such investigations will be made public. Nevertheless, the public report, unfortunately, can be sanitized by removing information.
It is not sufficiently clear that a minister of the Crown, a minister of state or a parliamentary secretary can be held accountable under the same rules as those that apply to a regular member of Parliament. It may be assumed but it is not specifically clear in the bill.
In addition the ethics commissioner or his staff cannot be compelled to be a witness in an ordinary court about evidence that arises in the course of their duties. I support this though that this should serve for greater trust in the relationship when seeking advice from the commissioner.
Our party has had a longstanding blue book policy which states:
We will facilitate the appointment of an independent Ethics Counsellor by the House of Commons. The Ethics Counsellor will report directly to the House of Commons and be given the mandate to investigate, and where applicable, recommend prosecution for conflict-of-interest infractions by a member of Parliament and/or his/her staff.
That is the longstanding position of our party.
It is not clear if this bill meets that standard. Our caucus members always strive for a high standard of ethical conduct by both government and parliamentarians. It is this deluded Liberal version of ethics in this bill which we find difficult to support.
I just find it hard to understand why it has taken so long to get so little from the government, concerning ethics. The Liberals would try, as usual, to characterize us as being against a code of ethics, and we must remind that we object only to a Liberal, diluted interpretation.
We object to an ethics commissioner appointed by and answerable to the Prime Minister who will have jurisdiction over backbench and opposition MPs. That dynamic is an inappropriate blurring of the independence of Parliament from the government. Parliament is not the government. It is the special place where the government comes to obtain permission to tax and spend the people's money and get its legislation passed. The officers of the House of Commons, like for example the Auditor General, are not part of the government.
Certainly a basic flaw to this bill is that the Prime Minister will appoint the ethics commissioner without a meaningful role by rank and file members of Parliament. There is provision for consultation with party leaders but no requirement that the agreement be reached. The Prime Minister does not appoint the Speaker of the House and he should not really be involved with the commissioner's appointment or any of the officers of Parliament.
It brings to mind the flawed basis of how the Auditor General is appointed, as well as the other independent officers of Parliament, like the infamous Liberal insider Radwanski, the pugnacious former privacy commissioner. The independence of all House officers must start at the very beginning concerning how all of them are nominated, examined, confirmed and continue in tenure.
The bill does not apparently change the relationship of ministers with the ethics counsellor. He will administer the prime minister's code and will provide confidential advice to the prime minister and to ministers. If an investigation of a minister is requested by a senator or MP, the ethics counsellor is obliged to investigate but any public report arising from the investigation can be sanitized. The scandals that have plagued the Liberals will not likely be preventable or subject to much exposure under this form of legislation.
Some may say that half a loaf is better than none at all but I hope that the few MPs within the Liberal caucus who have had these kinds of matters on their minds for some time will speak up and support all parliamentarians who want a better bill. Canadians deserve a powerful and fully independent ethics commissioner. It actually may take the Canadian Alliance to deliver upon the red book promise which it copied from our blue book, the ideal that has been sought by parliamentarians for so many years. The country deserves and needs a truly independent ethics commissioner for Parliament.
To conclude, I move the following amendment:
That the motion be amended by deleting all the words after the word “That” and substituting the following therefor:
Bill C-24, An Act respecting the Parliament of Canada Act (Ethics Commissioner and Senate Ethics Officer) and other Acts in consequence, be not now read a third time but be referred back to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs for the purpose of reconsidering Clause 4 with the view to ensure that:
(a) a standing or “an all party” committee of the House of Commons search for those persons who would be most suitably qualified and fit to hold the office of Ethics Commissioner; and
(b) the said committee recommend to the House of Commons the name of a person to hold such office.