Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to join in today's debate on Bill C-34 regarding the ethics commissioner. I already spoke to the bill at second reading stage.
As members of the House know, the bill would appoint a Senate ethics officer whose duties and functions would be assigned by the Senate regarding the conduct of its members and most important to us here in the House of Commons, an ethics commissioner whose duties and functions would be assigned by the House of Commons.
All members, and indeed all constituents, are concerned with the conduct of its members and the administration of ethical principles by the members of Parliament in this place.
The return of the bill to the House of Commons for debate this week is very interesting and perhaps very timely. We all know that the bill is part of the Prime Minister's ethics initiative first announced in May of last year, a time when he and others in his caucus were increasingly under the ethics magnifying glass.
The bill was born out of public necessity, not through foresight and careful planning. Furthermore, and as is all too often the case with the government, the Liberals use the right words but shift the meanings in such a way that what most Canadians expect and what the Liberal government delivers are often two entirely different things.
They say “independent ethics commissioner” but we all know that since the prime minister would make the choice there is no real independence. The consultation process would be with the leaders of the parties in the House and then there would be a vote following in the House itself. Remember that the prime minister does not have to follow any recommendations that are made and the confirming vote in the House would undoubtedly be a vote in which all Liberals would mysteriously vote in favour of the prime minister's choice regardless of who the person is and what that person thinks about him.
The House of Commons ethics commissioner would work under the general direction of a committee of the House of Commons, presumably the committee on procedure and House affairs.
It is appropriate that the ethics commissioner would perform the duties and functions assigned by the House of Commons for governing the conduct of its members of the House of Commons. A code of standards would be established and at some point would become part of the Standing Orders by which we all abide.
I trust then that the committee responsible for drafting the code would take a truly a non-partisan and honest approach to this very important task.
I will commend one aspect of the bill that I certainly can support. I believe it is important to recognize that a ministerial investigation can be initiated by a formal complaint from a member of Parliament or Senator and the fact that the results of such an investigation will be made public.
That sounds very good and I certainly agree with it. However I am concerned that the public report could be sanitized by removing all confidential information and what power that report might have after that is a moot point.
If there has been a breach of ethics, I firmly believe that Canadians have a right to know. What I am not pleased with is the lack of clarity as to whether a minister of the crown, a minister of state or a parliamentary secretary would be held accountable under the same rules that would apply to all other members of Parliament. This is assumed but it is certainly not specific in the bill.
Many years ago the Canadian Alliance addressed the whole issue and in our policy statement we said:
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.
I strongly favour a high standard of ethical conduct by government and parliamentarians. I believe this is a core value in our democracy and one of the main reasons why the Canadian public sometimes views many politicians and politics in general with disdain because we simply do not measure up to the mark.
There are members of the House, past and present, who have abused the trust that Canadians have placed in them. The end result is the democratic deficit that is apparent all across Canada today: voter apathy, low voter turnout and contempt for many politicians.
This is not to say that my Canadian Alliance colleagues and I are in any way opposed to a code of ethics. Quite the contrary, I believe that ethics and moral standards are at the very core of what we do, so much so that we must strive for and maintain the highest standards possible. The Liberal lowest common denominator is simply not acceptable to us.
If we truly want a code of ethics that applies to all current and future members of the House we must have an ethics commissioner who is chosen by all, not appointed by and answerable only to the Prime Minister himself. To do otherwise will do all Canadians a great disservice in this exercise.
I believe that we need to give active consideration to having a truly independent commissioner being approved not by just a simple House majority but by both government and opposition parties as well.
Unfortunately, when the final vote is scheduled for the bill the government majority will prevail here in this place and, in the end, the ethics commissioner will be nothing more than a political appointment of the Prime Minister and confirmed by the Liberal majority of the House.
The one way that this may be overcome, of course, is to make this a truly free vote. It would be most refreshing if we saw a truly free vote on the government benches, not the type of free vote that the Liberal government has shown time and time again, most recently in the vote on the traditional definition of marriage, which is so important to the country, when cabinet is whipped and pressure is exerted on backbenchers to violate their consciences and not stand up for the majority wishes of their constituents.
Once again I note that in my home province of British Columbia the ethics commissioner is chosen by an all party committee that makes a recommendation to the premier, who must then obtain a two-thirds confirming vote by the assembly in order to make the appointment. Alberta has a similar process.
Let us be clear: the bill is primarily a damage control exercise. When minister after minister was shown to be in conflict and either removed from his or her posting, and we see frequent changes on the government frontbench in this place, or shipped off to Denmark or shuffled off to be quiet on the backbenches, the Prime Minister simply was forced to act. The bill did not come out of the Liberal red book, although the Liberals made that promise back in 1993. It came from the anger of Canadians all across the country who are simply fed up with the way this government handles its ethical standards.
Like a good Liberal, the Prime Minister checked which way the wind was blowing and quickly came up with a poorly thought through plan. The result is the bill that we have before us today.
The ethics commissioner should be totally and completely politically neutral. I question whether under this bill that will ever be the case. For a government that has had a decade to draft and bring a bill forward for public debate, this is a poor, last minute approach to somehow substantiate the Prime Minister's legacy and leaves much to be desired.
If this is the best the Liberals can come up with in a decade of ministerial mishaps, then shame on them, and we really are concerned about the future of the country.