Mr. Speaker, I move that the 25th report of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs presented on Tuesday, April 27, 2004, be concurred in.
I am pleased to speak to the motion which calls for the adoption of the 25th report of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. The report contains three recommendations.
The first recommendation, being the most important in my view, recommends that the conflict of interest code, which is appended to the report, for members of the House of Commons become part of the Standing Orders of this House and that the code would come into force and effect at the beginning of the 38th Parliament.
This matter has been discussed and debated in committees in both this place and in the other place for some time. In fact, in 1996 both this Chamber and the other place adopted resolutions, which I will read in part:
That a Special Joint Committee of the Senate and the House of Commons be appointed to develop a Code of Conduct to guide Senators and Members of the House of Commons in reconciling their official responsibilities with their personal interests, including their dealings with lobbyists.
Part of that mandate was that the committee would consult broadly and review the approaches taken with respect to these issues both in Canada and in other jurisdictions with comparable systems of government. Out of that process, which began in 1996, came a code of conduct which came about after a great deal of discussion both with members of this place at the time and with others who were from other legislatures in this country and in other jurisdictions.
The 25th report has certain guiding principles that lay out the principles that should guide members of Parliament. It notes that “service in Parliament is a public trust and the House of Commons recognizes that its members are expected to serve the public interest and represent constituents to the best of their abilities”.
That is an important principle because it recognizes and upholds the representative capacity, indeed the constitutional role of members of Parliament, which is always to represent constituents. In fact, it is an acknowledgement of the principle that we, as members of the House, come from those we represent and from nowhere else. That is the first principle.
The second principle with respect to the code of conduct is that members are expected to fulfill their public duties with honesty and uphold the highest standards so as to avoid real or apparent conflict of interest and to maintain and enhance public confidence and trust in the integrity of each member of the House of Commons.
The third principle is to perform their official duties and functions and to arrange their private affairs in a manner that bears the closest public scrutiny, an obligation that may not be fully discharged by simply acting within the law.
Those are some of the principles that are laid out.
Let me move on to recommendation 2 because the committee's 25th report contains three recommendations.
Recommendation 2 states:
The Committee further recommends that the Standing Orders of the House of Commons be amended
a) by deleting Standing Orders 21 and 22;
It is technical in the sense that it refers to the specific standings orders that need to be either deleted or amended.
Recommendation 3 is also technical in nature in that it recommends that the Clerk of the House be authorized to make any editorial changes required by the adoption of these amendments to the Standing Orders.
This is important in terms of the Standing Orders because what we have seen in the House over the past several years has been a number of attempts, and very good attempts, at creating a code of conduct. On March 15, 2001, the member for Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough had a motion on the Order Paper under private members' business asking the government to introduce legislation to establish a code of conduct for members of Parliament. It too was based on the final report of the Special Joint Committee on a Code of Conduct for the House of Commons.
The member for Halifax had a private member's bill, Bill C-417, in the second session of the 37th Parliament which was much the same. The purpose of that bill was to establish a code of conduct for members of the House and to provide for an officer of Parliament to be known as the ethics counsellor.
If one looks at the joint committee report, a committee established by resolution of both this Chamber and of the other place in 1996, it carefully considered whether in fact we should have a code that would be placed in the Standing Orders or, alternatively, whether we should move on a statutory front, which is what the member for Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough recommended by his private member's motion of 2001, and also what was attempted to be done by Bill C-417, which had first reading on March 20, 2003.
In its report of 1997, the special joint committee recommended against a statute, that is putting it into a law passed by this place and the other place and given royal assent. There was good reason for that. We have to understand that the Standing Orders are procedural in nature. They apply in this place and are not intended to allow, in any way, outsiders to come in here, outsiders in the sense that the courts can move into this place and pass judgment on what is an internal matter.
In my view it is important that we not move on that front because the privileges of the House and indeed the privileges of the Senate are a special body of law, the law of Parliament. The law of Parliament has nothing to do with the courts. The law of Parliament is the evolutionary body of jurisprudence which evolved under our system and has never been touched by the courts. There are still court decisions where judges have said that the law of Parliament should not be considered or touched by the courts. We are a constitutional body, unlike the courts, and we control our own proceedings.
That is why it is important that this code of conduct be included in the Standing Orders and not in a statute. A statute would very clearly allow for someone at some point, under some circumstances, to seek redress or adjudication in the courts and that ought never be done. This code gives a framework for members and guidance.
This has been a long process. It has been discussed in this place. In embarking on such a process it is important that there be due consideration, due debate and there certainly has been due discussion, if I can put it that way, in terms of how this should be set up.
This is not new in similar jurisdictions. British Columbia has had a code for a number of years. British Columbia has a commissioner who works and reports on possible conflicts of interest. Ontario has a similar regime to give advice, to monitor and to assist members of the provincial legislature in how they might best act in a way that avoids conflict of interest, that upholds high ethical standards and in fact is a form of protection of members. It may not be perfect or foolproof but it is an important framework within Standing Orders to assist and guide members.
More interesting, in the United States, all state legislatures have state ethics committees or commissions, it varies, within one or both of their chambers, because in certain U.S. states there are senate chambers. In fact 39 of the 50 U.S. states have external ethics committees.
I do not purport to suggest that we are moving on the vanguard here but I think it is very clear that this code of conduct is something that is widespread throughout parliaments, throughout legislative assemblies and throughout state assemblies. Knowing that the world has become a much more complex place, that governments have become more complex in their operations and members can find themselves in situations where allegations may be made against them in which, under and through entirely innocent circumstances, they find that they are the brunt or the subject of suggestions that they are in conflict of interest.
It is important to note that the principles, which I put on the record earlier, form the framework and the basis but this code of conduct lays out specific rules because it is within the Standing Orders and, more important, it affords a level of protection for members who I would say 99.99% of the time act in good faith but, notwithstanding all that, may find themselves in a situation which, in some cases, they were unaware of or in some cases over which they had no control.
The code of conduct that we are considering here today is an important new benchmark, not only for members but for the public.
Once again I will say that this code of conduct may not have foreseen all contingencies that may arise but it is a good beginning. The important thing is that the proposal to include it in the Standing Orders means that it would stay under the control of the Chamber. It can be updated or it can be amended if parts of it are found to be too onerous or are not workable, as opposed to statutory law, which would end up making it more difficult to change, both from a legislative point of view and from a public perception point of view in the sense that legislation being changed or amended is much more difficult to deal with.
The other part of these Standing Orders, of course, is not that it is just a code of conduct, but it includes a reference specifically to the ethics commissioner. The ethics commissioner who has been named, Mr. Shapiro, is the contact person for members if they are looking for advice and interpretation. He is the contact person if they are looking for some form of self-satisfaction in terms of whether they are doing the right thing in a world which is very complex and in a position of the House, that is, as a member of the House, which is often not easy and is sometimes very difficult. As a result, it is important that the code of conduct be adopted and that the recommendations, number two in particular, be included in the Standing Orders as laid out by the 25th report of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs and then moved on.
There are those who say, and I have made these suggestions myself, that there are portions of the code that could be abused, in the sense, I think, that if one wishes to make accusations against a colleague, one might do so. I have heard suggestions that this may be used for spiteful reasons or mean reasons. Having said that, if one reads more closely the code of conduct, one will see that in fact there are measures to strike back against those who would make frivolous and vexatious claims against colleagues.
Quite frankly, I think that notwithstanding our differences, both between and among individuals of the same party and individuals of other parties, there is still an enormous amount of goodwill among people in terms of personal lives and a great insight into the complexity of lives, both before people arrived here and while we are serving here in the House of Commons.
As a result, I would urge all members, not as partisans of a particular party but as members of the House, to consider the importance of this code. I would ask that they join in and endorse and support not only the code but this motion I have moved today.
On that point, because I know my time is almost up, I will conclude my remarks.