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House of Commons Hansard #54 of the 37th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was witnesses.

Topics

Question No. 85Routine Proceedings

10:20 a.m.

Liberal

Roger Gallaway Liberal Sarnia—Lambton, ON

Mr. Speaker, while the member opposite stands on his hind legs, perhaps he would like to read Standing Order 32.

Additionally, Mr. Speaker, I ask that all remaining questions be allowed to stand.

Question No. 85Routine Proceedings

10:20 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

Is that agreed?

Question No. 85Routine Proceedings

10:20 a.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

SupplyGovernment Orders

10:20 a.m.

Progressive Conservative

Peter MacKay Progressive Conservative Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough, NS

moved:

That, in the interest of transparency, the government should ensure that the work that has been done by the Standing Committee on Public Accounts into the sponsorship scandal be continued after the Prime Minister calls a general election and until the Standing Committee on Public Accounts is reconstituted in a new parliament by establishing a commission under the Inquiries Act.

Mr. Speaker,clearly there is a lot of frustration in the air as we embark on this debate. As the old saying goes, spring has sprung. The tulips are up and people's hopes and dreams are up. Yet the public accounts committee, looking into the scandalous behaviour of the government, the ongoing attempts to cover up what took place with respect to hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money, is about to be shut down. It is for all intents and purposes now stopping the truth seeking exercise of finding out where that money went, how it was misspent and who was responsible.

We are no longer hearing from witnesses, unfortunately, because of a motion brought forward by the Liberal majority on that committee. We have to take a step back and examine what the purpose of the committee and the entire process is about. It is about accountability. It is clearly about trying to get to the very essence of what went wrong in a single program in a single department that resulted in massive amounts of public money being misspent and misappropriated, potentially in a criminal way.

As we saw this very week, individuals who were key players in all of this, mainly Chuck Guité who was administering the program in an unprecedented way and Mr. Brault, head of Groupaction which was one of many recipients of this money, were charged criminally. That is not to prejudge the outcome of that criminal process. They are to be presumed innocent. However, clearly there was something sadly amiss.

As we have seen in recent days and weeks, there have been attempts to find the truth, to do what the Prime Minister himself referred to as getting to the bottom of this entire scandal by looking under every rock, calling every necessary witness, going where we had to go and shining the light, all of those wonderful euphemisms. Yet there has been a deliberate, behind the scenes attempt to thwart the efforts of the public accounts committee, at least those on the opposition side, to do that very exercise, to go through this truth seeking exercise to find out how this happened and how it was permitted to take place.

Having sat on that committee now for 10 weeks and having heard from over 40 witnesses, I am left with no other conclusion than there were deliberate attempts to do this in the dark and to do this, as the Auditor General herself has stated so emphatically, by breaking every rule in the book. I think there is no better place to start than with the comments of the Auditor General that came from her 2003 November report, which the government has been in possession of since October of last year. About the sponsorship program, mentioned in the main points, she states:

Parliament was not informed of the program's objectives or the results it achieved and was misinformed as to how the program was being managed.

She goes on to say:

Those responsible for managing the program broke the government's own rules in the way they selected communications agencies and awarded contracts to them.

Those are damning condemnations from the Auditor General, an impartial officer of Parliament, I am quick to add. She further states:

Partnership arrangements between government entities are not unusual in programs of mutual benefit. However, some sponsorship funds were transferred to Crown corporations using unusual methods that appear designed to provide significant commissions to communications agencies, while hiding the source of funds and the true nature of the transactions.

She is talking about evidence that communications firms with strong ties to the Liberal Party were receiving commissions for literally picking up a cheque from the government and delivering it to a crown corporation like VIA Rail, the RCMP and the Business Development Bank. In one example it cost $330,000 to take a cheque and deliver it, when a 34¢ stamp would have been sufficient.

I cannot for the life of me understand how those in the public could accept that this could take place on the government's watch. As to who was responsible during the time in which the sponsorship scandal really began in earnest in 1997, the current Prime Minister was the minister of finance and he sat as the vice-president of the Treasury Board. It happened on his watch. Whether he knew about it or whether he was involved in it is yet to be determined.

I would say without reservation that there was no one in government, no one in Canada, who was in a better position to stop this scandal as it unfolded. Now the same individual, the Prime Minister, is telling Canadians that he will get to the bottom of this, that there will be accountability and those who responsible will be held to account. When? Will it be before an election? I think not.

Clearly, we are rushing headlong in to an election. The democratic deficit, which has so widened under this Prime Minister's watch, dictates that he and only he will decide when the election will come. That is something I say, unreservedly, that would change with a Conservative government. There would be accountability. There would be a fixed election date. However, that debate is for another time. I am sure it will be discussed throughout the election period. The democratic deficit has certainly widened under this Prime Minister's watch.

The sponsorship scandal to which Canadians have been treated to over the past number of weeks is grinding to a halt in terms of the work of the public accounts committee. We have been told that there will be a full judicial inquiry which will take place some time in the fall and the results will be rendered in 18 months. An individual will be specifically tasked with recovering the money.

I can only scoff at the suggestion that the $250 million will be recovered in any amount. I have been around enough courtrooms. I have prosecuted and defended enough cases to know that money is seldom recovered in fraud cases. I have never seen a fraud case of such an enormous nature involving public money.

While it is springtime, it is also tax season. Having spoken to a lot of people in my own constituency of Pictou--Antigonish--Guysborough and to people in the Maritimes and around country, I strongly suspect that having just sent in their hard earned tax dollars to Ottawa, as required by Revenue Canada and the Income Tax Act, they are feeling a chilling unease. I would go further and say they are feeling quite a bit of residual anger at the thought of sending their tax dollars to Ottawa, knowing what has taken place under this government's governance over the past number of years. In particular, I think they are feeling a bit of anger having been exposed to the way in which the government spent their money in one program alone, the sponsorship scandal.

We know there are other examples. It was revealed that National Defence was bilked of $161 million in a computer scam, which is still being examined. We know of other blatant examples of the terrible abuse of taxpayer dollars, including the HRDC scandal and the still unravelling in the gun registry, which is the subject of the criminal charges that were laid this week. That had very little to do with the Auditor General's report most recently tabled. It did have something to do with her previous report.

This has become a malaise and a real swamp and quagmire of a scandal which Canadians are seeing unfold before their very eyes. Yet in the very near future they will be asked to put their trust and their faith in this government again, re-elect it and give it a ringing endorsement for the way it has governed the country and treated taxpayer dollars.

The priorities of the government are sadly out of sync on where Canadians would prefer to see their money spent, whether it be in the health care system, or improving the safety of their communities, or helping with student debt or protecting and observing the environment.

Coming back to how this institution operates and how money makes it into these programs, all of us in this place have to be answerable for that. This includes the opposition when it comes to scrutinizing the main estimates or examining how these programs are administered and put in place. That is a more fundamental question of how Parliament itself operates, how we govern ourselves in this place.

The Prime Minister has made hay over the past number of years, while he was undermining and plotting to replace his predecessor, by talking about the democratic deficit. He coined the phrase, “who do you know in the PMO?” I guess Canadians are left to wonder now not only who do they know, but how much money was blown through the PMO and their auspices.

The democratic deficit that the Prime Minister spoke of with such relish has become even wider under his watch. We see the appointment of candidates around the country. We see interference in the actual democratic process of the Liberal Party itself. We see incredible efforts made to manipulate and control this place. This is an issue that is not going to go away.

When I look at the bright, hopeful and optimistic young faces of the pages and students around the country, I fear for the cynicism that many of the younger generation are feeling because of the way the government has operated and the way in which this country has become mired in scandals such as this.

It comes back again to a very basic premise and tenets of democracy. That is accountability, responsibility and consequences for our actions. When those in Parliament and in the upper echelons of government are not held accountable themselves, when there is no cost brought to bear for their actions and misdeeds, that drives cynicism to new levels in the country. Voter turnout is at an all time low. That is something with which we all have to concern ourselves.

In the broader sense, in examining what was going on at the public accounts committee and the way in which this committee was tasked with getting to the bottom of the sponsorship scandal, I truly fear we are failing miserably in addressing these broader issues of accountability.

I do not want anyone left with the impression that I or anyone is attacking the public service. It is not about that. This comes back again to a very serious issue of ministerial accountability. While the impression may be left that there are some fall guys, maybe Mr. Guité, maybe a rogue bureaucrat or an incompetent bureaucrat who was not doing his job, and there certainly may be elements of that, at the root of this sponsorship scandal is who gave the order. Who directed this program through these willing instruments, Mr. Guité? Who allowed this to happen, knowing that money was going into the pockets of individuals for work that was not being done or work that was certainly not of value but for which they were being billed?

The Auditor General gave perhaps what was the most succinct and practical example that demonstrated what was taking place. Imagine if people received a bill in the mail for which they had no knowledge. Imagine if they received their Visa statement and rather than setting out what was paid for, it was just an amount owing? Would a person pay that? Would a person send out a cheque without knowing for what they were paying?

In many cases that is what went on in the sponsorship scandal. Those bills came in to public works and they were paid, without any proof or evidence that the work was actually done. To put this in even simpler terms, if we pay someone to mow our lawn, would we not at least look out the window to see if the lawn has been mowed before paying? There is a real lack of common sense that appears to have taken place.

However, I go back to my earlier point. Was this deliberate? Was there full knowledge that the work was not done when these bills were paid? From where were the bills paid? The bills were paid from the public coffers. The taxpayers of Canada are on the hook for $250 million, among these other bills for other programs such as the gun registry, or the money that was misspent or unaccounted for in the HRDC scandal. Let us not forget the $100 million jets that were not necessary. At the same time the government was cutting deep into social programs like health care, slashing our military.

I visited CFB Ottawa recently and saw the state of the housing. It is absolutely pathetic. While men and women are serving overseas, their families are forced to live in that kind of accommodation. I was ashamed to see the state of our armed forces bases.

Yet there seems to be money to throw around and sprinkle around for things like the sponsorship program. Let us go back to what that was all about. Post-referendum they were posting signs and flags with the Canada word mark around the country, at centre ice in the Molson Centre and putting up banners at outdoor recreation shows.

My goodness, what a profound impact that must have had on the hearts and minds of Quebeckers in wanting to take part in Confederation and be full players in the federation. How simplistic, how absolutely profoundly insulting to Quebeckers. All the time it was being paid for through the sponsorship program and done in an offensive and potentially illegal way.

Things are finally being laid bare. Finally there is an opportunity to have a detailed look as to what was taking place. A litany of witnesses have come before the committee and lied about their involvement. They feigned righteous indignation that they would even be asked. Witness after witness, with some notable exceptions, have come before the committee, shrugged their shoulders and passed the buck, “It wasn't me. How on earth would I know? I was only the head of the department. I was only the deputy minister. I was only the person writing the cheques”. That does not wash. That does not hold up to common sense scrutiny.

I am deeply troubled, as I think many should be, that we will not find out, certainly before any election, as to what took place, where the money went and who was ultimately responsible. Who is ultimately responsible is clearly the government. The government, headed by the Prime Minister, owes it to Canadians to provide them with answers prior to going to the polls and asking them to once again renew the mandate. It is a 10 year old government, out of step, out of sync and out of touch with Canadians if its members feel they should be rewarded for their behaviour in this case alone.

The audit team that looked into this have left so many unanswered questions after the examination that we have done, a fairly detailed examination, I might add. There are still over 90 witnesses to be heard from and so many contradictions I cannot even begin to set them out. There are contradictions where witnesses like Alfonso Gagliano refused to even admit that they met regularly with Mr. Guité, who seemed to be the mastermind, allegedly, in all of this. Imagine, a mid-level bureaucrat was so empowered that he could stroll into the Prime Minister's office any time of the day or night and demand money and decide where it would go, untouched, unfettered by any political interference or involvement.

That is what the government would have us believe. What utter nonsense, absolute bull roar, as my colleague from Saint John would say, unbelievable and incredible. And we wonder why so many young people, so many people in this country do not vote, when they are being asked to swallow that balderdash.

We see it here in the House of Commons. We ask relevant questions. Are they partisan? Certainly. Are we obligated to ask questions to hold the government to account, to put forward probing questions to which Canadians deserve the answers? Absolutely. If we cannot do it in this place, we might as well pack up and go home. We might as well forget about having a democratic institution. Yet we are accused solely of acting in our own interests by asking these questions.

I think that most Canadians see through that. Therefore the efforts to dismiss, delay and distract Canadians away from the real issue of accountability will very much be an election issue, as well as issues of trust, accountability and sound fiscal management of taxpayers dollars. There would be a much different approach taken under a Conservative government.

Was there value for money? When one examines the way the program was operating one certainly has to say unequivocally, no.

The work continues. We have a summary of evidence that we are working on. There has been much documentation generated, but there are many more answers that are yet to come.

The purpose of the motion is that in the interest of transparency the committee should be allowed to continue its work, that the findings should be presented to Canadians in such a way that they will have some resolution as to where their money went and who was responsible in the Liberal government.

SupplyGovernment Orders

May 13th, 2004 / 10:40 a.m.

Progressive Conservative

Elsie Wayne Progressive Conservative Saint John, NB

Mr. Speaker, I want to congratulate the hon. member for Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough. Right across this nation from coast to coast, in every province, people are saying that this work cannot be stopped, that we have to get to the bottom of it, that the committee cannot be shut down.

This will probably be my last day in the House of Commons. It is with a heavy heart that I leave Ottawa and a very heavy heart when I see that this committee is going to be shut down. What the hon. member has stated is absolutely correct. People want answers. I have never, in all of the 11 years that I have been here, seen anything like this before in the House of Commons. I really have not. They are not getting the answers because the other 90 people who want to speak have been told that they cannot.

The hon. member for Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough said that the committee should be allowed to continue. He is absolutely correct. I know all of the people back home in the maritime provinces want it to continue. It has been an honour and a privilege to represent them here, but when I leave here today and am back home, I will be asked a lot of questions about the sponsorship program. I cannot answer them and neither can any of the members of the committee because it has been closed down by the Prime Minister. This is wrong.

I ask the hon. member for Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough, what can we do? I am leaving. The rest of the people on this side of the House have to do something to straighten this out in Canada.

SupplyGovernment Orders

10:45 a.m.

Progressive Conservative

Peter MacKay Progressive Conservative Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough, NS

Mr. Speaker, I want to pay tribute to the hon. member for Saint John. She has been an unfailing and unswerving defender of what she so affectionately calls the little people of her constituency and her country. She has repeatedly stood up in this place and made her views known in a passionate way. She is someone who has been a role model for parliamentarians, a role model for women and Canadians generally with her untiring efforts.

On behalf of the Conservative Party, I want to thank her and say what a privilege it has been to serve with her in this place and to serve under her leadership when she was the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party. When she served in this place on her own with Jean Charest, she kept the fires burning and provided a tremendous debt of service and tremendous inspiration for many, myself included.

In answer to her question about what work can be done, the same work that has been going on in the committee itself. There is no reason that we cannot hear more witnesses. Those 90 witnesses are listed. Most of them have been located and are prepared to come before the committee and give testimony. They are key witnesses. Many of those individuals were not the politicos. They were not the ones perhaps in the positions to wield the power, but to implement the program. Those witnesses we have heard from that held similar positions were the most credible and trustworthy that we have heard so far. They are people like Allan Cutler and Huguette Tremblay. Those are the people who are in the know. Those individuals should be permitted to give their testimony. They will, eventually, at the judicial inquiry, or perhaps they will be called at the criminal trials.

There are over 30 criminal investigations underway into this government right now, 13 related to the sponsorship program. This is unprecedented in Canadian history. This scandal ridden corruption that is deep within the core of the government has to stop. Our country is in peril if it is allowed to continue. When exercises like the public accounts committee are thwarted, that furthers the cynicism and damages any hope we have of getting things back on track in Canada.

SupplyGovernment Orders

10:45 a.m.

Canadian Alliance

Rick Casson Canadian Alliance Lethbridge, AB

Mr. Speaker, I would like to congratulate the member for Pictou--Antigonish--Guysborough for his presentation, and also for being the deputy leader. He talked about the young people in the country and the bright future we have. I firmly believe that we have a bright future because of people like him.

There are angles of this whole scandal that we do not talk about much, and the member touched upon them briefly. The fact is that it sends a message to all Canadians. I hate to hear when people say that it does not matter who is in government, that they are all crooks. I hear that a lot. It bothers me to no end. Especially when many of us speak to young people in schools and other the opportunities that we have, we start to see that cynicism creep into their thoughts about government. I always leave by encouraging them to vote at every opportunity and at every level they can, that that is what separates this great country from many others.

Part of the whole ad scam issue that is so disturbing is that it has filtered in to all aspects of our society. It is even starting to affect our young people and how they view our government. I would like to give the member an opportunity to expand somewhat on that aspect of the damage from the lack of respect the government has shown for taxpayers and their dollars, and the widespread effect it is having across the country.

SupplyGovernment Orders

10:45 a.m.

Progressive Conservative

Peter MacKay Progressive Conservative Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough, NS

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank my colleague from Lethbridge for those comments. I certainly agree with the commentary that it has had a very disturbing and detrimental effect on many.

We see that individuals are confronted with the facts, and I would describe it as being caught red-handed, standing over the body with a smoking gun, not to be too emphatic in the example but there it is, laid bare, the facts presented, and there are complete denials. Political amnesia should not equal political immunity. To simply feign that there is no knowledge or that they simply do not recall is not acceptable. There is the issue of ministerial accountability. Ministers leave a portfolio or even leave office and they completely wash their hands of anything that happened while they were there, even if they were providing the ever illusive political direction that is yet to be identified.

I want to go back to the hon. member's point. This has broad and widespread consequences. It is like ripples on the water. Every time this happens it fans out across the country and people's cynicism, people's distrust, people's feeling of utter despondency that their government, their institutions are failing them is what keeps people away from the polls.

The most positive message that my friend is referring to is that people should feel empowered. They have an opportunity now. They can go out and vote. They have a clear choice in this election. Yes, there will be lots of distortion and propaganda around what the parties stand for and who did what and who said what. We have to have some intelligent debate in this country about where we are going and what the plan is to improve things, to improve the state of this country, to improve the quality of people's lives in their homes and in their communities, where they live and breathe and work.

This is a fundamental issue, one of accountability, one of trust. It is an exercise in accountability that is currently badly off the rails.

It is my hope that members will support this motion, will allow the public accounts committee to continue its work. I hope government members opposite will think long and hard, and reflect upon the need to have the committee continue its work, to try to fulfill some of the potential that we know is there to improve upon a badly faltering system.

SupplyGovernment Orders

10:50 a.m.

Vancouver Quadra B.C.

Liberal

Stephen Owen LiberalMinister of Public Works and Government Services

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond to the opposition day motion with respect to the public accounts committee and the continuation of its work.

We have to see this in the larger context of what is called the sponsorship scandal, and I take no issue with that description. There certainly have been scandalous aspects to it which have come to light.

However, if we take it in the broader context, we are witnessing and taking part in a process that is unprecedented in Canadian political history. It combines a whole range of legislation going forward, of processes going forward and of disciplinary action having been taken against senior people that is being brought to bear on this issue of the sponsorship program that is unprecedented: access to cabinet confidential documents; the process of the RCMP; the process of a public, judicially led inquiry; and the public accounts committee having sat for three months now and having heard dozens of witnesses.

I will talk in a moment about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of that process, but it does serve a purpose which I acknowledge and which I think we should pay mention to.

There is also a special counsel, the first position of this type, to my mind, established in Canada, who will lead in an independent way the recovery through wherever it leads; to the recovery of financial resources of the public that may have been misspent or acquired by inappropriate means.

I want to go back to the beginning of the sponsorship issue and refer to 1997 when the sponsorship program became a reality and was placed, for administrative purposes, in a small branch of the Department of Public Works and Government Services. This was the communication coordination services branch, a small unit of about 12 to 14 people headed by Chuck Guité from 1997 to 1999.

We heard evidence, and it has come out from a number of processes, reports and inquiries, including the public accounts committee, that Mr. Guité, in his administration of this small branch within Public Works, avoided the normal processes, the checks and balances, the accountability in the contracting processes that are appropriate and are set out in Treasury Board guidelines and in the rules and regulations that govern the administration of public funds in this country. They were circumvented and we know that.

In its most recent hearings the public accounts committee heard from Mr. Guité, as it did in 2002. Moving ahead from 1997, we know that a lot of money was spent. We heard quite clearly that one of the objectives of the sponsorship program was to bring the federal presence more obviously to the people of Quebec through a presence at various community cultural and sporting events, and such.

To hear the member from Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough suggest that the $250 million, which was spent over a period of four or five years under the program, was all down the drain, is not true. I am sure his constituency had some very valid and important cultural, community or sporting events that received funds, not simply to just display the Canadian flag, which has its own importance, but to enable those events to go forward.

I know that festivals in my Vancouver constituency, festivals like the children's festival, which is renowned across the country as one of the most cherished festivals, received money from the sponsorship program. An lot of good was done with the $250 million.

As the Auditor General emphatically said during her testimony before the public accounts committee this spring, “I never said that $100 million was misspent or stolen”. She did not say that. However she did say that of the $250 million spent over a period of about five years there was inadequate contracting and that she could not follow the paper trail. She said that she had serious misgivings and that the rules were broken. There is no doubt about that and that is what we are getting to the bottom of.

This really started to come to light in August 2000 through an internal audit at Public Works and Government Services. I also must say that the historic Department of Public Works and Government Services is renowned in Canada and well recognized internationally for its audit and ethical practices, and yet this small branch was circumvented. We are trying to get to the bottom of how that could happen.

Yes, there were political aspects to it and those are being probed. People are being held responsible. However, in an administrative way, the normal rules, which were extremely strict, were broken, circumvented. As the Auditor General has said, for this unit and this program they broke every rule in the book.

We needed to get to the bottom of that and the first step was to do an internal audit, which brought this to the attention of officials in August and September of 2000. The audit led to an internal response and identified a number of administrative weaknesses in the way the program was being run. A 42 point action plan was developed and, presumably, was being implemented.

By September 2002, the communications coordination services branch was disbanded. It was clear that in moving ahead on the 42 point action plan the difficulties in the administration of this program were sufficient that it had to be closed down. It was actually brought under Communications Canada, a somewhat arm's length agency that could deal with advertising, public opinion research and sponsorship as it was to continue.

However, in continuing to review the internal audit of 2000 and the 42 point action plan, the audit branch of Public Works decided that there were real problems with some of the specific sponsorship programs. Three issues around Groupaction were referred by the Department of Public Works to the Auditor General in March 2002 and she undertook her study, which we are all well aware of now. She reported in May. Her famous statement was “the branch and the sponsorship program broke every rule in the book”.

A lot of action was taking place. The Department of Public Works and Government Services had a new minister and a new deputy minister and they acted quickly to set up a quick response team to review and audit, in a forensic way, all of the sponsorship files to determine where the real problems were.

At the same time, the minister of Public Works and Government Services, who is now the Minister of Finance, initiated some dramatic changes. He first put a moratorium on the sponsorship program and then, before allowing it to go forward again for a limited period of time of one year, he made some significant changes.

The first and most important change was that there would be no further use of intermediaries of advertising companies. It would now go, not from Communications Canada, the old branch that had broken all the rules, but directly to the event that was being sponsored. There would no longer be any middlemen and no commissions. That was a very significant change.

At the same time, both the Auditor General and the government started referring cases of high suspicion to the RCMP for criminal investigation.

As we know, as that has gone forward, in September 2003 Paul Coffin and Coffin Communications were charged with 18 counts of criminal charges with respect to fraudulent action on sponsorship contracts. In just this last week six counts of criminal charges were laid against Charles Guité and Jean Brault of Groupaction.

The member opposite mentioned that there were numerous other criminal investigations. Those are extremely important parts of the criminal process in this country. The RCMP acts independently. It is taking advice on the conduct of those investigations and in fact the decisions on when charges are to be laid and if charges are to be laid by the Quebec prosecution service, which has nothing to do with the Government of Canada. It is definitely at arm's length.

Those are important but they are not important because they indicate some wide, broad conspiracy within government. They are important because we are actually narrowing the focus of investigation through a disciplined criminal investigation process and prosecution events. Those are going on and they are extremely important. As we know, there are a number of investigations underway and there may well be further criminal charges. I would be very surprised if there were not.

However let us go forward again. We come to December 2003 and this new government is sworn in. The first act of the new Prime Minister was to march out of cabinet and announce to the public, through a news conference, that the sponsorship program was being killed completely as of that moment. As announced, he instructed me, as the new Minister of Public Works and Government Services, to disband Communications Canada and to bring many of its services and processes more directly under the direct administrative control of Public Works and Treasury Board over a period of time, and that now has happened.

Then we have the Prime Minister putting in place, in addition to the criminal investigations that are going on and in addition to the quick response teams, the forensic audits and the Auditor General's reports, an unprecedented series of actions and processes. The first was to announce that there would be a public, judicially led inquiry under the Inquiries Act which, remarkably, the member for Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough suggested be duplicated by another Inquiries Act process, but under Justice John Gomery, a highly distinguished member of the Superior Court of Quebec, a public inquiry to get to the bottom of all of this in a highly disciplined way.

As we know, judicial public inquiries are conducted, not as an inherently political activity, such as the public accounts committee, although it has its very important role to play but of a different nature, but as a disciplined, incisive, targeted, challenged, well organized, well researched and timely laid out process of fact finding. That is already underway. The research is being done. The witnesses are being accumulated. People are considering whether they will be applying for standing before the commission and that will start hearing witnesses this fall.

As I mentioned, we also have a special counsel for financial recovery. Mr. Gauthier, a very distinguished civil litigation lawyer from Quebec, is leading that team, which is acting independently under terms of reference from the Government of Canada, to follow the money, to find out where it went and to determine if any was misspent or misappropriated in any way, and to take civil action to recover that money.

I must say that the government undertook to do this in the summer of 2002. The member opposite speaks as though this has just boiled up and somehow it has just come to light because of the Auditor General and her hard investigative work. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This started in 2000 with an internal audit. It went through reports to the Auditor General in 2002. In the summer of 2002 the advertising companies, which were seen to be in any way under suspicion of receiving funds improperly, were actually taken off the list for work from government departments. In addition, over $3.5 million has been withheld from many of these companies, against the eventual cases which will determine whether they may have misappropriated or been unjustly enriched through some process.

We have the RCMP, the public inquiry and special counsel for recovery. I want to speak for a moment about the public accounts committee. It has been sitting for three months now and has heard dozens of witnesses. The member opposite suggests that it must continue in some bizarre form by a duplicate public inquiry when we already have one doing the research and getting ready to hold hearings.

The public accounts committee, as with all committees of the House, is an essential arm of the work of the House of Commons. It is represented by all parties in the House and that both gives it its strength and also its potential weakness.

Its strength is that parliamentarians with experience and expert knowledge of matters political, as it relates to matters of administration, have a special perspective to bring to relationships between ministers, ministerial staff, senior members of the public service, deputy ministers, directors and the workings and administration of public funds. That is a useful role.

It becomes a much less useful role when it descends into partisan bickering, delays and accusations that are wildly spread about under parliamentary immunity.

It is a great disservice to the House and our parliamentary democracy when members of a committee turn it into a circus or a witch hunt with the wildest of accusations. We see a member of the legal profession, who is in the opposition and held a high office in terms of being a former attorney general in a province of this country, stand up and make wild accusations based on third hand hearsay.

The member for Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough, who was a former prosecutor, knows the value of evidence that is adduced and challenged. He comes to a fact finding through a discipline process and bases wild accusations on what someone said to someone sometime in the past that has no way of being properly put forward or challenged, or a fact determined on it.

I would suggest that at this stage an interim report from the public accounts committee is entirely appropriate. The parliamentary research staff have put together a summary of the evidence heard and the proceedings to date. That is very good and should be brought into an interim report.

For all of the talk from the opposition that this is the closing down of the committee, I respectfully suggest that these members ask the research staff from the House of Commons to look up the word “interim” and to explain clearly to them that interim means a summary to date and not a concluding report.

Let us briefly look at what has been done in addition to these four processes. The public accounts committee has a special skill, knowledge and experience to bring to bear. That has been done and lots has been accomplished. Let us see a summary of it.

We have criminal investigations that are going forward. They are narrowing the field, not widening the field. We are getting a very focused idea of what really happened here.

The public judicial inquiry under Justice Gomery will be very incisive and disciplined. We will actually have some legitimate, reliable, and tested findings of fact through that process and the special counsel. We should expect, and I can say that I have spoken to Mr. Gauthier within the last few weeks, that yes, it is being narrowed much more in a targeted way.

We will see some action from that special counsel very soon to recover funds from corporations or other individuals who may have misappropriated funds. Those funds will be recovered for the benefit of the public.

We must finally look at the legislation. We now have an independent ethics commissioner. That has gone through Parliament and received royal assent. We have appointed a very distinguished commissioner.

We have whistleblower legislation before Parliament. It is going forward. It will be improved no doubt in committee. In the meantime, we have the Prime Minister saying to everyone to come forward with any evidence, whether they are in cabinet, the public service or wherever they are and they will suffer no consequences for coming forward with evidence.

We have a review by the President of the Treasury Board of the Financial Administration Act to see how people in post-employment, either political or bureaucratic, can be followed, perhaps if they have done wrongdoing and misappropriated money. They can be followed and held to account.

We have something that is quite breathtaking. That is the political financing legislation that came into effect on January 1. We have the suggestions by members of the public and members of the House, genuinely stated I am sure, that there is cynicism and suspicion in the public that financing for political parties and activities may be for direct return.

To conclude, the largest corporation in Canada nationwide can give $1,000 a year to political activity. This is breathtaking, particularly when we see the hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars being spent south of the border on the presidential election.

We have an unprecedented series of processes, legislation and reviews that are getting to the bottom of this, narrowing it, and people are being held to account.

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11:10 a.m.

Canadian Alliance

Ted White Canadian Alliance North Vancouver, BC

Mr. Speaker, the minister says he invites people to come forward with evidence of wrongdoing. I think the government is living to regret having repeated that so often because there are people coming forward with more and more evidence of wrongdoing.

In my own case, for example, I received an e-mail from a person in Ontario just last week telling me about problems with the tax credits and grants used for the film and television industry, particularly associated with Telefilm Canada. There is some suggestion that there are two sets of books being used, and that grants are being funnelled to Liberal friendly firms for work that is not done and productions that are never produced. I have the suspicious feeling, because that information has been sent to the Auditor General, that we are soon going to learn that there are big problems there.

Then we have departments like the SSHRC and NSERC. The Auditor General has already found problems in those departments. I wrote to the Auditor General recently about SSHRC and she confirmed that she has seen projects at that agency that look an awful lot like vacations rather than deliberate studies or useful studies for Canada.

Then we have the $1 billion HRDC boondoggle. There were hundreds of millions of dollars wasted on the gun registry. There were up to $7 billion a year poured into the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development without producing even an incremental improvement.

The fact is that there is a waste of taxpayers' money and it is systematic from the government. It is sad indeed to see the minister, a person who had an ethics job in British Columbia, standing as an apologist for the actions of the government. I wonder how he can look himself in the mirror in the morning knowing what is going on there, knowing about the abuse of taxpayers' money.

I would like to ask him that. How can he look himself in the mirror every morning knowing that he has been dragged into this whirlpool of Liberal mismanagement of taxpayers' money?

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11:15 a.m.

Liberal

Stephen Owen Liberal Vancouver Quadra, BC

Mr. Speaker, that was quite extraordinary coming from the member for North Vancouver. I would like to respond to a couple of points he made.

As I described in my comments, these processes and holding people to account is narrowing, starting with the $250 million. The overwhelming amount of that money went toward funding valuable and treasured community cultural, sporting and other events. We know there were problems with the commissions that were paid. The program has ended. We are focusing on and narrowing down where the fault may be.

That member made a wild statement about the mismanagement of public funds and yet every single reputable international institution which looks into economic issues has described Canada as being the best fiscally managed country in the world. I am talking about the WTO, the IMF and the OECD. I am also talking about distinguished international business journals such as the Wall Street Journal and The Economist . They all describe Canada as being the best fiscally managed country in the world.

A report came out just last week from IMD, the Institute for Management Development in Switzerland, that identified Canada as being the third most competitive economy in the world only surpassed by the United States. We know how competitive the States has become with a $500 billion deficit and 44 million people without health insurance. The only other country is Singapore which is about the size of the constituency of the hon. member for North Vancouver and is not particularly a democratic government. Canada stands at the forefront of the fiscal management of a democracy in the world.

Let us put that into context. We are talking about a lot of money and that is why we are taking it so seriously. That is also why the Prime Minister has said that we would get to the bottom of it, and we are. Heads of crown corporations have been fired. Processes are being followed.

Those members have said that when the Prime Minister was finance minister he should have been aware of this. Canada has a budget of $180 billion. The finance minister is responsible for setting taxes, arranging the budget, and overseeing very generally the finances of the country. The fiscal management of this country is supreme and largely because of the efforts of the current Prime Minister.

However, $180 billion a year is $500 million a day. Anybody who knows anything about the workings and administration of government knows that the finance minister does not have the responsibility nor is it his role to oversee the expenditure of that $500 million a day, let alone a program that was spending $40 million a year with proper controls that were being circumvented and which we are getting to the bottom of.

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11:15 a.m.

Canadian Alliance

Charlie Penson Canadian Alliance Peace River, AB

Mr. Speaker, I simply cannot believe the minister talking about good management. This Prime Minister when he was finance minister tried to lecture some of our business communities on corporate governance. The Auditor General said this was one of the worst examples she had ever seen. I cannot understand where he is going.

The minister raised the question of competitiveness and told us that Canada is number two, right behind the United States, in its competitive position. That was true 25 years ago but is no longer true after 25 years of Liberal government.

Canada is in 13th place in terms of competitiveness. He needs to check the OECD figures. It is absolutely not true for him to say that Canada is third. I suggest to him that Canada is about 70% as competitive as our major trading partner, the United States, and largely because of mismanagement and misdirected policies of his own government.

How can the minister stand here today and give us this kind of story that simply is not true? I ask him to check the OECD figures and set the record straight.

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11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Stephen Owen Liberal Vancouver Quadra, BC

Mr. Speaker, I do not need to check the report of the International Management Development Institute. It is the most recognized judge of competitiveness in its annual report, globally.

However, let me just reflect for a moment on the management of an economy. In 1993 this government inherited a $42 billion deficit. I invite the hon. member to do some arithmetic around what $42 billion a year is on a daily basis. I suggest that $42 billion a year was about $115 million a day bleeding out of the country on an annual basis by the former Conservative government. The Liberal government had to clean up, mainly through the leadership of the current Prime Minister when he was finance minister. It is extraordinary that the member could suggest in any way the government and the Prime Minister are anything but extraordinary fiscal managers of this economy.

Mistakes happen. We are not running away from them. We will leave no stone unturned, as the Prime Minister has said. This is an unprecedented series of processes, inquiries and actions to get to the bottom of this. However, let us keep it in scale and in context.

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11:20 a.m.

Canadian Alliance

Ken Epp Canadian Alliance Elk Island, AB

Mr. Speaker, I think the minister has missed the point. The point is that there was mismanagement and political involvement. Not only did we have a minister who was in the position that minister now holds not taking action on these abuses, it seems as if he must have also been the one who was directing those abuses. If not, the fact that he was shuffled out of cabinet, out of Parliament and out of the country and sent to Denmark is a very bizarre action.

Why would that happen, if the prime minister of the day was unaware that he was vulnerable to attack because there was something wrong going on? The fact that we have been unable to find out what this connection is, because all the people involved in it are somehow sticking together and not ratting on anyone, is despicable.

It is time that Canadians have an honest and trustworthy government, and this government is not. It is shutting down the inquiry. I would like the minister to simply stand up and say “Sorry, Canadians. We blew it”. That is the correct response.

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11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Stephen Owen Liberal Vancouver Quadra, BC

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the hon. member's request for sentiment, but the most sincere sentiment is action. That is why the former Ambassador to Denmark is the former Ambassador to Denmark. He was recalled from his duties. He came before the public accounts committee.

If the hon. member thinks the continuation of that committee at this stage, to the exclusion of all else, will get any further, why did the members not get the answers from him when he was before them? They have been useful in getting contradictory evidence from the head of CCSB in terms of how involved that minister was at the time. Therefore, we know there is clear evidence of political activity. That is why we are going ahead. We are finding answers, and that is all to the good.

I am certainly sorry about the fact that things go awry, but I am extremely satisfied to see that we are getting to the bottom of it and people are being held to account.

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11:20 a.m.

Bloc

Michel Guimond Bloc Beauport—Montmorency—Côte-De- Beaupré—Île-D'Orléans, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak on behalf of the Bloc Quebecois today on this motion presented by our colleagues in the Conservative Party of Canada. I believe it would be worthwhile to read it:

That, in the interest of transparency, the government should ensure that the work that has been done by the Standing Committee on Public Accounts into the sponsorship scandal be continued after the Prime Minister calls a general election and until the Standing Committee on Public Accounts is reconstituted in a new parliament by establishing a commission under the Inquiries Act.

The members of the Bloc Quebecois find this a worthwhile idea, but the wording will force us to vote against it. I wish to make it clear right from the start, however, that it is not out of any desire to denigrate the approach taken by that party. What the Conservative Party wants to do with this motion, in my opinion, is to allow the public to know the truth, once and for all, on the political direction involved in the sponsorship scandal.

We, the members of the Bloc Quebecois, are often seen—and this is not my opinion, but that of numerous journalists and political analysts—as belonging to a party of intellectual rigour. With respect, I would point out to my colleagues in the Conservative Party that it would have been a good thing to have worded the motion differently, and then we could have supported it.

Since the motion ends with “by establishing a commission under the Inquiries Act”, it is our impression that this is a duplication of the next step, that is the public inquiry for the Gomery Commission.

Incidentally, I would like to express our consideration for Justice Gomery. He is a well-known and respected jurist, a member of the Quebec Superior Court and has the reputation of always bringing down well-documented, thorough judgments not open to challenge by higher courts. The Bloc Quebecois has never questioned Justice Gomery's independence; we have far too much respect for the judiciary process. Moreover, the chief counsel for the commission is none other than Bernard Roy, who was chief of staff to former Prime Minister Mulroney, and is above all else a well-known and respected jurist.

The purpose of the Gomery commission—we hope, and we make the distinction between it and the criminal charges—is to find out the truth. On this point, we agree with the Conservative Party.

Having sat on the Standing Committee on Public Accounts several times myself—and I would like to congratulate my colleague from Lotbinière—L'Érable on all the work he has done—I want to point out that this week the opposition members are concluding the work of this committee with great frustration.

In fact, the current Prime Minister had promised to shed all possible light on the sponsorship scandal, since February 2004. I quote his exact words at the time, “We will find those responsible.”

I am sorry, but most of the witnesses heard were only the operatives under political direction. Here is another quotation from the Prime Minister who said, on February 12, 2004:

There had to be political direction.

I have a question for all the members of this House, and all the people watching us from the galleries or on television. I could walk out onto Wellington Street or Sparks Street and ask people whether, after 40 witnesses have been heard by the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, we really know anything about the extent of political direction. Does anyone know exactly what happened regarding taking orders from the political level?

We have heard Charles Guité. In his opening statement on April 22, he answered this very precise question:

Did the PMO and ministers provide input and decisions with respect to specific events that were sponsored and the allocation to specific firms.?

Charles Guité's answer was, “Absolutely”.

In his opening remarks, on April 22, Charles Guité confirmed that there was political direction. According to the organization chart of Public Works at the time, Charles Guité was a director. The same Charles Guité told us that the hon. member for Sudbury, who had been appointed as the minister, was not getting it, she did not understand how the game was played.

Charles Guité phoned Jean Pelletier, who, incidentally, was the chief of staff of Prime Minister Chrétien. He did not call and tell a page that the minister did not understand how things worked. My intention is not to denigrate the intelligence of pages. I am convinced they would have done a better job than she did as a minister, but that is another story.

Charles Guité phoned the chief of staff of the Prime Minister and told him that the minister was not getting it, that she did not understand the game. Pelletier said, “Come and see me, Chuck”. So he did. Guité reported that Pelletier had told him that, from now on, where sponsorship files were concerned, he should not go through the assistant deputy minister—his immediate supervisor—the deputy minister or the minister, but rather come to him, the chief of staff of Prime Minister Chrétien, directly. Is that not political direction?

I dare anyone to come and tell us that everyone is sure that there was no political direction in the sponsorship scandal. Even the current Prime Minister said there was. It is impossible to believe that there was no political direction in the sponsorship scandal.

The proceedings of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts are ending, yet we know nothing. In a public statement, the Prime Minister tried to make us believe, and to make the public believe that he was not aware of any wrongdoing in the sponsorship program. The Bloc Quebecois did ask 441 questions on this very subject between May 2000 and December 2003. That is not counting the questions asked in 2004.

What was the Prime Minister doing when he was finance minister? Did he not listen to the questions? Did he turn his earpiece off?

Is it plausible, possible or credible that, when he was the Minister of Finance, from 1993 to 2002, the Prime Minister pumped $34 million annually into the Canadian unity fund, which was used to fund the sponsorship scandal? It is thanks to this same fund that Chuck Guité was able, at the beginning of the 1995 referendum campaign, to spend $8 million on Mediacom billboards all over Quebec. Absolutely all the Mediacom billboards displayed pre-referendum advertising for the No camp. We are talking about $8 million. It is Chuck Guité who, with a single telephone call, bought $8 million worth of these billboards.

Are we to believe that he made this decision alone? Are we to believe that, while shaving at home some morning, he told himself that, since the referendum would soon be held and the sovereignists were going to win it, he would spend $8 million on billboards when he got to work? Come on, no one believes that. We are not stupid. No one believes that there was no political direction.

However, the Liberal majority on the Standing Committee on Public Accounts put a lid on this affair and the hearings are now over, just as we were getting closer to finding out about the political direction. This is why the Bloc Quebecois tabled a motion before the Standing Committee on Public Accounts to hear not 82 witnesses, but 4. We restricted our list to 4 witnesses and, this week and next week—since the election has yet to be called—we could have heard Jean Carle, who played an important role in Prime Minister Chrétien's entourage; Warren Kinsella, who was David Dingwall's chief of staff when the latter was the Minister of Public Works; Jean Chrétien himself; and the current Prime Minister and member for LaSalle—Émard.

Instead, the Liberal majority on the committee decided to put an end to the committee's work. This is why we are realizing today that we do not know any more than we did about what happened.

Some questions remain unanswered. Quebeckers make requests to Bloc Quebecois members. We are here to protect the interests of Quebec. When we visit our ridings on weekends, we meet people at the shopping mall, the grocery store, the cobbler, everywhere. These people tell us to keep doing our job, which is to ask questions and be watchdogs.

Quebeckers want to know who created the sponsorship program. They want to know who refused to correct the situation despite two disturbing reports on the administration of sponsorship activities. They want to know who allowed Chuck Guité to break all the rules starting with the referendum through to his retirement in 1999. They want to know which activities were funded by the national unity fund. They want to know when the Prime Minister first knew there was a problem with the sponsorship program.

The Prime Minister tried to use what we call wilful blindness. He shut his eyes and ears, as did most of the witnesses—just as an aside—who appeared before the Standing Committee on Public Accounts. The predominant theme at the Standing Committee on Public Accounts was, “I do not remember; I was not there; I do not know; ask someone else; I was not there yet; I was in the washroom when that was decided; things became unclear when we obtained information”. It is unbelievable. No one buys this.

I can tell the Liberals that we meet people on the street who say that they may not have voted for the Bloc Quebecois in the last election, but this time they cannot bring themselves to vote for thieves.

People have principles. Quebeckers know what it means to have intellectual honesty. I know, Mr. Speaker, you did not appreciate me using the word thieves, but money—

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11:35 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

No, of course I did not care for the term “thieves“. However, the hon. member for Beauce wishes to raise a point of order.

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11:35 a.m.

Liberal

Claude Drouin Liberal Beauce, QC

Mr. Speaker, I think the hon. member may have said more than he intended to. If not, he ought to withdraw his remarks. If he has proof, let him produce it, instead of coming up with gratuitous accusations. Let him provide proof. People must not make unfounded accusations.

I believe you need to enforce the rules.

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11:40 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

Order. I wish to have the hon. member's attention.

I have been provided with an opinion which confirms my initial reaction that neither individuals nor parties may be described as thieves. Given the context in which the hon. member used that term, I believe he should withdraw his words so that we may move on.

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11:40 a.m.

Bloc

Michel Guimond Bloc Beauport—Montmorency—Côte-De- Beaupré—Île-D'Orléans, QC

Mr. Speaker, I withdraw the term “thieves”, but I must point out that I continue to think it. You cannot police my thoughts.

Jean Lapierre, Mr. Clean himself, the new ally of the Liberal Party of Canada for Quebec, was quoted in the March 4, 2004 Journal de Montréal as saying that tainted money would not be used in the coming election campaign. If tainted money is not stolen money, then how else did it get tainted? What did Jean Lapierre mean by this?

I am pleased that the member for Beauce raised a point of order. He himself gets a mention in the Auditor General's report for a $5,000 banner given to a Cegep, on which he insisted his name be shown. His name is not mentioned, I will admit, but everyone knows the MP involved is the member for Beauce. Anyway, though it is not my intention to debate about the member for Beauce, I am sure that, if the Conservative candidate in that riding, Gilles Bernier, comes back he will have plenty to deal with. I am also sure, however, that the excellent Bloc Quebecois candidate in Beauce will be the one elected.

What Quebeckers want to know is where the money went. The Auditor General—she, not me—revealed that $100 million ended up in the pockets of firms with close ties to the Liberal Party of Canada. That is $100 million. Where did that money go? Did the six firms involved divide the $100 million among themselves? No. There is another theory: trusts have been used to fund the 2000 election and will be used to fund the 2004 election for the Liberal Party of Canada.

Quebeckers also want to know why the current Prime Minister did not act, when national policy chair Maharaj—hardly a sovereignist—wrote him in February of 2002, informing him of rumours about funds paid to advertising agencies having been used to fund the Liberal party.

In addition, Quebeckers want to know why the current Prime Minister, who was vice-chair of the Treasury Board as well as finance minister—which means that he was the one signing the cheques and pumping out the money—did not sense there were problems, in the light of certain media reports, the Bloc's 441 questions and various internal investigations? Why did he not act?

To conclude, I want to point out that we in the Bloc Quebecois will definitely not be able to support the motion of the Conservative Party as it stands. I must add, however, that we agree with the assessment of the Conservative members of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, which is that we are putting an end to the process before having shed light on what really happened in the sponsorship scandal, particularly with regard to the political direction of the sponsorship program.

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11:45 a.m.

Liberal

Claude Drouin Liberal Beauce, QC

Mr. Speaker, it is rare to hear things like this in the House. It is lucky that the member for Beauport—Montmorency—Côte-de-Beaupré—Île-d'Orléans is well insured, because uttering such imbecilities could be very bad for his health.

The Bloc is desperate. It has asked four—

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11:45 a.m.

Bloc

Michel Guimond Bloc Beauport—Montmorency—Côte-De- Beaupré—Île-D'Orléans, QC

Mr. Speaker, on a point of order. I am sure you will need to turn to our knowledgeable clerks once again and ask if the word “imbecilities” is permitted in this House.

According to the dictionary, “imbecilities” are the words spoken by imbeciles. Can the member for Beauce call me an imbecile? I would just like to know, Mr. Speaker, because if the decision you make suits me, I will use it mightily in the future.

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11:45 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

Order, please. I believe the words “imbecile” and “imbecility” are not listed as unparliamentary language in the Standing Orders. Nevertheless, I would ask you to be generous with each other and cooperate a little in order to maintain some decorum in the House. Just be careful of the words you are using.

The hon. member for Beauce may finish his question or comment.

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11:45 a.m.

Liberal

Claude Drouin Liberal Beauce, QC

Mr. Speaker, although you are not asking me to, I withdraw my words, but that does not stop me from thinking them.

The Bloc is a little desperate and does not want to see what the government has done to shed light on the major problem in the sponsorship program.

He mentioned that their biggest accomplishment was to ask 441 questions on this matter. For the salaries we are paid here, I must say those were expensive questions, especially considering the results.

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11:45 a.m.

An hon. member

But some people give any old answer.