Mr. Speaker, I briefly want to add my tributes to the tributes we had after question period today to the right hon. member who has served a distinguished time in this Parliament and who dedicated a greater part of his career to Canadians. I think his family should be proud of him. His words were very well spoken. As a tribute to him, a lot of members stayed in the House to listen to his final words of wisdom as they go forward into their future roles in the House.
I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate today. I will begin by providing some background information on the sponsorship program. I will review some of the events that led up to the program's cancellation and I will discuss the measures taken by the government since the tabling of the Auditor General's report.
The sponsorship program was originally created in 1997. In 2000 it was subjected to an internal audit directed by the then deputy minister, Mr. Ranald Quail. Since then the sponsorship program has been a focus of extensive concern and criticism, both from within the government and outside, especially for the period between 1997 and 2000.
The 2000 internal audit found deficiencies in documentation, contracting, internal controls and management practices. An action plan was implemented and corrective measures were put in place, such as new guidelines, better documentation of files and post-mortem reports, to name a few. Both the audit and the action plan were made public on the Internet.
In March 2002, the Auditor General of Canada, Ms. Sheila Fraser, was asked by the then minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada to audit three contracts awarded between 1996 and 1999 to Groupaction. In May 2002, Ms. Fraser released her audit on the three contracts and referred the government's handling of these contracts to the RCMP for further investigation.
When the former minister was appointed on May 26, 2002, his first act was to impose an immediate moratorium on future sponsorship initiatives until he was satisfied that the program criteria was sound.
On July 3, 2002, the former minister lifted the moratorium on the sponsorship program for the balance of the fiscal year. It was also confirmed that the interim program would proceed without the use of external communications agencies to deliver it.
While the program was being reassessed, a detailed review of past sponsorship files was undertaken. Under the senior authority of the financial officer of Public Works and Government Services Canada, a quick response team was assembled comprising financial and procurement specialists within Public Works and Government Services Canada and auditors from Consulting and Audit Canada.
Between May and July 2002, a case by case review of 721 sponsorship files was carried out to determine their completeness and to report on any areas of concern. These files were from several agencies with which Public Works and Government Services Canada had sponsorship contracts.
The quick response team conducted a detailed review of 126 files which were deemed to be of primary interest because they were: of a high dollar value, that is over $500,000; had received media coverage; and had known deficiencies, such as absence of post-mortem reports.
The QRT file review yielded a great deal of useful information and recommendations, which the QRT presented in their final project report tabled in the House of Commons on October 10, 2002.
Members will note that this file review of the quick response team is in addition to the government-wide audit of advertising, sponsorship and public opinion research that was launched by the Auditor General. Our officials cooperated fully with the work of the Auditor General.
Throughout the review of the 721 files by the quick response team, when irregularities were discovered they were pursued. If there was evidence of wrongdoing, the authorities were called in.
The final review report of the quick response team included five recommendations, which have been acted upon. The first recommendation was that the files requiring the attention of Justice Canada and/or the RCMP be recommended for referral.
In addition to the three referrals made by the Auditor General, a number of additional cases are currently under investigation by the RCMP.
As the House knows, the RCMP has laid charges as a result of its ongoing investigations.
It should be noted that it is the RCMP that determines which files warrant investigation. I can assure hon. members that members of the RCMP are following the facts wherever they may lead.
The second recommendation was that time verification audits be carried out. Consulting and Audit Canada has pursued time verification audits at several communications agencies which previously did work under the sponsorship program. Through the time verification audits, the government exercised its right to examine these agencies' detailed records. Unfortunately, the records maintained by these contractors were not adequate to support proper investigations of this nature, and most of the audits have been closed or terminated.
The third recommendation was that the government initiate the recovery of funds where warranted. The government has written to five private sector firms requesting they provide evidence that the goods and/or services paid for by the government were delivered, and that no overpayments were made.
To safeguard taxpayer dollars, the sum of $3.65 million is being withheld to be used if necessary to offset the amounts which were previously paid out but for which appropriate deliverables to the government cannot be ascertained.
The fourth recommendation in the final report by the quick response team stipulated that potential breaches of the Financial Administration Act, and Treasury Board and Public Works and Government Services Canada departmental policies be investigated.
During testimony before the public accounts committee in June 2002, the former deputy minister committed to undertake an administrative review. Two reports were prepared by an independent forensic audit firm. They identified potential issues of non-compliance with the Financial Administration Act, government contracting policies and regulations, and delegated contracting authorities.
A departmental review committee then conducted employee interviews. None of the individuals involved in this review are currently Public Works and Government Services Canada employees. Recommendations were referred to the relevant departments and agencies that have taken appropriate disciplinary action.
The fifth recommendation called for the issue of subcontracting to be reviewed and recommended for referral to Justice Canada to determine if recovery action was appropriate. A number of subcontracting situations are being examined and we are pursuing these with Justice Canada officials.
In December 2002, the government announced that a redesigned sponsorship program would be put in place for a trial period of one year ending on March 31, 2004. The new program was to be limited to not for profit sporting, cultural and community events with the goal of achieving an equitable distribution of sponsorship funds in all provinces and territories. Communication Canada was responsible for managing the program, without the use of intermediaries.
Of course, all this has now changed. The Prime Minister's decision to cancel the sponsorship program reflects the government's belief that the program was fundamentally flawed. The Prime Minister also announced the disbandment of Communication Canada as of March 31, 2004.
Further, on February 10, 2004, in response to the Auditor General's report, the government announced a comprehensive set of measures to ensure that we get to the bottom of the matter. These measures include: the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry, which is fully mandated under the Inquiries Act; the appointment of a special counsel for financial recovery; the introduction of whistleblower legislation; measures to strengthen audit committees for crown corporations and the possible extension of access to information to crown corporations; the initiation of a review on changes to the governance of crown corporations, on changes to the Financial Administration Act and on the accountabilities of ministers and public servants; and the early start up of the public accounts committee.
The public accounts committee has been working hard for the last three months. Members from all sides should be applauded for this work. The government has cooperated fully with the work of the committee, including the unprecedented release of all cabinet documents.
If after three months of testimony from numerous witnesses, the committee decides to prepare an interim report, it would seem reasonable to me.
The government already has independent mechanisms in place for getting to the bottom of this. These mechanisms are working and will continue to provide Canadians with the answers they deserve.
The government recognizes the mistakes of the past and has taken measures to ensure that all aspects of the sponsorship program are thoroughly ventilated.
I now want to give my personal views on a couple of items. The member who spoke before me raised the issue of the democratic deficit and suggested there was none. I thoroughly agree with the member.
When I first arrived in Parliament I was very busy trying to keep up with my constituents' demands, but in the House there was all this conversation from the other side of the House related to the democratic deficit and the problems in Parliament.
Members have probably noticed that since the new Prime Minister has come in we have heard very little of this because there have been master changes in the House. Appointments are being reviewed, committees have more freedom and we have more free votes in the House, which the new Prime Minister promised. This was a new vision that he put forward and he has followed it. People have seen it.
Members just have to read Hansard to see the dramatic changes in the House in this respect. In fact, it is almost curious that if we look at Parliament now, the decisions on the country are largely being determined by the government party because the government party is voting freely on everything except the budget and confidence motions. The government is quite often voting on different sides of an issue, depending on members' beliefs and what their constituents direct. If we check the record, we see that opposition parties are more often all voting together. I think that is why this has been such an exciting change for me.
I have certainly taken the opportunity to vote against government initiatives. I want to tell a personal story about the Prime Minister. The first time I voted against the government was on a major initiative under this new government. I was mildly worried because it happened to be a project which I think was dear to the Prime Minister. We were in a private meeting, the time to air one's laundry but also the time when one would expect to be chastised for such an action. The Prime Minister spoke to us in private; he was not trying to convince the public or put on a show. He said to the people who had voted against the motion that it was fine, it was great, that was how the system was supposed to work. I say that for Canadians who are worried about the sincerity of his efforts to improve the democratic deficit.
Of course, people from different parties will say that more needs to be done in different areas and they will pick out specific situations, but I do not think there is anyone in the House who can deny that there has been major progress in some areas. I certainly pay tribute to the Prime Minister for taking that on and moving that file forward in the areas that he has.
I want to talk a bit about controls on government programs, when they go wrong and how we fix them. As everyone knows, there is a huge bureaucracy, hundreds of thousands of employees, and there are 301 of us here to try to make sense of and keep up with the programs. It is a very daunting task.
When I worked in one of the departments over the last decade there were a lot of central controls. The President of the Treasury Board brought up this very important point a few months ago. We have put some of them back in response to the problem with the sponsorship program.
There were a lot of central controls and things were very bureaucratic. If a department, including the one I worked in, wanted to do something, it would go through excessive mechanisms to get something done. Sometimes that is not very efficient. In theory, of course, there are economies of scale and controls on things, but one could see how it would aggravate people. Of course, the person on the street is aggravated to no end by delays because of the mechanisms.
At that time there was a modernization which put some authority back in the hands of the departments themselves so that they could make decisions from where they stood on local things relating to their department. Obviously too many controls were taken off in some areas and that opened up the situation we have now.
Everyone in the House has heard for a long time that the controls will be put back in place so that cannot happen again. It is a lot harder for individual fiefdoms to happen, but of course problems will always occur. When there is a huge operation of hundreds of thousands of employees and hundreds of politicians and their staff, there are going to be problems, but there are measures of success. What people are looking for is how those problems are dealt with. As we know, there is a huge list of items, some of which I mentioned, that we have put in place to deal with that problem. I think Canadians are happy with the efforts to put new mechanisms in place.
The last thing I want to say is we have to be careful when we deal with problems that we do not go overboard putting in many controls. The reason I raise this is related to another program that had a problem. A number of constituents and organizations have come to me because there is so much bureaucracy and so many controls that the clients who have limited financial resources who really need the service and access to those resources are being hurt. I want to caution everyone that as we come up with solutions for things like this that we do not go overboard so that we cannot do the business and we end up hurting the clients that we are meant to help.