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.