Madam Speaker, I am thankful for the opportunity to speak to this bill and for the resounding thunderous applause and enthusiasm with which this bill has been greeted.
This is a bill of great significance to our economy because the financial services in this country are extremely important to the functioning of our entire economy. For instance, in my area, which is the greater Toronto area, it is estimated that financial services account for something in the order of 21% or 22% of the GDP. That is a pretty significant industry when one thinks of all of the people in the GTA.
The proposed legislation fulfills a commitment made in budget 2005 to bring governance standards for financial institutions up to the levels adopted in 2001 for other federally regulated corporations. As well, this bill proposes to update certain provisions and governance standards that are unique to financial institutions. In 2001 we brought up the corporate standards. This bill in some measure follows on that initiative in 2001 and makes certain changes that are unique to financial institutions.
The financial services sector is one of the key foundations of a modern industrial economy. It is an important part of Canada's economic infrastructure and plays an essential role in ensuring stability, safeguarding wealth and fuelling growth and productivity. In this regard, the Government of Canada can ensure a modern and efficient regulatory framework needed to support a successful financial services sector. That is what Bill C-57 is all about, providing an updated and modernized governance framework that will help Canada's financial sector succeed and better serve Canadians.
A well functioning and innovative financial services sector is essential for the Canadian economy to achieve its full potential. Healthy financial markets represent a critical element of a positive and competitive business environment and are fundamental to achieving key economic policy objectives. A successful financial services sector is also critical to the interest of all Canadians.
As I said earlier, Canada's federally regulated financial institutions play a pivotal role in the national economy. Not only that, but they play a significant role in the lives of Canadians. That is why, notwithstanding the fact that some of this bill is quite technical in nature, all Canadians should in fact be interested in the progress of this bill through the House.
Indeed, financial institutions employ about 600,000 Canadians and account for something in the order of about 6% of Canada's GDP. Of course, they are also leaders in the use of information technology.
Because of the sector's importance, the policy framework must ensure that financial institutions have the tools they need to adapt to a changing marketplace. One of the tools that is essential to the effectiveness, safety and soundness of the financial system is good corporate governance practices.
Governance rules underpin the effective functioning of these institutions by setting up rules relating to the rights of shareholders, policy holders and members, the role of directors, auditors and other advisers, and rules relating to the preparation, review and disclosure of information. In this bill all of those elements are touched on in one way or another. Some changes are made. Some changes are parallel to what happens in other corporations that are federally regulated.
Effective governance benefits all stakeholders, including the financial institutions themselves and their shareholders. The regulator, in turn, relies on sound practices as part of its regulation and supervision of the financial system. For these reasons, the governance rules of financial institutions need to be updated on a regular basis. This is where Bill C-57 comes in.
To set the stage for changes proposed in this bill, as hon. members may know, federal financial statutes such as the Bank Act, the Insurance Companies Act, the Trust and Loan Companies Act, the Cooperative Credit Associations Act and related legislation set out the governance rules for federally incorporated financial institutions.
The governance framework set out in the financial institutions statutes uses the Canada Business Corporations Act, otherwise known as CBCA, as a reference point. As I said earlier, take the CBCA and therein is our basic governing structure for all federally regulated corporations. Then from there go to financial institutions and we will see some changes which are unique to financial institutions. There, in and of itself, is a key to reading the bill.
Changes made to this act are normally implemented in the statutes as appropriate for financial institutions. Members may recall that in 2001 the government undertook a comprehensive reform and modernization of the CBCA, as well as the Canada Cooperatives Act in Bill S-11, which received royal assent in June 2001.
Bill C-57 would provide financial institutions with the same modern governance tools by updating their governance framework generally along the lines of the changes made in the CBCA in 2001 and would update certain governance standards that would be unique to financial institutions.
The measures in the proposed new legislation fall into five broad categories that I mentioned earlier, adapted to each particular type of financial institution. These categories are: clarifying the roles of directors; enhancing the rights of shareholders; modernizing governance practices; strengthening the governance elements of the regulatory framework; and increasing disclosure in respect of participating and adjustable life insurance policies, otherwise known as par policies.
Let me take a moment to explain how the proposals in this bill will affect each of these categories.
First is with respect to clarifying the role of directors. An effective board of directors is key and critical to protecting the best interests of a financial institution. The financial institutions statutes recognize the importance of the board by setting out the standards, qualifications and duties expected of directors of those institutions, and it is quite extensive.
The new legislation contained in Bill C-57 also would clarify the role of directors in carrying out these important functions, for example, by explicitly allowing a due diligence defence. A due diligence defence in simple parlance is a director saying, “ I did everything possible within the bounds of reasonableness to understand what was happening in that institution. Therefore, when things went bad on this institution, I was still fulfilling my role as director and, therefore, should not be liable”. In simple terms that is a due diligence defence.
The way things stand currently, directors are liable in court if they do not fulfill their duties as prescribed in the financial institutions legislation. Imposing liability is a fair way of helping assure that directors comply with their responsibilities. It also is, and this is the point, fair to give directors an opportunity to demonstrate that they have exercised good judgment in fulfilling their responsibilities by doing such things as setting up appropriate policies and procedures.
Under the proposals contained in this bill, directors of financial institutions would have the same rights as directors of other corporations, namely, they can rely on what is known as a due diligence defence if, and this is a big if, they can demonstrate that they have fulfilled their responsibilities by exercising “care, due diligence and skill that a reasonably prudent person would have exercised in comparable circumstances”. That quote is from the CBCA legislation. This due diligence defence has now been incorporated into financial institutions legislation. This legislative standard would allow directors of financial services providers to show the proactive steps that they have taken in the exercise of their duties
The next point to be emphasized is the enhancement of the rights of shareholders.
The ability of shareholders to discuss and monitor corporate performance is an important element of good governance. The financial institutions statutes set out the rights of shareholders to participate in major decisions of a financial institution in which they have an interest. For shareholders to exercise these rights, they must have access to corporate information because, as they say, information is power and if one does not have the information, it is very difficult to exercise the power that would normally accrue to oneself as a part owner of the corporation.
Bill C-57 would enhance the ability of shareholders to exercise their rights by, for example, allowing shareholders greater freedom to communicate without triggering the proxy rules. Normally shareholders who wish to communicate about issues to be considered at the annual general meeting must circulate a formal document to every shareholder of the bank. This is intended to ensure that all shareholders receive timely and accurate information, but it is also an impediment to information communications among shareholders. Imagine if a person was a shareholder in bank X and was concerned about whatever was happening in bank X, that person would be loath to trigger a proxy fight by virtue of simply communicating his or her concern to other shareholders.
Bill C-57 would create greater freedom for shareholders to communicate without triggering a requirement to send out information to all the shareholders. As we know, in Canada, bank stocks are widely held. To communicate to all shareholders would indeed be a very expensive proposition even for a shareholder who was wealthy. For example, they would be able to make public announcements and issue press releases and would be able to communicate with small groups of shareholders without, as I say, triggering the proxy rules.
The third element of the bill concerns the modernizing governance practices. Given the importance of good governance to the well-being of a financial institution, the governance framework needs to be kept up to date with the best practices in this area. The new legislation in the bill would create a new going private transaction regime and would enable insider reporting, proxy and prospectus rules to be harmonized with the rules applied by provincial regulatory authorities.
Bill C-57 also would facilitate electronic communication and the voluntary use of electronic documents. Facilitating a more efficient flow of information would reduce compliance costs for the institutions and promote more effective governance practices. The bill would make it possible for financial institutions that get written consent to communicate with their shareholders electronically. As we can imagine, with a lot of the banks and other financial institutions, there are literally thousands of shareholders. Anything which would allow a more efficient form of communication as opposed to sending everything in the mail would be good for not only the shareholders but for the institution itself and all the stakeholders in the institution as well.
The fourth element of the bill concerns the governance elements of the regulatory framework. Unlike ordinary business corporations, federal financial institutions are regulated by the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions which oversees the safety and soundness of federally regulated financial institutions. Bill C-57 proposes to strength a number of governance elements of the regulatory framework, including improving the flow of the information to the regulator.
The bill also would harmonize various governance standards within and across financial institutions and statutes. For example, the legislation would harmonize the authority of the minister to exempt and ensure a trust and loan company from its 35% public vote requirement with the same exception authority that applies to banks.
To clarify what that means, when an institution such as a co-op reaches a standard of $1 billion in equity, the normal requirement would be that the institution make 35% of that billion dollars in equity available to the public for purchase on an institution such as the Toronto Stock Exchange.
If we think about it, a co-op is owned by its members and it is uniquely inappropriate for the requirement of a co-op to float stock on an institution such as the Toronto Stock Exchange. The change proposed by the bill will allow a broader range of companies to apply to the minister for an exemption from the public float requirement. Currently they cannot even apply for the exemption.
A number of co-ops have come to me to express their support for the legislation. It was not contemplated when these institutions and this legislation was created, literally decades ago, that these kinds of institutions would achieve a $1 billion equity requirement. This catches up to the reality of the marketplace in the year 2005.
Finally, the policy governance framework in the Insurance Companies Act reflects the unique interests of the role of policyholders in corporate governance of insurance companies. The new legislation in Bill C-57 contains a limited number of proposed changes to the framework. These would work to increase disclosure in respect to participating and adjustable policies, otherwise known as par policies.
For example, the new legislation would require directors to establish corporate policies on participating accounts and changes to adjustable insurance policies. It would require actuaries to prepare fairness reports for the board's consideration. It also sets out requirements for communicating and making information available to policyholders, shareholders and the public. The details would be set out in the regulations which would be developed in consultation with the stakeholders.
A par policy at its simplest is a right on the part of the owner of the policy to participate in the governance of the institution. There were some difficulties with respect to some par policyholders getting sufficient and adequate information in order to make informed decisions with respect to their policies and with respect to their participation, such as it was, in the individual insurance company.
As well as committing to updating the financial institutions governance regime, budget 2005 also announced a review of the legislation concerning financial institutions. The Government of Canada's commitment to conducting regular reviews of the federal financial services regulatory framework has been key to promoting efficiency and competitiveness in the sector.
The sunset clauses in the Bank Act, the Insurance Companies Act, the Trust and Loan Companies Act and the Cooperative Credit Associations Act provide for an automatic five year review of the legislation. Therefore, legislation amending the financial institutions ought to be brought into force by October 2006. I hope it does not take all this period of time, but we have basically a year to get royal assent on this bill. I hope members opposite will be cooperative and recognize that this important to our sector.
This is a practice that sets Canada apart from virtually every country in the world, providing an important advantage to Canadian financial institutions relative to their foreign competitors. We are constantly refreshing the legislation that governs these banks.
During the upcoming months work will progress on the review of the federal financial services regulatory framework so that draft legislation will be ready to present to the House in early 2006 with a view to having it come into force by the deadline of October 2006.
The bottom line is that the intent of the bill is to provide Canada's financial institutions with the modern government tools they need. The initiatives proposed in Bill C-57 would provide them with the tools to do exactly that. I therefore urge all hon. members to give the bill their full support.