Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-2, the so-called accountability act, a bill that was put together with a great deal of haste and one which has returned from the other place with a number of important amendments. I would like to speak to the spirit of this bill and the underlying motivations that seem to have resulted in legislation which, as we have discovered, is technically flawed in many respects and substantively flawed in its objectives.
I appreciate the work of the senators in the other place from both parties, in particular Senator Joe Day who has put forward reasonable amendments to make this legislation better. There were 30 days of hearings in the other place, 150 witnesses and a lot of very positive work.
When Bill C-2 was presented in this House it was done so under the political environment of a recent election and the concern that many Canadians had about ensuring that the taxpayers' money was protected from abuse. From the outset many of us were uncomfortable with the rapid and now we see irresponsible rush in which the President of the Treasury Board proceeded. Liberal members raised these concerns at committee.
In fact, the vast majority of amendments proposed by the Liberal members on the Bill C-2 committee last spring were defeated by the NDP-Conservative coalition. This was done for political and partisan reasons. It was clear then that public relations and scoring cheap political points were more important than bringing forward legislation that would in fact live up to its name.
After hearing more than 140 witnesses through many hours of hearings, the Senate committee under the leadership of Senator Day has placed before us amendments that we should seriously consider. Notwithstanding the constant flow of feigned outrage from the Treasury Board president, it would be totally irresponsible for the government and the House to ignore reasonable amendments that seek to strengthen the legislation thereby ensuring that it is in line with the charter and in the public interest.
In fact, it was the Treasury Board president who suggested in his own appearance before the Senate that the bill had been, to use his exact words, “examined with a microscope”. We now find out that this microscope was more like a periscope: long on rhetoric and narrow in focus.
David Hutton, coordinator of the Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform, described the drafting process that was employed to craft Bill C-2 as “deeply flawed”. He said that the bill “is complex and is full of loopholes when you dig into it. I feel that the committees have been given an impossible task, namely trying to turn this into effective legislation that meets intent”.
In addition to repairing numerous drafting errors which should have been caught before the bill was introduced, key amendments that came back include political financing. This is an area of particular importance to me, as it is to all members of the House of Commons. Not only am I a member of Parliament but, as many other members have done, I have run campaigns for other candidates and have worked a lot of elections. I was the president of the Nova Scotia Liberal Party sitting on the national executive and got involved in the financing of political parties.
It is important that we ensure that any new political donation regime does not unfairly restrict the participation of political parties in debate. I suggest the proposed change to $2,000 per year, the limit that came back from the other place, is an important change.
In 2003 Bill C-24 was introduced and passed by the Liberal government of former prime minister Jean Chrétien. It radically changed how elections are financed in Canada, notably reducing the amount of allowable donations to political parties. The current President of the Treasury Board acknowledged the usefulness of Bill C-24, which in fact contained a clause for its review, but there has been no review. There has just been introduction in this bill of more political reform, which I do not think makes a lot of sense.
Clearly, the government has failed to produce any evidence that the existing limits are undermining the electoral process at the federal level. Furthermore, political donations play an important role in our democratic system. Limiting them too strictly has the potential to limit participation of smaller political parties, as well as all Canadians who wish to participate in the political system.
Why would the government introduce these strict limits? If we look across Canada at what provinces are doing in their own electoral districts, it is pretty interesting. I would like to take a minute to let people know what those limits are across Canada right now.
In Newfoundland and Labrador there are no contribution limits to political parties.
In Prince Edward Island there are no contribution limits.
In Nova Scotia there have been none. In fact, last week new political financing legislation was brought forward into the House of Assembly in Nova Scotia. I believe the limit there would be $5,000.
In New Brunswick there is a maximum of $6,000 during a calendar year to each registered political party or to a registered district association of that registered political party.
In Quebec contribution limits are a maximum of $3,000 to each party, independent member and independent candidate, collectively, during the same calendar year.
Ontario has contribution limits. The maximum contribution a person, corporation or trade union may make is $7,500 to each party in a calendar year and in any campaign period; $1,000 in any calendar year to each constituency association; an aggregate of $5,000 to the constituency associations of any one party; $1,000 to each candidate in a campaign period; an aggregate of $5,000 to candidates endorsed by any one party.
In Manitoba individuals may contribute a maximum of $3,000 in a calendar year to candidates, constituency associations or registered political parties, or any combination.
In Saskatchewan there are no limits on contributions.
In Alberta the limits are $15,000 to each registered party, $1,000 to any registered constituency association, and $5,000 in the aggregate to constituency associations of each registered party, and then further regulations in any campaign period: $30,000 to each registered party, less any amount contributed to the party in the calendar year.
In British Columbia registered political parties or constituency associations may accept a maximum of $10,000 in permitted anonymous contributions. Candidates, leadership contestants and nomination contestants may accept a maximum of $3,000 in permitted contributions.
In Yukon there are no contribution limits.
The Northwest Territories has what seem to be the strictest limits. An individual or corporation may contribute a maximum of $1,500 to a candidate during a campaign period, but a candidate may contribute a maximum of $30,000 of his or her own funds in his or her own campaign.
These election limits that have been brought in dramatically exceed any other election financing reform that has been brought in across Canada, reforms that have been brought in, in provinces led by a whole series of different types of government, different parties in power.
One witness at the Senate committee, Arthur Kroeger, the chair of the Canadian Policy Research Networks and a former deputy minister in five federal government departments, told the Senate committee:
What problem are we trying to solve? Were there abuses when the level was $5,400? I do not know. I do not remember reading of any such abuses. Were there abuses that merit the reduced levels of contributions that were permitted by business and unions? If you cannot identify the problem that justifies a provision in the bill, then have you lost balance and have you pushed things too far? Those are questions in my mind...Do we truly need to go that far to achieve good governance and are we risking harm? It is possible.
When we look at what provinces across the country have done, that would seem to back that up.
It is certainly not just Liberals who are making the case that these stringent donation limits are unreasonable and unnecessary. Lowell Murray, a Progressive Conservative senator from the great province of Nova Scotia, a highly respected figure and a former close adviser to two Progressive Conservative former prime ministers, the Right Hon. Joe Clark and the Right Hon. Brian Mulroney, said in the Senate recently, I believe on third reading, after the committee hearings, “I would delete from the bill all the provisions respecting political financing”.
There are a lot of very interesting comments, but let me just stick to the political financing piece. He talked about examples of how this legislation is flawed. He went on to say:
Another example is in the creation of a directorate of public prosecutions. This may or may not be necessary--probably not--
To get back to financing, he said:
This bill purports to introduce further reforms to our political financing and elections laws. The committee has recommended amendments to the government's proposals. I am more persuaded by the argument of Professor Peter Aucoin, who told the committee that those proposals have no place in the omnibus Bill C-2 and should be considered as part of an overall examination of elections and political financing law.
He said later in his speech:
The examination of our political financing and election laws that I believe is necessary must go forward, in my view, and my amendment would remove from Bill C-2 the various provisions relating to political financing in the hope of a principled examination of this whole field, a principled examination of our electoral and parliamentary democracy, by people who have relevant experience in it.
That speaks directly to the issue of this bill being too large and too cumbersome, trying to do too many things for political reasons and not being based on evidence nor history.
Increasing the maximum personal contribution to $2,000 from the proposed $1,000 would still be a significant reduction from the current $5,400 that came in under Bill C-24, but I would support the $2,000 limit.
There are many other amendments that involve access to information and technical changes that were necessary because it was rushed legislation. Certainly, the clearest proof of that was the recent attempt to alter the legislation to cover up the practice of the Conservative Party of not counting delegate fees as political donations, which was clearly not the intent of the act. It was never understood by any political party that I know of as being the case, and it has been acknowledged by Canada's Chief Electoral Officer as being the wrong policy.
One of the advantages of the other place looking at this so carefully was that it gave people a chance to make some comments, people who have expertise in this area. I had mentioned before Mr. Kroeger, the chair of the Canadian Policy Research Network. He also said:
If the legislation had been written by a government with more experience in office, it may not have some items in it that it does, which I will explain in a minute.
He went on to explain, and then said:
There is the other problem that some of the contents of legislation were, I think, developed during an election campaign, and there is always a risk of a bit of overkill for the sake of achieving a public effect--
Dr. David Zussman, the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management at the University of Ottawa, indicated, in talking about the new positions in this bill:
In each case, we are creating new positions at considerable cost to the taxpayers of Canada, so we have to ask ourselves simply will these costs produce results that will make a tangible difference or a marginal difference over the information and analysis that we already have.
Alan Leadbeater, deputy information commissioner of the Office of the Information Commissioner, suggested:
--Bill C-2 would authorize new and broad zones of secrecy, which will have the effect of reducing the accountability of government through transparency...Bill C-2 will reduce the amount of information available to the public, will weaken the oversight role of the Information Commissioner, will increase government’s ability to cover up wrongdoing and shield itself from embarrassment.
These are a number of comments that came from the hearings that were held in the other place.
This is a deeply flawed bill. I support accountability and I support some of the measures that are in this bill, but these amendments that have come back from the other place are worthy of everybody's attention and support.
It is obvious to most people, except perhaps those on the government side, that this bill is a blunt instrument to achieve political gains. As is so often the case when politics is the primary motivation, bad law is created, and thankfully we now have an opportunity to correct these flaws. I encourage all parties to support these amendments and to make this legislation live up to its name, the accountability act.