Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure, on behalf of the Bloc Québécois, to speak on Bill C-2, the first legislation introduced in this 39th Parliament.
Before becoming a member of Parliament, I was a teacher—perhaps this is why I explain bills like a teacher. I would like to back up a little and see how Bill C-2 came to be, where it comes from and whether the Conservatives contemplated and produced it during the fifty or so days of the election campaign or whether the bill comes from a deeper source in our recent political history.
Ten years ago, in December 1996, in the report entitled “A Strong Foundation”—also known as the Tait report—the Task Force on Public Service Values and Ethics recommended that:
—the Government and Parliament of Canada should adopt a statement of principles for public service, or a public service code...There must be means, consistent with public service values, for public servants to express concern about actions that are potentially illegal, unethical or inconsistent with public service values, and to have those concerns acted upon in a fair and impartial manner.
This report, submitted 10 years ago, led to a Treasury Board policy on the internal disclosure of information concerning wrongdoing in the workplace. Commonly called the policy on the internal disclosure of information, it was created five years ago on November 30, 2001. Things change very slowly.
Two years later in 2003, the government, acting through Treasury Board, developed the values and ethics code for the public service. It came into effect and is now part of the public service terms and conditions of employment. On September 15, 2003, in his first annual report for 2002-2003, the public service integrity officer recommended legislation applying to the entire federal public service, including Crown corporations, on the disclosure of wrongdoing.
Still in 2003, in its thirteen report called Study of the Disclosure of Wrongdoing (Whistleblowing), the House of Commons Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates recommended that the federal government pass legislation to facilitate disclosure.
In 2004, we were presented with Bill C-25, the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act. It died on the order paper when the House was dissolved in 2004. On October 8 of the same year, Bill C-11, the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act, was introduced. It was introduced in October 2004 and consideration in committee was finished by June 2005. The bill was considered in committee for nine months. This explains my request to the Treasury Board president that he take the time to study the bill.
There was a code of conduct under the previous government. There were rules, there was a bill, there was enough legislation to guarantee transparency, accountability and responsibility.
Before the Bloc Québécois lends its support to this bill, it is important to emphasize that in November 2003, the Auditor General said during her press conference and during her appearance before Mr. Justice Gomery, that the previous government had broken all the rules. It simply disregarded them. The new Conservative government must really understand this message: there is no point establishing cleaner, whiter, more visible guidelines when first and foremost it is a matter of observing the existing guidelines.
It is not just a matter of making new rules. That is the important message we got from the Auditor General.
In my opinion, this bill does not say enough about that. The existing rules have already been broken by the previous government.
The most important question for the public is: how can we ensure that the government will obey these new rules? The formula has been reviewed and improved. Many existing parameters were reviewed and improved. Nonetheless, what guarantee is there for our opposition party and the public that this government will obey these rules?
In her November 2003 report, and when she appeared before Justice Gomery, the Auditor General did not indicate that new rules were needed. She told us that the existing rules needed to be obeyed, as do any new rules. Before indicating that the Bloc Québécois is in favour of the principle and the philosophy behind the bill, it is more important for us to indicate that the Bloc Québécois wants to go further to ensure that these rules, contrary to the existing ones, will be obeyed by the current government.
There is another equally important aspect. I endorse the comments, questions and concerns of my colleague from Papineau on the poor translation of the title of the accountability bill.
Allow me to read a few newspaper articles to say that the first amendment the Bloc will move in committee will be on the translation of the title of the accountability bill.
In an article by Michel Vastel it says:
No French or Quebec dictionary gives the word “imputabilité”, which is nothing more than a bad translation of the English word “accountability”. The Office de la langue française rejects this translation as well.
When we talk about politicians or public servants we say they must “account for their actions”, that they must “be accountable for their actions”, that they have a responsibility and that is “the obligation to be accountable for their actions given their role and responsibilities and to accept the consequences of their actions”.
This French definition was taken from the Trésor de la langue française. I will continue to read from the newspaper article:
That is what the Prime Minister is talking about when he says he wants to restore public confidence in the institutions.
He wants the politicians, public servants and agencies of the federal government to be accountable for their actions to the public. He wants to pass legislation on accountability (of officers, agencies and so forth of the federal government). He wants the latter to have to account for their actions to the public. He wants to establish accountability as a common practice of good government. He wants the politicians, public servants and so forth to be accountable for their actions to the public. We hope that federal writers and translators will replace the French term “ìmputabilité”, which is incorrect, with a correct French term in the bill introduced in the House of Commons.
I have here another, slightly more unsettling article, by Laurent Soumis if I am not mistaken, entitled:
[The name of the Prime Minister] deliberately chooses the wrong translation, “imputabilité”.
[The first and last name of the Prime Minister] is bound and determined to speak franglais. Le Journal learned yesterday that the Prime Minister's Office deliberately disregarded the federal Translation Bureau's recommendation, and used the term “imputabilité”, which is an incorrect translation of the original English “accountability” in the title of the legislation.
Since 1934, the Bureau has been providing translation and revision services for federal departments and agencies, the House of Commons and the Senate and helping the government select just the right word.
The verdict is final. Use of the term “imputabilité” is to be avoided, the government site confirms.
Two ministers—the Minister of International Cooperation and Minister for La Francophonie and Official Languages, and the Minister Responsible for the Translation Bureau— are also quoted and should support this amendment. I believe that my Conservative colleagues should also support it.
Still, there are mainly two ministers involved, one of whom does not sit with us but in the other place, but he still has responsibilities. And so all of these people should immediately rally to this amendment, so that the French language is used coherently and accurately.
That being said, we will therefore be moving an amendment to change the title of the bill. I am certain that language professionals and people who like things to be called by their proper names will be pleased. I also venture to hope that the President of the Treasury Board will very quickly agree, so that newspaper articles, people who make speeches in the House and our very professional interpreters will be able to translate accountability as responsabilité.
I repeat, the Bloc supports the principle of the bill, but we want some time, not for delaying tactics, but to study this important legislation seriously and carefully.
I recall that it took over nine months and a number of committee meetings. The Parliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board was on the committee then; he knows that it did constructive work and that this took time.
The Bloc wants to hear the witnesses affected by this bill; we should at least hear the Auditor General in the committee. We should also hear the Chief Electoral Officer, the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner—such is the new title—and other witnesses who may benefit from the bill. I am thinking of the public service unions, for example.
As I said, the Bloc wants time, not to stall, but to study this bill seriously and carefully.
Moving on, we can also say that we are pleased to see a number of proposals that the Bloc has been making for many years included in this bill. I will mention a few, but I will leave it to my colleagues who are going to speak after me to address some of them in greater depth.
I would cite the example of the appointment of returning officers by Elections Canada based on merit. This is something that the Bloc Québécois has long been calling for. My friend and colleague, the member for Montmorency—Charlevoix—Haute-Côte-Nord, even introduced a bill to that effect. The Liberals were in power and appointed the returning officers. We said then, as a joke, that there would surely be some Liberals left who had the skills to do the job of returning officer when merit appointments were brought in. There is no need to worry that they will disappear altogether. I am convinced that 10% to 12% of them will be appointed, as competent people. It is only the others that we want to remove so that we can have competent returning officers.
The independence of the registry of lobbyists is something the Bloc Québécois has long called for. We are pleased to see that request incorporated in the bill, imperfect as it is. The Political Parties Financing Act will be closer to Quebec’s act, with the prohibition on donations by businesses. The powers of the Auditor General will also be strengthened.
You will permit me a little self-congratulation here. In a bill in the previous Parliament, the Auditor General was given what she wanted. For four years she had been asking for the right to audit foundations, something she was systematically denied by the government in place. With Bill C-277, a private members’ bill which was included in the last Liberal budget, we allowed the Auditor General a greater role and enhanced powers. We cannot but support a further strengthening of the powers of the Auditor General.
However, there are a few deficiencies in the bill which we want to consider in committee. In our view, the bill encourages a culture of unhealthy informing by proposing rewards for whistleblowers.
When I was a child, I would read Lucky Luke, and written on the pictures I would see, “bounty hunters”. Do we want a culture in the federal government where workers, as well as being public servants, would have the job of bounty hunter? Where they look around to see if anyone is doing something wrong in the hope of supplementing their income? Crazy, you say? Well, there is worse still. At the moment a reward of $1,000 is being proposed. During the week off, we heard that this could be increased up to 30% of the amount recovered, as is done in the United States.
We do not want a culture of whistleblowing. We want a bill that will permit responsible public servants who witness wrongdoing to file a complaint and feel that they are protected. That does not mean creating a team of three or four persons who will go out of their way to search out inappropriate behaviour in order to make themselves a little money. I do not think that is the purpose of the bill, and I hope that is not the desire of the President of Treasury Board or his parliamentary secretary.
We shall again study the testimony we received concerning this aspect in the course of consideration of Bill C-11. At the time, the Conservatives were a little besotted with the idea of offering rewards to whistleblowers. But I believe I recall that all of the witnesses heard at that time told us that this was not a good message to be sending to the public service. We shall have witnesses to hear on this subject, and certainly some amendments to propose.
The bill proposes a public appointments commission within the Prime Minister’s portfolio, responsible notably for overseeing the appointment selection process. We recently saw who was appointed to this position. When we know that most appointments come from the Privy Council Office and the Prime Minister’s Office, when we know that it is the Prime Minister who appoints the person who is going to oversee these appointments, we think it is a bit like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.
The bill proposes that the new parliamentary budget officer report to the Library of Parliament; it also proposes some exceptions preventing the officer from having access to certain information. This is a request made many times by my colleague from Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot, who will have an opportunity to speak on the issue. We can only be partly happy with this appointment of the parliamentary budget officer. Too often, the Minister of Finance hid the overall figures from the population. He told us that we were probably going to have a balanced budget and he stored away billions of dollars about which the members could say nothing. We dare to hope that the appointment of this parliamentary budget officer will remove the veil of secrecy from this part where the surpluses awaited by the government were hidden from us.
The bill proposes that only three out of nine major foundations be covered by the Access to Information Act and by the new powers of the Auditor General. In committee, we are going to ask why they are talking about three major foundations, rather than nine. Is it for organizational, serious reasons? In our opinion, all the major foundations, which together have close to $10 billion in budget money, should be subject to the Access to Information Act.
In the proposed bill, lobbyists still benefit from numerous loopholes, notably e-mail communications. This will have to be checked and tightened. These are the questions we are going to put to the appropriate legislative committee.
We are going to study Part 1 of the bill respecting conflict of interest. The penalties it provides, so far, are not stiff enough to deter people from placing themselves in situations of conflict of interest. I will give other examples a little later, but suppose a lobbyist working for the government breached this part of the law; he would have the heavy fine of $500 to pay. A $500 penalty, for having broken the law to obtain a contract worth $200,000 does not look like enough of a deterrent to us. We will look at this in committee.
As for appointments of returning officers, the bill does not provide for open competitions. There should be better guidelines for the office of the director of public prosecutions. In principle, complaints to the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner should go through the members' offices. I feel this poses a serious problem. The Conservatives refuse to budge on access to information. They are asking for a little more time to reform the Access to Information Act. We should understand each other. We want to look further at what is happening.
I mentioned lobbyists. I could close by talking about the Minister of Transport's communications director, who seemed to violate the spirit of this bill at least. But we will have the chance to talk about that again later.
In conclusion, on behalf of the Bloc Québécois—and I think I have been clear—I will say first that the bill should be referred to as the Loi sur la responsabilité in French during the discussions. We plan to make a number of amendments to the bill, but we support it in principle. After all, we cannot be against improved ethics and greater transparency. But we want the government to proceed with seriousness and rigour, two qualities the Bloc Québécois identifies with. I can assure my colleagues that I will cooperate fully with them in order to improve this bill at the legislative committee stage.