Mr. Speaker, the Bloc Québécois is in favour of the principle of the accountability act.
Let us recall that, during the last two federal election campaigns, the Bloc Québécois criticized the Liberal government’s misuse of public funds and corruption. With the word “ethical” are associated such synonyms as “integrity”, “loyalty”, and “reliability”. This is in contradiction to such antonyms as “pettiness”, “arrogance” and “ingratitude”.
The Bloc Québécois wishes to spare Quebeckers scandals such as the dishonourable sponsorship scandal, of which the Liberal Party of Canada showed us the entire ignominy from the mid-1990s, or the Option Canada scandal, which was orchestrated by federalist forces, both Liberal and Conservative, during the last referendum.
With regard to the current Bill C-2, called the accountability act, the Bloc Québécois took part in the Gomery Commission in the constructive spirit we are known for, by developing 72 recommendations which must now be implemented.
In this regard, I am happy to note that several proposals put forward by the Bloc Québécois, some since 1990, have been taken up. For example there is the merit appointment of returning officers by Elections Canada; the independence of the lobbyists registry; the act respecting the financing of political parties, which will be more like Quebec’s in its prohibition of corporate donations; strengthening the power of the Auditor General.
The Bloc Québécois, however, has always maintained that the reinforcement of laws and policies was of no effect if there was no real commitment of elected officials to change things.
As far as lobbying is concerned, for example, it is curious to see the Prime Minister tolerate what he criticized the Liberals for. In the Conservative Party’s ethical platform on page 3, the Prime Minister criticized the Liberals for allowing people to move back and forth between political offices and lobbying firms. I quote:
Under the Liberals, lobbying government--often by friends and associates of Paul Martin and other Liberal ministers--has become a multi-million dollar industry. Senior Liberals move freely back and forth between elected and non-elected government posts and the world of lobbying.
The new Minister of Defence, however, was a lobbyist for some ten years for ordnance suppliers. We are entitled to ask ourselves the following question: will he defend the interests of citizens or the interests of his former clients?
The same is true in the case of the Prime Minister's director of communications, who represented the interests of a dozen or so businesses potentially doing business with the government. Will she defend the interests of the public or of her former clients?
The same may be said for the current director of parliamentary affairs for the Minister of Public Works, who worked for Summa for a number of years. There, he represented the interests of Purolator Courier, Enbridge and SAS Institute Canada or he lobbied the government. Will he defend the interests of the public or of his former clients? That is the question.
It is surprising to note that the Conservatives have learned nothing from the mistakes of the Liberals. Like the Liberals with Alfonso Gagliano, the Conservatives appointed their political organizer in Quebec to head the public works department. The Minister of Public Works, who has acknowledged doing political funding work for the Conservative Party, is responsible for $10 billion in government spending. If the accountability legislation freely permits this sort of activity, where does the accountability lie?
In this regard, we hope that the Conservative government will take the amendments by the Bloc Québécois into account to ensure it really does want to change things.
If the current government really does want to change things, it will have to revise the sanctions for conflict of interest. As my colleague from Repentigny said yesterday, a fine of $500 for infringement of the Conflict of Interest Act is far from acceptable given that contracts can exceed $200,000, as we have seen in the past.
If the government really wants to change things, it will have to examine this aspect of the bill very closely.
It is important to note that the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner is authorized to impose penalties. Unfortunately, this power is not very clearly defined. Can the commissioner impose financial penalties exceeding $500? This issue must be cleared up.
With respect to the Access to Information Act, here again the government seems unwilling to budge.
This Act was adopted in 1983. Since then, despite numerous calls for it to be revised, it remains essentially unchanged. The Conservative government has chosen not to reform the Access to Information Act as part of its omnibus legislation, despite the fact that the bill proposes changes to about 40 acts in its 317 clauses. The Access to Information Act should have been among them. The President of the Treasury Board claims that additional consultations will be necessary.
Nevertheless, the Conservative government promised reforms to the Access to Information Act many times over during the last election campaign. For example, on page 7 of their election platform, they said:
A Conservative government will:
Implement the Information Commissioner’s recommendations for reform of the Access to Information Act.
The Conservative members, like all the other members who sat on the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, rejected the suggestions made by the former Liberal Minister of Justice, who wanted to study the bill further. On November 3, 2005, the committee unanimously agreed to the act proposed by the Information Commissioner and asked the government to legislate without delay.
Various governments have been holding consultations for 20 years. Back in 1987, the Standing Committee on Justice made 100 recommendations for reforming the act. In August 2000, the President of the Treasury Board and the Minister of Justice formed a task force of public servants to review the act, regulations and policies on which the present access to information scheme is based. In November 2001, the Bryden committee proposed a dozen recommendations that it regarded as priorities. It will be recalled that the present Minister of Justice signed that report.
This House also had an opportunity to debate this act, when a number of members introduced private members’ bills. The Information Commissioner even proposed a complete bill to the government in October 2005, as he had also done in 1994.
Is the unspoken truth that the Conservative government is in less of a hurry to reform the act now that it is in power? That is the question.
The Information Commissioner recently observed that this is a consistent reaction by all governments. I quote him:
The reason that action, not more study, is required is that governments continue to distrust and resist the Access to Information Act and the oversight of the Information Commissioner.
In conclusion, I reiterate that the Bloc Québécois has always maintained that it was ineffective to strengthen laws and policies if this were not accompanied by a genuine intention on the part of the elected ministers to change things. Let us say that the signals we have been receiving from this government in the last few months are a cause for concern.
We have identified a number of loopholes in this bill that might allow wrongdoing to occur. On that point, we invite the President of the Treasury Board to take the time that is needed to properly analyze the amendments to the bill that will be proposed, in order to reduce the risk of wrongdoing like that which has greatly contributed to the cynicism about politics and the people who are responsible for upholding the public interest.
My colleagues may rest assured of my full cooperation in efforts to improve this bill.