Mr. Speaker, the background of this whole discussion is that there has been a fundamental misunderstanding over the last number of years here in Canada with regard to the responsibility of ministers and deputy ministers to and before Parliament for financial administration.
Let me state initially that I accept fully the constitutional convention and practice of ministerial responsibility individually for ministers in the administration of a minister's particular department and collectively for their operations of departments.
Ministers are accountable to Parliament for the authority assigned to them by Parliament. Ministers are supported by deputy ministers. Deputy ministers have always had, or have had for quite some time now, certain statutory responsibilities delegated to them. Certain legislative statutes passed by Parliament delegate certain jobs, duties and functions to deputy ministers. These are included in the Financial Administration Act, in the Public Service Employment Act and in the Official Languages Act.
I should point out that these authorities were not delegated to them by ministers. They were delegated to them by Parliament. As such, ministers cannot give specific direction to deputy ministers on issues of financial management, pursuant to the Financial Administration Act, or staffing, pursuant to the Public Service Employment Act. Those roles belongs to the deputy ministers.
However, it has been the position of successive governments that a deputy minister, in appearing before the public accounts committee, does so on behalf of a minister, which is a very confusing anomaly. This anomaly was described accurately by C.E.S. Franks, Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Studies, Queen's University, when he concluded that the current approach creates an absurd position in which a deputy minister before the public accounts committee responds to questions solely on belief of his or her minister, while if the minister were there, the minister would only be able to respond on behalf of the deputy, the actual holder of the statutory powers.
This has led to what I consider to be a considerable amount of confusion over the last 30 years and has been challenged by a number of commissions, bodies and others during that period of time.
The first major challenge occurred approximately 30 years ago in the Lambert commission. That commission recommended that deputy ministers become accounting officers similar to the system used in Great Britain and which has been used for approximately 130 years. The document states:
It is essential that the authority of deputies with respect to administration be clearly prescribed, and that they be held accountable for that administration.
That particular recommendation was not followed by the government of the day.
This recommendation was again repeated in the McGrath commission report that was tabled in this House in 1985. It called for deputy ministers to be accountable before parliamentary committees for the administration of their particular departments.
That has come before the different issues arising before the public accounts committee. The Auditor General has raised this in at least two of her reports. She has indicated that this issue ought to be explored by Parliament. She correctly concluded that parliamentarians have an essential role to play in the process of clarifying roles and responsibilities.
In May 2005 the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Accounts, of which at that time I was a member, filed a comprehensive report on this issue. I should point out that there was a considerable amount of time, effort and energy put into the report and it was a unanimous report. The committee recommended:
That deputy ministers be designated as accounting officers with responsibilities similar to those held by accounting officers in the United Kingdom.
That recommendation, unfortunately, was not adopted by the previous government.
In the Gomery commission report tabled on February 1, 2006, Mr. Justice Gomery dealt squarely with this issue in the fourth recommendation which states:
In order to clear up the confusion over the respective responsibilities and accountabilities of Ministers and public servants, the Government should modify its policies and publications to explicitly acknowledge and declare that Deputy Ministers and senior public servants who have statutory responsibility are accountable in their own right for their statutory and delegated responsibilities before the Public Accounts Committee.
It can be seen that a number of recommendations have been made over the years. The present government, to its great credit, accepted these recommendations and included them in the Federal Accountability Act, section 16 of which states:
Within the framework of the appropriate minister's responsibilities and his or her accountability to Parliament, and subject to the appropriate minister's management and direction of his or her department, the accounting officer of the department...is accountable before the appropriate committee of Parliament for--
And there are four points:
(a) the measures taken to organize the resources of the department to deliver departmental programs in compliance with government policies and procedures;
(b) the measures taken to maintain effective systems of internal control in the department;
(c) the signing of the accounts--
--I will repeat that, the signing of the accounts--
--that are required to be kept for the preparation of the Public Accounts pursuant to section 64; and
(d) the performance of other specific duties assigned to him or her by or under this or any other Act in relation to the administration of the department.
The obligation of the accounting officer under this section is to appear before the appropriate committee of Parliament and answer questions put to him or her by members of the committee in respect of the carrying out of the responsibilities and performance of duties.
Upon enactment of this legislation, which was in December last year, the public accounts committee, as has already been indicated by the previous speaker, commenced work on the development of a protocol for the appearance of accounting officers as witnesses before the Standing Committee on Public Accounts.
I should point out that I spoke on the Federal Accountability Act on many occasions, and on every occasion I was given that opportunity, I certainly stated that this was the most important provision in the Federal Accountability Act as far as I was concerned.
To assist us in the development of this protocol we did seek outside assistance. We sought and received assistance from Dr. Franks. He of course engaged others. The committee, to its credit, spent a lot of time and effort on this particular issue. It appeared that the protocol would certainly receive the approval of all members of the committee.
I should point out also that we very much wanted to make it a joint protocol, as between ourselves and Treasury Board Secretariat because we do have similar duties and responsibilities. The public accounts committee is that committee of Parliament responsible for financial administration and Treasury Board Secretariat is that particular department representing the executive that is responsible for prudent , proper and compliant financial administration.
For reasons unbeknown to me, Treasury Board Secretariat opted not to cooperate. Unfortunately, as the previous speaker has pointed out, after four or five months had elapsed and a day or two before the protocol was to come before the committee for a final discussion, it decided to post on the Privy Council website its own protocol.
Let us think about this for a second. Government receives its authority from Parliament and is accountable to Parliament. Privy Council and Treasury Board Secretariat have taken the position, the erroneous constitutional position I submit, that it is their job, their duty to determine the roles and procedures of parliamentary committees.
I believe that everyone in this House has an obligation to think about that particular statement, because if we are going to accept that for one second, we will be abdicating our role as parliamentarians and we will not be serving the people who sent us here to represent them.
I am troubled and disturbed by this behaviour. This is a classic fight between the executive, the government, and the people represented by the members of the House of Commons. This fight started close to 800 years ago and it is continuing in this chamber today.
There are a few other points on the protocol. It is clarifying the roles; it is not a wholesale change. It certainly does not, nor does it intend to in any way alter the fundamental and essential importance of ministerial responsibility. Accounting officers are accountable before the public accounts committee. It does not give deputy heads or agency heads new powers and authority. Everything in the protocol is in compliance with the provisions of the Federal Accountability Act. It is, I submit, a balanced approach after a lot of discussion and deliberation on our part.
If we accepted the government protocol, nothing would change. In fact, it has been argued quite correctly, I would submit, that accountability is worse off before the accountability act if we accepted this. We went forward with these particular provisions of the accountability act based upon the understanding that what the act stated was going to be the actual way it was interpreted, but that is not the way the government wants to do it.
Despite what I just read from the act, the government does not want to give the accounting officers any sphere of accountability that is independent of ministers. It is stating that the accountability belongs to the office, not the person, although the act states that the accounting officer signs the accounts. The Conservatives are asserting that the accounting officer is not accountable for his or her performance and they are stating that the signing of the accounts simply means the accounting officer is expected to answer questions, nothing more than that.
If we accepted the protocol as posted by the government, which was wrong in the first place, the provisions of the Federal Accountability Act would be meaningless and the whole act would be thrown into question. There has been very little of the act proclaimed. All the accounting of these officers of Parliament does not exist. There was a lot of bluster at the time. I certainly supported this provision, but if we adopted this interpretation, the whole thing as far as I am concerned would be a meaningless piece of legislation.
When we talk about accountability and the public accounts act, I want to remind members that inappropriate financial management is extremely rare given the volume of transactions that the government does on a daily basis. Of course when incidents do happen and do come before the committee, it does trouble citizens, but the overwhelming number of public servants continue to display an extremely high degree of integrity and objective professionalism in carrying out the tasks required of them.
I believe I have accurately summarized the background leading up to the adoption of this protocol, which was adopted by the committee. I urge all members of the House to stand up for Parliament and pass this particular motion for concurrence.