It is my pleasure to speak on behalf of the Bloc Québécois about Bill C-54, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act (accountability with respect to loans). Basically, this bill seeks to prevent individuals from bypassing campaign financing rules. Naturally, the Bloc Québécois will support it.
The bill would also correct another problem with the government accountability act, also known as Bill C-2. Why another problem? Because unfortunately, during the study of Bill C-2, it became clear that the Conservative government was more interested in passing the bill quickly than in really fixing ethical problems, even though it presented the bill as its key piece of legislation to clean up campaign financing and governance. Sadly, the hasty treatment made for a very incomplete key piece of legislation.
At the time, the opposition parties, the media and Democracy Watch pointed the problem out, but the government refused to act. As a result, there were huge gaps in terms of ethics, and now we have to fill those gaps. For example, it provides little protection for whistleblowers and does nothing to improve the Access to Information Act. I will come back to that later on.
Bill C-54 will fix the problem of loans that allowed individuals to bypass political contribution restrictions. When the Conservatives introduced the bill, they pointed out that during the most recent Liberal leadership race, several candidates had taken out big loans to bypass financing restrictions. It may be that several Liberal candidates did this, but let us not forget that the Prime Minister himself has not disclosed all of the contributions he received during the 2002 leadership race.
By way of explanation, I would like to remind the members that Bill C-2, which addresses government accountability, introduced new restrictions on campaign contributions, limiting any individual's annual contribution to a registered party or candidate to $1,100. Furthermore, Bill C-2 reduced the amount a union or business could contribute annually to a registered party or candidate to $0. Basically, contributions from unions and businesses are no longer allowed.
Unfortunately, it was still possible to circumvent these restrictions by taking out personal loans. As I have already mentioned, we saw this when several candidates in the recent Liberal Party of Canada leadership race took out sizeable loans from individuals and financial institutions. La Presse even reported the amounts of the loans, which totalled hundreds of thousands of dollars, obtained by the current leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, the current deputy leader of the party, and by Bob Rae and Gerard Kennedy. I would like to remind the House of those amounts. Bob Rae, who was defeated by the current leader of the official opposition, owes $580,000 to John Rae, the vice-president of Power Corporation. The current leader of the opposition borrowed $430,000. The current deputy leader of the Liberal Party borrowed $170,000, and Gerard Kennedy borrowed $201,000.
The subterfuge of using loans gave candidates access to enormous sums of money. This bill would correct such issues. As I was saying earlier, however, the accountability act fails to address a number of ethical problems. For example, the whistleblower protection issue has not been resolved. Several Conservative election promises concerning whistleblower protection did not make their way into the Accountability Act. As we all know, during the January 2006 election, the Conservatives made a number of election promises regarding this issue.
First of all, they wanted to ensure that whistleblowers would have access to adequate legal counsel. However, former Bill C-2, the Federal Accountability Act, imposes a $1,500 limit on legal costs, which is incredibly low. Thus, under the Conservative government, whistleblowers must be able to pay for their own legal counsel if they want to disclose wrongdoing.
Second, they wanted to give the public sector integrity commissioner the power to enforce the whistleblower legislation. This was not in the bill.
They wanted to guarantee protection to anyone who reports wrongdoing within the government, not just to public servants. This is not in the Federal Accountability Act.
They wanted to take away the government's ability to exempt crown corporations and other entities from the application of the whistleblower legislation. This is not in the accountability act either.
Another problem that the Federal Accountability Act has not solved is the reform of the Access to Information Act.
On April 5, 2005, the Liberal government released a discussion paper on reforming access to information. This document met with general criticism, even from the Conservatives. In addition to doubling the minimum administrative fees charged to the public, the proposal by the former Liberal Prime Minister, the member for LaSalle—Émard, maintained all the exceptions provided for in the legislation.
In fact, in 13 years, the Liberal Party never managed to introduce a valid reform of the Access to Information Act. For its part, the Conservative Party promised during the election campaign to reform the Access to Information Act. To quote the Conservatives' election platform, “A Conservative government will implement the Information Commissioner's recommendations for reform of the Access to Information Act”.
We are still waiting for this reform. When will the government decide to carry out this reform, as promised?
The truth is that now that they are in power, the Conservatives, like the Liberals before them, are in less of a hurry to reform this legislation. Moreover, the Information Commissioner recently noted that this is a general trend. He said, “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”.
Despite the shortcomings of former Bill C-2 on accountability, Bill C-54, which is before us today, proposes four types of changes.
First, the bill establishes a system of uniform, transparent reports on all loans to political entities and provides for mandatory disclosure of the terms of those loans and the identity of the lenders and guarantors.
Second, the bill would prohibit unions and corporations not only from making contributions, in accordance with the Federal Accountability Act, but also from lending money.
Moreover, loans, loan guarantees and contributions from individuals could not exceed the limit set out in the Federal Accountability Act, which is $1,100 for 2007.
Lastly, only financial institutions, at market interest rates, or other political entities would be able to lend money exceeding that amount. The rules for unpaid loans would be tightened so that candidates could not default on their obligations. Riding associations would be held responsible for their candidate's unpaid loan.
Despite this bill, which we are in favour of, in a few short months the Conservative party has built up a track record that shows a lack of political will to obey the rules and put an end to the culture of entitlement.
Denouncing the sponsorship scandal that took place when the Liberal Party was in power, Mr. Justice Gomery said that it was time to do away with the mentality behind the culture of entitlement and the attitude people in government have that they can do anything they want and are accountable to no one. This is not how things should be. This is certainly not what Quebeckers and Canadians want. To avoid this attitude, there must be open and transparent management of public funds and taxpayers' money. The Conservatives have unfortunately not set a good example.
In December 2006, the Conservative Party admitted that it had failed to disclose the receipt of hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Chief Electoral Officer. The money was registration fees collected from Conservative delegates attending the Conservative Party's May 2005 convention. The report said that in being forced to treat convention registration fees as donations, the Conservative Party discovered that three delegates, including the Prime Minister, had exceeded their annual contribution limits of $5,400. The Conservative Party was forced to reimburse $456 to the Prime Minister and to two other delegates.
Here is another example: a closer look makes it clear that this government is being influenced. The Prime Minister, when in opposition, reprimanded the Liberals for the comings and goings between political offices and lobbying firms. Yet, since taking power he has appointed a former lobbyist as the head of National Defence. This party denounced the lobbyist culture associated with the running of the Liberal Party. At that time we agreed with our Conservative colleagues. You could say that power changes political parties and makes anything possible.
We can see what the appointment of a lobbyist has done to National Defence. We can see that the Prime Minister now has a serious credibility problem with regard to his lobbyist minister. It is true that this appointment has paid off for companies that sell military equipment. We believe that the Minister of National Defence should have considered the taxpayers, who clearly want more humanitarian action than war.
The Prime Minister did not stop there with his partisan appointments. He also appointed Sandra Buckler as his director of communications. We should remember that the Conservative government decided to maintain the contract with Royal Lepage relocation services, in spite of a devastating report by the Auditor General. In 2005, this company hired Ms. Buckler to meet with the members of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, which had serious doubts about the spending of public money by Royal LePage and which was examining the possibility of referring this matter to the Auditor General. It is likely that Ms. Buckler was not paid by Royal LePage to convince the members to refer the matter to the Auditor General. In this case, whose interests came first, Ms. Buckler's or the taxpayers'? To compensate her, the Prime Minister appointed her director of communications of his cabinet.
In April 2006, the Prime Minister tried to appoint Gwyn Morgan, a Conservative Party fundraiser, to the position of chairman of the new public appointments commission. This appointment was blocked by a parliamentary committee dominated by opposition members.
I have another example of how this government is maintaining the culture of entitlement. It awards contracts to Conservative friends. This government awarded a communications contract to Marie-Josée Lapointe, a former member of the Prime Minister's transition team. This contract goes against the spirit of the accountability act, former Bill C-2, since political staff are not allowed to receive contracts from the government in place for 12 months after they have left. The contract was cancelled half way through.
This government also uses public funds for partisan purposes.
In March 2006, the Conservative government awarded an $85,000 contract to gauge public support for the Conservative Party's five electoral priorities. In July 2006, the Conservative Party awarded a contract to Strategic Counsel in order to poll public opinion on various political issues. The very partisan report identified the environment as a very important issue for the government's re-election. It should be noted that Strategic Counsel is run by Allan Gregg, who was the Conservative Party's official pollster under Brian Mulroney and Kim Campbell.
What is more, the Prime Minister has made dozens of partisan appointments within the machinery of government. When the Conservatives were in opposition they denounced such practices. Now that they are in power, why are they doing the exact same thing? Do they believe it is their turn to do whatever they want? The Conservative Party should be accountable to the public for its actions.
In closing, I want to reiterate that the Bloc Québécois is in favour of Bill C-54, but it finds it regrettable that the other problems I have just mentioned have not been resolved by the Conservative government.
Taxpayers deserve to have a government that is above reproach. Neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives have lived up to these expectations. That is why most people in Quebec vote for the Bloc Québécois. Our party is the only one that is not negatively influenced by power. Our only goal is to defend the interests of Quebeckers and they realize that. They can be assured of our full commitment to that goal.
When all the parties represented in this House understand the importance of integrity and transparency, our democracy will only get better. Quebec and Canadian taxpayers deserve that; let us govern accordingly.