Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today on behalf of the Liberal opposition and address Bill C-54. I must say at the outset that the government House leader was not able or willing to answer my earlier question about the disclosure of the Prime Minister's leadership funders in 2002.
He did not address that topic, but I think this House needs to know that, particularly in relation to the comments that the government House leader made about the open disclosure of all loans, of all lenders and all amounts by the Liberal leadership contenders last year. Clearly they were acting beyond what the Canada Elections Act required, in good faith and with full disclosure. Everybody knows both what is going on there and the rules that apply to it.
As for the Prime Minister bringing forth this legislation, I think the government House leader suggests that he is somehow on the road to Damascus, leading this House in some epiphany in terms of loans and the way they are treated. Perhaps he was waylaid, misled or turned around and is actually on the road to perdition, because this bill of course has a perverse consequence. It is a non-accountability act. Again, it is Orwellian in many of the impacts that it will have. I will take some time to explain exactly why this will make democracy weaker in many ways in our country if it goes ahead as it is written, without amendment.
The Liberal Party is certainly very much in favour of transparency and accountability and will be looking toward a bill that properly and effectively tightens up the application and the use of loans in political financing in this country wherever it might be necessary. However, we certainly will also want to ensure that as the bill goes forward the proper amendments are made so that it does not, whether consciously or unconsciously, create a barrier to entry to the political process for those who do not have access to funds or friends who have access to funds, or to financial institutions that reflect their willingness to give loans because they realize that these people already have money, or they have people who will sign for them and back them up with money. We have to be very careful that this is not a barrier.
Let me go back to January 2004, when the former Liberal government brought in the most dramatic changes to electoral financing in this country's history with Bill C-24, and indeed perhaps the most dramatic change than had happened in any democratic jurisdiction in the world, which of course reduced the union and corporation donation limits per year to a mere $1,000. That is almost meaningless when we are talking about a nation this size. To suggest that a $1,000 donation by a corporation could buy favour across this country in an electoral process is beyond imagination. In any case, we effectively took that out and left the donations at a $5,000 level for individual members of the public, who are of course the basic building block and the basic unit of democracy. That is where it should be. That was an extremely important step. It was a dramatic step in the political history of this country.
Bill C-24 also did some other things. It introduced an aspect of proportional representation. I know that many members in the House in all parties are interested in seeing us proceed with consultations and consideration of that. However, when the private money was taken out to such a dramatic degree, Bill C-24 provided for public funding of electoral processes by providing $1.75 for every vote that any party received in the general election nationwide.
That allowed for a proportionality that corrected some of the difficulties with the first past the post process, where often the number of seats in this House achieved by parties bears very little relation to the proportion of the vote they get. As an example, the Green Party got 600,000 votes in the last election. Under that provision, it received over $1 million, which allows its members to express the views of the people who voted for them through the financing of their political activity, although not yet representation, across the country. That is a first tentative but important step. It was part of that groundbreaking electoral financing legislation.
Let me correct a perception that the government House leader gave, which was incorrect. He suggested there were no rules now covering loans and the disclosure of loans. In fact, the current statutory provisions require the disclosure of all loans. They require the disclosure of the lenders and the guarantors of those loans.
Another misconception is that there are no consequences if these loans can be written off. In fact, there are consequences. Those loans must be repaid within an 18 month period or they fall under the political contribution rules, which are very strict.
It is not a way to have money given. It is money loaned for a period during an electoral process, either a leadership process, as was involved last year with the Liberal leadership, or perhaps a nomination process where someone does not have access to party funds or riding association funds. If people were unable to take a loan, that might well be a barrier to entry into the political process for people who were not of independent means. There are consequences. Those must be converted and that is an important aspect to it.
Who owns the Prime Minister? The government House leader raised the issue of the Liberal leadership candidates and the influence of big money, but we still have not had an answer about who financed the leadership bid of the Prime Minister in 2002.
Why do we want to know that? We want to know that for the very reason the government suggests we need the bill. We already have provisions in the Canada Elections Act that cover both disclosure of loans and repayment of loans and consequence if we do not. In any event, why do we want to know? It is an immensely important question. Is it U.S. gun lobby? Is it big oil? Who made those contributions to the Prime Minister's leadership race in 2002? We will come back to that until we get a proper answer, until the Canadian people get a proper answer. These are important issues.
Let me talk about the name of the act, the accountability with respect to loans act. It could be called the new Conservative bank of Canada act. It is big money that would get more influence because of the way the act is written currently. We will seek amendments to ensure it does not simply limit the influence that can be exerted to those with money or have access to big money. Let me tell members why.
Financial institutions are the only ones that can make big loans to individuals. If people are maybe from a disadvantaged group or an under-represented group who have not been in politics before, who seek a nomination in a riding, those people do not have independent wealth, they do not have a riding association yet to loan them funds, as is allowable under this bill, and they do not have, perhaps, credit worthiness to go to a bank. What does that person do? The individual is left out. They simply cannot, effectively. With the limits under this, there is a barrier to entry into the nomination process.
If we look at the Liberal leadership process that went for nine months of fulsome discussion and debate across the country, presenting 11 candidates for scrutiny by the public in a highly open and democratic process, those were expensive. We cannot do that in a country the size of Canada without having some funds to expend for it.
Those should be under rules, and there are rules. There may be some tightening up that the bill can do, and that is fine. However, to say that people taking out loans so they can exercise their right to take part in the democratic electoral process for leadership, for nomination, is going down the wrong road.
In fact, the bill, as written, does not, as Bill C-24 previously did, take out corporate money and put in public money that was properly and evenly distributed according to the proportion of the vote achieved by each party that ran candidates. This cuts out the public and brings in the big money.
Who can get a loan from a bank, from a financial institution? It is someone with a lot of money or property to put up as collateral, or someone to co-sign or support the loan. Those are people of influence and money. This is letting the money in. It is not keeping the money out. That is what we will have to see. I look forward to working with members of the Bloc, the NDP and the government to see if we can get some amendments so we do not create a barrier to entry for people who have no means and are not yet part of the political process. That transparency is immensely important.
We have an organization called Equal Voice. All members of the House will be well aware of and knowledgeable about it. The organization seeks to encourage women to enter the political process so we can rise above the deplorable disproportion of men to women in the House of Commons, with 20% representation by women.
The leader of the official opposition, the leader of the Liberal Party, has pledged that in the next election one-third of the Liberal candidates will be women. We are well on the way in the nomination process to achieving that. This is a demonstrative move to try to get a proper proportion of gender equity into the House.
If this goes to committee, I am sure Equal Voice, representing all parties and all people across the political spectrum, will be very interested to come to talk the committee and to give evidence, as will many other groups who represent disadvantaged or under-represented sectors of this society. They will want to come and give their evidence on it. I hope we will take instruction from them as to how, perhaps unintentionally, the unavoidable consequence of this will be, to exert more power, not less, in those who have access to large amounts of funds.
This new Conservative bank of Canada act is interesting. It may tighten up the rules a little. It is not so that the Canada Elections Act now does not require loans to be repaid or be converted into contributions under the very restrictive rules. It is not so that contributors, lenders or co-signers do not have to be disclosed for political loans. They do have to be.
I am as anxious as anyone else in the House to see that this process is not abused, and if we can tighten it up, all the better. However, we have to ensure there are no unintended consequences of creating barriers to disadvantaged and under-represented groups.
The government House leader took some time to describe a number of what were called democratic reform bills, or statutes, in the House as brought forward by the Conservative government, and it is worth talking about a few of those.
One is Bill C-2, the Federal Accountability Act. Members of the House and the committee of the House spent a great deal of time on this as did members of the Senate. In fact, unencumbered by a set deadline that was forced on the House committee in the House, the Senate put forward dozens of amendments through its careful review of that act, even under the constant shrill criticism of the government that it was slowing things down.
Regarding slowing things down, royal assent was given to the Federal Accountability Act on December 15, 2006. Here we are, almost five months later, and one of the central parts of that act was the appointments commission. Amendments by the NDP sharpened that up. We had two choices. The Liberal opposition put forward amendments. The NDP put forward amendments. All of them would have been effective, and will be effective, as it was finally passed, but all these months later, all of these appointments later, dozens of them, and we still do not have the appointments commission. This was one of the key things that was said by the government to be so important about the Federal Accountability Act. We do not even have a commission.
We continue without the proper controls. We had suggested that the Public Service Commission take over this role, that there be amendments to its mandate to apply the same rules, competitive process and objective criteria used in the public service for any order in council appointments, but we still do not have that.
I would be very interested to hear from the government when it is going to proceed with that important part of Bill C-2. There were so many complaints about it being delayed when in fact there were a very large number of responsible, thoughtful and careful amendments suggested by the Senate, and actually passed into law.
Bill C-16 deals with fixed dates. We supported that on this side of the House. There was no delay. There was careful consideration in the Senate. There was a thoughtful amendment put forward. It was brought back to the House with that amendment. We on this side offered the government, before the Easter recess, to pass the bill through all processes in the House, back to the Senate, hopefully, for royal assent in the day before we broke. That was rejected. We would have needed unanimous consent, but we did not get it from the government.
Bill C-43 was mentioned by the government House leader. It is not a Senate elections act; it is a consultation act, with provincial elections. It is being put forward as a great democratic reform. I think all members of the House believe, as do probably all members of the other place, that the Senate needs reform in becoming a fully democratic legislative chamber, and we should all work toward that. This is going at it piecemeal. We get criticisms of trying to block the incremental reform of the Senate, but the fact is it all fits together and it must be dealt with at once.
There are three critical aspects of the Senate that have to be considered together.
One aspect is the selection process, which could include elections or involve terms. The term limit is suggested in Bill S-4.
Another aspect is the mandate. In the future how does the mandate relate to the mandate of the House of Commons? Will it be a mirror legislative body with the same electoral validity that will then lead to gridlock. We have to do to deal with that area of comprehensive reform is to have some kind of dispute resolution mechanism whenever the legislative powers mirror each other in the House and the other place.
Then we have the distribution. We cannot do anything else with the Senate until we work out the distribution. It is amazing that the Prime Minister, and all members of the government, would consider doing something to give a greater validity, greater power to the Senate without fixing the very unfair, inequitable distribution of seats to western Canada, particularly to British Columbia and Alberta.
For all of us from British Columbia and Alberta, it is extraordinary that we might think of increasing the power of that body without fixing the horrible lack of fair distribution to western Canada.
Bert Brown has been mentioned in the House by the Prime Minister as being the senator in waiting, to be appointed sometime this summer. He has played a very important role in the political life of Canada. He did not play that role by plowing one E into his barley field or a wheat field. He plowed three E's into it. To try to deal with just one E at once in a piecemeal incremental way, as the Prime Minister says, is not in the favour of Alberta, from where that fine gentleman comes. Nor is it responsible reform in the comprehensive way to properly bring the Senate into the modern age of a democratic legislative chamber. We have to work together to do that.
We often hear about the ghosts of Meech Lake and the ghosts of Charlottetown. We also hear that we cannot go near the Constitution because, my goodness, we might all get distracted and not be able to do anything else in this country and we will never get anywhere. Thank goodness the Fathers of Confederation were not so shy about dealing with the Constitution. We should take on that responsibility ourselves.