moved that Bill C-29, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act (accountability with respect to loans), be read the third time and passed.
Mr. Speaker, funding of political campaigns has changed dramatically over the years. It is no longer acceptable for political bagmen to go cap in hand to wealthy individuals and powerful interests seeking contributions for a political campaign. Our government understood that this era was over. After hearing tales of bags of cash exchanging hands between Liberals during the Gomery inquiry into the sponsorship scandal, the Canadian public demanded action. They demanded that big money be eliminated from the political process.
Upon taking office, we delivered with the toughest anti-corruption legislation in Canadian history, the Federal Accountability Act.
The Federal Accountability Act limited individual political contributions to $1,000—$1,100 in 2008—and prohibited cash donations of more than $20, secret trusts and corporate and union donations.
These changes applied to all types of political entities: political parties, registered associations, leadership candidates, local candidates and nomination contestants.
The Federal Accountability Act levelled the playing field. After it was passed and various amendments to campaign financing legislation took effect, the government believed that the era of political fundraisers was over and that rich and powerful interests could no longer unduly influence the political process.
Some people say that money in politics is like water on concrete: it finds every crack and every crevice through which to flow. Watching the Liberal leadership contest, Canadians found this out the hard way.
The Liberal Party, after relying for years on massive donations from huge corporations, found it difficult to operate in a system that relies on the contributions of ordinary, hard-working Canadian individuals. As a result, while the Federal Accountability Act was proceeding through the legislative process, Liberal leadership contestants discovered a loophole that allowed them to borrow unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals. This loophole effectively allowed candidates to circumvent campaign contribution limits by accepting massive personal loans and resulted in Liberal leadership candidates mortgaging themselves to powerful, wealthy, vested interests.
The accidental Leader of the Liberal Party borrowed $705,000. The accidental Canadian, the member for Etobicoke—Lakeshore, borrowed $570,000. The accidental Liberal, the member for Toronto Centre, borrowed $845,000, and of that, $720,000 came from his brother, John Rae, an executive with Power Corp. and a powerful Liberal insider.
In addition, Gerard Kennedy borrowed over $450,000. The member for Vaughan borrowed over $450,000. The member for York Centre borrowed $300,000. The member for Eglinton—Lawrence borrowed over $240,000. The member for Kings—Hants borrowed $200,000. The member for Vancouver Centre borrowed over $150,000. The member for Willowdale borrowed $130,000. The member for St. Paul's borrowed nearly $40,000.
Collectively, the Liberal leadership candidates borrowed millions of dollars to finance their campaigns. By exploiting the loophole in the Canada Elections Act, they were able to skirt campaign contribution limits that expressly sought to end this sort of undue influence by rich, powerful individuals.
In short, the Liberal leadership contestants showed Canadians that big money found a back door into the political process. More important, it also became clear there was a possibility that rich, wealthy individuals could write off a loan as uncollectable if it was consistent with their lending practices, even if they had no such established practices.
In effect, people could lend money to leadership campaigns and then after 18 months could say the debt was uncollectable and simply write it off. This could result in a massive contribution to a campaign which would far exceed someone's individual contribution limit. Under the current law, this could actually happen.
Now that the loophole and its potential consequences were clear, the government decided to act. The government was not going to sit by idly and allow the Liberal Party to undermine the Federal Accountability Act, especially after the Liberal leader was victorious in his leadership contest, financing nearly half of his campaign with massive personal loans from individuals.
In the first session of this Parliament, we introduced the accountability with respect to loans bill, which at that time was Bill C-54. After prorogation of the first session, that bill became Bill C-29 in this session of Parliament. My speech today opens debate on this bill at third reading.
While I have mentioned the various elements of the bill during previous speeches in this House, I will quickly run through the proposed changes once again.
First, in accordance with the Federal Accountability Act, it limits the amount that an individual can lend to or guarantee on behalf of a campaign to the contribution limit of an individual, or $1,100 in 2008. In addition, the combined total of loans and gifts from an individual cannot exceed the contribution limit of $1,100.
Second, it prohibits unions and corporations from lending money to political entities, which is also in keeping with the provisions of the Federal Accountability Act.
Third, it establishes a standard procedure for reporting loans, which applies to all political entities—associations, candidates and parties. This procedure will replace the provisions of the current act, which provides different rules for the various political entities.
Fourth, riding associations will automatically assume responsibility for the debt of local candidates should the latter be unable to repay their loans. Hence, candidates will no longer be able to evade their responsibilities.
Those are the four major changes originally in the bill. Further changes were made as the bill passed through the legislative process.
First, the time period for the repayment of loans was extended to three years from eighteen months. The government opposed this change at committee, but in the spirit of cooperation, we agreed to the amendment so that the bill could move forward.
Second, the bill was amended so that if an individual's loan was paid back within a given year, he or she could still donate up to the contribution limit.
Third, the bill was amended to require the Chief Electoral Officer to hear representations from affected interests before making a determination about a deemed contribution. This change, although technical in nature, would ensure certainty, uniformity and procedural fairness in dealings with Elections Canada.
Now that the bill is in its final form in the House, the first question we have to ask ourselves is this. Does this solve the identified problem and close the loophole? The answer is yes.
Under our bill, only accredited financial institutions would be able to lend money beyond the contribution limit and only at commercial rates with terms and conditions fully disclosed. No longer would leadership contestants be able to accept massive personal loans from friends, family and vested interests to finance their campaigns.
The bill would also prevent a situation from occurring where a lender could have the power of deciding whether a leadership candidate broke the law. Under the current law, one of the options for seeking an extension of a loan is to have a binding agreement to pay. As a result, the lender, by the fact that they can choose to sign the agreement or not, can decide whether a leadership contestant breaks the law. A loan is deemed to be a contribution after 18 months unless Elections Canada grants an extension.
Under our bill, this could no longer happen. Individuals could only lend or contribute a total of $1,100. Therefore, if after 18 months, a loan had not been repaid and it was deemed to be a contribution, an individual's contribution limit would not be exceeded.
While our bill would improve accountability and increase transparency, recently there has been some criticism that it does not really change anything. That is simply not the case. The criticism is in fact misplaced.
I will point to the following. Under the current law, wealthy elites can exploit a loophole and land unlimited amounts of money to leadership contestants. Under our bill, that would no longer be possible. Individual loans would be limited to $1,100.
Under the current law, unions and corporations, although prohibited from making contributions or donations to political parties, can, however, still participate by lending unlimited amounts of money to leadership contestants, candidates, parties and associations. Under our bill, that would no longer be possible. Unions and corporations would be banned from lending money to political entities in the same fashion as they would be already prohibited from making contributions.
Those are two significant changes to the way political campaigns are financed in our country.
The government understands that loans have a role to play in the financing of political parties, candidates and associations.
The government is opposed to a situation where individuals, unions or corporations are able to provide loans in order to exercise undue influence on the political process.
If a leadership candidate, local candidate or major national party wants to collect more money than the amount set out in the act, it should go to an approved financial institution, borrow money at the commercial interest rate, then disclose in full the terms of the loan in an open and transparent way. This practice works well in a number of provinces. Why do this? Because it is the job of an approved financial institution to assess risk and lend money. It has established lending practices and is accountable to its shareholders for the loans it approves.
Furthermore, the government does not believe that political entities should be authorized to borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars from rich individuals, who do not usually lend money, who have no established lending practices and who are not accountable to anyone for the loans they make.
The government does not believe political entities should be allowed to borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars from multi-individuals who do not normally lend money, who have no established lending practices and who are accountable to no one but their own interests for the loans that they make.
In the last election Canadians sent us a message.They want to end the influence of big money in the political process in Canada. They want greater accountability, increased transparency and, most important, a level playing field.
Our accountability with respect to loans bill will achieve this by closing the loophole that gives rich, powerful interests an opportunity to exert undue influence in the political process.
Before I close, I want to thank the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre for his considerable support and assistance in ensuring that the bill was able to make it through the process to this stage. I am hopeful and optimistic that when it reaches the Liberal dominated Senate, that it will respect the importance of a decision taken by the House of Commons with regard to elections for members to the House of Commons and the rules that govern them. I hope senators will not take the opportunity to obstruct and delay the bill in their party's partisan interests, but will in fact respect a decision of the House of Commons about how the House of Commons should be elected.
I urge all members of the House to work with the government to pass the bill and take another step toward eliminating the undue influence of big money from Canadian politics, and I hope that we will do that very soon.