Mr. Speaker, I move, seconded by my friend and colleague, the hon. member for Vancouver East, the following motion:
That the matters referred to in the seventh report of the Standing Committee on Finance, tabled in this House on November 23, 2010, be referred to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.
Mr. Speaker, as usual, when such delicate questions are being asked in the House, we all rely on your experience and expertise, and once again, we are humbled by the quality of your analysis here today. In fact, you have defended this institution.
I would like to give a very recent, concrete example that demonstrates just how much our ability to do our job has been impeded. Ever since the work on the prebudget consultation was made public—in fact, it was publicized; that is the very definition of the term—to some lobbyists, we have begun receiving invitations, as individual members of the Standing Committee on Finance, to attend meetings with certain groups that want to know why their requests were not included in our recommendations. Therefore, we are no longer dealing with something theoretical, but rather a very concrete issue.
Mr. Speaker, I really appreciate the fact that you explained that, initially, we were informed that three Conservative lobbyists had received the information. The following day, Tuesday, the Chief Government Whip revealed that there was a fourth, and the day after that, we received a message stating that there was a fifth.
It goes without saying that, under the circumstances, when we ask that this matter be referred to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, we, the opposition parties, intend to study exactly what happened.
Is that how they usually operate? Is that how the government does things, or was this the action of a single staffer? According to the government's initial version, the young staffer was dismissed immediately. That is all well and good, but the government has done this kind of thing before.
In the old Star Trek episodes, we would always say, “Watch out for the guy in the red shirt. He is not going to make it to the end of the episode”. The Conservatives are experts at finding somebody in the red shirt to eliminate, to bear the blame, but when the documents came in that morning at 8:31, when those documents were sent to the members of the Standing Committee on Finance, how is it possible that this lone junior staffer working in the office decided that there was a specific list of Conservative-connected lobbyists who would be given individual direct access to this information? The only way we will get a full answer to that question is by taking this matter before a committee.
There is also a technical aspect to this. For example in the first run-through, we were told that a check had been done and that they were only able to identify on the computer of that employee three lobbyists to whom it had been sent. The next day we found out that there was a fourth and then a fifth. The information technology branch here on the Hill will have no difficulty whatsoever going into their systems, because even if it has been erased in the office, even if it has been erased on the employee's BlackBerry, the IT group here on the Hill will be able to go deeper into the matter and find out for the members of the House what the actual situation is. We will not rely on what we are being told by the government because what we were told on Monday was different from what we found out on Tuesday, which was again contradicted on Wednesday.
Members of the House have every right to be skeptical about the information that is being provided, because it simply has not been borne out.
This is a question of privilege. The information leak could have repercussions outside Parliament—I mentioned lobbyists who have started contacting us directly because they are well aware of what we have suggested, what we have not disclosed and what we have disclosed—and within Parliament. It has become very difficult for members of the Standing Committee on Finance to work together because none of us know whether the necessary level of confidentiality will be observed.
This can have repercussions for the Commissioner of Lobbying and the Ethics Commissioner. There have been a number of cases in the past. We all remember the member who, as natural resources minister, had to fire one of her staffers. What information got out in that case? Many other examples have come up in the House concerning government behaviour that stands in stark opposition to what the Conservatives have been promising since the beginning. It is always worth going back to square one and reminding ourselves that, when they took power, the Conservatives promised to do things differently.
You probably recall, as I do, Mr. Speaker, that this was a so-called matter of accountability. I think that accountability is a more appropriate word than responsibility in the circumstances. In any case, the government said that from the day they took office we would have a government that is more open and more honest with people. Matters of conduct and ethics would be front and centre. What have we seen happening instead since they took office? We have seen the kind of access to information and privacy stories that make your hair stand on end. For example, the rights of this House have been systematically trampled. In fact, Mr. Speaker, you had to rule on the issue of the alleged torture of Afghan detainees. Regarding privacy, there is no shortage of examples. We will recall the personal medical information that the Conservatives disclosed concerning someone who, God forbid, had the gall to question the government about how he was treated by Veterans Affairs.
So, we have seen what kind of medicine the Conservatives use in such circumstances. Everyone is an enemy. Such conduct on the part of a government and its leader has not been seen since the Nixon era. There are enemies lists. Anyone who questions becomes a bad person, whether it is the RCMP public complaints commissioner or the woman who was in charge of nuclear safety in Canada. As soon as someone tells the Conservatives something they do not want to hear, they get the axe.
That is why the story about the junior employee in the office that morning is so hard to believe. The finance committee's report was received at 8:31 a.m. and, by 8:37 a.m., communication with each and every recipient was over. Would they want us to believe that he sat at his desk and made a list where everyone in their respective fields received a note that they returned, saying “We love you; that was great.” They were receiving precisely the information they wanted. That was no coincidence. It was not the doing of a junior person working all alone.
When there is a lack of respect for institutions, it starts to catch on. The actions of the Prime Minister's Office are glaring and this behaviour is being transmitted throughout the machinery of government. I remind members that the deputy ministers, who were specifically declared to be responsible in the Conservatives' very first piece of legislation, the Accountability Act, are starting to balk. I mentioned earlier about expecting something bad to happen to the guy in the red shirt. In the end, people realize that if they say no, the deputy minister ends up under a lot of pressure because he remembers that he is the one named in the Accountability Act. It will now be the deputy ministers. This was the case with Louis Ranger, a man of incredible integrity who worked in the Department of Transport. He had 35 years of experience within the government but he refused to do exactly what he was told regarding infrastructure spending.
He knew that not only was that improper, but also that, in order to generate good press, the Conservatives had decided from the beginning that ministerial responsibility would no longer be the norm; deputy ministers would assume responsibility.
It goes without saying that within the machinery of government, these actions did not go over well. There are no more coincidences. When someone sends a confidential prebudget document, we have every right to question who made that request and why. Was it simply to please these lobbyists?
We can verify whether one of the recipients had discussions with the member in Parliament in question during meetings of the Standing Committee on Finance. Was the request to be recommended by the government? Is that how it will work?
Mr. Speaker, you had every reason to remind us that, unlike the American system, in which there is a watertight separation between the executive and the legislative, in the House, the first row on the majority side consists of members of Parliament from the government itself, and they make up the cabinet. So, it is already not very watertight.
Imagine what it would be like if we, the elected members and lawmakers, could no longer work together. Remember that ministers are not members of parliamentary committees. Members of cabinet do not join us there. We are in a prebudget exercise; we have heard from hundreds of groups and individuals from all over Canada; and we are preparing our submission. It has often been said, but it is worthwhile remembering, that we are working with a minority government, which is our third minority government in a row. All sides must work together to ensure smooth operations.
Let us examine what is happening. On the one hand, as elected members, we are trying to see how we can work together in future, and, on the other hand, some members or their employees believe that the best thing to do is to divulge confidential prebudget information. It is up to the elected members to make recommendations to the Minister of Finance.
How are we supposed to carry out our work now? If the purpose of the exercise is to make a series of recommendations without interference from the executive, how can we, as members of the legislative branch, continue to do that?
If this way of doing things has been communicated directly from the highest level, that is from the office of the Prime Minister—who interferes everywhere, is a control freak and likes to stick his nose into everything—how are we supposed to believe that we are working on a level playing field?
Together with our colleagues, we work on making recommendations that are in the public interest. How can we not come to the conclusion, as we are doing, that the Conservative government always works in its own interests and ignores the best interests of the public? This way of doing things has become the Conservative hallmark.
For our part, as you so rightly acknowledged today in this place, Mr. Speaker, we believe that this is a question of privilege. We wish to know the ins and outs of this story, and we look forward to this matter going before the parliamentary committee.
As elected members and as members of the legislative branch of government, it is important for us to continue to work openly with our colleagues with a view to making recommendations to the executive branch of government.
It has often been mistakenly said that in Canada there is a separation of powers like in the United States. Unlike the United States, where there is an absolute separation of power, members of cabinet do not sit in the House of Representatives or the Senate. In Canada, the front benches on the majority side, on the government side, are those who sit in cabinet. They are the executive branch of government.
However, when we listen to hundreds of groups coming in from across Canada making representations we need to do it freely and with only one consideration in mind: what the best way is to look at the public interest with the information we are being given; and the precepts, the proposals and the positions of our respective political parties. When that is interfered with, it is interfering with something precious in our democracy.
Due to the leak of this information, which was supposed to remain confidential as we worked on this together, we put ourselves in a position where it will be extremely difficult for that parliamentary committee to do as it has always done in the past, which is to produce a report.
That report has a special and fairly solemn character to it, which is provided for specifically in the standing orders of this House. It is not just any report. This is an official démarche of this Parliament where we receive hundreds of observations and recommendations from individuals, groups and businesses from across the country and we are supposed to weigh the various asks that are being made.
These are tough economic times and we know the government will try to use all sorts of reasons to reduce programs that can help people. Many of us have different perspectives on that. We would like to have the ability to work on them but one can imagine the pressure on members of other parties when, in the real world, lobbyists are aware of one party's proposal that winds up being a unanimous proposal. If it is a Bloc proposal, one could imagine the type of name-calling that already exists on the government side. It will be a “separatist proposal”. If it is coming from the NDP, it will be qualified as a “socialist proposal”, and so on.
We can just imagine how this type of leak interferes with our capacity to do our jobs in the public interest. That is why your decision, Mr. Speaker, is so important today.
I mentioned the Afghan detainee documents, the Rahim Jaffer affair and the government's bullying tactics around the Canadian Wheat Board. We were promised there would be no interference with the unelected Senate in the work of this House but last week an important bill on climate change, a bill that is not only important for today but for future generations as well, which was adopted by the duly elected members of this House of Commons, was defeated by the Conservative Party bagmen and hacks who it stuffed the Senate with. This was unprecedented. We have not seen that in 75 years.
We were told that we would have a new rule on fixed election dates. That is another knee-slapper because the minute it was in the Prime Minister's interest to call the election, notwithstanding the fixed date, the Prime Minister went ahead and did whatever he wanted.
That is to say nothing about the West Block renovations and, of course, there has been some talk of a cashmere coat. Personally, I have always been of the view that it must be a coat made out of asbestos. It cost so much because several hundred dollars would have to be included for the liability insurance to wear it around.
The access to information regime is broken. The public appointments commission was one of the main promises made by the Conservatives but it has never been set up. So we are seeing the same thing. We are seeing disturbing examples. By pure chance, out of the 22,000 lawyers in the province of Quebec, it happens to be the main organizer of the Minister of Natural Resources who gets named to an important tribunal. However, I dare anyone to say that it is not because he is the best one of the 22,000 lawyers in the province of Quebec. Of course he is the best one and that is why he got the job.
The public appointments committee was supposed to get rid of stuff like that. Instead, we are seeing a record number of purely partisan appointments. Lobbyists go directly into cabinet and we have seen that since the Conservatives came in.
We have seen all sorts of behaviour on the part of the Conservative government coming from and headed by the Prime Minister's Office, which is why this type of behaviour needs to be cut off the minute it appears.
We agreed with your decision today, Mr. Speaker, that this was a question that affects our privileges as members of the House, but especially our ability to do our jobs in the public interest. I insisted on it when we had the occasion to discuss it the first time out, which was that it was an institutional and not an individual question.
People understood relatively quickly that they were dealing with something serious. It was interesting because as we have morphed from the three lobbyists, to the four, the five and who knows how many it will be at the end and how many people in those offices shared in that information, but the first batch of three provided us with what can only be called the three monkeys defence: one had not heard about it; the other one s would not see anything that was written there; and the other one promised not to speak about it.
However, at the bottom of it all, we are dealing with an institutional issue. We will be able to bring in every one of those lobbyists to find out whether they had communication with anyone in that member's office and find out whether the request came from them and that it was simply being rolled back to them. We will be able to go through all this information and that will be an abject lesson for everyone on how to behave on this matters in the years to come.
For all those reasons, we make the motion that this be referred to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs so that all members of that committee can sit down and ask the appropriate questions, get to the bottom of this and ensure that at no time in the future will our ability to do our work that we have been elected to do in the public interest will be interfered with by anyone.