Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to be able to speak today to Bill S-210, which is private legislation by the hon. Senator Banks that will require the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development to report not just to the House of Commons but to the other chamber of Parliament as well.
As originally passed, the Auditor General Act and the Federal Sustainable Development Act do not currently require either the Auditor General or the commissioner to report to the other place.
Despite this, the fact is that the Auditor General and the commissioner already report their findings to both chambers, by convention. However, the proposed amendments in this bill would formalize that process in law. This is a worthwhile improvement to both acts. I know that the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development supports this change.
It should be no surprise that when the hon. Senator Banks, who I know has been working diligently on this for quite some time, originally introduced this legislation as Bill S-216, it received the support of all parties in the House. Unfortunately, the government decided to prorogue Parliament, again, this year, so the legislation had to be reintroduced.
The Standing Orders dictate that private members' bills from the other place are not lost if they are passed again by the upper chamber within 60 days.
It is too bad that this time has been lost, since this bill could conceivably have been passed into law by now. A number of bills are in the same situation, or worse.
Just this week I heard the Conservative member for Renfrew—Nipissing—Pembroke speak in this House complaining about how so few bills, especially government bills, had been passed in this session of Parliament. That is really the pot calling the kettle black. If the member's own leader, the Prime Minister, had not suspended Parliament, all the government bills would not have been wiped out. The Conservatives would not have had to start from square one on their legislative agenda. Moreover, if they could work better with the opposition, Parliament could work better and pass more needed legislation.
This bill is fundamentally about reporting on the government's progress on the issue of sustainable development. For over 15 years now, federal departments have been required to make sustainable development plans and to report to Parliament on their progress toward sustainability. Members know that the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development has been critical of successive governments in following these requirements. Many federal departments have had spotty records on planning and working toward sustainability. Some are not even reporting adequately.
In this context, having formal arrangements for the commissioner to report to the other chamber and to perhaps invite a bit more scrutiny is a good thing.
This bill would also allow the commissioner to report to Parliament more than just once a year. It would allow reporting to occur immediately if something urgent or noteworthy came up instead of requiring waiting a whole year to have it in the next report. That is a reasonable idea.
Right now, the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development reports under the auspices of the Auditor General and is an assistant auditor. In addition to reporting on the government's progress and plans for sustainability, the commissioner is also responsible for overseeing the environmental petitions process on behalf of Canadians, which was set up to make sure that Canadians can get timely answers from ministers on environmental issues.
It has been suggested by many that the commissioner should be taken out from under the wing of the Auditor General's office and should become more of a stand-alone office. Regardless of whether that is in the cards or not, Parliament must ensure that the office of the commissioner remains independent from interference and that it is funded adequately to continue its important work.
I say this not just because the commissioner performs an important job for Parliament and allows a certain level of desperately needed accountability, but because of the track record of the government. That track record is one of generally avoiding accountability, especially regarding the environment.
Even as we speak, the government is pushing forward legislation to give itself new powers to scrap the majority of environmental assessments on infrastructure and other projects. The government wants the Minister of the Environment to be able to sidestep the checks and balances Parliament has put in place. These checks are there to make sure that we avoid environmental disasters. With the catastrophe unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, one would think that the government would see fit to rethink its strategy of removing all of the precautions.
Even if the government's primary concern is the bottom line, environmental safeguards are a key element of a good business plan that ensures that projects are sustainable in all ways, economically and environmentally. They prevent hidden financial costs down the road, as BP is discovering. We either invest a little at the beginning, or we pay a lot in the end.
Sadly, gutting environmental assessments this year was just the latest in a number of examples. It was only last year that the same government granted itself the power to basically rip up the assessment process for development projects on lakes and streams in the Navigable Waters Protection Act. The obsession of the Conservative government for more and more power and less and less accountability has become very clear to Canadians and to most of us.
Parliament must remain vigilant and ensure that the various officers and commissioners of Parliament, such as the Parliamentary Budget Officer, the Office of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, the Office of the Auditor General, and others, can retain their independence.
This is private legislation, and thus, members traditionally can decide on their own whether to support it or not. For my part, I am pleased to say that my support for this legislation has not wavered, and I would encourage my New Democratic colleagues to remain supportive as well. I invite all other members of the House to pass Bill S-210 so that it may get the consideration and examination it deserves in committee.