Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to commence debate for the official opposition this afternoon on Bill S-5. Our finance critic will be participating in the debate later on.
At each stage of the bill it we have said that we will be supporting it. We tried to make some amendments at the committee stage. We thought they would make proper adjustments to the various changes that have been made. We thought they would add to the bill and would not in any way detract from it or cause any problems. We wanted to ensure that the scope of the minister's approval was properly reflected to represent the interests not just of the banking industry, but also took into consideration the concerns of the country's economy as a whole. Unfortunately, those amendments were not deemed to be acceptable and they were voted down.
Nonetheless, we recognize that this is an important process in respect of the Canadian financial system. Some would say it represents the strength of the financial system that we have built into the law a periodic review of the Bank Act every five years. The government will take time to go through this process and ensure that the people participating in financial services in the country are being properly represented and also ensure that the agents, the bankers, the operators, the financial institutions, are operating correctly.
There is no question of the strength of the Canadian banking system. Its ability to withstand the economic chaos which the United States, Iceland, Europe, and various countries within the global community experienced in 2008 was because of the fact that historically over generations this country has developed proper and standard regulation.
In the 1990s under the Liberals, there was an attempt to deregulate the financial industry, to open up our financial institutions to foreign control, but Canadians spoke up and said that was not the way they wanted to go forward. I was glad to see that happen.
It causes me some concern when I hear members opposite in the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party take credit for the state of Canada's financial system. They want to take credit for the fact that it is in good shape. I would suggest it is not the Conservatives and the Liberals alone, it is not the people in this House alone who have made the wise decisions. In large part, it is Canadians, the people who send us to this place who let us know how they think their financial system should be regulated, that they want less speculation and more control and more conservative management of the system. That is a good thing. That is something we should acknowledge and respect.
While this review is an important strength of the banking system, we think that this time around in particular, the government missed an opportunity to make some changes that were sorely needed. We have talked about the measures to reinforce demutualization regulation to prevent predatory practices, measures that could enhance the co-operative credit movement as financial institutions that prioritize serving their communities, as opposed to short-sighted speculation and exorbitant executive bonuses, and more comprehensive consumer protection measures.
For example, we look at the problems that are facing consumers as a result of exorbitant ATM fees and hidden fees in a whole myriad of banking services. We would like to see full and complete disclosure of fees that are charged to Canadians who use the banks and other financial institutions in this country. Unfortunately, the government decided not to do that. When members opposite get to their feet and speak to this legislation, it is too bad that all they want to do is boast and take credit for the strength of the financial system. All Canadians should be proud of Canada's financial system.
We have to pay close attention to ensure we do not go down the wrong road, that we do not miss things, that we do not disrupt the rules and regulations that are in place in order to provide protection and sound governance.
In that regard, the member who spoke earlier suggested that there was wide consultation with Canadians across the country. That could not be further from the truth. There were requests for participation and consultation. It was by invitation only. I believe that 32 submissions were made and that was it. Even all of those were not made public. As I said in debate at report stage, members talk about this being a technical bill and that we need to recognize it is too detailed for Canadians. That shows a level of disrespect for Canadians which they do not deserve. In Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, for example, there are a lot of constituents whom I have talked with about the need for consumer protection and for greater protection against demutualization. Constituents of mine and Canadians in general know a great deal about these issues. These issues are not too technical for them.
This bill and any review of financial institutions, of the Bank Act, would benefit greatly from a comprehensive, exhaustive consultation with ordinary Canadians. Maybe then members opposite would have a greater appreciation for the challenges and concerns Canadians are facing, and not just the executives of banks and financial institutions. Banks are making tens of billions of dollars in profits every year, and executives are making millions of dollars in annual salaries and bonuses, while consumers whenever they have contact with a financial institution, are being nickel-and-dimed at every opportunity. That causes some concern.
I think that if we had an open process that provided Canadians with the opportunity to share their opinions, knowledge, and experience with the members opposite, it would be of considerable value.
It was in that regard that I raised a couple of questions with the member who spoke before me, and have talked about this before. I am concerned about the Ombudsman for Banking Services and Investments, a voluntary organization established in 2002 as a result of discussions among government, industry and consumer groups to improve consumer protection and financial services. It was established as a result of section 455 of the Bank Act, which provides all sorts of opportunities to establish dispute resolution processes.
However, these processes are in the complete control of the financial institutions. The whole idea of the Ombudsman for Banking Services and Investments was to have a voluntary organization that was independent. It was set up as an independent service for conflict resolution, with the condition that all banks participate. It was set up to establish procedures for dealing with complaints made by persons who had requested or received products or services in Canada from a bank.
Through the Bank Act each institution has the opportunity to have that kind of service. While that is all good, what the banks, government and consumer groups have recognized is that it is not good enough. That is why the service I referred to was set up. Again, it is not mandatory but voluntary and, unfortunately, two of Canada's largest banks, RBC and TD, left that service.
When I raised questions with the banking association representative at committee, he told me that it was okay because each bank had its own service and own individuals responsible for dealing with complaints. I am not suggesting for a second that he was engaging in any kind of misrepresentation. It was just the situation, and I appreciate the fact that that it is what he said and what the banks are doing. Good for them. Unfortunately, it was determined back in the early 2000s that it was not good enough: Consumers and government recognized that there had to be something more, that there had to be an independent body.
I also raised this question at committee with the parliamentary secretary. I was told that the minister intended to bring forward and set up some other kind of independent service. The government has been saying that now for upwards of a year. Even the banks are wondering what the government will do in this regard.
It is all about independence, consumer representation, fairness, and ensuring that consumers have appropriate representation when dealing with the banks.
As I said, the financial institutions in this country operate within a regulatory framework that provides them with a great deal of protection against competition and their services being challenged and so on. Unfortunately, this approach does not provide consumers with the same level of support, frankly, that my colleagues and I on this side would like to see.
I recognize that the government has gone some distance in fulfilling its responsibility to conduct this review, but the way it did so was to wait until this fall. The government knew that the review was coming forward but waited until the fall to bring forward Bill S-5. It did not introduce it here in the elected chamber for debate and discussion, but in the Senate. That is not to say that senators have not provided some valuable input, but this is the elected chamber. This is where legislation should at least begin. We have been imbued with the concerns, the wishes and the advice of our constituents, and we bring that to bear in debate. We did not have the opportunity to do so.
In short, the bill was discussed, debated and went through some process within the Senate. We did not see it until, I believe, early this year. We have not had much time to deal with it. We know that it has to pass here by April 20 in accordance with the regulations.
If there had been matters that were particularly egregious and we had put up a stink or had wanted to engaged in lengthy debate on them, we would have been accused of putting the whole process in jeopardy as the deadline would be missed. The pressure would have been on.
As a result of the way it was introduced and the timelines used, we did not have the opportunity to have a fulsome discussion with Canadians and in the House on the amendments that we wanted to introduce. That is unfortunate. I believe that very much underlines the way the government tends to view this chamber and the democratic process. We see that here and we see it in committee, as the government is in a hurry. While it was only elected by 39% of the population, it feels that every Canadian out there believes, accepts and agrees with everything it says. The government will not tolerate any conflict, any discussion or opposition. That is unfortunate.
As we know, 60% of Canadians did not vote for the Conservatives. In much of what they told Canadians in the election, Conservatives assured Canadians, for example, that they would not attack their pensions, and yet they are now doing that. The government made commitments not to attack public services, but has been doing that since. The budget is coming down tomorrow and Canadians are going to see firsthand that what the government said to them to get elected was completely to the contrary of what it would do.
That is another slap in the face of democracy and the kind of issue we have been dealing with.