Mr. Speaker, I move that the third report of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, presented to the House on Monday, May 14, 2012, be concurred in.
I want to first say what an honour it is to rise again in this great chamber on behalf of the people of Timmins—James Bay. I would like to thank the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, particularly the excellent chair, the member for Sherbrooke, on the report regarding the changes to the Lobbying Act. This is work that was badly needed. On the whole, it was not too much of a partisan fight because we all, as parliamentarians, have a fundamental responsibility to ensure that the secret back doors for lobbyists are closed.
Unfortunately, the issue of back-door lobbying does, however, remain a major problem with the government. I want to say at the beginning that we are not talking about honest lobbyists who meet with members of Parliament, because it is their job to begin and facilitate discussions on issues. There is nothing wrong with that. It is about the use of backroom access, the whole issue of who one knows in the PMO. These are issues we have to root out if there is going to be confidence that Parliament and government work for the people and not just for the insiders. Unfortunately, there have been numerous examples under the government, once again, where it is who one knows in the PMO.
In terms of what was studied under the Lobbying Act, there are a number of examples that are very concerning. I would like to raise a few of them as we look through the recommendations in the report. Certainly, one of the most disturbing is the role of Bruce Carson, who is now up on criminal charges for influence peddling. On June 27, 2012, Mr. Bruce Carson was charged by the RCMP on one count of influence peddling for his role in illegal lobbying through his friends in the Conservative Party.
The disturbing thing about Bruce Carson is that this is a man with a history of fraud convictions. This is a man who had already been convicted as a criminal and yet the Prime Minister invited him into his office as his most senior advisor. We see the ethics problems swirling around the Prime Minister and his judgment problems with supporting people like Patrick Brazeau, despite the numerous red flags that came up, telling us that Pamela Wallin's expense claims were perfectly acceptable, that he had personally seen them, and now she has had to resign in disgrace, as well as telling us that Mike Duffy showed real leadership in using the illegal cheque he received for $90,000.
There are certainly questions about the judgment of the Prime Minister, but this goes back to the question of Bruce Carson, who was brought into the Prime Minister's office as a senior advisor even though he had been convicted of fraud. Then Bruce Carson used that position as an insider to the Prime Minister to set up an illegal lobbying scheme with his young fiancée, Michele McPherson. Their scheme was that she was representing a clean water plan. We need clean water on reserves, but there is something very tawdry about the idea that these insiders were going to cash in on the need of desperately poor first nations for clean water.
Mr. Carson used his influence as an insider friend of the Prime Minister, so that when the former top chief advisor to the Prime Minister started making calls to people, they answered the calls. That is the difference between illegal lobbying versus legal lobbying, and it is one of the loopholes we tried to close. Under the Lobbying Act now, there is a certain threshold before people have to report their lobbying activities. I believe it is 25% of their time. If less than 25% of their time is spent lobbying, then they do not have to report it. When someone is an insider, all he or she needs to do is make a call. He or she does not have to spend 40 hours a week banging on doors, like all the run-of-the-mill lobbyists with their suitcases and PowerPoint presentations. All an insider has to do is make a call. That is the loophole we were trying to close.
Mr. Bruce Carson, convicted fraud artist and personal friend of the Prime Minister, got into the Prime Minister's office. How did he get past the Privy Council or anybody around the Prime Minister? It should have sounded alarm bells. Fraudsters should not be put in the position of having the ear of the Prime Minister. Then he stepped out. Once again, it is the issue of the revolving door, which we have tried to close as the lobbying loophole, so that people cannot just step outside and then call back in to their former pals inside. The closing of the revolving door is an important recommendation that we put forward to make sure that door stays closed, but it did not stay closed in the case of Bruce Carson.
He and his girlfriend tried to cash in through their friends in Indian affairs. They were trying to call the former Indian affairs minister to say, “Hey, we have a deal for you.” What was at stake was over $250 million, so they would have made a cool $25 million. There is no real incentive for this illegal lobbyist to cough up.
This was another recommendation that the New Democrats brought forward and that the Conservatives opposed. We feel it is really important that the lobbying commissioner have the authority to be able to charge fines to those who do not follow the rules.
This is not to say that she is going to be going after all the honest lobbyists who are doing their run-of-the-mill jobs. It is about the illegal lobbyists. If they stand to make $25 million, why would they come forward? This was all going to be done under the table. The Bruce Carson issue is certainly very disturbing.
Another really concerning issue in terms of insider influence in lobbying is Mr. Nigel Wright, the now-disgraced other key advisor to the Prime Minister. We have Bruce Carson, convicted fraud artist, key advisor to the Prime Minister. He was involved, and now he is up on influence peddling charges. Now we have Mr. Nigel Wright, the other key advisor to the Prime Minister who is involved in his own ethical problems with lobbying.
It is really important to look at this in terms of what has happened with Mr. Nigel Wright now. Mr. Nigel Wright is very well known in the business community, and that is perfectly fair. He is extremely close to Barrick Gold, extremely close to Barrick founder Peter Munk and a very close friend of Anthony Munk, his son.
Mr. Wright worked with Anthony Munk on Onex Corporation, the private equity investment giant. He took a leave of absence from that portfolio to go and work for the Prime Minister.
He was also on the board of directors of the Aurea Foundation, a charitable foundation set up by Peter Munk. Peter Munk has said that he would rank Nigel Wright among the mere handful of people he has met in whom he has complete trust. Have I also mentioned that he is the godfather to Anthony Munk's son? This guy is like family.
The Conservatives were telling us that Nigel Wright is as straight as they come in terms of ethics and that we would never have to worry about Nigel Wright. In April 2012, our Prime Minister was down in South America. He was at the Summit of the Americas in Colombia in mid-April. Our Prime Minister, of course, likes to decide that he is a mini-Maggie Thatcher sometimes, so he stepped out at this conference and started shooting his mouth off about the Malvinas.
One has to wonder what the Prime Minister was thinking, going down to South America and deciding that he was going to start to wave Maggie Thatcher's legacy on the Falkland-Malvinas situation. He upset the Argentinians terribly. The Argentinians were very upset, and the president of Argentina asked herself what she was even doing there, listening to this guy. Then she left and started putting the screws to Canadian businesses in Argentina as a result of our Prime Minister, “Mr. I-know-everything-about-the-world, but I do not have any of the power to back it up”.
One of the screws they started to put was to Barrick, which had a multi-billion-dollar gold operation that it was trying to get off the ground in Argentina. However, thanks to our Prime Minister and his decision to be a mini-Union Jack, Argentina was putting the screws to Barrick.
What did the Barrick people do? They called Nigel Wright. They called right into the Prime Minister's office, because they knew Nigel Wright.
The Lobbying Act and the conflict of interest guidelines are really clear. No one is supposed to be able to just call their insider friends and say, “Fix it”. Barrick called, not once, not twice, but three times. There was a meeting set up. There were phone calls made. Nigel Wright was the point person, the man who is the godfather to Peter Munk's grandson, the man whom Peter Munk said he trusts, out of a mere handful of people in whom he has complete trust.
Nigel Wright was playing this role of friend of the Munks, friend of Barrick Gold and insider to the Prime Minister. That is not the way ethical government is supposed to run. This is a government that promised government was not going to be run on who people know in the PMO.
If the alarm bells had gone off at that time, we might not be in the trouble we are in now with Mr. Wright, who may have written an illegal $90,000 cheque that contravenes the Parliament of Canada Act.
Under the Parliament of Canada Act, anyone who offers compensation to a senator in a controversy before the Senate has committed an indictable offence. We are talking about a crime being committed out of the Prime Minister's office.
We have a former criminal, Mr. Bruce Carson, who was in the Prime Minister's office. We have Mr. Nigel Wright. Alarm bells should have been going off because of his role with Barrick and his insider influence in the Prime Minister's office. Now we have found out that he has written a secret cheque to cover off a political scandal. Why was that cheque written? Senator Tkachuk said that the political scandal was hurting the Prime Minister, so once again Nigel Wright started to make calls. Instead of receiving the calls, he was making the calls. He was making the calls to the Senate, which is completely inappropriate.
I have never had a lot of respect for what happens in the Senate, but the one thing I do respect is the separation of powers. However, we see that it is the Prime Minister's right hand calling the Senate to find out how they are going to shut down this problem. Senator Tkachuk dutifully changed an in camera report to protect Mike Duffy, and Nigel Wright cut the $90,000 secret cheque.
We have been looking at the issue of gifts under the Lobbying Act and Conflict of Interest Act guidelines. The Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner is actually saying that we need to drop the level of gifts to $50. Of course, the Conservatives are hacking and coughing, because they are going to receive only $50 gifts. What an outrage. The Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner and the Commissioner of Lobbying have spoken about the issue of gifts and the influence gifts have.
When the Commissioner of Lobbying talks about gifts, I am sure she is thinking about box tickets to the Rogers Centre, like our friend from the St. Catharines area received, or perhaps an expensive bottle of wine. No one is thinking about $90,000 even coming close to being a gift. In most places, $90,000 would seem like a bribe. It is pretty staggering that the Conservatives would consider $90,000 a gift.
Under the Lobbying Act and the Conflict of Interest Act, there are clear rules about accepting gifts. Gifts have to be reported. This is the other interesting thing that needs to be addressed. Mike Duffy pocketed the $90,000 and apparently told the Senate, “Do not worry. I went to the bank and got a loan”. If this were perfectly on the up and up, why would he not just say that he called his friend Nigel Wright? This man is a paragon of virtue. He wants to help the poor downtrodden trough-eaters. If one is on the streets and is one of those senators who has not been able to get the latest bottle of champagne, here is Nigel Wright who walks along and says, “Do not worry, because at my table, a place is set for you, and here is your $90,000”.
If Nigel Wright were doing that as his sense of public duty, the Conservatives would be crowing about it. These are not people who are quiet. No, that did not happen.
This is again an issue under the Lobbying and Conflict of Interest Acts, because gifts have to be reported. They pretended on the government side all last week that this was a gift and an attempt to be ethical. I thought I heard the word “heroic” used. That was some heroic gift. A $90,000 secret payout was somehow heroic for the Conservatives. It was honourable, heroic and ethical, and now it is “disappointing”.
If one reads the Conflict of Interest Act or the Lobbying Act, it is not disappointing to cut secret $90,000 cheques; it is illegal. There are reasons it is illegal to pay off politicians. There is a reason rules are put in place.
There are numerous other examples from the government showing why we need to clarify the Lobbying Act. This is interesting. We have studied the Lobbying Act and the Conflict of Interest guidelines, because there are actually two different sets of rules. There are the rules that cover the lobbyists, and those who are lobbied have a different set of rules.
The present Minister of Labour was in a little foofaraw of her own when a number of lobbyists started selling tickets for her fundraiser. These are major ethical issues. It is not as though lobbyists just showed up at her fundraiser, because that happens when a fundraiser is held and people buy tickets. Everyone cannot be screened. However, lobbyists were taking her tickets and selling them. Of course, these guys were in the cement industry, and they thought this was a good way to curry some favour with the minister.
The Commissioner of Lobbying found that these three lobbyists had breached the act. Karen Shepherd said that in the three cases, the lobbyists were in breach of the Lobbyists' Code of Conduct. She concluded that Bruce Rawson did not register lobbying activity on behalf of two clients. The commissioner found that Will Stewart and Mike McSweeney created an apparent conflict of interest by conducting fundraising activities for a federal cabinet minister whose department they were lobbying.
Our present minister is the one who was hiding in a sleeping bag. When they invited him out to a major weekend to discuss major deals, he went off and slept in his sleeping bag. I was thinking that he must have been the only guy who ever went to that mansion and brought a sleeping bag. However, that was his line. We were supposed to fall for that. He was in his sleeping bag. He was not being lobbied.
Karen Shepherd found that these guys were selling tickets to her political fundraiser. I am sorry. They cannot walk around saying, “Hi. We are friends of the minister. Will you give us 250 bucks?” and then go to the minister and say, “Listen. We sold all these tickets for you. Things should be cool. Let us sit down and maybe talk about our plan”.
We have rules about that. Canadians are fed up with this kind of backroom buddy system that has fed and nurtured the Conservative Party for so long.
The interesting thing is that these two men were found to be in breach of the Lobbying Act, yet the minister was under the conflict of interest guidelines, and she was cleared.
If I am the lobbyist who sold tickets to her fundraiser and was smacked, I would think, “Wait a minute. I sold the tickets for her. She collected the money. She is in the clear. I am not. Why is that?” I am sure the folks back home are wondering the same thing. It is because we have different rules for ministers than we have for lobbyists. Under the rules for ministers, she did not personally benefit. They did not buy her a car; they paid for her political fundraising.
Now, the lobbying commissioner has been very clear. There are problems with this view, because there is the issue of apparent conflict of interest. The government likes just the words “conflict of interest”.
The issue of apparent conflict of interest is very important. What we are talking about is that because she did not exactly personally gain from the fact that her riding association was raising money to get her re-elected, the Conflict of Interest Commissioner said that she did not know if she exactly received a benefit. That leaves me scratching my head. Politics is about political favours being paid at these fundraisers. The lobbying commissioner was really clear that the minister was receiving a benefit.
As New Democrats, we have asked the government to work with us to clear up this loophole. Let us ensure that we have a clear set of rules so that the issue of “apparent” is added to the guidelines for conflict of interest. Ministers would be responsible if people were selling tickets to their fundraisers. That is the issue.
We are not going to do “gotcha” moments and go back over their fundraising lists. Certain people do pay in. Sometimes it is rather sketchy. They were selling the tickets.
We see the difference in the government now. When it came in in 2005-2006, I remember the present foreign affairs minister saying that they were going to shine the light into the dark places. He said that one day when I was asking him questions about the infamous Bev Oda.
Now, Bev Oda crossed as many lines as one could cross. The very first line Bev Oda crossed was before she was the heritage minister. At that time, major reviews were going on before the CRTC. Some of her friends in the broadcast industry held a fundraiser for her in their office. They held the fundraiser. They sold the tickets, and she collected the money. The present Minister of Foreign Affairs made her give the money back. That was the Conservatives in 2006. He said that they were going to shine the light into the dark places.
Going forward to 2013, we do not ever hear about them shining lights anywhere anymore. In fact, they are systematically taking the light bulbs out of Ottawa and making this place as dark as it can be. Folks watching from back home are going to see that our Prime Minister has been skipping out, hiding out, refusing to answer questions on Nigel Wright. Nigel Wright has gone for the high jump. One has to run after him at four in the morning to try to get him while he is jogging to get an honest answer, and we still are not getting an answer.
They are taking the light bulbs out, when they promised to shine a light on the darkness in their activities. This is why the New Democrats have pushed the issue of lobbying and conflict of interest.