Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have this opportunity to provide the government's response to Bill C-520, an act supporting non-partisan offices of agents of Parliament. I know that the member for York Centre has worked very hard on this bill, and I would like to assist the House in explaining the reasons he brought it forward.
The purpose of the bill is to avoid conflicts that could arise, or be perceived to arise, between partisan activities and the official duties and responsibilities of any person who works in the office of an agent of Parliament. For the record, this bill would apply to the offices of the Auditor General of Canada, the Chief Electoral Officer, the Privacy Commissioner, the Commissioner of Official Languages for Canada, the Information Commissioner, the Commissioner of Lobbying, the Senate Ethics Officer, the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, and the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner.
We all know these offices quite well. They oversee the activities of our public institutions. Their chief officers report directly to Parliament rather than to government or an individual minister, and as such, they support MPs in carrying out their important duties.
Some have been part of our system of government for a very long time. This includes the position of Auditor General, which was created shortly after Confederation to provide objective information and assurance regarding the use of public funds.
In 1920, the position of Chief Electoral Officer was created. Among its many duties, this office monitors compliance with electoral law and maintains readiness to conduct federal elections.
The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages has also been with us for some time. Established in 1969 with the adoption of the Official Languages Act, this office ensures recognition of the status of each official language in Canada. It also ensures compliance with the spirit and intent of the Official Languages Act in the administration of the affairs of federal institutions.
Then, in 1983, as issues related to personal privacy and access to information began to draw more and more attention, the positions of Information Commissioner and Privacy Commissioner were created.
More recently, the government created three additional agent of Parliament positions: a Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner and a Public Sector Integrity Commissioner in 2007, and a Commissioner of Lobbying in 2008.
Each office serves a specific function. They contribute enormously to the accountability of our system of government, and taken together, they provide Canadians with assurances that government programs and services are working as they should and that institutions and individuals are accountable for their actions and decisions.
Here are some of the important functions they ensure: that funds provided to a federal organization are fully accounted for and used in compliance with programs or project agreements, that public service employees and other officials adhere to standards of professionalism and ethics, that activities are conducted in accordance with an organization's legislative mandate and adopted policies, that government activities are conducted in the most efficient and effective manner, and that the inefficient use of resources is avoided.
In short, agents of parliament play an invaluable role in our Westminster style of government. As a whole, they oversee the activities of a vast array of public institutions and officials that provide countless services and benefits to Canadians around the world.
It is worth remembering that the federal government is the largest employer in Canada. Its range of activities is as broad as it is vital to the future of our country. Indeed, we have people working in hundreds of locations in all parts of Canada and around the globe. From hospital orderlies to research biologists, from economists to crews on naval ships, from ambassadors to correctional officers, from police officers in remote communities to aircraft pilots, the knowledge and skills demanded of public service employees are as varied as Canada itself. This all takes place in a complex and unpredictable environment.
It is part of our challenge as parliamentarians to ensure that the full range of what the government does for Canadians is run in an accountable and transparent way. It is a big job, and we could not do it without the support of agents of Parliament.
The government has taken steps to strengthen and enhance the role of agents of Parliament in recent years, in particular through the 2006 Federal Accountability Act. The act strengthened the powers of the Auditor General, toughened the office of the ethics commissioner, expanded the reach of the Access to Information Act, and tightened lobbying rules, among other measures. Thanks to such reforms, Canada has one of the most accountable and transparent systems of government in the world. This is something all Canadians can be rightly proud of.
The bill before us today gives us an opportunity to further enhance our accountability regime. It includes measures to help maintain the principle of merit and non-partisanship in the offices of agents of Parliament. For example, it would require every person who applies for a position in the office of an agent of Parliament to make a declaration with respect to past engagements in political partisan positions. Specifically, this declaration would state whether in the 10 years before applying for that position the person had occupied certain specific politically partisan positions. The declaration would indicate the nature of any such position as well as the period of time during which the person occupied it.
The bill would also require every person who works in the office of an agent of Parliament and who intends to occupy a politically partisan position while holding the position in that office to provide a written declaration of their intention to do so. The declaration would indicate the nature of the politically partisan position as well as the period of time during which the person intends to occupy it.
In addition, the bill would require persons who work in these offices to provide a written undertaking that they will conduct themselves in a non-partisan manner in fulfilling the official duties and responsibilities of their positions.
This bill would help to ensure that we continue to benefit from a system of government that is based on non-partisanship, an essential element of both a professional public administration and a responsible democratic government. It is for this reason that I urge all members to join me in supporting this legislation.