Mr. Speaker, I would like to welcome all of the members here in the House back to Parliament. The New Democrats worked hard this summer. They met with their constituents and knocked on a lot of doors to find out about people's priorities. I myself am so glad that I know more about the issues and concerns that matter most to the people of Terrebonne—Blainville.
I am pleased to rise in the House today to debate Bill C-520. Since I am a member of the committee that studied this bill, I feel confident talking about just how bad it is.
I would like to begin by saying that the NDP will always seek to strengthen political impartiality and transparency in Parliament. The NDP believes that Parliament cannot function well without these values, which underpin its credibility and that of its institutions. My NDP colleagues and I fully embrace the principle of political neutrality and transparency.
I also believe that any bill whose purpose is to implement measures based on these principles must be drafted with great care and attention to detail. Unfortunately, that is not the case with Bill C-520. Not only is it badly written, it is also yet another sorry attempt by the government to cover up its own failures in terms of parliamentary accountability.
Other than the title—which, by the way, is a smokescreen—the content of Bill C-520 is useless, redundant and tinged with malice. Still, Canadians will not be taken in. They are well aware that the true purpose of this bill is to intimidate agents of Parliament, the very people whose mandate is to protect Canadians from the government's abuses.
This shows yet again that the Conservatives do not want to be accountable to anyone.They want to do what they want to do when they want to do it, and they could not care less about democracy. With a bill like Bill C-520, they are not even trying to hide the fact. This is another sorry example of the Conservatives' way of doing things: a witch hunt targeting those who would bring them into line.
The NDP strongly opposes this bill, which is rife with flaws, omissions and sinister motives. We are very proud of our work in committee. We worked hard to force the government to eliminate the worst parts of Bill C-520. Even so, this bill serves no purpose, and that is what I would like to demonstrate today.
When the hon. member for York Centre appeared before the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics to defend his bill, he described it as “imperative” and “critical”. Using such an alarming tone suggests that the political neutrality of agents of Parliament is often threatened. That is what my colleague, the hon. member for Timmins—James Bay, was trying to find out more about. He asked the member for York Centre whether he had any examples of partisan activities conducted by any of the nine offices of the agents of Parliament who are subject to his bill. Oddly, the hon. member for York Centre had no concrete examples to provide. Not one.
It is odd that Bill C-520 is meant to address a problem that does not exist. Even more strange, or more worrisome, I should say, is that during review in committee we found out that the hon. member for York Centre did not contact any of the nine offices of the agents of Parliament when his bill was being drafted, even though they will be directly affected by the proposed measures in the bill.
If the hon. member had bothered to take this more seriously and had held consultations, he would have soon realized that we already have a whole series of laws and codes of ethics governing the offices of agents of Parliament and that those laws and codes impose political neutrality on anyone employed by those offices. For example, most of the offices of agents of Parliament are already regulated by the Public Service Employment Act, the Political Activities Regulations and the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector.
Other laws are in place to ensure the political neutrality of offices that are not subject to the Public Service Employment Act, such as the office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, who is appointed under the Parliament of Canada Act. This statute takes political neutrality into account in the appointment process. What is more, the commissioner's office is governed by a code of values and standards of conduct that specifically and thoroughly addresses political activities and neutrality. A number of other agents of Parliament have their own code of conduct that complements the current legislative regime.
As hon. members can see, we already have a host of laws and public policies that ensure the political neutrality of agents of Parliament and their employees.
The three agents of Parliament who testified before the committee did not provide any examples of a conflict of interest or political partisanship. Their employees are professionals who carry out their official duties in a strictly non-partisan way.
Clearly, the current system is working. It is effective and, as a result, Bill C-520 is unnecessary and redundant. It is therefore not surprising that the member for York Centre was unable to provide any examples of partisan actions.
If the government was really serious about its approach and was actually acting in good faith, it would have consulted all of the agents of Parliament and invited all of the agents affected by Bill C-520 to testify in committee. However, it did not do so. In my opinion, that was the least the government could have done.
When I read Bill C-520 for the first time, I wondered what the real motives of the member for York Centre were. After all, this bill does not solve a problem; rather, it is a solution that is looking for a problem.
We have to ask ourselves why such a bill is being introduced since, in addition to duplicating systems and creating overlap, Bill C-520 is seriously flawed. Well, I got an answer this past June.
Everyone agrees that Bill C-520 is an unfair attack on the agents of Parliament whose duty it is to monitor the Conservatives. We learned from an article in the National Post that the member for York Centre, the sponsor of this bill, accepted inappropriate donations from lobbyists that he met as part of his work on the Standing Committee on Finance.
This type of solicitation violates the guidelines issued by the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, which prohibit MPs from targeting any organizations or individuals with which they anticipate having official dealings.
This is not the first time that this type of thing has happened. Over the past few months, even Conservative ministers have had to pay back donations that the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner deemed inappropriate.
Clearly, the current government does not want to be accountable any more than it wants to be monitored. The agents of Parliament are doing an excellent job of protecting us from government abuse, since the Conservatives are being caught with their hands in the cookie jar on a regular basis.
Rather than following the rules, the Conservatives are seeking to undermine the credibility of those who monitor them by unfairly attacking those individuals. That is what happened with the former parliamentary budget officer and, more recently, with the Chief Electoral Officer.
Bill C-520 is nothing more than a cynical attempt on the part of the Conservatives to make Parliament less accountable to Canadians. It is very worrisome.
Canadians deserve a government that respects parliamentary institutions, not one that tries to circumvent the rules and take advantage of the system.
I would like to speak to another aspect of this bill that is of great concern to me, namely the privacy rights of employees in the offices of agents of Parliament.
This bill requires anyone who applies for a position with or works in the office of an agent of Parliament to produce a written declaration indicating any partisan positions they have held in the past 10 years. The bill also requires that the declaration be posted on the office's website. In my opinion, these requirements are unnecessary and violate employees' privacy.
Everyone knows that the Conservatives do not care about Canadians' privacy. That is blatantly obvious in this case.
Forcing office employees to publicly divulge this type of information could have serious consequences because their work location and political affiliations would be made public. What is more, in 10 years, an employee could have changed affiliations or completely ceased any political involvement.
Those kinds of factors could cause employees keep quiet instead of disclosing this information. In addition, they may be concerned about the impact such declarations could have on their career and therefore may be reluctant to disclose anything.
Thanks to the NDP's hard work and effort, we avoided the worst. When this bill was studied in committee, we got the government to back down and forced it to withdraw the most dangerous provisions in the original bill.
Unfortunately, the concessions the Conservatives made do very little to assuage our concerns, which are shared by the agents of Parliament. Bill C-520 is still a set of useless provisions that will lead to confusion and make agents of Parliament less independent.
The NDP will continue to work to protect the agencies of parliamentary oversight.
Our country deserves better than a selfish, mean-spirited government.