Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to rise in this House, as always, to speak on behalf of the people of Timmins—James Bay.
I am not pleased that Parliament is looking at this report as it stands now. I believe that this report has made a mockery of the work of Parliament and the parliamentary committees and has undermined, in a very egregious manner, the objective of the Conflict of Interest Act and the promise that was made in 2006, when the present Prime Minister came into town promising accountability.
When we go back to 2006, after the endemic corruption that had beset Ottawa under years and years of a Liberal government, there were numerous problems identified. There was the revolving door around the Prime Minister's office; the easy access of the lobbyists to keep people in positions; the lack of accountability mechanisms for the people in the civil service at the very high levels, who were making the procurement decisions; and the inability to devise clear walls between the political operatives of the government and the senior civil service to ensure accountability to the Canadian people.
In 2006, the New Democratic Party worked in good faith with the incoming Conservative government, because we believe in the issue of transparency and accountability, regardless of which party is in power. The Canadian people expect this.
At the time, there were some obvious major failings in the efforts of the accountability act. We had pushed to have the Senate under the same code as the House of Commons so that Canadians could trust that even though the House is elected and the Senate is not elected, and I am not going to get into that issue tonight, there was a standard for ethical behaviour. The Canadian public will certainly agree that if the Senate had agreed to come under the Conflict of Interest Act and to have an empowered ethics commissioner and a lobbying commissioner a number of its members might not be facing fraud or be under investigation the way they are tonight.
That does not mean that the act itself, the way it was administered in Parliament, did not have problems. That was the reason for the five-year statutory review. The reason was that we needed to see what worked and what did not. Certainly over the period of five years, a number of problems came forward that the original enshriners of the act, the Conservative government at the time, working with the New Democrat opposition, may not have envisioned.
One of the problems was the interpretation of the Conflict of Interest Act. Present Commissioner Mary Dawson is very literal. There is no deviation on the issue of apparent conflict of interest.
Yet members will know that in dealing with lobbying or people looking to get access, the issue of apparent conflict of interest is as crucial as conflict of interest, because it is very difficult to prove an exact conflict of interest unless the actual body is lying on the ground, with a gun in the hand, and the ethics commissioner is jumping in the door as it is all happening.
The issue of apparent conflict of interest would have been a reasonable amendment to clarify the role of the ethics commissioner.
We needed to clarify the roles of the lobbying commissioner and the ethics commissioner, because we have had the bizarre situation where the lobbying commissioner has found that lobbyists have acted inappropriately, yet the same ministers who were under investigation through the ethics commissioner for the same act of lobbying were found to have done nothing wrong. There is obviously a problem if the lobbyist did something wrong but the ministers or senior civil servants did not. We had to clarify that. It would have been a good result of the act to clarify that, which would come down to the issue of the apparent conflict of interest role.
There are certainly issues in terms of clarifying the roles of financial remuneration, particularly for the top parliamentary secretaries and ministers of the crown, because these are the people who can be influenced.
Right now the reading of the act is very narrow. There has to be a personal benefit. A personal benefit is not necessarily money paid to a riding association, yet clearly there is a benefit to a lobbyist who is going to give money to a riding association.
This is not to be draconian on this. I am sure we could have worked it out.
If a senior minister has someone donate to him or her, one does not necessarily have the ability to check everybody who is donating, so that person is not necessarily in a conflict of interest. However, if that person is in his or her office and lobbyists are going to the office and the individual is saying he or she is doing a fundraiser, the person is potentially in a conflict of interest. However, if the word “apparent” is not being used, that issue is not being clarified. These were issues that needed to be addressed.
Certainly Canadians were wondering how it was possible that the most senior inside advisor to the Prime Minister could write a secret cheque for $90,000. Is that a conflict of interest, a breach of the act? These were things that needed to be clarified, so we all understood the rules. Unfortunately, that did not happen.
Let us talk about the administration of the act, the people who are under the act, and about how this whole process was undermined.
In terms of the administration of the role of the access to information, privacy and ethics committee, these are officers of Parliament who are some of the finest civil servants I have had the honour to meet. There is extreme professionalism traditionally, by the Information Commissioner, the Privacy Commissioner, Elections Canada, the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, and the Lobbying Commissioner. They all play the role of ensuring that parliamentarians in government are accountable to the Canadian people.
However, we saw the full-on attack against the credibility of the head of Elections Canada, insinuating that he was somehow partisan. That undermined his office and his ability to do the work. We saw the attack on the former parliamentary budget officer, Kevin Page, which was relentless and completely out of line. The government was trying to undermine the work of an independent officer who was bringing forward the information that parliamentarians need.
The recent appointment of the Privacy Commissioner has caused a great deal of uncertainty in terms of his role. I hope he can fulfill his role with credibility, despite what has happened under the current government. Then we have the issue of the Conflict of Interest Act and how Mary Dawson is going to apply that act. We know she has proven herself to be very literal when she reads the act, so who is it that Mary Dawson or a future ethics commissioner should be overseeing? This was a big issue in terms of what we debated. We heard from expert after expert, right across the political spectrum. The key issue was who it is that the ethics commissioner should be overseeing. It is clearly people who hold power and who have the ability to make decisions.
If a backbencher writes a letter of support for a local business, because that is what backbenchers do, that is considered part of the job. However, someone sitting at the cabinet table is not supposed to do that because that person has the power to influence in a way that a backbencher does not. Therefore, there is a gradation, in terms of the roles of responsibility and accountability.
Elected members of Parliament have certain ethical standards that they have to meet, but the act is meant for key people who are able to influence power. Cabinet ministers, parliamentary secretaries, and key advisors around the Prime Minister, would be considered part of that. These are the office holders who can be influenced and who can influence. Who are the lobbyists attempting to influence? Who are they taking out to supper? Who are they buying gifts for? Who are they taking on trips? These are the kinds of questions that the ethics commissioner needs to deal with.
In the 2006 platform of the Conservative Party, there were a number of recommendations about empowering an ethics commissioner. One of the recommendations was that members of the public should be able to make complaints. It does not mean that the ethics commissioner is going to be burdened with all manner of spurious complaints. In fact, if the ethics commissioner believes a complaint is spurious, she can write it off. However, members of the public should have the right to ask for investigations, and the ethics commissioner could decide whether to apply it.
The issue of administrative monetary penalties was a fundamental principle in the 2006 Conservative platform. Administrative monetary penalties mean that the ethics commissioner as well as the Lobbying Commissioner have the power to enforce the act so that they can hold people to account.
We are being told it is simply enough that they have moral weight or that they ask people to stay after school or write an essay saying that they promise they will not do it again.
If someone is dealing with contracts that may be worth hundreds of millions of dollars and is seen as doing something inappropriate, the lobbying and ethics commissioners should have the ability to bring forward administrative monetary penalties, yet the government is against that. It does not want these independent officers to have teeth.
We have talked about the people who hold the power, the people who make the decisions, the people who get lobbied and the people who do the lobbying, the people who decide on procurement, the people who are appointed to key government boards and the big public boards that people are brought forward on. These are all the people we heard again and again should be under the act, to what extent they should be under the act, and what rules should apply to them.
That was the main oversight of our committee, yet all of that evidence was completely ignored. At the last minute, the deus ex machina recommendation dropped in from the Prime Minister's Office, right in the middle of the recommendation. Of all of the recommendations that we heard from the law societies and the experts, recommendation number one, which was rolled down right into our report as though it had actually been presented as evidence, although it had not, came down from the Prime Minister's Office and said that from now on, anybody who has a union card and works in the civil service is going to be treated the same as ministers of the crown.
Poor Mary Dawson was somewhat gobsmacked by that recommendation. We asked her how many people would come under the act and how many people she would now have to administer. It would be like telling Mary Dawson that in addition to making sure that the parliamentary secretary for finance is not being unduly lobbied and in addition to making sure that key ministers are not hanging out and going on weekend trips with key lobbyists, she will now have to look after more people than live in the city of Saskatoon or Longueuil. The number is double the population of Barrie.
Now she is going to have to administer that act herself. What that means in a very simple and cynical fashion is that the Conservatives have watered down the act to make her job functionally impossible. We asked her how she would handle this recommendation. She said that she simply would not be able to do it. The government would have to get some other body to it. What the government has done is it has decided that its number one recommendation, without any evidence or witnesses coming forward, is to make her office unable to do its job, which is keeping the key power brokers in the Conservative government accountable.
The other thing the Conservative government is pushing for is secrecy. This is the government that tells us how much it believes in openness and transparency. What it believes in is total transparency against its enemies and total secrecy for its friends. It wants to make it so that any investigation of any of its ministers or friends who are guilty of wrongdoing has to be kept secret.
The government members do not talk about that here tonight when we hear them talk about transparency, openness and datasets. It was talking about radio waves and fish stocks earlier, but it was not telling the Canadian public that one of the key recommendations they are bringing forward is to make the investigation process secret. How does that help the Canadian public? It does not, but it will certainly help the Conservative Party when it is about protecting Conservatives and hiding the information about whether or not any wrongdoing has been done.
We have enormous respect for these institutions, and we believe that when recommendations or questions for investigations are brought forward, the spurious ones will be looked at and thrown out, but the Canadian public has a right to know that an investigation is under way. They have a right to know that the ethics commissioner has the right, and should have the right, to be able to say, “Yes, I have launched an investigation”, and the person who is bringing it should be able to say it. She should also have the right to say, “I looked at it and I found that it was an absolutely ridiculous request for an investigation. No, I am not doing it.” That should be the power of an independent officer, which the government is taking away, but it has not said that.
There was a number of recommendations that the government ignored. What we are seeing here is a sham. This is not based on what we heard.
The Conservatives completely ignored the 70-some recommendations from the Ethics Commissioner. They ignored the recommendations that came from the law societies and the people who deal with the administration of government who look at these issues. They ignored all of those recommendations and basically brought in a whitewash that will undermine this act.
We believe that the power to bring in administrative monetary penalties is a key power that the Ethics Commissioner needs as well as the Commissioner of Lobbying. That should include the ability to suspend for a specified period, a suspension of a member's right to vote if they refuse to be compliant for a period of time, and require reimbursement for the value of the gift.
We spent hours and hours talking about the value of gifts and whether it should $30, $50, or whether there should be any limit at all. Personally, I think it absurd to think that somebody would be influenced by a gift of $30, a snow globe or a photo book of Saskatoon in the spring. What will influence someone is being flown around the country or flown around Europe and given tens of thousands of dollars in free gifts. That is an issue.
We spent hours arguing about gifts, which was fundamentally irrelevant because it treats the ethics abilities of the civil servants and key ministers and it makes it ridiculous. However, on the issue of gifts, at a certain point we have to set a reasonable fee.
We have to deal with the issue of fundraising and lobbyists, first, so that it is fair, but second, so that it is clear. However, none of that is in there.
Ministers, Ministers of State and Parliamentary Secretaries should ensure that government facilities and equipment, including ministerial or departmental letterhead, are not used for or in connection with fundraising activities.
These are the straightforward, straight-up responsibilities that should be in the act.
The ministerial code of conduct that the Prime Minister himself brought in should be made part of the act. It is absolutely useless to have a code of conduct that is optional. How can we have a code of conduct for ethics that is optional? The Prime Minister had established what the rules were for ministers of the crown. We should put it in the act, and that should be the standard that people apply to.
Again, on the issue of bringing complaints, it should be fair. If the public believes a complaint should be brought, the Commissioner of Lobbying and the Ethics Commissioner should have the ability and power to decide whether it is reasonable or not.
Also, there is the extended definition of ministerial staff to include those working within the minister's office on contract work. This is not to say that if one is in a member's office and a student from one's hometown comes by that they should not be part of the act. That would be absurd. However, if one is dealing with a ministerial office and coming in to do contract work, while in the minister's office, one is part of the overall decision-making and under that period of time it would be a reasonable thing. Again, it would not be reasonable to apply that to every single person who comes in to volunteer at the office of a member of Parliament or even over in the Senate, if we imagine it ever did become accountable.
These are the lines that we have to start defining between what is a reasonable request and what is an unreasonable request, and what is doable and what is not.
We believe that we could reduce the gifts. As I said earlier, there was talk about $30 and $500. Right now it is $200, but we believe a $100 gift is fair.
If a member goes out to lunch with someone, the member's doors will not busted down if a member paid for someone's lunch at $100. I mean, I would love a Saskatchewan Roughriders jacket, but nobody has ever given me one. However, if it was under $100, that would be perfectly fine, but not if it was over $100. These are reasonable things.
Also, make automatic divestment rules for reporting public office holders with significant decision-making power and access to privileged information, including but not limited to ministers, ministers of state, parliamentary secretaries, chiefs of staff, deputy ministers, ministerial staff and employees in a minister's office. Keep those rules in place, but extending that to 260,000 civil servants across the country will make this act unenforceable. It will dilute the role of the Ethics Commissioner and it will make a mockery of the work of our committee.