Madam Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie.
Today we are debating what the finance minister would like Canadians and parliamentarians to believe was just a series of misfortunate events, a “distraction”, to use the minister's own words.
I do not share the Minister of Finance's assessment of the matters we are debating today. Instead, respectfully, I would say what has transpired for the minister is not a distraction, is not an administrative error, and certainly is not of the making because of the advice of the Ethics and Conflict of Interest Commissioner, but instead an error in judgment made by the minister. The minister must now find a way forward, so that Canadians can trust that their interests are first and foremost in his mind.
Let me share specifically what we are debating today since we have gone a bit off track when we heard from members on the other side.
What are these so-called distractions?
After being elected to Parliament in 2015, the Minister of Finance led Canadians to believe that he had placed his shares in Morneau Shepell into a blind trust while having never done so. He used a loophole in the Conflict of Interest Act to place his shares in a private numbered company instead of divesting them or placing them in a blind trust.
On October 19, 2016, the minister sponsored Bill C-27, a bill that would reasonably be expected, by reasonable people, to profit Morneau Shepell and the Minister of Finance in light of his continued ownership of shares in Morneau Shepell and through a company he also controls.
The minister remained in charge of regulating the pension industry in which he has a personal economic interest.
Finally, he has failed to live to up to the ethical standards set forth by the Prime Minister in his mandate letter to the minister.
The motion also clearly outlines what needs to happen going forward, a proposal so that the Minister of Finance is not distracted by circumstances of his own making and can resume his focus on the important work of a finance minister.
The motion provides a way forward for all ministers and all parliamentarians by asking the government to close the loopholes in the Conflict of Interest Act as recommended by the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner.
Two years ago, like many Canadians I believed that the then newly elected Liberal government was going to lead differently and bring real change. I personally, along with many others here in the House, made the decision to run for political office to change Parliament and government for the better so that we could better serve all Canadians. More specifically, I ran to advocate for the constituents of Saskatoon West, the community where I have lived and worked for over 30 years.
I have taken every opportunity to point out when I believe the government has followed through on commitments that help my constituents, when, as the labour critic, the government has made important policy changes that support workers' rights and make workplaces safer. I have also pointed out when the government did not follow through on commitments and promises that it made during the election.
When I read the Prime Minister's mandate letters to his cabinet ministers, I was optimistic that we would see a different kind of government, not only in stark contrast to the previous government but a different kind of Liberal government than we have seen in the past. I believed that what was written down on paper in the ministerial mandate letters would be acted upon and would be more than just words.
Here are some excerpts from the finance minister's mandate letter that stood out for me personally and led me to be optimistic that real change was not just possible but indeed would happen:
“We have promised Canadians a government that will bring real change—in both what we do and how we do it”.
“We have also committed to set a higher bar for openness and transparency in government”.
“Its important that we acknowledge mistakes when we make them.”
Finally, the phrase most relevant to today's debate, “...you must uphold the highest standards of honesty and impartiality, and both the performance of your official duties and the arrangement of your private affairs should bear the closest public scrutiny. This is an obligation that is not fully discharged by simply acting within the law.”
Last week, the finance minister, because of pressure from the opposition and an investigation by journalists, did the right thing and after two years as the finance minister, divested himself and his family of all shares in Morneau Shepell. This was the right thing to do.
The tabling of Bill C-27 by the finance minister when he still had business interests in his company, and thus would benefit if the bill were enacted, also put the minister at odds with what was asked of him in his mandate letter from the Prime Minister. This clearly was a conflict of interest. It is possible that he may have indeed personally benefited from simply tabling Bill C-27. I say this because we know that shares in Morneau Shepell increased in value after the bill was tabled.
We also know from news reports that the Minister of Finance, while still in private life, advocated for such a bill. The bill would amend the pension act, allowing employers to change their current commitment to defined pension plans to target benefit pension plans. Morneau Shepell is a major provider of these types of benefit plans.
Bill C-27, should it be enacted, would erode pension security for thousands of federally regulated workers by allowing employers to remove their legal obligations to current and future retirees by converting defined pension plans, even retroactively, to target benefit plans. The bill would allow all the financial risk in future pension benefits to be shifted to individual workers.
Beyond the fact that the Minister of Finance would have benefited financially from the bill, and beyond the fact that he presented a bill that would make changes in regulations that he advocated for in his private life as a business owner, Bill C-27 was introduced without any consultation with Canadians, pensioners, or unions. As well, it broke a specific election promise made by the Prime Minister. When the previous Conservative government proposed similar legislation, it was met with such opposition by retirees and other stakeholders that the effort was abandoned.
I ask the minister why he introduced the legislation. Does he not see how Canadians and parliamentarians would be somewhat suspicious about in whose interest the minister acted when tabling Bill C-27? I would respectfully ask the minister to do the right thing and tell Parliament and Canadians that he will not proceed with Bill C-27.
I believe that Canadians expect the Minister of Finance to go above and beyond, not simply to technically be in compliance with ethical guidelines but to do in word and deed as he was asked by the Prime Minister in his mandate letter, and that is to carry out his duties so that his actions can “bear the closest public scrutiny. This is an obligation that is not fully discharged simply by acting within the law.”
Canadians deserve a finance minister who does not see questions about ethics as distractions. Canadians deserve a finance minister who acknowledges that he has made a mistake.
I believe I have outlined a number of actions the government and the finance minister could take to move forward for the benefit of all Canadians, such as eliminating loopholes in the Conflict of Interest Act, protecting federally regulated defined pension plans, and following through on commitments made by the government during the election.
There is always an opportunity to do the right thing. I urge the Minister of Finance and the government to do the right thing as soon as possible.