Mr. Speaker, I rise again, this time at third reading, to speak in support of Bill C-24, an act to update and modernize the Salaries Act. I would like to focus my comments on the five positions Bill C-24 would add to the Salaries Act, positions that are currently minister of state appointments.
The bill would update the Salaries Act to reflect the structure of the current ministry by adding five titled positions. The five positions to be added under the Salaries Act are already occupied by ministers, ministers who are working on important priorities for this government and for Canadians: science, small business and tourism, status of women, la Francophonie, and sport and persons with disabilities. The amendments fully recognize that these are full ministers who lead on important matters and are directly accountable to the Prime Minister and Parliament for results.
The speakers who oppose the bill have said that the ministers of state are “junior ministers”, “little ministers”, or not “full ministers”; that they assist other ministers with their responsibilities and report to the ministers they assist; and that they cannot bring forward memoranda to cabinet without senior ministers sponsoring those items. They have remarked that the five ministers whose positions would be added under the Salaries Act were appointed as ministers of state and assigned, by order in council, to assist other ministers. They have asserted that this is evidence that the Prime Minister intended these ministers to be junior ministers, and they say that this should remain their status. They say that this bill would simply paper over a blunder when the ministry was originally put in place and would give junior ministers an undeserved raise in the bargain.
I understand the origins of this misperception. Conventionally, that has been the role of ministers of state, sometimes called secretaries of state. They have most often assisted other ministers with their portfolio responsibilities. They have not often been members of cabinet, and they have not been able to bring matters to cabinet for consideration on their own.
Ministers of state were not given, in previous governments, statutory authorities to exercise in their own right or statutory duties for which they were directly accountable. Instead, they were assigned to assist a senior minister in carrying out that minister's responsibilities. The senior minister retained the statutory authorities and accountability. The salaries of the ministers of state reflected their supporting roles.
These were policy choices former prime ministers were entitled to make in the exercise of their prerogative to design their ministries in a way they judged would accomplish the government's priorities and properly oversee the day-to-day governing of the country.
The former prime ministers relied significantly on ministers of state. Specifically, under Prime Minister Harper, there were 13 in office at the dissolution of that government. Some of those former ministers of state who are still in this House have said during the course of the debate on this bill that in that role, they worked on important matters. When invited to cabinet, they had an equal voice at the table. They said they considered it a privilege to serve in that capacity. I have no doubt that all of that is true. I am certain that past ministers of state were valued and contributing members of their ministries.
Successive prime ministers have favoured two-tier ministries, and current legislation allows for that kind of structure. Ministers have a significant workload between their portfolios, cabinet, and parliamentary and political duties and have responsibility for increasingly complex and quickly developing files. This workload burden can be shared by developing supporting teams for ministers that include ministers of state.
The appointment of ministers of state has served various purposes in the past. They can support other ministers on general or specific files; with particular tasks, such as taking a lead role developing a policy falling under another minister's authority; or in day-to-day functions, such as meeting with stakeholders. These assignments can both help alleviate a minister's workload and highlight areas of priority for the government's mandate.
Minister of state appointments have also been useful in rounding out the skill set for a portfolio. For instance, the minister might benefit from the assistance of a minister of state who has a background in a particular sector or profession. Minister of state appointments can be used to give a minister a supporting role in policy development or in stakeholder relations that fall under the mandate of another minister. For example, the former minister of employment and social development was cross-appointed as minister of state to assist the minister of Canadian heritage in relation to multiculturalism.
In a compact ministry, ministers of state can be paired with ministers who carry significant workloads. They can function as generalists, offering support on functions or files as requested. In a larger ministry, where ministers have a single portfolio and a defined set of priorities to pursue, there may be less need for the support of a minister of state. Still, having a small number of ministers of state focused on particular priorities might be helpful.
In short, the position of minister of state and the Ministries and Ministers of State Act offer useful options to a prime minister in designing his or her ministry. Bill C-24 does not eliminate the position or repeal the act. I note that I said “options”. That is because the appointment and roles of ministers of state in any particular government are decided by its prime minister.
In launching his ministry, this Prime Minister determined that he did not require a group of ministers to take traditional supporting roles as ministers of state. Rather, he preferred to have a group of ministers who led their own files and were accountable to him and Parliament for results.
The Prime Minister decided that his government's priorities would be delivered by a one-tier ministry. He created a ministry in which all members are full members of cabinet, have an equal capacity to exercise the powers and perform the functions assigned to them, and have leading roles to deliver on the important priorities of government.
However, in November 2015, five of these positions the Prime Minister wanted in his one-tier ministry were not positions listed in the Salaries Act. As has been explained, because the Salaries Act could not accommodate those priorities at the time the government took office, the five ministers were appointed pursuant to the Ministries and Ministers of State Act. That act offered a way for these ministers to begin their important work right away, to be paid under the Appropriations Act, and to be fully supported by existing departments in carrying out their responsibilities until legislation could be amended. In other words, they were provided with what was possible within the legal framework that existed in November 2015. However, it did not properly reflect the intended status, and the Prime Minister made a commitment to introduce legislation that would. Bill C-24 would fulfill that commitment.
As speakers before me have pointed out, these ministers have statutory responsibilities vested directly in them, and they are accountable to the Prime Minister and Parliament for results. The Minister of Science is responsible for the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and the Canada Foundation for Innovation.
The Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities has policy and program responsibilities under the Canada Disabilities Savings Act. The minister is also responsible for the sport component of the Physical Activity and Sport Act.
The Minister of Small Business and Tourism is responsible for the Canada Small Business Financing Act, the Small Business Investment Grants Act, and the Canadian Tourism Commission Act, including Destinations Canada, the federal crown corporation that works to sustain a vibrant and profitable Canadian tourism industry. As the member of Parliament for the Niagara area, I know the importance of a successful tourist industry.
The Minister of Status of Women presides over the federal department known as Status of Women Canada.
Let me be clear. Those are just statutory responsibilities. They do not represent the sum total of the significant policy and program work in which these ministers are engaged. I list these items simply to make the point that these ministers are not in conventional junior minister roles and were never intended to be. The Prime Minister worked with the legislative framework he had in November 2015 and committed to updating it to reflect the current one-tier ministry.
The point has been made that these updating exercises are not new. The list of Salaries Act ministers has been amended several times in the last decade, most recently in 2012 and 2013. In each case, the changes aligned with the priorities of the times and with the then prime minister's preference with respect to the composition of his ministry and the organization of the government's administration. Perhaps in 2012 and 2013 changes to the Salary Act did not receive due attention from Parliament because they were included in long omnibus budget bills. This government prefers to be more transparent.
Some members have suggested that the scrutiny of Bill C-24 is not a good use of Parliament's time. With respect, I disagree. The ministerial system is essential and characteristic of our form of government. Its development should be a concern of Parliament. That is why this government brought forward these changes in a stand-alone bill, and I appreciate the lengthy engagement on the bill.
Let me anticipate a question my remarks might prompt. As I have said, the bill would not repeal the Ministries and Ministers of State Act. We think it would offer a useful degree of flexibility for the Prime Minister and future prime ministers in designing their ministries, just as the three untitled positions Bill C-24 would add to the Salaries Act would.
Why then are we removing regional development positions from the Salaries Act? Do they not offer flexibility to a future prime minister too? As one member put it, how can the government put forward a bill that eliminates the possibility of appointing a minister responsible for the development of a particular region that has its own unique issues?
To be clear, the bill does not do that. There will continue to be a need to appoint ministers to oversee each of the regional development agencies. The bill would retain two options to do that and would add a third.
First, as was the practice in the former ministry, a minister can be cross-appointed to a regional development position, assisted by a minister of state. Second, a minister of state can be appointed as the responsible minister. Finally, and this is the new option Bill C-24 would add, a minister could be appointed under one of the untitled positions to oversee one or more of the regional development agencies.
In this government, the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development has been appointed to oversee all the regional development agencies. We think that makes good policy and operational sense. Others have spoken on that point.
The removal of the regional development positions would not affect the agencies themselves, which would continue to exist as separate entities located and working in the regions they serve. It also would not eliminate the requirement for ministerial oversight of them. What it would do is safeguard the installation of an oversized cabinet. The proposed increase in the number of Salaries Act positions would be offset by the removal of the regional development positions. The maximum number of ministers that could be appointed under the Salaries Act, including the Prime Minister, would increase by two positions, from 35 to 37.
In closing, I believe that our government has been clear in explaining that the legislative framework in place on November 4, 2015, prevented the appointment of full ministers to lead on five important priorities. Use of the Ministries and Ministers of State Act allowed ministers to be appointed to these positions and to get to work on the priorities of this government and the priorities of Canadians on day one.
The Prime Minister committed to introducing legislation that would formally equalize the status of all members of his ministry. This bill would fulfill that commitment. When it comes into force, the orders in council that appointed these ministers as ministers of state to assist other ministers would be repealed. They would be in law, as they are in practice, full ministers.