Mr. Speaker, it is with great pleasure that I rise in debate tonight on Bill C-24, an act to amend the Salaries Act and to make a consequential amendment to the Financial Administration Act.
I have a few problems with this bill. I want to speak to two aspects of it. I am going to start by speaking in my former capacity as the minister of state for western economic diversification. My understanding is that if parliamentarians vote in favour of this bill, essentially all of the economic diversification agencies in Canada would formally come under the auspices of one minister. That minister is from Mississauga. I have nothing against Mississauga. It is a wonderful place. I was just there a couple of weeks ago. However, Mississauga is not western Canada.
One of my Liberal colleagues applauded that. I am not sure why they would applaud that Mississauga is not western Canada. It was somebody from western Canada, fantastic, good to know.
Now that we have established that fact, and there seems to be some enthusiasm for that fact, it is important to note that economic diversification agencies were created to essentially underscore the fact that while we try to come up with national economic development policies or national economic policies, Canada does in fact operate under a heavily regionalized economy. There are differences between the different regions of our country, and in order to ensure we function as a cohesive unit, these agencies work to bolster the economies of each part of our country, to essentially ensure we are greater than the sum of our parts.
I was the minister of state for western economic diversification. My background is in intellectual property management. I spent most of my career prior to politics in several fields, but the last position that I occupied had some role in managing the intellectual property portfolio, to a certain extent, of the University of Calgary, as well as managing its sponsored research portfolio. I actually had the privilege of working with some of the great public servants who were in this department prior to entering politics.
I came in with a certain level of domain expertise. It was really interesting to be able to marry some domain expertise with an understanding of why it is so important to use an agency like this to incent innovation, and bolster different parts of the economy to see long-term economic growth in that region of the country.
I am a Winnipeger by birth, and a Calgarian by choice, much to the chagrin of some of my colleagues. The point is I have a deep understanding of western Canada. I was appointed as a minister to help bolster the economy of western Canada. I am happy to speak to some of the successes I had there.
The point being, it was important to have a minister of state at the cabinet table who was not only responsible for grants and contributions, and managing the process related to grants and contributions to western Canada, but also meeting with stakeholder groups and taking that opinion, in terms of an economic minister, up to the cabinet table, and formulating economic policy for the entire nation. What this bill would do, if we adopt it, is we would essentially lose that very fundamental linkage of a regional minister and regional economic development agency with the cabinet table for expediency sake.
I want to speak about the specific need of why we need an economic diversification or an economic development minister from western Canada, but I am actually going to speak to some of my colleagues' concerns from Atlantic Canada. I read a report that came out earlier this year, I believe it was from the industry committee, that talked about how ACOA was actually seeing close to 12-month delays in seeing some of its innovation grants being approved. It was because of the bottleneck going up to the minister from Mississauga.
Many of my colleagues from across party lines have heard great frustrations from stakeholders in Atlantic Canada. They were saying that this 12-month delay, because a minister is not signing-off on these grants, was not particularly conducive to many start-up companies, many industries where they needed to have that seed funding in a very short runway in order to see results. That was not conducive.
I just do not understand why the Liberal government would enshrine in legislation a bill that would make Atlantic Canadians apply for these innovation funds and go through a minister from Mississauga. That is defeating the purpose of the agency, to a certain extent. I have no idea what is going on. I just do not understand why we would do this.
We could have an entire philosophical discussion on whether we need regional development agencies at all, but if we are going to have regional development agencies, part of whose mandate is to bring to the cabinet table and to Parliament the viewpoints of regionalized economic concerns in each part of the country, then surely we should have ministers who are representing those agencies at the cabinet table. That has been lost. It is just not there anymore.
When I was minister of state for western economic diversification, I took my domain expertise and went into the agency with a great team of public servants. Whenever I have a chance to speak about how fantastic they were and put it on the record, I do that, and I am doing that again today. We sat down together and asked how we could make this agency more effective. The mandate I gave them was to go to the stakeholders that utilize our services in our communities, and ask them what the mandate and purpose of this agency should be, and that we should do it on an ongoing basis because that is not a static question. It changes from year to year. What we need to do to bolster the economic diversification of western Canada should be evaluated on an ongoing basis. That was the first thing we did. We said we would have a formal consultation process to establish what we are managing as an agency.
I undertook a very extensive tour, close to six months, of western Canada. It was very formalized. We took feedback from industry, not-for-profit organizations, academia, small business owners, and came up with a set of five priorities that we felt at that time were important to ensure there was economic diversification in western Canada. Those things included first nations economic participation; ensuring there was skilled labour because there was a significant shortage of skilled labour in western Canada at the time, and still is; ensuring that western Canadian businesses were participating in trade agreements or taking advantage of agreements, such as CETA and how we could position that; bolstering innovation; looking at things like the R and D life cycle, not necessarily basic research but things like prototype development, start up-scale up, these sorts of things; how WD could play in that; and a variety of other aspects as well.
We made those criteria very formal and from there, I asked my department to translate what we are managing to there down into our grants and contributions, and make sure that our funding programs reflected the goals and objectives of what we are managing to through that contribution process.
As well as having a background in intellectual property management, it is also in academic research administration. I understand how to manage a grants and contribution process and said I was not comfortable with ministerial direction all the time in terms of some of the processes, that I would like to move it more toward the minister's direction in terms of the policy outcomes of what the grants and contributions would achieve, and that I would like to move to a call for proposals model.
We changed the process by which people applied for grants through WD. We launched an initiative of $100 million over five years because at the consultation I mentioned. We heard that one of the key determinants of economic growth in Canada for small and innovative business was a start-up capital gap, particularly in prototype development and start up-scale up phase, so we tailored a program specifically for that with very defined criteria.
The point I am trying to make is that took a lot of my time as a minister. It took a lot of time. It was probably one of the most rewarding two years of my professional career, because I felt like I could go to the cabinet table of a G7 country, and then take my policy expertise, but, more importantly, the feedback of a very specific group of people in Canada, that being western Canadian businesses, tailor our grants and contributions programs to ensure that everybody had equal participation, and then make some magic happen.
Now, three or four years after that process, we are starting to see the results. Jobs are being created through intellectual property being commercialized and retained in western Canada. There are innovative skills training programs with first nations communities in a wide variety of sectors. These metrics that are now reported through the departmental report are a result of the fact that this economic development agency had a minister who was providing political will through the bureaucracy and the outcomes of the grants and contributions process.
That might not sound very romantic, but that is really the job of a minister. Some people think the job is photo ops or swanning around, but really, it is saying, “As an executive member of the government, I have a political mandate to fulfill.” It is taking that mandate and working with public servants to ensure that political will comes to fruition through process, procedure, and a lot of hard work. Sometimes ministers have to bring their bureaucracy onside with them. Sometimes it is a bit of a struggle. Sometimes they have to bring stakeholders on board with them and flesh out that mandate a bit.
The point I am trying to make is that it takes work and it takes time. If we are going to have economic development agencies, we need to have someone who is willing to be the fulcrum of that particular work to work with the bureaucracy. Bill C-24 would eliminate that relationship. It would eliminate the relationship between a minister and the bureaucracy and the relationship with the stakeholders in the community. It would centralize it.
I am all for government efficiency. It is very important to look at our processes and ask how we can deliver services more efficiently and effectively, but what we have seen, from the evidence in stakeholder groups like ACOA, for example, is that these grants and contributions are not being approved.
I have to give a lot of credit to my former deputy minister, Daphne Meredith, who was one of the most talented public servants Ottawa has ever seen. She is very smart, very gentle, and very firm. I learned so much from her. However, she could only do so much without having a mandate from a minister and an understanding that the minister had her back in implementing certain process changes.
There is a gif on the Internet. It is a dog playing the piano, saying, “I have no idea what I'm doing.” That is probably what a lot of the deputy ministers in some of the economic development agencies are feeling right now. It is not from a lack of skill. It is a lack of political oversight because of bills like this.
If the government wanted to eliminate oversight in economic development agencies, it should have put forward to stakeholders a plan on how it was going to engage them and how it was going to overhaul grants and contributions processes to achieve the objectives I mentioned before it put this bill forward. The bill, without that detail, provides a lot of uncertainty for small- and medium-sized businesses, academic groups, and other groups, especially first nations communities, which often rely on these economic development agencies to achieve outcomes.
There are critics who say that economic development agencies should not exist at all. One of the fundamental things we need to ask ourselves as parliamentarians, and as people who have a responsibility to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent in the most efficient and effective way possible, is what we are managing to. What is the outcome of the tax dollars we are spending?
The problem with not having political oversight of these development agencies is that it is very difficult to set those parameters and measure whether they are successful without having political oversight. The reality is that the member for Mississauga—Malton, who is the industry minister, has a lot of competing concerns in the industry portfolio. He has announced $1 billion for something on superclusters. We could have an entire other debate on the efficacy of that. He has to look at things like the internal trade agreement. He has some responsibility for government procurement with regard to supply chain development, indirect cost benefits, and all these sorts of things.
What is happening with Bill C-24 is that we are saying to let us manage economic diversification or economic development agencies off the corner of a really overstuffed desk. I do not think that is the best approach.
I think the government needs to say, “Look, we're either in the business or we're not, and if we're not in the business, let's be honest with our stakeholders rather than making them wait for 18 months.”
This might seem like a very pedantic debate, but at the end of the day, if we are going to have these agencies and be able to explain to taxpayers that this is worth their while, we need to have political oversight; otherwise, it becomes bureaucrats shovelling cash off the back of a truck. That is not anything that anyone in this place wants. Some of my colleagues question that, and fair enough. Perhaps we can answer that in question-and-answer period.
I honestly think that without political oversight, it is very difficult to say, within these agencies, “What are we managing to?” and then “Do our processes reflect our ability to get to that point?”
To be honest, for that reason alone, I cannot support Bill C-24.
We are going to get a little feminist in here tonight. In Bill C-24, the Liberals have stood up and claimed that there are housekeeping items to legislate equal salaries for all ministers. That is just a talking point. For my colleagues in here who have not served in cabinet or perhaps do not understand the cabinet process, in order for us to take what is called a “memorandum to cabinet” as a minister, we need to be a full minister. A memorandum to cabinet is basically a direction to cabinet. It is saying, “This is what I want the executive to do and vote on.”
This bill does not address the fact that people who have been named as full ministers by the Prime Minister in his “gender equity cabinet“ still do not have the capacity, on their own accord, to bring that direction to cabinet. I do not understand how that is gender equity. There are still women in this cabinet who are being called full ministers, yet they have to report to a man to bring their own memorandum to cabinet. That is not equality at all.
I have worked really hard to get to where I am in my life. I have men laughing at me in here for that. I find that highly amusing.
I sacrificed a lot. I have made choices to make sure that my career has been placed first and foremost in my life. That is a choice that I have made.
For someone to come up to me and say, “Oh, you know, you're part of a gender equity cabinet. By the way, the Prime Minister announced that the day before cabinet happened. I might not agree with them on a lot of things, but there are women in the Liberal cabinet who have resumés or CVs that should stand. Canadians should say, “Look, these are talented women.” However, he took credit for their CVs by saying, “They're here because it is a gender equity cabinet.” However, some of these women now do not have the ability to bring memoranda to cabinet on their own. They still have to go, “Oh, hey, Mr. Minister, can you please sign off on my MC?”
This bill would not fix that. I would prefer that the Prime Minister just be honest about the fact that he actually does not have a gender parity cabinet. He does not. If he did, these women would have the capacity to bring memoranda to cabinet on their own, and they do not. We can pay women one way, but this bill also does not address the fact that many of these women do not have their own deputy ministers. That is also the hallmark of a full minister.
I do not understand why we have this bill in front of us. There are so many things that are affecting this country, from foreign policy issues to our immigration processes at home to people being out of work in my home province, yet we are spending valuable House time debating a bill that would not help the economy in any way, shape, or form and would not make women more equal. To me, that is the hallmark of the Liberal government: useless legislation, legislation in name only that really does nothing at the end of the day. It is a Seinfeld episode. For that reason, I encourage my colleagues not to support Bill C-24.