Mr. Speaker, I am honoured, as always, to rise in this House to represent the people of Timmins—James Bay and to speak to this very serious issue: the unprecedented situation of a sitting Prime Minister having been found guilty on numerous counts of breaching the Conflict of Interest Act.
I am going to be speaking to the issue of conflict of interest today. I understand why the official opposition brought this motion forward. I have some problems with it, and I am going to talk about them. However, I find it very frustrating that we have a Prime Minister who shows his contempt for Parliament by not bothering to show up to answer questions. I believe that we are in a dangerous position across the world of moving into post-democratic politics. Our Prime Minister is a great example of that. If he does push-ups in the Bronx, it will make international news. I do not mind that he makes international news, but he does have an obligation to come to the House to answer questions.
We were told at the ethics committee that the Prime Minister should not come to the committee to explain being found guilty by the Ethics Commissioner, because the proper place is in the House of Commons. I agreed with that. That was fair. However, members may have noticed that the Prime Minister showed up when Parliament returned, answered a few questions, and then sat down and refused to answer the leader of the official opposition. That is disrespect for this House. I am not here to take the position of leader of the opposition, but this is about respect for the House.
On the first Wednesday, the Wednesday the Prime Minister told us would be the day he answers all manner of questions, he skipped town to do a television town hall. He had a month and a half to do television town halls, but he skipped Ottawa. To me, this is a serious issue.
On the issue of the Prime Minister being found guilty of breaching the Conflict of Interest Act, the New Democrats differ somewhat from the Conservatives. To me, the fact that he went off to billionaire's island with a family friend showed a major breach of judgment. We are not dealing with a criminal act; we are dealing with a breach of judgment. The question of the judgment of this Prime Minister is his extremely close relationship with the 1%, the insiders.
The government always talks about the middle class and how it is here to do everything for the middle class, but if we look at the growing conflict of interest issues around the Prime Minister, it is about the government's failure to even understand what the middle class is.
I have often said that I think the Prime Minister and I grew up in a different middle class. My father joined the middle class when he was in his forties. He had to quit school as a teenager, as did my mom, to go work. It was not until my dad was in his forties that he was able to go back to school, get an education, and eventually become a professor of economics.
The middle class was built not just through hard work but by a whole social and economic structure that made it possible for kids from working class backgrounds who got an education to move beyond. We are seeing that the notion of the middle class is disappearing year after year with growing levels of student debt and growing precariousness of work.
We have a Prime Minister who decided to go off to billionaire's island to hang out with the Aga Khan, his friend, who is lobbying the Government of Canada. That is a problem. Liberals do not seem to think it is a problem. As the ultimate insider party in the country, they are saying that they are their friends. However, the reason we have laws is so friends who are powerful cannot call up the Prime Minister and make changes. The law should apply to everyone. This Prime Minister does not seem to think it applies to him.
In the case of the breach of the Conflict of Interest Act, he broke it on numerous points. He should have known that it was a conflict of interest to accept a gift from someone that powerful who was lobbying the government. The government's response was very disturbing.
Section 12 of the Conflict of Interest Act, on travel, states:
No minister of the Crown, minister of state or parliamentary secretary, no member of his or her family and no ministerial adviser or ministerial staff shall accept travel on non-commercial chartered or private aircraft for any purpose unless required in his or her capacity as a public office holder or in exceptional circumstances or with the prior approval of the Commissioner.
The Prime Minister decided to go on the Aga Khan's private helicopter to get to his private island. In his defence, the Prime Minister said that there was a difference in the language used in the French act and the English one. The French used the more specific term “avions” and not “aircraft”. The Prime Minister felt that this specifically exempted helicopters, which was a ridiculous response. It showed not only a lack of judgment but showed someone who would go to the extent of saying that it did not specifically say “helicopters“ to find a way to slip through the rules and abuse the act.
I have not agreed with many of Madam Dawson's decisions over the course of many years. However, she said that the Prime Minister's position would be to create a legal absurdity and a complete abuse of the act.
I am going to say quickly that I have a problem with the Conservative motion to pay back travel, because when the Prime Minister travels, there are enormous costs. There are issues of security if a prime minister wants to take a vacation anywhere. When Stephen Harper went to see a Boston Red Sox game, there was an enormous cost to the taxpayer. However, the Prime Minister does not get to travel on public aircraft. If the Prime Minister is going anywhere, there are going to be costs. We accepted it for Stephen Harper. People were asking how much money was spent for him to go to a ball game. He was the prime minister. He was not able to take cheap WestJet flights. There were going to be costs.
Therefore, I have a question about the propriety of the House ordering the Prime Minister to pay it back for his bad judgment.
That being said, the problem with our Conflict of Interest Act is that the commissioner does not have the power or ability to render the appropriate penalty. Should the Prime Minister pay a penalty from his personal money for this abuse of the act? Certainly. I think it behooves us within this House to say that we need to overhaul the Conflict of Interest Act to make sure that we do not have sitting prime ministers or cabinet ministers abusing the act and that the commissioner has the power to levy financial fines to force compliance, because if the Prime Minister believes he is above the law, it sends a very disturbing message to his cabinet.
On the issue of overall conflict of interest and the Prime Minister, I am seeing a disturbing pattern emerging. It emerged right after the election. I was so impressed with his talk during the campaign of creating a new, open, and transparent notion of parliamentary accountability. He seemed to follow through with his letters of commission to each of his ministers that talked about the need to have a higher standard. It was not just about the legal obligation but about being seen meeting that legal obligation. I was thinking that here was a Prime Minister who would be willing to do stuff differently, and for a moment, the sun was shining on accountability in Ottawa, but then our Prime Minister decided to go for cash for access.
To me, it is the most grotty thing possible for a sitting prime minister to make himself available to be lobbied for cash. He said that they were not lobbying. Who would pay $1,500 a pop to sit at a private CEO's condo if not to get the ear of the Prime Minister? Was it because they thought he was a funny guy and just wanted to hang out with him?
Chinese billionaires met with the Prime Minister. When he was confronted, the Prime Minister said that they were talking about the middle class. I guess I grew up in a different middle class. Can members imagine for a minute that Chinese billionaires came over to Canada, paid $1,500 a pop to talk to the Prime Minister at a private function, and were worried about folks who are just getting by? I do not think so. The idea that the Prime Minister would use his office to collect those funds for the Liberal Party to me set a disturbing pattern, and it is a pattern that has been repeated.
We saw the issue of the KPMG fraud scheme. KPMG, which has received millions of dollars in federal contracts, set up a scheme so that powerful Canadians did not have to pay their share.
I think of a single mom I dealt with in my riding over Christmas who was not able to pay for her kids' Christmas presents, because every year, CRA cuts her off, because it claims that she has to prove once again that she actually has children. We were calling and calling. There was a seven-week period CRA had to go through, because it had to do due diligence, as it has done three times in three years, to prove that this single mother actually has children, and she was not able to buy Christmas presents. We see the CRA's willingness to go after any ordinary Canadian who owes it money. It shows no mercy. However, when the rich insiders who were caught in the KPMG scandal were found out, CRA offered them immediate amnesty. That is not standing up for the middle class. That is standing up for the 1%.
What did the Prime Minister do after this scandal? He appointed a senior KPMG representative to be the treasurer of Liberal Party finances. To me, that sends a very disturbing message. It shows contempt for taxpayers who work hard and pay their bills. The Prime Minister looked at that KPMG scandal and said, “This is a great guy. I like how these guys are operating. Let us get them to handle Liberal Party finances.” That is a very disturbing tone.
We saw it repeated for Samuel Bronfman, who is the good, close friend of the Prime Minister and a key Liberal fundraiser. Mr. Bronfman was named in the paradise papers, an international scandal in terms of the uber rich not paying their share while they turn around and tell Canadians that they do not have services.
We can make comparisons to understand how this plays out. This past week, the Prime Minister looked a Princess Patricia's veteran in the face, Brock Blaszczyk, a man who lost his leg serving his country, and told him that veterans are asking for more than what the government is willing to give. These are people who were willing to give their lives and their health in service to the nation who came back and have been ripped off on their basic pensions. The Prime Minister can look a veteran in the eye and say that he is asking for more than Canada is willing to give.
The Prime Minister's personal friend, Samuel Bronfman, was then named in the paradise papers for a business scheme he had been involved in. The Prime Minister said that there was absolutely no issue, because the Liberals had been assured that Samuel Bronfman followed all the rules. It is completely inappropriate for a sitting prime minister to interpose himself in a question of a tax case, or potential tax fraud, and tell Canadians that there is nothing to be seen here. Why? It is because Samuel Bronfman is not only a personal friend but raised $250,000 in two hours for the Liberal Party. He is a very powerful person.
We brought in the Accountability Act when the last Liberal government fell to try to close these kinds of loopholes so that powerful insiders who raise money for the party and hang out with the Prime Minister on billionaire's island do not get this kind of access. This brings us back to the Aga Khan. The Aga Khan was lobbying the government for money, and the Prime Minister received a gift. The Liberal Party does not seem to understand that there is a problem with that.
We will go to the next issue. There is a very disturbing pattern of conflict of interest emerging in a government that says it is there for the little guy and the middle class, but time and again, it is looking after the uber rich.
We can talk about the privatized pension king of Canada, who is the finance minister. He is a man who told investors about the enormous opportunities in getting rid of defined pension plans, a man whose company was involved in the largest pension meltdowns in Canadian history: Nortel, Stelco, and now the Sears pension windup. We have a finance minister who is unwilling to do anything to end this kind of corporate pension theft. Well, it would certainly affect the bottom line of his family business.
He brought in pension legislation. In fact, the very first thing he did was bring in pension legislation, and that legislation, Bill C-27, will make it easier to go after other defined pension plans. However, the Prime Minister did not think there was a potential conflict of interest.
Again, I guess the Prime Minister and I grew up in a different middle class. The people I know, who save so hard to get a basic pension, see what is happening to the Sears workers and say, “That could be me.”
Younger people, who see that they will never have a pension, are asking where this government is in dealing with the pension crisis. Well, the government is making sure that the privatized pension king of Canada, who is the finance minister, who is driving the agenda on pensions, is not going to be in a position to be pulled from the file. The government is going to do nothing to help Sears workers, and it is continuing to push ahead with Bill C-27, which is a direct attack on defined pensions.
Over the years in Parliament, I have seen many politicians telling Canadians that they are going to give them a better deal. Sometimes it is like the crocodile saying, “Trust me. Let's go on a picnic down by the riverside. I have your best interest at heart”. However, when one puts in the Samuel Bronfmans, the top people from KPMG, and the privatized pension king in this country to deal with the issue of pensions, one cannot be saying that one has Canadians' interests at heart.
This goes back to the importance of the motion to have the Prime Minister found guilty of using his position in getting a benefit from a billionaire to vacation on a billionaire's island. Again, I will not say that this is an illegal act. To me, this was an astounding lack of judgment. It is within the purview of Parliament to insist that the Prime Minister meet a level of accountability, which he has not done because he has left Parliament and he has not answered these questions.
However, to be clear, I have a problem with the Conservatives' argument that he should pay back the cost of the trip, because wherever the Prime Minister goes, there will be enormous costs associated with the issue of security. However, there does need to be the ability under the ethics act to deal with financial monetary penalties for the abuse of office, and for the failure to live up to the standard. The Prime Minister has set the bar very low for the rest of his cabinet. We need to be working across party lines to ensure that these loopholes in the Conflict of Interest Act are shut down and that the Prime Minister is held accountable so that he can restore the trust of Canadians on this fundamental issue.
On the overall issue of conflict of interest, as New Democrats we will continue to hold the government to account. We are not afraid to congratulate it if we believe it is doing something good. We do not have to be oppositional on everything. However, to see the government time and time again favour the interests of the 1% and the insiders while paying lip service to people who are falling behind is simply not acceptable.
We will continue to address these issues and the need to deal with the toxic nature of big money's influence in political life, which is as important now as it was when we had to bring in the Federal Accountability Act back in 2006. I remember at that time we had the corrupt Liberal government up on charges. We had such abuse with lobbyists and insiders. The line back then was “It's who you know in the PMO”.
This struck Canadians as fundamentally wrong, because most Canadians never get the opportunity to call in. Most Canadians never get their cases fixed, except when they go through the system, and that is the way it is supposed to be for the lobbyists and the insiders. There has to be a system. It has to be accountable. It has to be transparent so that the people know why and how decisions are being made. However, with the current government, there is too much of a slip back to the bad old days of insiders and friends.
This is an instructive motion. Hopefully, the Prime Minister will listen to it, and I think the Prime Minister does need to tell Canadians that he will make some manner of restitution to show that he understands the seriousness of having been found guilty on numerous counts of breaching the Conflict of Interest Act.