Madam Speaker, I am always proud to rise in the House and represent the people of Timmins—James Bay. It is particularly interesting to rise now after listening to what could be called a political screed by my friend from Winnipeg.
When we talk about closing ethical loopholes, it always upsets Liberals. There is something about ethical breaches and Liberals that go hand in hand. It is about their idea of friendship.
The Aga Khan was a close personal friend of the Prime Minister, apparently, when the Prime Minister took his trip to billionaire island, yet he had not really seen him in 30 years. We were told it was just a friend.
Liberals said it is not fair for me to question a billionaire who pays the Prime Minister and some key politicians to come and hang out with him, paying their way while he is lobbying, because they are just friends. They said, “Don't you have friends who invite you to places?”
Yes, certainly. I am from northern Ontario. I get invited to fish huts all the time during the winter. For the price of a six-pack of Labatt's, I might get paid back in a little pickerel. That is not the same as Liberals who hang with billionaires who are lobbying the same government for favours.
I want to talk about this idea of friendship and the Liberals, because it is a fundamental question about ethics that they do not understand. The reason we have the Lobbying Act and the Conflict of Interest Act is so that friends do not have insider access.
The problem goes back to the pork-barrel days of the Liberals when it was about who you knew in the PMO. Buddy from the Liberal Party, tied to the Prime Minister, would step out and go into private practice. Then the would call up his friend in the Prime Minister's Office, and changes would be made.
We have realized that this is not ethical. What is ethical is that there has to be a standard for lobbying so that we know who is lobbying and why they are lobbying. A little transparency goes a long way.
The issue of closing an ethical loophole matters, because what we do in Parliament is about reassuring Canadians that they can trust us. They do not have to pay attention to all the details of the vote. In fact, there is not a single voter who would agree with every single thing we do as parliamentarians, because we are called upon to make decisions on all manner of issues. However, our voters should be able to trust that we are acting in the best interests of the Canadian people and that when we meet with large financial interests that are trying to influence government policy, it is being done in a transparent manner and for the benefit of Canadians.
This is why I want to get back to this notion of friends and Liberal friends. We have the situation of the Prime Minister, who flew to billionaire island and contravened numerous sections of the Conflict of Interest Act. It is actually unprecedented that a Prime Minister has been found guilty of breaching the Conflict of Interest Act for accepting gifts, for accepting favours, yet the Prime Minister did not think anything was wrong because he said the guy he had not seen in 30 years was a personal family friend. It is though they were above the law and it is very embarrassing.
I would chalk that up. I do not think there was malice on the part of the Prime Minister. My Conservative friends always think there was some kind of skulduggery; I do not. I think the Prime Minister thought, “He knew my dad and he is a billionaire; I like hanging out with billionaires, and I get a free trip to an island.” However, the Prime Minister needs to understand that he has to set a better example, because he promised a better example. He promised it in the 2015 election when he said it would not just be the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law. My God, how the Liberals have fallen since then.
The other guest who hung out on the beach on billionaire island, who is now the Veterans Affairs minister, did not even bother to report the trip. The Prime Minister did not report the gifts he received from the Aga Khan because he said that since they were inappropriate gifts, he did not need to say what they were.
Over the many years I have been here, I have heard all manner of hogswallop when it comes to defending abuse, but I have never heard someone use a loophole to say that since it was inappropriate, they were not obligated to say what it was, and therefore they were somehow protected. I want to know if the member who is now the Veterans Affairs minister used this same logic when he decided that just because he took a trip to billionaire island, he did not need to report it. In fact, we need to report everything we do to the Ethics Commissioner. It is up to the Ethics Commissioner to decide whether it is appropriate or not. It is not for the individual member to say, “Well, I accepted this free gift because, hey, it was a free gift, and it does not affect my political work.” Everything does. It is about accountability.
Speaking of friends of the Liberal Party, let us talk about Stephen Bronfman. This man is one of the most powerful men in Canada, and he is certainly a powerful Liberal fundraiser. In fact, he is so powerful that he raised $250,000 for the Liberal Party and his personal friend, the Prime Minister, in two hours. That is an amazing power.
The Prime Minister would say they are just friends, because the Prime Minister certainly loves hanging out with billionaires. The Prime Minister held a recent fundraiser with billionaires and the super-rich in Montreal, and he told us that the reason they were there was to get tough on the one per cent. Can members imagine that? Do they imagine that the reason that the billionaire class is paying money to the Liberal party is so that it can get tough on the one per cent? That is not how life works.
How it does work was shown when Stephen Bronfman was named in the paradise papers scandal, a scandal that identified powerful people around the world who were evading their tax responsibilities through tax havens. When Stephen Bronfman was one of the Canadians named, the Prime Minister immediately intervened and said that no investigation was necessary, and no investigation happened. That is the power of friends in the Prime Minister's Office.
It was also highly inappropriate, because it is not up to the Prime Minister of this country to decide in advance whether tax laws in this country are being broken or they are not just because someone is, first, his personal friend, and second, he raises money for the Liberal Party. That is not an ethical standard that we can trust, but it seems to work for the current government.
This issue needs to be called out.
In the recent debacle in India, the Prime Minister's trip seemed to be much more about trying to shore up domestic ridings to win than about international diplomacy, international security, or international credibility. We had the bizarre and unprecedented situation of a convicted terrorist getting on the all-access pass list because he was very powerful in local B.C. Liberal politics. We also have the case of the member for Brampton East who went on that trip. After he got elected, he went into business. For folks back home, it is very rare that someone decides to go into business after becoming an MP. For the few who do, there have to be clear laws in place so that they are not using their desk in Parliament to help their friends. However, the member for Brampton East, we are told, invited his business partner to have access to the Prime Minister and to key Liberal members and ministers on that India trip.
Does that pass the smell test? It certainly does not, and it raises a question about the lack of ethics and accountability in the Liberal caucus right now, since the Liberals seem to think that this is perfectly okay. In fact, we have heard from every senior voice in the Liberal government on these ethical breaches, and not once did they take these issues seriously. They seem to think it is okay because he is a good guy, the other guy is a good guy, and they are all friends. It is this culture of friends and using the position of power within politics to further the interests of friends that is wrong.
The issue before us today is about closing loopholes. I have spent many years on this file, and it always surprises me that even when we think we have done our best to make sure that people will follow the spirit of the law, there will be always those who try to find a way to slip around it.
As exhibit A, I present the finance minister. I have been told by the Liberals that I am completely out of line because this finance minister is virtuous, that people who are that rich who offer themselves to public service have to be somehow more virtuous by nature because they do not need to come to Ottawa. That is fair play, but the finance minister, when he was head of Morneau Shepell, his family business, announced to his investors that we needed legislation in Canada to be able to change the defined pension benefits and allow the targeted pension plans that were the whole focus of Morneau Shepell's business. He said that there was an enormous opportunity and that his company, Morneau Shepell, was in the driver's seat.
He offered himself as a candidate for public service. The very first order of business he brought forward was the Bill C-27 legislation that would directly benefit the company and the industry that he represented. That is extraordinary, and the Prime Minister supported it. There was no recusing at cabinet of a man who had a pecuniary financial interest.
Later we found out, of course, that he still had his financial interest. He was making about $150,000 a month from his Morneau Shepell shares while he was pursuing an interest that would benefit Morneau Shepell. He became famous because he was so rich that he forgot that he owned a château in the south of France. Again, the Liberals said that we were being mean and that was really unfair. A lot of people forget things. I mean, I forget things all the time. When I was leaving the House the other day, I forgot my car keys. I could not find where they were. However, I do not know anybody in the House who forgets that they own a château in the south of France. That is the level of disconnect of the 1% from the rest of us.
The reason this matters is that the fundamental economic issue of our time around the world is the growing disparity between the super-rich, whose interests have been advanced year after year after year, and the growing new working class, both white collar and blue collar, who are finding it harder and harder because they are dealing with large levels of student debt and precarious work. The Liberal government is deeply embedded within that 1%, using its position and political agendas to advance friends and help their friends. The Liberals say that this is all perfectly okay because they are all nice people. That is not an ethical standard of accountability.
Today we have an opportunity to close an ethical loophole that was clearly identified. I would think that when we identify these loopholes, it is incumbent upon all of us within the political realm to say that we should just do the right thing here to make sure that this kind of abuse does not happen in the future and close that loophole.
I return to what the Prime Minister promised in the 2015 election. I was so impressed when he stepped forward and talked about openness and transparency and transparent government, principles that Canadians across the political spectrum agree with.
There are issues that we have always had with the ethics code and the Lobbying Act. Certainly with the ethics code it has always been that if one did not find a person falling down dead with another person holding a smoking gun in their hand and the Ethics Commissioner walking in at the time, intent could never be proven. The lobbying commissioner has pointed out time and time again that it is about the spirit of the act. It is the power of people to influence politicians that has to be clearly defined, because super-powerful people do not have to register for lobbying. That is because they know the people in the PMO. They are the friends, the ones who hang out on the beach on the private islands with key politicians. They make a phone call, and the job gets done.
When the Prime Minister said that he would establish a higher standard, a standard that represented the spirit of the law and not just the narrow letter of the law, I was deeply encouraged, yet here we are with ethical scandal after ethical scandal, and every time, the Prime Minister or his front-bench people step up in defence, because technically no one was caught on anything. They are our friends. The people we hang with are nice people, and there is no need to address these loopholes.
I find that to be an appallingly low standard.
There is a new line that the Liberals use. They used it for my colleague from Brampton and then my colleague from Newfoundland, who took the trip to billionaire island. They say they always “work very closely with the Ethics Commissioner”. What they need to put as a prefix is “after we get caught”. After we get caught, we work closely with the Ethics Commissioner. That is what the Prime Minister and his minions have told us: that the Prime Minister worked very closely with the Ethics Commissioner.
The Prime Minister started to work with the Ethics Commissioner after the complaint was lodged and after he had been found guilty of numerous breaches, such as accepting inappropriate travel and inappropriate gifts from someone in a position to lobby. He did not recuse himself from decisions that could have benefited that powerful lobbyist.
If the Prime Minister and his caucus stood by the principle of working closely with the Ethics Commissioner, they would have phoned the Ethics Commissioner prior to these issues, prior to inviting a business partner to meet with the Prime Minister and cabinet ministers on the India trip. They would have asked if it was okay for them to open some doors for a business partner. The Ethics Commissioner would have responded. That is how we work closely with the Ethics Commissioner. We work with the commissioner in advance to make sure that we are not caught in illegalities or a breach of the rules. We do not wait until we get caught. We do not wait until it becomes a newspaper story and then say that we will make sure we do not do it again. That is a lower standard and a standard that, unfortunately, the Prime Minister and his government seem to have worked their way toward.
There are moments when we have to take a breath in Parliament and say that breaches have happened. When they do happen, we need to then come forward with a credible set of responses.
This brings us back to the defeat of the Liberals in 2006, when there were so many ethical breaches, so many legal breaches in the sponsorship scandal, that we needed to bring forward new legislation, which we did. That legislation was about lobbying. It was about limiting the influence of insiders on political decisions. It was about making sure that we had a higher standard of accountability.
The previous government had many failures and falls as well. There was the notorious Bev Oda, who spent thousands of dollars on limousine rides bombing around Toronto. Bev thought it was perfectly okay. Paul Calandra lobbied, while he was a parliamentary secretary, for FM licenses. If I remember correctly, that money was returned, because it was deemed inappropriate. Bruce Carson was invited into the PMO. He was convicted of fraud. He then left the office and came back trying to sell water plants to desperately poor indigenous communities. His case of inappropriate illegalities went all the way to the Supreme Court.
There will always be politicians who abuse the system. That is part and parcel of public life. When an egregious loophole appears, it is incumbent upon all political parties to close that loophole. It is fairly straightforward. We cannot assume that all politicians will be either moral enough to do that or bright enough to pay attention to the act and understand the implications of using their offices to help friends.
It is an interesting report on the Prime Minister and the Conflict of Interest Act. The Ethics Commissioner found that the Prime Minister “contravened section 11 of the Act when he or his family accepted the gifts of hospitality from the Aga Khan and the use of his private island in March and December 2016.”
The Ethics Commissioner found that the exception for gifts from relatives and friends, under paragraph 11(2)(b) of the act, did not apply, because the Prime Minister's “relationship with the Aga Khan was based on a family connection rooted in a friendship” with the Prime Minister's father that existed 30 years earlier. The Prime Minister accepted inappropriate gifts and said that they were personal family gifts, when he had not met the guy in 30 years.
This is really important. The report said that section 21 of the act was deliberately contravened by the Prime Minister:
he did not recuse himself from discussions that provided an opportunity to improperly further the private interest associated with one of the institutions of the Aga Khan and that he contravened section 5 for failing to arrange his private affairs as to avoid such an opportunity.
That is a serious breach, because that is a question about gifts from powerful people to powerful politicians. It is the power to influence political decisions, and that is what the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner was concerned about.
There was, of course, the contravention of section 12 of the act.
I see I am running out of time. I could go on all day about the ethical breaches of the present government, but I will close on that note.