Madam Speaker, I am pleased to rise once again to speak to Bill C-344, an act to amend the Department of Public Works and Government Services Act.
This private member's bill reminds me of a proverb, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. The saying is thought to have originated with St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who wrote in 1150, “Hell is full of good wishes or desires.” An earlier saying occurs in Virgil's Aeneid. He wrote, “facilis descensus Averno” or “the descent into hell is easy.” This phrase has been used in the writings of Brontë, Lord Byron, Samuel Johnson, and Kierkegaard. For my NDP colleagues, Karl Marx used it in his writings. Even Ozzy Osbourne used it in his song Tonight and now we have it in Hansard.
I am sure the bill's author was well intended with this legislation. Who would not want a community benefit from government infrastructure or spending? In a way it is redundant. I want to read the definition as they have it listed: “For the purposes of this section, community benefit means a social, economic or environmental benefit that a community derives from a construction, maintenance or repair project, and includes job creation and training opportunities”, etc.
The very fact that government money is being spent in a community is obviously an economic benefit. The very fact maintenance or repair work is being done means that it is a benefit to the community. Government by its very nature does many things incorrectly but I am sure the government is not out there breaking up infrastructure, putting potholes in the road, or wrecking bridges with their spending.
Let us look at the two main problems of this legislation. Let me mention proposed subsection 20.1(2), under “Community benefit—requirement”:
The Minister may, before awarding a contract for the construction, maintenance or repair of public works, federal real property or federal immovables, require bidders on the proposal to provide information on the community benefits to be derived from the project.
It does not state the minister “will” or the minister “must” or the minister under these circumstances does it. It states “may”. Why would we allow a minister to interfere when there is no criteria? Why would we give a minister the power to decide when he or she wishes to require the community benefits? Why would we allow this?
Here is a good reason not to. Two words that we are hearing in the House right now are “clam scam”. The Minister of Fisheries is being investigated by the Ethics Commissioner. The finance minister has also been investigated as has the Prime Minister. The member for Calgary Centre has been investigated for using office resources for his father's municipal election, and the member for Brampton East was investigated for the scandal in India.
Let me get back to “clam scam”. The Minister of Fisheries interfered with the awarding of a very lucrative contract to a company owned by a brother of a sitting MP, and a former MP is on the leadership team of that company, as is a member of his family.
Here we are allowing a minister to interfere at will for no defined reason in awarding a government contract. I wonder if the fisheries minister is going to stand up and claim community benefits as an excuse for directing a contract to be awarded to a Liberal family member.
Here is another way we are on the path of good intentions taking us somewhere rather warmer and muggier than Ottawa in the summer. Under "Report to Minister”, the bill states, “A contracting party shall, upon request by the Minister, provide the Minister with an assessment as to whether community benefits have derived from the project.”
Again, there is no metrics attached at all here. There is no trigger for the minister to suddenly demand more work to be added to the contractor. Why is this a problem? It is the added burden of uncertainty for our contractors, the added burden of red tape. Why is this important? We are studying the effects of the government's procurement process on small and medium enterprises right now in the operations and estimates committee, also known as OGGO.
We have heard again and again from witnesses, from indigenous businesses, small businesses led by women, regular everyday businesses, that they are drowning under red tape, that the way the government sets up its procurement process excludes a large portion of our small and medium enterprises that just do not have the money to jump through all the hoops that the government requires for bidding on its contracts. They also say the same thing. The red tape and the bidding process makes it difficult and costly to participate, yet here we have a bill that will add random ministerial interference and random uncertainty.
This is what the procurement ombudsman has to say about our current process. This is from his annual report, “Reviews of supplier complaints”. One of the complaints is, “The methodology used for calculating the bid did not reflect the true scope of the project”. However, here we have, under Bill C-344, that the minister “may” decide to change the bidding requirements, not “will” but “may” at his or her whim.
Another complaint is, “The [system] used to evaluate bids had a negative impact on the Complainant's bid”. Again, we could have a bidder being required to submit information on undefined community benefits. What if someone puts through the community benefit as “I am hiring two extra people” but the minister decides that the point system is going to be “I want the community benefit to show a park added”? The uncertainty of the bill will hurt small and medium enterprises.
Another complaint is, “The federal organization did not provide enough time for the supplier to prepare and submit a bid”. Here we could have a person bidding on Buyandsell.gc.ca who has a small company and just enough resources to bid, and all of a sudden, out of the blue, the minister requires them to provide community benefit information, barring them from bidding.
“There was an inappropriate allocation of points regarding the scoring of a rated criterion”. We often use the point system for how we are awarding the bids. Sometimes it is based on low cost. Sometimes it is based on costs plus the amount of indigenous benefits. Sometimes it is costs plus work experience. This adds a completely unknown factor in.
These are all items brought up by the procurement ombudsman, and there are many more.
We had a visit from a parliamentary group from Vietnam to the OGGO committee. This committee that came and visited us from Vietnam was its version of the operations and estimates committee. We were chatting through interpreters, and one of them asked me if we had ever passed legislation without considering the cost on taxpayers because they had not. Members should keep in mind that Vietnam is a communist country. They were dumbfounded that we would be considering a law before we measured the impact on taxpayers. Can members imagine that a communist Vietnam is more concerned about our taxpayers than the current Liberal government?
We would think that surely the government would take a look and do a study of what the added costs would be, perhaps emulating what the communist Government of Vietnam would do. We did an ATIP request and asked the government if it studied the issue. We were told, “I regret to inform you that a search of the records under the control of ESDC has revealed that no records exist in response to your request.” Therefore, the official version is that the government did not study it.
We had the minister of procurement, PSPC, at committee. We asked her repeatedly, and her deputy, if they had studied the effects of Bill C-344 with respect to added costs to taxpayers, or added costs or difficulties with respect to the people bidding. Would it add costs? How it is going to affect small business people? How will it affect taxpayers? The deputy minister told us, with respect to Bill C-344, that it was merely info gathering.
Here we have a private member's bill trying to change how we actually procure from small businesses, which we know is a mess. It is bad enough that we have actually spent about three months studying the issue in operations. Here we have a bill that will allow the government, the minister, to interfere at will without any metrics on why. Then we have her deputy minister tell us that it was merely info gathering.
Why would we need a bill for info gathering? If it is just a bill for info gathering, why would we add this burden onto our small and medium enterprises, why are there added costs, and why would we even need this bill at all?