Mr. Speaker, I would normally say that I am pleased to join the debate on most matters that come before this House, but today is not one of those days. Let me say why, before we get the usual cackles and heckles from the other side. It is because of the type of conversation and particularly the use of language coming from the official opposition. I accept that there is a legitimate role for the opposition to call into account and to question the choices made by the government, but the deliberate use of language like “pay to play” and “cash for access” is not helpful in our democracy. While I accept that there are legitimate questions that the opposition should pose to the government, this type of language ultimately demeans the overall participation and the confidence of Canadians in our political process.
I first want to get back to the whole nature of political fundraising and the fact that all of us in this House participate in that process in order to both fund our individual campaigns within our respective ridings and also participate in the process to support our political party. That is part of our system. Canadians can participate in our democratic process in a multitude of ways. They do so in part by volunteering in our campaigns, they express their particular opinions and positions to their elected officials, and they also participate by way of donating money. That is part of our democratic process.
At the end of the day, the key for me is this. What are the checks and balances that are put on our system? I would remind folks that we are dealing with human nature. If someone makes a donation to a member, or if someone is providing volunteers to a particular member's political campaign, it is human nature, it is natural, that the member would perhaps view that person in different light than he or she might view someone who is highly critical of his or her position or political party. That is human nature. We understand that. However, the question is whether there are appropriate checks and balances placed on our political system as it relates to fundraising and the conduct of the government of the day.
I would suggest that there are basically four criteria that have evolved over a series of reforms to the political financing system. It started back in 1974, but it has subsequently moved through to, more recently, 2003.
There are basically four criteria that ultimately have an impact with respect to circumscribing the potential view that the government is providing preferential access.
The first is the change with respect to who can contribute. This change was brought about in the reforms of 2003, which limited contributions to individuals and removed the capacity of corporations and unions to make political donations.
The second is how much each individual can contribute, which is again an evolved practice. The major concern back in 1974 with the first set of reforms was the view that large corporations had undue influence due to the large amounts they could contribute to parties, and that was subsequently circumscribed in the reforms that took place in 2003, which limited individual donations to $5,000.
Then, to be fair to the Conservative Party on the other side, when it came into power it decided to lower that threshold down to $1,000. There has been a gradual adjustment upward, and now the figure rests at $1,525, and there is a built-in mechanism within the election financing provisions to allow that to grow by $25 a year. Therefore, this year individuals can donate up to $1,525 to political parties, can donate up to $1,525 to individual riding associations, and can then make a one-time contribution to leadership candidates for the same amount.
The third important thing is caps. The cap is a really good thing that exists within the Canadian political system, when we compare it to what we are seeing south of the border. We have strict limits with respect to the quantum of spending that can take place in a political campaign. Caps are placed on political parties and caps are placed at the individual riding level. Those caps are major constraints from the undue influence of financing on our political system. That is quite different from what we see south of the border.
The fourth is the reform that is taking place, and to be fair, a reform that was introduced by the previous government. It deals with the issue of public reporting and transparency with respect to donations. What basically has been done ensures that any donation that is over $200—it started out as $100—and up to the donation limit must be transparently and publicly reported. It is that transparency that provides the ultimate check in terms of the perception of undue influence or preferential access given to any particular participant in the political process.
My colleagues on this side of the House and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health have noted that, when it comes to the issue of consultation, this particular political party has provided unprecedented levels of consultation with Canadians since it took power in 2015. We have been engaging incessantly, consulting on a broad range of issues. I will be frank: I am literally inundated by requests from various ministers to consult on their particular mandate items, to make sure they get feedback from Canadians and to provide that report to the ministers so that they can take that into account as part of the government's decision-making process.
In my riding of Scarborough—Agincourt I have held several town halls and consulted with my constituents on a wide variety of issues. I have also worked in concert with my fellow members from the Scarborough area to collaboratively bring issues to the public, ranging from electoral reform, to Canada Post, to the environment, to defence, to the economy. Next week, we will be gathered together again, and I am taking this opportunity to invite those who want to participate to join the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance in a pre-budget public consultation with respect to the direction the government is taking.
We are extremely accessible to all Canadians, and we remain accessible in a variety of ways. We can be accessed through our constituency offices or here in Ottawa. We take feedback through letters, online, or by way of the telephone. All members treasure the opportunity to get that feedback as part of our political process. We should all be exceptionally proud of that.
The bottom line is that we all follow the rules. We follow the rules in the open and transparent ways I laid out, and that circumscribes the perception that there is any undue influence.
I particularly find it rich that we are getting a lecture from the Conservative Party, a party that literally took the issues of ethics, political financing, and electoral accountability to new lows. They were such lows that Canadians responded, quite rightly, in the last election in a rather vociferous way as to how they felt there was a complete lack of transparency coming from that other side. In case my friends on the opposite side, particularly those in the official opposition, are having some trouble with respect to that particular issue, let me take them down memory lane and remind them of some of the troubles we have faced that came from the opposition.
In question period today the member for Carleton asked a question of the President of the Treasury Board. The President of the Treasury Board rightly reminded us that it was the Conservative government that took the issue of partisan government advertising to unprecedented levels, taking essentially what are government resources for partisan personal gain.
The Conservative government awarded unprecedented numbers of contracts to parties outside of government at unprecedented levels, to the point that nearly $1 billion in spending took place over the previous government's mandate, for advertising that was really about driving the government's re-election plan; things like the so-called economic action plan. Members will recall that those particular ads seemed to be in a particularly interesting colour that was somewhat similar to the party colours of the current official opposition, which was using essentially what was the cash or the resources of government for its partisan political purposes.
I am proud that we are part of a government that has instituted a process to ban this type of practice and that there is an independent review.
There are appropriate times for the government to advertise, particularly as it relates to providing public information, but it should not be featuring members of the government in those particular informational ads, which is quite different from, for example, the practice of the member for Carleton when he was serving as a government minister.
Let us go to the second particular issue. Let us look at the actual changes to the Canada Elections Act itself.
This is, again, a subject matter where the previous government, the Conservative government, tried to use the rules to disproportionately benefit itself. For example, let me remind members that the Conservatives, interestingly, just before the previous election, decided to suddenly raise the individual contribution limit, which at that time had been $1,200, up to $1,500. Then, subsequently, during the election itself, they changed the rules within the Canada Elections Act to allow the amount of compensation coming back to political parties to be increased the longer the writ period was and to allow them to use the spending advantage they had as the incumbent governing party at the time, more so than the other political parties. Doubling from the traditional 37-day campaign to an unprecedented 77-day campaign, which we had not seen since the 1800s, allowed the parties and individual ridings themselves to spend more than double the traditional amount that would be permissible in a particular election campaign.
They thought that would give them an electoral advantage. Luckily, Canadians saw through that particular action.
Then let us look at the activities of the previous Conservative government. I raise this with some regret, but I think it is important to remind ourselves as we engage in this debate that it was in fact the Conservative Party that had some real ethical breaches with respect to its particular practices.
Remember, it was in fact under the Conservative Party itself that actual convictions took place under the Canada Elections Act. For example, there was a particular scheme, known as the in-and-out scheme. That took place in the 2006 election and saw an unprecedented number of Conservative ridings, 67 to be exact, see $1.3 million get shuffled in and out of their ridings in order to try to hide advertising that was done for a national purpose and, yet, was attributable to ridings that could not spend up to their election limits. That allowed those particular riding associations to claim a larger rebate than they were otherwise entitled to and allowed the Conservative Party to spend more money than was allowed under the cap that was imposed on political parties.
Elections Canada said that violated the rules. The Conservative Party knew there were going to be convictions on that particular matter and, as a result, ultimately chose to negotiate a settlement before it would be found in actual violation of the Canada Elections Act.
Let us remind ourselves of who one of the main parties was in that particular election scheme. I believe the gentleman's name was Irving Gerstein, who was actually appointed a senator. Again, I contrast how the Conservative Party has treated the Senate, which, of course, it uses for its partisan fundraising purposes. I can think of another senator, good old Senator Michael Duffy, who was expressly recruited into the Conservative caucus for fundraising purposes.
These charges were laid and ultimately resolved without having to go to criminal court, because the Conservative Party knew that it was ultimately in the wrong.
Let us remember that when we are dealing with the issue of partisan fundraising, all of us participate in this particular process. However, it is important that we ensure that it is done above board.
To continue with the points I made earlier, namely about the constraints imposed on political financing and who can contribute, to be fair, these have been even further narrowed to the point that now only citizens or those who are permanent residents can contribute. The quantum that can be contributed is relatively circumscribed. The strict spending limits imposed both on ridings and political parties are important and one of the critical constraints that ultimately limit the capacity of political parties from having excessive funding drives.
Finally, with respect to the public reporting process for any donation, anything that is basically over $200 has to be reported publicly and be accessible to all Canadians. It is important to note that this reporting includes the name of the particular individual and the fact that they have a reportable address, so that Canadians can know who is supporting a particular political party.
Again, I find the motion before the House not helpful. There are very clear rules with respect to the conduct of all political parties and ministers, and they were followed. In fact, it was important that we sat down and spoke with the Ethics Commissioner so that there would be very clear guidelines and rules with respect to the appropriate activity. As a result, it is my submission that there are no violations and no existing problems requiring a fix that my friends on the other side are suggesting.
I would also remind those members that they too fundraised in an incredibly aggressive fashion. Over the nearly 10 years that the Conservatives served in government, I have a very long laundry list of instances where ministers of the previous government engaged in fundraisers of similar quantum, subject to the caps, and that they took the position that they were following the rules applied at the time.
Again, these rules were established primarily by the other side and are the current ones that exist today. We are following those rules. Those rules are being abided by.