moved that Bill C-518, an act to amend the Members of Parliament Retiring Allowances Act (withdrawal allowance), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity today to start the debate on my private member's bill, Bill C-518. Quite simply, this bill would penalize crooked, law-breaking politicians who fleece taxpayers by taking away their pensions.
I was the national director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation when the scandal surrounding former senator Lavigne unfolded. Like many Canadians, I was appalled at the details of the case. He quite literally stole money from taxpayers. He was ordered to repay tens of thousands of dollars for improper travel expenses. He used publicly funded staff to do his own personal chores. He was convicted in a court of law for breach of trust and fraud. Yet, while that man currently sits in prison, he is still collecting a taxpayer-sponsored pension because of a loophole.
Mr. Lavigne technically resigned as a senator before he was kicked out. According to the rules, when senators resign they get to hold on to their pension. Only when senators are forced out of office for breaking the law, or are otherwise disqualified, will they lose their pension. However, if they quit before they have the chance to get fired, they will be paid a parliamentary pension. That is exactly what Mr. Lavigne did. He fleeced taxpayers while in office and now he fleeces them still.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation calculates that former senator Lavigne is receiving $67,000 per year from his publicly funded pension. That is more than most Canadians earn from honest work in a full-time job.
More recently, we saw Mac Harb retire from the Senate after it was discovered that he had also been fleecing taxpayers. He qualifies for a pension estimated to be over $100,000 per year. The police are investigating his actions. Should he be charged and convicted, he will be in the same boat as disgraced former senator Lavigne, with taxpayers footing the bill again.
This situation is unacceptable. That is why I want to change the law to close the loophole that is currently letting politicians who abuse their office and swindle taxpayers get a taxpayer-funded retirement. That is what this protecting taxpayers and revoking pensions of convicted politicians act will do.
First, it would add a clause to the Members of Parliament Retiring Allowances Act to take into account the situation where a senator or a member of Parliament is convicted of an offence that arose out of conduct that occurred while that individual was in office. It would do this by using the same mechanism that is already in place for politicians who become disqualified from holding their office. The law already takes into account a situation where senators are deemed disqualified. It states that senators will receive their pension contributions plus interest and not a penny more as a lump sum when he or she “...ceases to be a Senator by reason of disqualification or was expelled from the House of Commons”.
Whenever senators or members of Parliament are found to have committed reprehensible crimes while in office, whether or not they are still holding that office, they should have their pensions taken away. I am sure my colleagues will agree with me that we must get rid of the loophole that currently lets crooked politicians keep their pensions if they quit before they get fired. Thus, under my bill, convicted parliamentarians would not receive a pension but would be reimbursed only their pension contributions plus the earned interest.
Second, what I also want to accomplish with the bill is to make sure it will be applied for all future convictions of politicians, including for past malfeasance. For this reason, I have included a section clarifying that the charges contained in the bill would apply with respect to any person who is or was a member of the Senate or House of Commons and convicted after the date I introduced the bill, which was June 3, 2013.
Police investigations are currently under way to look into possible criminal breach of trust, theft or fraud. Charges may be forthcoming. If any of these potential charges result in a conviction, I would want to know that this loophole was closed in time.
Some have wondered if this bill, which would revoke the parliamentary pension of convicted politicians, is legal and have asked the following. Can the law be modified to repeal an entitlement? Can it be applied retroactively to the near past when the bill was tabled? Can it include a crime that occurred before even the tabling date?
I can answer with certainty; the answer is yes. Yes, we can repeal a parliamentary entitlement and, as I mentioned previously, the law already provides under what circumstances that can be done.
Indeed, I believe most analysts would agree there is not an issue on a go forward basis, that is, when the crime, the criminal charge, and the conviction, all happen after the bill is law, should it become law. However, of course, life is not that simple. We have several difficult cases before us now. They demand a remedy to protect taxpayers.
With regard to retroactivity to convictions after the tabling date of June 3 for crimes committed before that date, the answer again is yes and yes, and again with certainty. It can be done, for it has already been done.
Legislation passed earlier this year in Nova Scotia strips the pension of any lawmaker convicted of a crime for which the maximum punishment is imprisonment of no less than five years. The start date for that law was May 6, which was when the bill was tabled in the provincial legislature. The result was that in June an independent MLA lost his pension after pleading guilty to fraud and breach of trust charges arising from an expense scandal. He collected tax dollars after filing ten false expense claims in 2008 and 2009. Today he is not eligible to receive an MLA pension.
I believe that taxpayers expect similar accountability from Parliament. We have an opportunity to stand with taxpayers, should any parliamentarian be found guilty of a serious crime in the future.
Some have expressed concerns that the bill is too harsh. The bar that I have set in the bill would strip the pensions away from any MP or senator who commits a crime with a maximum punishment of two years or more.
During my consultations, it was brought to my attention that there are some crimes in the Criminal Code with a maximum penalty of two years, for which I do not think a politician should lose their pension. There are many different crimes. I will not go through the entire list, but I hardly think that a member of Parliament should lose their pension for being convicted of blasphemous libel. Neither do I think it is necessary to strip a pension away from someone who gives a false alarm of fire. It is also conceivable that somebody could technically be guilty of crimes without the offence being so egregious that it should be grounds for losing a pension.
I think all hon. members would agree that if we were to proceed with the bill, we should do so thoughtfully and carefully, to avoid unjustly revoking a parliamentary pension. I am therefore open to suggestions for improving the bill in this regard.
The best suggestion I have heard so far, and with which I agree, is to limit the scope and to raise the bar. The bill currently would apply to any federal statute, again, with a penalty of two years or more as the maximum. I think it would be fair to limit the scope to only include the Criminal Code.
As I mentioned a moment ago, the bill would apply to violations for which the maximum penalty is two or more years. It would be fair to raise the bar and only consider indictable offences in which the maximum penalty is five or more years. I will therefore be moving and endorsing this higher five-year threshold at amendment stage. In doing so, this federal act would be virtually identical to provincial law in Nova Scotia.
I believe that my bill is an appropriate response to the unfortunate actions of a handful of people. Both of these modifications would keep the spirit of the bill entirely intact. Fraud and breach of trust would both still result in a loss of pension.
The message I want to send is very simple. If a senator or an MP steals from taxpayers, they do not deserve to have taxpayers buy them or fund them a gold-plated retirement. I trust all hon. members would agree.