Good morning. I call the meeting to order.
This is the legislative committee on Bill C-2, meeting number 13, pursuant to the order of reference of Thursday, April 27, 2006, on Bill C-2, an act providing for conflict of interest rules, restrictions on election financing, and measures respecting administrative transparency, oversight, and accountability.
We have with us Henry McCandless, who is the general convenor of the Citizens' Circle for Accountability.
Good morning, Mr. McCandless. You have a few moments to make some preliminary comments, and then members of the committee will ask you some questions. Thank you for coming.
This morning I wish simply to put before you the concept and logic of public accountability and how it can increase fairness in society and citizen trust in authorities. Without that trust, society doesn't work properly.
My aim is to try to show you how you can act to prevent harm and injustice, such as the lethally contaminated blood of the 1980s or the management control failures in HRDC in sponsorship. Audit and commissions of inquiry are after the fact, when it's too late.
I have been a rigorous student of public accountability for 15 years. I was the author of this book on the subject in 2002. I was a principal in the Office of the Auditor General for 18 years. My MBA is in organizational behaviour, which is about cause and effect in management processes. In the audit office I served as the Auditor General's parliamentary liaison officer to the public accounts committee, so I know pretty well people's roles and duties.
If we turn to the concept of public accountability and why it's a society imperative, let's assume for a moment that we don't know the difference between conduct, responsibility, and accountability. A simple logic sequence may help us. If an executive government intends something that would affect the public in important ways, in fairness it should tell the public what it intends and why it intends it. This means accounting to the public. An obvious example is a government policy initiative.
Next the executive government should publicly explain its intended performance standards to clarify what it intends to achieve. Hospital emergency waiting times are an example.
Then we want to know whether the government thinks it has met agreed performance standards, and we want to have the government tell us the outcomes from what it did and how it applied the learning available to it. These affect trust in competence.
Then we apply the precautionary principle: we ask for an audit of the fairness and completeness of what the government reports. The combination of these accountings plus audit helps us determine our level of trust in government because we know better what the government intends, why it intends it, and what it's actually doing. MPs can then better control what's going on, and citizens can better see the role of the MP in holding to account.
Accountability does not mean responsibility, the obligation to act, and it doesn't mean conduct, the actual doing of something. The mid-1970s independent committee on the mandate of the Auditor General of Canada authoritatively defined accountability as the obligation to report on responsibilities.
Public accountability isn't new. It has been a mainstay in the business world for centuries. The public accounts of Canada are a governmental offshoot of financial reporting. One reason you're not already steeped in public accountability is that authorities don't like to account unless they're made to--corporations were--so you had nothing to work with. Executive governments have thus far controlled whether standards for accountability reporting get legislated; thus far, they haven't been.
But first we need a useful and comprehensive definition of public accountability to work with, and here's what I have proposed: public accountability is the obligation of authorities to explain publicly, fully, and fairly, before and after the fact, how they are carrying out responsibilities that affect the public in important ways. If you feel you have to go into four-wheel drive to absorb that, don't worry about it. I'm writing it so that it's unassailable to the barracuda critics, mostly academics.
Then you can ask what the benefits of public accountability are. First, MPs and citizens get information they need but wouldn't otherwise have. Access to information requests are no substitute, and weren't meant to be.
Perhaps even more important, the obligation to account publicly, as long as it is audited for fairness and completeness, exerts a self-regulating influence on officials, and this self-regulating influence works in the public interest.
The requirement to account is unassailable because it's non-partisan. It does not tell anyone how to do his or her job; it's simply an explanation requirement. It does not ask for any more information than officials need in any case to do their jobs properly--and what they know, they can report.
My last comment is on legislating accountability. If we're serious about something, we legislate it, but a bill entitled “accountability” that isn't about accountability allows people to continue confusing responsibility conduct with accountability. That means we won't get full and fair public accounting for responsibilities.
Moreover, adding more and more monitoring, policing, and audit instead of accountability obligations will likely turn off good people from entering the civil service, people who would otherwise willingly account for their performance as a self-control, if they knew their accounting would be used competently and fairly.
There is one thing your committee could recommend that doesn't mean adding accountabilities across the board in Bill C-2. In whistle-blower protection, which takes up 32 pages of the bill, you could recommend a short provision that ministers and deputies report annually to the House their own protection performance standards and whether their claimed protection is actually working.
Thank you very much for the invitation from the committee to appear today on this important bill, Bill C-2, which is very much a breakthrough bill in terms of addressing many much neglected areas of government accountability that have been neglected for more than 130 years, actually since Confederation.
As mentioned, I am chairperson of two coalitions, the Government Ethics Coalition, which is made up of just over 30 groups, and the Money in Politics Coalition, made up of 50 groups—both coalitions with groups from across the country. Democracy Watch's proposals today are also based in part on the platform of the 10-member group Open Government Canada, a coalition that put out a position paper on access to information reform, now five years ago. The details about all of these groups are on the Democracy Watch website. The total membership of the groups represented in the coalitions is more than 3.5 million Canadians.
All of the coalitions' platforms are based on historical experience that has proven that in order to ensure people who are working in large, powerful organizations such as government institutions follow the rules and perform, the rules must have no loopholes; secondly, that the institutions must operate as transparently as possible; thirdly, as Mr. McCandless has set out, that there must be standards in terms of goals and objectives that are measurable, so that performance can be measured; that enforcement agencies must be fully independent, well-resourced, and fully empowered, including having the power to penalize rule violators in significant ways, and must be conducting regular inspections and publicly reporting, of course; and finally, that whistle-blowers must be effectively protected.
This is not to claim at all that everyone involved in the federal government intends to violate rules; however, as has been shown in any organization of human beings throughout history, some people will try to break the rules. So in line with the commonsense sayings—first of all, that people do what you inspect, not what you expect, and second, that when all is said and done, more is said than done—you of course need to have an enforcement system that must include all of the above key elements. It's sad to say it, but it's unfortunately true.
When examining Bill C-2 and taking these elements of effective enforcement systems into account, Democracy Watch's coalitions have looked at these systems for now the past decade, and in examining the bill we see many loopholes, in 15 key areas.
You hopefully will have a list of this summary list of 15 bullet points on the loopholes and flaws in the bill, but if not, it should be arriving soon, along with a very detailed 17-page list of 140 proposed amendments to close the loopholes in these 15 key areas.
As detailed in the report, if these flaws are not corrected, then Democracy Watch's position is that people who break the federal government's honesty, ethics, openness, hiring and appointments, and waste prevention rules will continue to be let off the hook.
If the changes to the Federal Accountability Act are not made—this is the first of the 15 areas—lying to the public will still be legal. The bill will remove—actually proposes to delete—the only ethics rule that requires cabinet ministers, their staff, and senior public servants to act with honesty. This would be an enormous step backwards.
As well, cabinet ministers, their staff, and senior public servants will be allowed by flawed ethics rules to be involved in policy-making proceedings that help their own financial interests and will be allowed to use government property for their own purposes, because that government property rule is also proposed to be deleted from the ethics rules.
Number three, secret unethical lobbying will still be legal, and many ministerial staff will be allowed to become lobbyists too soon after they leave their position.
Number four, the proposed new ban on secret donations to politicians will not be effectively enforced. It's because Canada is not complying with an international agreement that it signed, which is aimed at combatting terrorism and money laundering.
Fifth, the public will not be allowed to file ethics complaints against politicians, even though politicians are of course the public's employees, and that, amongst a few of the other things that I've already mentioned, was promised by the Conservatives.
In total as you go through the bill, there are 21 broken promises when you compare it to the Conservatives' election platform, which is a very key piece of evidence as to why we need an effective law and enforcement system for honesty in politics.
Going through the list again of the summary areas where there will still be very key problems, loopholes, gaps, and flaws, the Prime Minister and cabinet will still be able to appoint party loyalists and cronies to more than 2,000 key law enforcement positions without any effective review or parliamentary approval process.
Number seven, government institutions will be allowed to keep secret information, which the public has a clear right to know, because of loopholes that will be left in the Access to Information Act and the enforcement system.
Secret funds like the ad scam fund will not be effectively banned because the Gomery commission's proposal in that area has not been taken up in the bill, and politicians and officials will not have to provide detailed receipts. Although expenses are now disclosed, the details are not disclosed, and as a result, it's still very difficult to ensure that expenses are justifiable.
The key area that Democracy Watch has been pushing for, for a long time is key to accountability, and it fits in with what Mr. McCandless was talking about. Federal government institutions will still not be required to set out proposed plans for action and decisions and to consult with Canadians in a meaningful way before making significant decisions or undertaking significant actions. This is a very key change that needs to be done in terms of accountability. In Sweden, they have a system where the government regularly consults in a meaningful way.
Yes, I will. Thank you very much.
Citizens will still face very high barriers to banding together into watchdog groups that have the resources to match the resources of industry sector lobby groups. Democracy Watch and its coalitions propose a very simple system that has worked effectively in the U.S. to help citizens band together into these watchdog groups.
Unfortunately, secret rulings will still be possible unless Bill C-2 is strengthened. Secret rulings by the ethics watchdog for the Prime Minister and other senior officials will still be possible, and even that watchdog, the Ethics Commissioner has noted, has a very serious problem with the current mandate.
As well, the identities of politicians, political staff, cabinet appointees, and public servants who are guilty of wrongdoing will often be kept secret.
The Information Commissioner and other watchdogs will lack independence and the key powers that are needed to ensure the rules are followed.
Another key area in an enforcement system, as mentioned, is effective penalties. The penalties will still be too low in the areas of unethical, secretive, and wasteful activities. For example, violating the cabinet ethics code will result in a maximum penalty of $500, which is a joke.
Finally, whistle-blowers who are not public servants will not be effectively protected from retaliation, and no whistle-blowers will receive compensation adequate to seeking other jobs, even if the whistle-blowing process leaves them completely alienated from all their co-workers.
I hope the committee will take this historic opportunity to take the time to work through this bill and to fully consider amendments, which means possibly running into the fall. There's no rush. It's important to get it right. It's an historic opportunity to close all the huge loopholes in the government's accountability system.
I hope the committee will take seriously the 140 amendments that Democracy Watch is proposing today.
Thank you very much. I welcome your questions.
Well, I'm not up to the stickhandling of that family.
Welcome, Mr. Conacher and Mr. McCandless. Both of you have stressed that whistle-blowers must be protected.
Mr. McCandless, you've talked about a culture of responsibility. You've also focused, it appears at least to me, on that culture of responsibility being entrenched in two ways, one according to legislation through the deputy minister being the financially accountable officer, and you go one step further in completing the accountability loop by having that officer take what you've described as responsibility for reporting on his or her whistle-blowing record in terms of any incidents of inappropriate financial conduct or otherwise coming before that officer in carrying on duties.
I wonder if you could expand on that, because you go one step further and you say that officer should report to Parliament through a special committee. You know this committee is wrestling with how you increase the oversight of the committee system, or some part of the parliamentary structure, and how you complete the accountability loop in reporting directly to Parliament.
Could you expand on that just a little bit more, please, for the committee?
Thank you, gentlemen, for being here.
Mr. McCandless, it seems to me that what you're describing, although you're putting it in a unique way, is simply good public sector management, in which there is a normal expectation that the chief senior person will ensure sound public policies on channels for whistle-blowers to report apparent errors, public access to information within the department, and fair treatment of individuals of the public who are served by the department. The public accountability officer really is just that: a combination internal ombudsperson, privacy commissioner, and whistle-blower protection commissioner.
While we can deal with symptoms of poor internal management by adding more and more independent officers of Parliament, I'm concerned that as this group grows, we may be creating a parallel universe between Parliament and the executive in which the officers are not really directly accountable to Parliament and certainly are not to the electorate. By allowing proliferation of these offices, we almost remove responsibility from senior managers to look after these matters properly internally. If we're going to have these officers, their role should be remedial over time, so that accountability within the departments that you describe is actually there as a natural part of management, and only in exceptional cases would anybody have to make use of the residual independent office.
That would seem to me to be the healthy way that a public administration should grow. We understand that mistakes will happen and that we may have to have a residual, independent review or action, but it would be justified only if its role were remedial over time to improve accountability. I wonder if either one of you would want to comment on that.
Thank you, and please excuse the quality of my French. I have a lot of practising to do. Given the details that I must provide you, I will respond in English.
What you have received, first of all, are just the first two parts of our full report. It's simply because this was scheduled on fairly short notice. I submitted the full report just last Friday to the committee, so they will be translating all 140 amendments that follow from the sections you have, which summarize the areas that we see as still having key flaws.
In terms of the broken promises, it's hard to choose among them, but I think what is most offensive is to attempt to delete five rules in the current cabinet, ministerial staff, and senior public servants code, including the rule requiring that people act with honesty, and to bar the public from making complaints to the Ethics Commissioner about their own employees--to actually increase the bar. There is no legal bar now, and there is a legal bar being put in with this bill. I find that completely offensive.
Also, it is a violation of the Conservatives' promise, which was to allow the public to make complaints, not just politicians. That is not in the bill. Some people may think it is, but a member of the public has to file a complaint with a politician, and the politician then has to prove the complaint is valid, somehow—I don't know how that's going to happen without any investigative powers—before they can file with the Ethics Commissioner. It's totally offensive.
But the other areas, the secret lobbying, secret donations, secret rulings from ethics watchdogs--this overall secrecy--and the violation of the Conservatives' promise to include many key changes to the access to information system...all of those things are missing. As a result, Democracy Watch's position is that people who break the honesty, ethics, waste prevention, openness, and hiring and appointments rules in the future will not be caught, they will not be found guilty, and they will not be penalized.
So another ad scam is still very much possible.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Thank you to both of the witnesses for being here.
Mr. McCandless, I read with interest your article in the May 22 edition of The Hill Times. I found it very useful. I see your remarks today touch on some of that as well, but we've taken some guidance from that.
Mr. Conacher, as always I find your report very helpful, comprehensive, and thorough. We share your view that this is an historic opportunity. You've dedicated most of your life to these issues, and this is possibly the first realistic window of opportunity you're going to have to see some of those things realized, if not all.
I share that view and take some comfort that much of the FAA--incomplete as it is, perhaps, in your view--reads like the NDP's federal election campaign document almost chapter to chapter. So we're excited by this opportunity. Notwithstanding that, I take how valid many of your observations are, and I can assure you that we are working at crafting amendments to address as many of those as is humanly possible. I'm not sure it will be all.
In your introduction, you said one of the things that bothered you most was that the obligation to act with honesty won't find its way into the legislative side of the package. I'd only ask you to consider--if you agree with it--that the absence of an obligation to act with honesty doesn't give someone licence to act dishonestly. There are other regulatory measures and legislation that certainly curb senior politicians or their staff from acting in a blatantly dishonest way that would be illegal, in many senses.
Would reference in the preamble of Bill C-2 to an obligation to act at the highest standard of ethics and honesty satisfy your observations or concerns?
I thank my colleagues for granting the unanimous consent, and thank you both for appearing here today.
Mr. Conacher, you have obviously made some very serious allegations about the proposed Federal Accountability Act. In your release of last week, you stated that the Prime Minister, the President of the Treasury Board, and the Prime Minister's spokespersons are being dishonest and claimed a number of broken promises.
You've reiterated those claims today, and I challenge those. I would argue that...you use the term “offensive”. Well, quite frankly, with respect, sir, I find it offensive that you would make those comments and those claims against this legislation.
I want to go over a few of your accusations today. Obviously, I don't have a lot of time, so I can't go through every single one of them, but I do want to point out a few.
The first accusation is that the promise to enshrine the conflict of interest code into law is a broken promise. I would ask you, sir, do you have a copy of the bill with you?
Thank you very much, and thank you for inviting me. I'll have some short comments, and then I'd be happy to take your questions.
Let me begin by saying that I welcome the direction in which the government is moving under Bill C-2. Since I assumed my position, I have governed my Office with the spirit and practice of increasing its transparency and accountability to the Canadian public. I have experienced first-hand the lengthy and difficult struggle of having to restore sound business practices, rebuild staff morale and re-establish public confidence in my Office. I fully support the government's efforts to put into place necessary mechanisms to help avoid such unfortunate situations from happening again.
Bill C-2 brings the first wave of new amendments to the Access to Information and Privacy Acts. However, I believe there is still major work to be done. Like Access to Information reform, Privacy Act reform is an equally important pre-condition for achieving meaningful government accountability and transparency.
I will talk a bit more about the need for Privacy Act reform as an issue of accountability and transparency.
As the Supreme Court of Canada recently stated, the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act must be read together, and I quote them, as “a seamless code”. When Parliament adopted these companion pieces of legislation some 25 years ago, it clearly intended to increase government accountability in two ways: first, by ensuring that access to information under government control is recognized as a right of citizens; and, second, by strengthening the individual's right to know what personal information the government has about them and how it is used.
Privacy is not synonymous with secrecy, nor should it be seen as an antonym to access. In fact, openness, accountability and access to one's personal information are three of the fundamental, and now internationally recognized, principles of any modern data protection regime. At the request of the former Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, my office has prepared a discussion paper on the reform of the Privacy Act, which we will be tabling next week with the committee.
I will go now to comment on the specific provisions of this bill as they relate to the Privacy Act. The focus of my remaining comments then are as follows.
The extended scope of application is something that I'd like to comment on. While I take the view, as my colleague Information Commissioner John Reid does, that a more principled approach is eventually needed to hold all government institutions accountable for their information holdings, the extended coverage proposed by Bill C-2 is still, in my mind, a welcome incremental step. By extending Privacy Act coverage to include more entities, Bill C-2 certainly improves on the status quo.
I am concerned, however, with the proposal that seeks to remove certain commercial crown corporations from our private sector act, which is known as the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, PIPEDA, and include them instead in the Privacy Act. I refer the honourable members to clauses 188 and 190 of the legislation. Specifically, I am referring to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the CBC, and Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, both of which are crown agents currently designated by order to be subject to PIPEDA, as well as VIA Rail, which is a federal work, also subject to PIPEDA. The sad reality, honourable members, is that personal information is now far better regulated in the federally regulated private sector than it is in the federal public sector. Changing the rules for these commercial crown corporations would actually lower the standard of privacy protection they are required to meet under PIPEDA, equivalent to their private sector competitors, who are all presently on a level playing field.
Bill C-2 exempts from access personal information obtained or created by our office in the course of an investigation. This provision is parallel to a new section proposed for the Access to Information Act. I support the inclusion of both of these new exemptions in respect of privacy investigations conducted by my office. I believe that these new exemptions, as they apply to privacy investigations, are important to close the back door so that a person who is being denied access to information by a department and brings the complaint to my office cannot indirectly obtain access to it simply by seeking access to my investigation files, which invariably contain a copy of the information in question. Were complainants permitted to do this, they would, in effect, be circumventing the entire complaint resolution process provided for by law.
Moreover, this exemption is entirely consistent with the existing confidentiality provision in the Privacy Act, which aims to protect the ombudsman process in its mission to resolve conflict in an informal manner. The obligation of confidentiality is essential to the ombudsman's approach to encourage the parties to engage fully within a conciliatory process that best functions when the parties reach a mutual state of trust and confidence.
Finally, I would add that, by their very nature, privacy complaints arise out of situations where individuals feel that their personal information rights have been violated. It would only add insult to injury if OPC investigation files, which are created to look at the complainant's allegation, were publicly accessible, further exacerbating their sense of privacy violation.
We support the new exemptions being proposed for the Privacy Act to protect whistleblowers under Bill C-11. OPC had voiced support for protecting the identity of whistleblowers when we appeared on Bill C-11.
Disclosure of wrongdoing is an alert to the existence of departmental wrongdoing. The type of investigation envisaged in this legislation scheme does not generally turn on the identity of the whistleblower, but rather, on the veracity of the alleged facts. It is important not to confuse the necessary assessment of the credibility of witnesses in any investigation, including investigations into alleged wrongdoings, with the legislator's public policy choice to protect the identity of the whistleblower in this specific context. Even where the identity of the whistleblower may be relevant to an investigation, Bill C-11, as amended by C-2, expressly provides that rules of procedural fairness and natural justice continue to apply to the Chief Executive, Integrity Commissioner and Tribunal.
In my view, this insures a proper balance between fairness to the alleged wrongdoer and protection of the whistleblower.
I'll comment briefly on the appointment and removal process for officers of Parliament. I support these amendments to the process for appointing and removing the Privacy Commissioner under section 53 of the Privacy Act, which ensure the necessary level of independence appropriate for an officer of Parliament. Like my colleague the Auditor General, however, I would not favour the public disclosure of the final vote count, which may adversely affect the necessary level of confidence among parliamentarians and the public in the ultimate choice of an officer.
Finally, I bring to your attention what I see as a serious omission in Bill C-2: the absence of a mechanism to investigate access or privacy complaints against the Information and Privacy Commissioners. I would hope that the provisions in Bill C-2 making the two commissioners subject to both Acts will not come into force until an alternative complaint investigation process is properly established to deal with these new types of situations.
In conclusion, I hope I have given you a clear indication of my views on the provisions of Bill C-2 that have privacy implications, as well as the importance, for the same reasons as you are undertaking this reform, of reforming the Privacy Act, which is an indispensable part of assuring government accountability.
I would be happy to take your questions.
Thank you, Commissioner Stoddart, for being with us and for re-establishing, in such short order, the integrity of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner.
Perhaps I could just ask a general question about the type of office you hold--that is, your view of its proper role between both the executive and Parliament, where you really are an extension of members of Parliament in order to assist them to hold the executive of government accountable.
Coming from that, it would seem to me that, over time, you would identify trends, perhaps of particular types of complaints or difficulties that you would recommend be altered in terms of the management of public administration. Therefore, although concerns, problems, and mistakes won't disappear entirely, over time they should start to come in line with the best management practices, as far as your office or any of the other independent offices are designed to meet.
Is that the experience in your looking at the history of the privacy office and your own individual relationship with it for the last two years? Are we creating, with your office being one of the agents of change, a change in management practices towards greater responsibility? Or do you feel that your office is simply there as an ongoing, steady-volume recipient of complaints that aren't really being corrected in a remedial way?
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Thank you, Madam Commissioner. I'm very grateful for your testimony, and it seems very clear to me on page 4, when you talk about CBC, Atomic Energy of Canada, and Via Rail.
What we hear in the other place, over there in the Commons, is that somehow in the other part of this omnibus bill—the access provisions in particular—something was done to protect CBC and the sources. But what's clear here is that the extraction of CBC in particular from PIPEDA gives them, in your words, a lower standard of privacy protection than the federally regulated private sector.
I guess my question—I'd buy that lock, stock, and barrel—is why this has come to be, other than maybe that it was rushed without consultation. Was there consultation with you about the extraction of these three crown corporations, or arm's-length corporations, which have to, after all, compete with the CTVs and the rail systems out west and the atomic energy.... I suppose they compete on a worldwide basis.
Was there consultation, and has there been sufficient time to develop a safety net?
Thank you, Ms. Stoddart, for your observations. Listening to you, it made me think that much of what we're doing today with Bill C-2 really had its origins in the incidents in your office. I remember, of course, that the inquiry of the government operations committee into the Office of the Privacy Commissioner was sort of a catalyst for a lot of us realizing, first of all, the need for better whistle-blower protection, because we remember the scene when these honest, well-meaning whistle-blowers were so concerned about their own protection or lack of it that they felt they had to bring legal counsel with them to make their presentations to a standing committee of the House of Commons. That, more than anything, just drove it home to us that the whistle-blower protection regime is woefully inadequate. So I thank you for your observations on that today.
Early in your brief you made the point that privacy is not synonymous with secrecy, which is a very good point to raise here, I think. But by the same token, the Auditor General, when she was a witness to this committee, testified that whenever you increase access to information authority or regulations, or improve access, as it were, it has the effect of reducing the amount of documentation. In other words, there's a problem from her point of view; she finds that there's less to audit when there are access to information requests going on.
Do you anticipate corresponding problems with privacy complaints if we increase dramatically the access to information provisions within Bill C-2?
Well, I don't like the phrase “the right to know your accuser” in the context of administrative law. I think it telescopes a lot of things, such as criminal law principles, and it imports them into a more sensitive, nuanced, and many-shaded world of administrative process. I stay away from that phrase.
I think what we're looking at and what you are looking at in Bill C-11, where I originally testified on this, is how to create a safe place, as in the example of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner in 2003, for people to come forward and say they think there's something wrong, without being intimidated the next day by the person who they think is doing something wrong. I do not see that as contrary to natural justice. I think you need to have a time and a space in which you can do that. You can come forward and you have some protection while the investigation is going on.
I said in my submission that the person or persons who are leading the investigation have other tools at their disposal, rather than making the contents of the investigation public, as in open court, which is our rule for criminal proceedings, notably on the issue of the credibility of witnesses. They also look at all the facts, and so on. You have those built-in safeguards.
My reference to natural justice also meant there's usually a second, third, or ulterior step after that. If you go on from the initial discovery of facts that is triggered by a whistle-blowing process and you go on to some kind of disciplinary or remedial action or criminal accusations, at that point, yes, you then have the right to know all about the case.
I have another question for Ms. Stoddart or Mr. Kosseim. In Bill C-2 from this session and Bill C-11 from the previous session, which you examined, the term “whistleblower” is used. Naturally, everyone focusses on this word. However, there is another notion, which we learned about within the framework of the Gomery Commission,that of “informer”. Do you see the distinction between the two terms?
A whistleblower is someone who did not assist in the commission of a crime, while an informer is an individual within the system who, in order to obtain specific rights... For example, Mr. Guité, who was within the system, could have sold out his friends by revealing everything they had done in order to reduce the penalty he would face.
Does Bill C-2 provide this possibility?
On behalf of the 54,000 members of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, I want to thank you very much for the opportunity to appear before this committee and to provide the committee with our views on Bill C-2.
Due to the time constraints, my presentation will consist of a very much edited-down version of the written presentation that you've already received, and I'll basically start on page 2 of the English and page 3 of the French.
To begin with, I'd like to mention that we're very happy that Canada Post is going to be covered under access to information. This is something that we have been calling for for years. However, we have serious concerns about amendment 149 under part 3, which adds exemptions and exceptions to Canada Post coverage under the Access to Information Act. We think the exceptions being proposed are too extensive. In addition to normal economic interest exemptions, such as trade secrets, financial, commercial, scientific or technical information, the government has added a new exemption for information that has consistently been treated as confidential. This would cover a great deal of information at crown corporations like Canada Post. Canada Post has not been required to give the public access to its information and it would therefore be very easy for Canada Post to say that a great deal of information has consistently been treated as confidential.
I'll give you one example of basic information that Canada Post is currently treating as confidential. The corporation is reviewing its national network and has announced plans to close a mail processing plant in Quebec City as the very first step in its review. It has also closed about 50 rural post offices since 2001 in spite of a moratorium on post office closures in rural and small towns. Canada Post is a public corporation and the public has a right to know what the corporation is up to, especially when it comes to fundamental issues such as the integrity of our public postal network. Unfortunately, Canada Post has refused to release its overall plan for the network.
If information that has been consistently treated as confidential is included, it will be difficult for us to obtain this kind of basic information even if Canada Post falls under the Access to Information Act.
We'd also like to raise concerns about the exceptions to the new exemptions. We don't understand why we need an exemption for a part of a record that deals with general administration or a special exception for a part of a record that deals with any activity of Canada Post that is fully funded out of moneys appropriated by Parliament. This sounds to us as if everything except for parts of these two types of records...and you know, frankly, they are readily available on Canada Post's website, and the information that relates to things that are solely funded by the government is limited to government mailings and publications for the blind. We think this means that everything would be treated like information that has consistently been treated as confidential.
We'd like the committee to amend Bill C-2 to make it clear that Canada Post must provide all information, except for very specific exemptions.
I'd like to mention here that our call to have Canada Post subject to access to information rules has always included an exemption for information that is commercially sensitive. We agree that there's a real need to improve transparency at Canada Post, but we also think that our public post office must be protected from the predatory requests of competitors who have no legitimate claim on information such as Canada Post's plans to compete with courier companies. These companies want more of Canada Post's business but none of its universal service obligations.
So the union is recommending language, and this is included in the written presentation we've given you, that makes it clear that the head of Canada Post must provide all information with the exception of trade secrets or financial, commercial, scientific or technical information. We would also suggest that the terms “trade secrets, financial, commercial, scientific or technical information” be defined in the least restrictive way possible, and that this information would be subject to independent review by the Information Commissioner.
We have other concerns, especially related to contracting out with procurement, that we hope to have a chance to address during the question period. Thank you very much.
I'd like to thank the committee, on behalf of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, for the opportunity to share our thoughts and recommendations for amendments to Bill C-2, the proposed Accountability Act.
CUPE is the largest union in Canada. It has over 540,000 members, most of whom work in the municipal sector, in health, education and social services. Our objective is to maintain and reinforce the public sector, not only to benefit our members, but also to strengthen our communities. Our interest today is to ensure that Bill C-2 will improve government accountability, particularly with regard to contracts for the procurement of goods and services and with private companies in general.
Accountability is a major concern with contracting out and public-private partnerships, or P3s.
The sponsorship scandal is only one example of these. The $160 million Department of National Defence scandal, the Richmond airport-Vancouver rapid transit line, also known as the Canada Line, and Prince Edward Island's Confederation Bridge were all other examples fraught with controversy.
Privatization of roads, hospitals, schools, and prisons in the U.K. has led to mismanagement of funds and loss of public control.
The changes proposed in Bill C-2 put the public sector under a microscope—in many cases this is welcome—but leave the private sector and its use of public funds shielded from scrutiny.
I am going to give my colleague the floor so that he can explain our amendments and our particular concerns.
In our view, a central element of the federal Accountability Act should be to increase the transparency, disclosure, and powers of the Auditor General to review contracts with third parties. This was the essence of the sponsorship scandal: a political party's abuse of public funds channelled through private contracts, often with crown agents of the government, for private partisan purposes. Public accounts, budgets, estimates, departmental reports, and the Auditor General, as well as the proposals in the Accountability Act, provide significant accountability and details on how funds are spent within government. Citizens also deserve to know how their funds are spent by private companies.
Instead of proposing to improve accountability by substantially increasing transparency, the proposed Federal Accountability Act has adopted an approach more like “father knows best”, by increasing the powers of and the number of oversight bodies rather than substantially increasing the transparency of government. These proposals would not necessarily prevent further abuse and scandals from happening, particularly in relation to government contracts with private companies.
The proposed Federal Accountability Act has major loopholes that would exclude contracts for goods and services from review by the Auditor General, not allow individual citizens to lodge complaints with the proposed procurement auditor, not enshrine the current practice of proactive disclosure in legislation, and not address the recommendations of the Information Commissioner regarding disclosure of details of government contracts with third parties, or even meet the principles established in courts over this information.
We have prepared and distributed four sets of specific changes. They are simple and they are fairly straightforward, but they go a long way to increasing accountability for all government spending. These are certainly not the only changes that should be made. We support the proposals made by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, and you've also heard a lot of other proposals.
I can go into these in more detail later, if you would like. I've distributed them.
First, I want to thank you for allowing us to present our briefs on Bill C-2. The CSN represents 300,000 workers in all sectors of activity. Although it is mainly concentrated within Quebec, the CSN is also present elsewhere in Canada, particularly in the telecommunication and road transport sectors and also represents correctional officers in federal penitentiaries.
We congratulate the current government on its initiative in presenting a bill and a federal accountability action plan. Overall, we agree with this bill. However, we feel that it is lengthy and complex, and we want to ensure that there will be a real consultation process and a rigorous study, because this bill must not be passed too hastily.
Given the short amount of time at our disposal and the complexity of this file, our presentation will focus on a few issues.
First, with regard to political party financing, we are delighted that the federal government included in its federal accountability action plan measures based on the Quebec model that has been in place since the 1970s regarding political party financing, which helped to improve the democratic process during elections.
The ban on corporate donations will help to further the democratization of political party financing, and the provisions concerning the ban on making secret donations to political candidates will also help to clean up election practices.
With regard to budget transparency, we also agree with the proposed approach. In fact, we ourselves had made this recommendation during pre-budget consultations. However, we do have questions about the means used. We wonder if it would not be preferable to create an independent working group rather than having a parliamentary budget officer. We also have questions about this officer's powers with regard to access to information. Why does this position come under the Library of Parliament rather than under the Standing Committee on Finance, for example? We also wonder about the additional resources that will be allocated to the parliamentary budget officer.
As for the protection provided to whistleblowers, we are pleased that protection will be given to employees who wish to disclose wrongdoing. However, we oppose providing a $1000 reward to individuals who would act under the provisions of the new legislation. We fear that this will lead to a culture of whistleblowing. We agree that it is important to protect individuals, but we do not believe that a culture of whistleblowing should be encouraged with a monetary award.
With regard to the Access to Information Act, we do not agree that the reform should be delayed yet again. Moreover, last November, the Standing Committee on Access to Information was unanimous in this regard, if I am not mistaken. Consequently, we believe that the government should move forward as quickly as possible on this issue.
We wish to emphasize our support with regard to the addition of Crown corporations that will be covered by the Access to Information Act. However, the new exceptions are of some concern, with the exception of the special exemption for Radio-Canada and work done by journalists. This is, in our opinion, fully justified in order to ensure the protection of sources.
In closing, I want to mention two things. First, with regard to the powers of the Auditor General, we are pleased with the provisions in this bill.
With regard to the ethics commissioner, our main question concerns the fact that citizens will not be able to communicate directly with this individual, but will have to go through an MP. We would have preferred for individuals to also be able to file complaints with the ethics commissioner who would determine the validity of these complaints.
Perhaps I could address the first question--and then I'll share time with my colleagues--to Ms. Crawley, in terms of the expansion of the review by the Auditor General into contracts.
You mentioned a number of examples of P3 arrangements.
The Auditor General, when she appeared before us, expressed some real concern about the expansion of her role, even to the extent that the act does provide for...because of lack of resources, but also the complexity of it, perhaps in favour of a simpler model where spot audits could be provided or the normal course of auditing of those relationships would be brought forward through professional audit.
The one area where of course it's very useful to have the Auditor General directly involved beyond just audit provisions is following the money, as they say, and the value-for-money aspect of it. Is that what you're trying to get at in terms of the expansion of private-public partnerships?
Hello. Thank you for coming here. I am particularly pleased to welcome you as the Bloc Québécois labour critic.
In passing, I met with Ms. Carbonneau of the CSN last Friday about the anti-scab bill. Furthermore, I will be meeting in the near future with representatives of the Public Service Alliance and the Postal workers Union on this subject.
I don't recall which one of you expressed concerns about the speed with which our committee was working. You would like us to take the time needed to do a good job. That said, we are in a real scramble. I see that three major unions are represented here and that they each have only a few minutes between their respective presentations. People come here and apologize for not having enough time to properly prepare. I don't believe that this is possible. We will no doubt be sitting for 45 hours over the next two weeks. I am not sure that the work will be of high quality.
That said, I get the feeling — and I don't know if you do also — that the current Conservative government is trying to have us pass Bill C-2 more for reasons related to perception. In a press release, there is talk about restoring Canadian's trust in government. We don't have enough time to do a proper analysis. We must not only consider the trust and perception of Canadians, but also attempt to prevent another sponsorship scandal.
Mr. Sanger said that, in his opinion, Bill C-2 would not prevent other scandals and abuses of power. He shared his opinion with us, but perhaps he would like to comment further. I would ask each of you, in light of your analysis and reading of the bill, wether in your opinion Bill C-2 contains elements that will allow us to avoid another sponsorship scandal. We must remember that this scandal is the reason for this bill.
We are the ones who expressed our concerns regarding the speed with which the bill was being studied. We are afraid that the bill will be passed in haste. We particularly regret this situation because on the whole, the fact that we would enact accountability legislation at the federal level could indeed prevent further sponsorship scandals. It would not prevent them all, but we could thus reduce the probabilities, which obviously would be sensible.
Furthermore, in this bill we are addressing extremely complex issues. We are discussing the financing of political parties; we are reviewing the role of the ethics commissioner and we are dealing with access to information, the contracting process, which I did not refer to earlier, as well as whistleblower protection. In short, each of these subjects deserves an exhaustive study on its own. We must make sure to pass the right provisions, in order to avoid any new sponsorship scandals. However, the main goal is to improve the democratic system within which we live. This is an important concern for the CSN.
On these grounds, we deplore the fact that things are being done so hastily. We believe it is important that such a bill be adopted, but we believe that this legislation deserves a much more in-depth study. We support the major principles of the bill, even though we have expressed certain reservations or asked certain questions, particularly on the subject of the transparency of the budgeting process.
We would have liked to debate each and everyone of these issues and to have carried out our own studies, in order to give the committee a better understanding of our position today. We received the invitation last Tuesday. In the space of one week, we did the analysis that we were able to do, but the fact remains that these subjects deserve a much more in-depth study. We are talking about giving our society the right tools, that will allow it to attain more transparency and democracy.
Thank you, witnesses, for being here and for all the helpful recommendations.
There are some very specific things that I think we can assure you we will be acting on and trying to implement into amendments to the bill.
Given the limited time, I'd like to speak to one specific item with CUPW, Ms. Bourque.
When we had Moya Greene here, she aggressively defended the exclusion that's contemplated in Bill C-2. Whereas even Bill C-2 contemplates putting Canada Post under the Access to Information Act by adding it to schedule I, it takes away with the other hand by saying there are automatic and permanent exclusions built in for anything time-sensitive. I put it to her at that time that she would enjoy a higher rate of secrecy than the Department of Finance, for instance, whose inner workings can have the effect of upsetting the whole national economy.
Where does this reasoning come from that they're clinging to this right to secrecy even beyond what anybody else enjoys?
The second thing I'd like to address actually applies to all the witnesses.
I notice in the first part of your brief, which you didn't get a chance to address, you talk about contracting out, and so on. In a study done in 2003, you found that 355 of 599 cases of contracting out and procurement were done in violation of their own policies, and now you have no way of knowing and we the public have no way of knowing if this has changed in any way. It sounds as if they were in some kind of an ideological frenzy of contracting out, that rampant neo-conservative “all things public, bad, and all things private, good”, was the only rationale.
I'd ask all the public sector representatives here to comment on this. How can we tighten up Bill C-2 to at least oblige management to present a viable business case when they contemplate contracting out, to do a cost benefit analysis that would be made public if it's their intention to go with public-private partnerships or contracting out?
The Association of Canadian Financial Officers represents approximately 3,000 financial officers in the public service—that's the FI group. As the association chair, I would like first to take this opportunity to thank the committee for having us here today and to express my appreciation for the work you are doing.
This is an historic occasion for Canada. The Federal Accountability Act has the potential to not only provide more accountability within the federal government but also to increase Canadians' faith in their government and restore pride within the public service.
We will concentrate our remarks on three main points: the importance of consultation, long-term issues, and preventive measures rather than reactive ones.
To start, I would like to express concerns regarding the lack of consultation that took place while the legislation was drafted. During the study of Bill C-11 by the operations and estimates committee, representatives of all political parties expressed concerns about the lack of consultation with the public service. It was seen as a major cause of the bill's weaknesses.
We feel that some of the discussions that have taken place in this committee could have been avoided if there had been more consultation with key stakeholders, such as our association. We understand that the Federal Accountability Act has been discussed as a plan on the political level since the last election was called. However, it was not government policy at that time, and debate was somewhat limited; therefore, our opportunities to provide input have been few, if any.
When it comes to financial accountability, I cannot think of any group more interested and concerned about the issue than financial officers. Financial officers are on the front line in the fight for accountability. It was a mistake to ignore them in the process of drafting Bill C-2. Financial officers, through the association, should be consulted not only on the drafting of legislation but also on its implementation. The combination of our experience and professional qualifications can only add value to the process.
As such, our first recommendation is that public service unions be included in the committee of deputy ministers that will review existing Treasury Board financial management policies. This committee is part of the action plan that accompanies this bill. Front-line public servants will undoubtedly offer a different perspective than management's—an unbiased, informed, and especially interested opinion that will lead to a better and more comprehensive approach to accountability.
It is important to recognize that this legislation will have a long-term impact on how things are done by the federal government. The previously mentioned committee is only one of a number of initiatives that aim to eliminate potentially restrictive rules and regulations. We agree with these important measures, but we're concerned that focusing only on past rules and regulations does not go far enough.
Our second recommendation, as written in our latest report entitled Checks and Balances III: In Pursuit of Balance, is that there should be a similar test imposed on all new rules and regulations for financial management, going forward. Such a test is essential to our efforts to balance the need for accountability and efficiency.
We also understand that there is a call for the review of this legislation every five years. We are wary of a process that plans to correct mistakes in five years and opens us to the possibility of another wide-ranging reform. We would be better off spending a proper amount of time to arrive at a product that will stand the test of time.
It is important to allow for accountability, not only for today as a result of some scandals, but for tomorrow as well, when accountability will no longer be on the front page of newspapers. This will be the time when we will be most at risk.
As shown by our first two recommendations, the association feels that Bill C-2 misses an opportunity to take a proactive approach to accountability. While this legislation provides for strengthening the Office of the Auditor General, the hiring of more auditors, and other reactive measures, we are concerned that there are not enough preventative measures.
Financial officers play just such a preventative role. As an association, we believe that had a financial officer been embedded in the sponsorship program, it would have been less likely that such a scandal would have happened in the first place.
This legislation should provide for strengthening of proactive roles of financial officers within the Government of Canada. Financial officers carry professional and legal responsibilities under the Financial Administration Act. They are also bound by a professional code of conduct and ethics, as many of our members have professional accounting designations.
It has been said the sponsorship scandal was caused not by a lack of rules but by the fact that they were not followed. In fact, the Auditor General told this very committee that perhaps we should come back to the principle of sound management instead of creating more rules. Furthermore, she pointed to a lack of understanding of existing rules as a major problem. This is something our association has also identified in previous reports. By the virtue of their training and experience, financial officers can bring about a better understanding of rules in place. Therefore, our third and final recommendation is to ensure that financial officers are embedded in programs where there is an expectation for being accountable for the management of public funds.
It would be hard to find many Canadians opposed to the Federal Accountability Act. This legislation is extremely important, and for that reason due process must be observed. Canadians would rather have a delay in the acceptance of this legislation if such a delay will ensure the rules stand the test of time. We ask all members in all parties to carefully weigh this in their decisions in the next few weeks.
As public servants, we are concerned by the number of new rules and regulations drafted, announced, and, on occasion, implemented every time a new scandal makes it onto the front page of newspapers. It is important to remember that when the political pendulum swings again and the eye of the public turns to another area, it is the public servants who are left to implement and work those rules and regulations. This government and this Parliament have the ability to change the system and forge a document that will redefine our government, provide better accountability, and at the same time ensure that government is effective and efficient in delivering its agenda.
There are many programs competing for funding, and Canadians want to see value for their tax dollars. At the same time, they want access to government services. Implementing any legislation that focuses on accountability needs to ensure that it does not run the risk of becoming an impediment that discourages Canadians from accessing government services. Financial officers have the skills, experience, and qualifications that will add value to the development and implementation of this legislation, and we are eager to be part of that process.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Thank you, Mr. Isaacs.
At the risk of quoting you to you, I read with interest part of this document, Checks and Balances III: In Pursuit of Balance, but I just want to do a little review as a foundation to my question. You said under Bill C-11--and I wasn't around, so I don't know--there wasn't really any proper consultation with your group. In the Gomery commission of inquiry there may have been some consultation, but there were some findings that are very consonant with what you're talking about on page 54--strengthening House committees, ongoing review of vote structure, and clarifying administrative accountability. This last is most key. On page 55 of volume 1, it said, ““Deputy ministers should be designated as accounting officers for their department.” That's part of what I think we're talking about--the culture shift that this eventual bill, which builds on Bill C-11, is about to undergo.
The key question or issue I have is on the aspect of timing, because I don't think the general aspects of this divides anyone here. The aspect of timing is obviously something that not everybody agrees on. There has been some suggestion that there have been two years of discussion, a royal commission or inquiry, 54 hours or 35 hours--I can't really remember which, but it seems like 54. On page 9 of 24 of your paper, Checks and Balances, you say that “the wide-ranging debate” you feel is needed would ensure that “views and concerns related to the practicality in the various responsibility models” would also give public servants “a sense of ownership” of whatever was selected, despite the fear that now they're going to be on the hot spot. This “would ensure a buy-in and facilitate the introduction and implementation of the new model”.
We like the new model. We see that you feel you haven't been consulted. This is about finding solutions, so my question is: “the wide-ranging debate”--to quote you to you--involves what? What more time would you need to feel adequately listened to and have adequate input to this new deputy minister and public service responsibility in part for decisions?
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
And thank you, Mr. Isaacs and your colleagues, for being here.
I want to follow up a little bit on what my colleague, Mr. Murphy, has pursued in terms of the role of the financial officer through the deputy minister. You used the term “embedded”, that financial officers should be embedded in the process of program development and program evaluation—I'm actually putting it in those terms, although you didn't quite say it that way. I think this term “embedding” comes from the media recently being embedded on military fronts to provide balanced commentary from those fronts. In that sense, we're in the same kind of an action, trying to get a balanced commentary on program evaluation.
The problem I have is, how do you embed financial officers in a system that, under the terms of the legislation, has the accounting officer through, I would think, an internal audit function with an internal audit committee...? I would think that a financial officer should be part of that internal audit committee. But internal audit reports to the Comptroller General. It seems to then take another course in terms of the evaluation, as opposed to taking course changes within a ministry, within a particular role.
Could you expand on that a bit in terms of how a financial officer could be better utilized in program evaluation and how that could provide a course direction that would be more immediate and more within the committee structure and the oversight structures of Parliament?
First, probably the way I can answer this is to enlighten you a little bit as to what we meant by “embedded in the program” and see if I hit your question.
You spoke of the Comptroller General and the internal audit. The internal audit is more reactive. It is discovery after the fact. What we're talking about in terms of preventive measures is that financial officers are in the process at the beginning.
Through access to information--using the sponsorship program as an example--the first question we had when it became public was, “Well, where was the financial officer?” We had asked for organizational charts, and there wasn't a financial officer. With the expectation of financial officers in the program...one of the things that should have happened in that process, when you're spending someone else's funds, is you would have had commercial paper, some sort of authorization, that said you have authorization to spend these funds. That then begins the accountability trail. I understand that's what's missing, how did that authority happen.
So what we're talking about here is that financial officers should be in those types of programs so that they can give advice and direction to the program managers and say, “This is the authority you have that's given to you by Parliament through appropriation, and here are the rules of engagement in terms of how you spend those funds. You had the authority for this, but you don't have authority for that, and if you want this type of authority, you must go and seek it.”
That's what a financial officer does, and if that role had been played, I think we probably wouldn't be here today.
Whistle-blowing is an important aspect, obviously, of how we do business as public servants. What you're describing is sort of a bridging from Bill C-11 to Bill C-2, and from our point of view, we felt that Bill C-11 didn't have a whole lot of teeth. It didn't give us what we felt was necessary.
If it's a bridging platform, we wouldn't have any opposition to that. I really don't know if I have much of a comment to make on that.
As far as the whistle-blowing aspect in terms of Bill C-2 is concerned, that's another thing we still have under review. We're trying to look at that and ask, what are the merits; what does this do in terms of our members?
I think it's a noble effort to protect public servants and to have them come forward, no question about it, but I think my members, just from the professional code of conduct, would, if they see significant abuses per se, come forward anyhow. But there is some hesitation, no question, in the culture right now, because I don't think there's a sense that public servants feel they would be protected.
In my own personal opinion, I'm not even sure you could even legislate that into the culture, to be honest. I think you can put as much protection out there, but there's still the typical approach that once you become a whistle-blower, you're labelled. I think that's a significant cultural change, not just in the public service but in industry as well.
It's a difficult one, and I'm not sure if you're going to resolve that through legislation.
You said earlier that you were still in consultation, that you were still in the process of studying the bill as such. You are here as a witness today, you are making a few recommendations to us, but if you are still in the process of studying the bill, that means that you would probably have further recommendations to make to us once your study is complete.
And so I find it unfortunate that we do not already have all of the results of your study. You could always ask to appear before the committee again in order to table the final version of your proposals. Otherwise, we will not be doing serious, in-depth work. For us, it is extremely important when we are studying a bill.
I recall working on the legislative review of the Environmental Protection Act. We took two years to do so. In this case, we are trying to have a bill passed in the space of two months. This is not a criticism, because I believe that everyone wants a bill on accountability. However, it must be done responsibly. It seems, however, that you did not have the time to complete your study of the bill.
I therefore invite you, when all your recommendations are ready, to request the opportunity to come and present them before the committee.
I have one final question for you, gentlemen, if you wish to answer it. What do you think of the $1,000 reward?
I would if I have time.
The Chair: You do have time, sir.
Mr. Pat Martin: I'm sorry I had to be out of the room for part of your presentation, but I have been looking at your brief, sir, and I appreciate both the tone and the content. I accept your view that you should have had input and consultation in the development of the process.
I would point out that some of the items I see within your brief are things that should be viewed as ongoing, continuous improvement, and that we shouldn't have to wait for a bill to come along to engage in this continuous improvement of our management practices. I think it would be catastrophic to the viability of this bill if we stopped now to undertake some of the recommendations here, such as commissioning an empirical study of all current performance reporting systems. This is work that should be done, but I argue it should be done on an ongoing basis.
This is because we've been studying many of these things for 10 years. Some people would say we're studying this issue for 40 days. In actual fact we're studying it for a very generous period of time compressed into a few short weeks. But on many of the issues, we know what needs to be done. By stopping in our tracks now and even backing up to undertake some of what you're recommending here, such as engaging public servants in a wide-ranging debate on the issue of ministerial and deputy ministerial accountability.... That would be interesting, but it's like the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin when it comes to the hard, fast, concrete measures we're trying to get through here.
In this limited window of opportunity in this minority Parliament, we want to show some real results, because there are people who don't want this bill to succeed. There are enemies of this bill who are lurking in the wings, as it were, trying to sabotage and undermine the progress of this bill. One of the most effective ways to kill it would be to engage in a study, to continue hearing witnesses into next spring, and then, come election time.... Believe me, in a majority government, you would not have the opportunity to make these concrete steps.
Wouldn't you agree that it would be important to get the three pillars in place: whistle-blower protection, access to information reform, and a cleaning up of the patronage appointments practices? If we achieved those three things in this minority Parliament, wouldn't that be something to celebrate?
Thank you, and thank you to the witnesses.
As someone who has been sitting on this committee, we have had a pretty intense schedule, and we're meeting long hours and so on to hear from a broad range of witnesses. Obviously you were invited as a witness so that we could get the benefit of your input and testimony. I guess I find it a bit alarming when people say they're not being consulted when this is a part of that consultation. We have had the benefit of years of study on these types of issues. This is a well thought out bill, and we're working in a way to hear from witnesses. This committee is working very hard to take the inputs we're getting from witnesses.
Is there any general clear-cut recommendation that you have for this committee? I noticed, as Mr. Martin has already stated, the recommendations that are in your executive summary would involve a great deal of time. I think Canadians are saying we'll never achieve perfection. I know that, and I don't think any of us are under any illusion that you can ever be perfect, but we want to take a good product.
I noted with interest your comment that Bill C-11 did not have teeth, and that's one thing about Bill C-2--it does have teeth. It has teeth that empower officers of Parliament to do their job better and it has teeth to protect whistle-blowers from reprisal, and those are some of the necessary steps that we have to take as responsible members of Parliament to further accountability in our country. I would rather move forward with something that is positive. These types of studies have been going on for years, and will continue to go on, and we can benefit from them.
I'll take your comments on that, but also in your executive summary it says:
||Just because accountability is a fundamental democratic value does not mean that there can never be too much accountability. However, excessive and burdensome accountability requirements can detract from responsiveness, innovation and efficiency.
I'm wondering if you can also comment a bit on that. Can you give some specific examples? Can you shed a bit of light on what that means?
Unfortunately, I don't have anything specific on that. I didn't come prepared with a specific case.
I've spent 25 years as a financial officer for the federal government. I can tell you that what is meant by that is that it's difficult for program managers to deliver on their programs when there are a significant number of rules they have to comply with. I understand this legislation attempts to resolve some of those issues—and that's a positive thing. So in that context, we are hoping to ensure that this legislation does not add other layers of rules and regulations that can in fact end up being counter-intuitive.
In the world of government, like the world of business, there is a balance. There has to be a reasonable level of risk imposed in the process, so that you don't build impediments to services to Canadians. Some people find that strange, coming from financial officers. There's a perception that we are bean counters, but nothing could be further from the truth; I think that particular description has gone by the way of the dodo bird. It really comes down to the fact that these are professionally qualified individuals, and they're really looking at the purpose of why they exist. The financial officers are there to ensure probity in terms of how funds are spent, but at the same time to ensure that the programs are delivered. We are concerned that there is a tendency to try to legislate risk away, and I don't think that's going to be the case; I don't think you're going to get there.
As the Auditor General mentioned, these are isolated cases; there's not a widespread scandal going on in the federal government, not that I'm aware of. I would suggest that the tendency sometimes to overreact causes the issues. And then when you do so, there is this element of building gates and loops that individuals have to go through, and that's the bureaucracy that we've been talking about in this particular report and that we're trying to avoid. So it's not really a case of saying, don't introduce legislation—because we do learn from our mistakes—but to be aware that when you're looking at legislation, government has to allow for reasonable risk in day-to-day processes in order to be efficient, and that legislation is not necessarily the answer.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and ladies and gentlemen.
I understand you've had a long morning, but I do have a statement I want to make.
On behalf of CGA Canada and our 64,000 members, we're very pleased to be here and to engage in discussions with you on this very important piece of legislation.
It's actually fitting to a certain extent that about 100 years ago, 12 accountants working in Montreal sat in a room and decided to form themselves as the Certified General Accountants Association, in the quest for professional development and building of experience and skills to meet the ever-changing business environment. Some of our members working in government—about 8,000 work in the federal government right now—are struggling and coping with some of the same things as are public sector managers.
We look forward to your questions and discussions on elements of this very important legislation, but I have a few brief comments to make.
The genesis of Bill C-2 stems from a crisis of confidence that goes well beyond the purview of this government, this parliament, and indeed Canada's borders. In this world of post-Enron, Worldcom, and Parmalat, we needn't be reminded of the scourge of scandal within the private sector. Nor do we need to dwell on problems closer to home in the cases of Nortel or Canada's judicial inquiry into the sponsorship program and advertising activities. Suffice it to say that we face a crisis of confidence as a direct result of the perceived absence of ethics among our corporate, political and bureaucratic elites.
The important question is why? How has it come to this? What, if anything, has changed? What can we learn from this? And what measures can or should we adopt to prevent a recurrence?
While we all hope the legislation before us will help prevent many of the wrongs of the past from being repeated, rules and regulations are no substitute for ethical behaviour. The Auditor General and many other witnesses have said as much in their testimony before you and before other forums.
It might strike you as ironic that we should appear before you today in defence of a cautionary approach to rule-making. After all, accountants are predisposed to rules and structure. We're number crunchers, financial analysts, chief financial officers, auditors, business leaders. In sum, we are the people others turn to for guidance on how to follow the rules governing capital, assets, profits, and losses.
In that connection, though, the accountancy profession bears an enormous burden of public trust and responsibility, but a burden we shoulder willingly. It is after all our stock-in-trade. But we need to remind ourselves that rules for their own sake won't likely achieve the outcomes for which we all strive. The challenge before this Parliament and this committee is to ensure that we are able to achieve the right balance between rules, ethics, and sound governance.
In the financial world, accountability for fiscal performance is more straightforward today than ever before. Rules introduced post-Enron hold CEOs and CFOs accountable for certifying their corporate financial statements; auditors are now subject to independent oversight. No one argues with the idea that top executives are ultimately responsible for the accuracy and veracity of the financial information presented to shareholders: it merely signals that leadership and accountability come straight from the top.
Undeniably, ethics commissioners and judicial investigators have a role to play, but so have our political leaders. U.S. President Harry Truman was reputed for displaying a sign on his oval office desk that read: “The buck stops here.” What it signalled was the simply stated but powerful embrace of personal responsibility, and he was widely admired for it. Canadians are no different. We expect the same thing from our government leaders.
Canada wants and needs a federal accountability act that works, but not just at any cost. In your consideration of this legislation, you've been tasked with the challenge of striking a balance between competing interests, in order to serve all Canadians. That delicate balance includes a myriad of advocacy interests, like the organization we represent, and must take stock of their right to be heard with respect, and, at times, in strict confidence. This lies in sharp contrast with Canadians' right to know as reflected by the access to information commissioner, the media, and parliament itself. Bridging these two poles is critical — though we appreciate it is no easy task.
In bringing forward Bill C-2, we believe the government has gotten several critical elements right. We welcome the clarification of roles of deputy ministers and their ADM as accounting officers. We strongly support the creation of independent audit committees. We also believe the access to information protection afforded to internal audit working papers is appropriate and will improve the internal audit process in departments and agencies. We are pleased to see that appropriate safeguards have been put in place to ensure that draft audit reports are protected and provision has been made for their release. In sum, these measures will safeguard the integrity and effectiveness of the audit process.
We applaud the broadening of the Auditor General's authority to follow the money, and we agree with the new requirement for a five-year review of relevance and effectiveness of grants and contributions--a provision that echoes one of our many recommendations. We also think you as parliamentarians will be well served by the creation of a new position of parliamentary budget officer. And while we agree with protective and supportive measures aimed at whistle-blowers, we reject, as others have, the idea of providing public servants with monetary reward. These are all initiatives that align themselves very well with similar undertakings throughout the corporate sector.
This legislation is ambitious in its attempt to strengthen accountability and improve the management of the government's fiscal and human resources. We support these initiatives, and we've been asked to assist in efforts to strengthen financial management and improve internal audit within the federal public service. We are in the throes of launching a series of initiatives to support this goal.
As registered lobbyists, we would be remiss if we neglected to comment on proposed changes to the Lobbyists Registration Act. Clarity lies at the root of all good legislation and regulation. It ensures that each player in the system is made aware of what is expected of him or her. We believe more enforceable legislation governing the conduct of lobbyists is a laudable objective. To this end, we lend our support to the Government Relations Institute of Canada and its call for stronger investigative and enforcement provisions. While the vast majority of lobbyists are fully compliant with the law, more and better enforcement provisions will serve to protect the majority from the tarnish caused by a misguided few, and we think that's in everybody's interest.
We all want what is right for Canada's future, though we may at times disagree on how best to get there. During the course of the last federal election campaign, CGA Canada called on all parties to commit to several measures aimed at restoring Canadians' shaken confidence in their public and private sector leaders and institutions. We are delighted to see our message, along with others, was heeded.
We look forward to assisting this committee in its deliberations in whatever way we can.
We thank you and we will be pleased to answer your questions.
Thank you, Mr. Owen, for your question. It's an important one, in the sense that we really saw the restoration of the role of the Comptroller General as a very good move, because essentially, again, when you're talking about mirroring initiatives taken in the corporate sector, tone is set at the top, and I think that is an underlying theme that we wanted to leave with the committee today.
The Comptroller General has very, very clear responsibility in terms of not only strengthening the internal audit process but also building capacity. We've talked a lot about internal audit, and the Auditor General and others have talked a lot about it. We haven't really talked a lot about strengthening financial capacity in the public sector, and in that respect, when I mention launching a number of programs, we are launching a number of programs, but we hope that setting the tone at the top, reinforcing the role of the chief financial officer, will trickle down.
The group you heard before us are financial officers. We met with them last week, and they're all in the throes of seeing how they can contribute to this capacity building. A new emphasis on the professionalization of the public service, obtaining appropriate professional designations such as the Certified General Accountants Association designation and other accounting designations, is really a key role.
As I said, the role of the office of the Comptroller General sets the tone for this across the public sector.
First of all, we would like to thank you for being here. It is very kind of you to come and present your very interesting thoughts on the Bill to us, on the process itself and on the crisis in confidence in leaders around the world. I find this very interesting.
Here in Canada, within the federal government, Bill C-2 was essentially developed in the wake of the sponsorship scandal. The conservative government has tried to find a way to avoid any future sponsorship scandal. This is stated in all of the government documents. And yet, several witnesses have told us that the Bill will not necessarily prevent another scandal like the sponsorship scandal.
The government also wants to restore Canadian's confidence in their leaders. However, we have the feeling that we are part of an attempt to manage the perception of the population, whereby the government wants to pass the Bill as quickly as possible, and it is rushing the witnesses — and we apologize for that — to this end.
Do you believe that Bill C-2 will be able to prevent another sponsorship scandal?
During the election campaign, you stated that you had defined certain elements that could be added in order to, if such a thing is possible, get our fiscal house in even better order. Can you describe these elements to us?
I'll try to answer the first part of that question. It goes back I think to the original question as well.
What we felt very attractive about this bill is not only that the institution of the Comptroller General's office has been brought back, but if we look at the bill we see the addition of a parliamentary budget officer, the new authorities granted to the Auditor General, and the creation of various roles, such as a chief audit executive and chief accounting officers. Obviously some people have put a lot of work into thinking about this.
When you try to look at it as a non-accountant—I looked at it more maybe as a fraud examiner or something of that nature—the system is really designed to be as strong as it possibly can be, quite frankly. I don't say that because I'm before this committee; rather, it's a recognition that a lot of energy went into thinking about this and segregating the duties and authorities and responsibilities. We would support that in its entirety. As I say, I don't support it only as an accountant; from a systems point of view, I think it's remarkably strong.
Will it assure us that scandals will never occur? Probably not. I don't know that there is such a thing as a fail-proof system, but I think what we have before us here is certainly a large improvement. Whether or not government or parliamentarians will ever have 100% assurance.... I think that might be overzealous or ambitious. But I think you're certainly on to a good start, and with a bit of experience, the refinements will be brought to it to possibly correct what might be outstanding.
Thank you both for appearing before us.
I'd like to ask you to make a comment on an issue that keeps resurfacing here at the committee. It deals with a situation that we've encountered several times in conversations with other witnesses, and that is the speed with which we're dealing with this bill.
Many of the concerns mentioned by some of my colleagues have been that it appears that the Conservatives, in particular, are trying to rush this bill and that we need to give this bill its due diligence. We have to make sure that it's a good bill, as Mr. Lefebvre has said. But there are always ways in which to make it better; there are amendments that we can make to strengthen this bill. I'm in full agreement with that.
I want to point out something here and just ask you to comment on it, because it makes perfect sense to me that the approach we're taking is the correct one. In a normal standing committee of Parliament, the committee usually meets four hours a week, and Parliament usually sits about 28 weeks a year. So over the course of a year, committees would hear approximately 112 hours of testimony.
We're currently sitting 24 hours a week, so by my calculations, in five weeks we will have heard slightly more hours of testimony than a committee in a normal Parliament hears in a year. Should we start sitting beyond June 23, when Parliament rises—which I believe we probably will—I anticipate we'll increase that to perhaps 40 hours a week. Again, by my calculations, in three weeks we will have heard a normal year's worth of testimony.
The reason I'm asking you to comment on this is that I believe that by sitting as frequently as we do, hearing as many witnesses as we have, going into a clause-by-clause examination of this bill, it's basically a win-win situation. We will have done our due diligence. In fact, we will probably be in a situation, or it's very likely we could be in a situation, where by the end of July we will have heard over two years' worth of normal testimony, which I think is pretty good. I think if any other standing committee of Parliament examined an issue or bill for two years, they would be able to say they'd given it a pretty good examination, that they'd done their due diligence. But the benefit we would have is that the law would be in effect. We would have done our work. We can get this bill passed, because a minority government could fall at any time.
So I'm just asking you to comment on whether or not you would agree that this bill needs to be passed and be given due diligence, but done quickly, so that the spirit of this act, which you seem to agree with, would actually have some real meat behind it by actually becoming a law; it would be enacted.
We could rewrite Enron's history, but I do not think that is the purpose of your question. In the Enron affair, there are several accomplices. Last week, two of the corporation's most important executives were found guilty. The example comes from the top.
The printed copy of my text includes quotes from Warren Buffet who states that integrity is truly what is most important. Other associations, like ours, have stated that history alone will determine what Bill C-2 will resolve. Within the system, you need a good organizational culture that promotes dialogue and includes checks and balances, which often helps the Auditor General establish whether the mistake is attributable to internal auditing. The process was in place, but it was not in the right place, if I can put it that way. Will setting up independent autonomous internal audit committees for a department or a Crown corporation correct the mistake? In the corporate sector, much has been said about independent audit committees that have proven their worth. We are eager to see them established. The policy will only come into force in 2007, but we have been assured that several departments are already interested.
Many of our members throughout Canada, licensed general accountants, have a vast expertise and considerable experience in the corporate world and other areas. They would like to sit on these committees that would not just be committees of accountants. No one can say that it's the accountants or the auditor's fault, because they are an integral part of the system. You are aware that financial officers are in the hot seat. They are on the front line in this sector. In this situation, it was not clear that financial officers were present.
I am not sure that I have answered your question, Mr. Petit, that was my morning skating exercise.