Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to address Bill .
First, I would like to take a moment to remember one of our colleagues who worked very hard in committee on this legislation, this past spring. He did serious work and he spent many hours on this issue. Of course, I am referring to my former colleague Benoît Sauvageau, the member for Repentigny, who sat on the committee and was in charge of this issue for the Bloc Québécois. I am convinced that, wherever he may be, he is listening to us right now. I feel it is my duty to properly present the positions that he defended in committee and that accurately reflect those of the Bloc Québécois on this issue.
I should reiterate the fact that the Bloc Québécois supports Bill . However, I clearly remember the work done by the legislative committee that reviewed Bill C-2. The Bloc Québécois continues to deplore the fact that it would have been in our best interests to hear many more witnesses and to do serious work in committee. This does not necessarily mean that we wanted to unduly extend debates by resorting to systematic filibustering or some other means.
However, we deplored, particularly during the clause by clause review of the bill and also when the list of witnesses was made, the government's attempt to ram through this legislation. The NDP worked as an accomplice to that end. I am using the term “accomplice” because I am not allowed to use a stronger word. The member for literally got into bed with the government regarding this issue. He was an accomplice of the government to help it pass this legislation quickly. Had it not been for that complicity, we would have had time to hold a debate and to have much more extensive discussions on this bill.
Why does the Bloc Québécois support this measure? Because it will increase government accountability and transparency. I will list some points, since this is a major piece of legislation not only in terms of the number of clauses in it, but also the number of acts targeted. I talked about this at other stages of the bill and, as I recall, it affects 21 different acts. So, it is indeed a major piece of legislation.
As we know, Bill entrenches in law a ministerial code of ethics. It puts an end to the favouritism that allowed ministerial staff to enter the public service with priority status over qualified public servants. It strengthens the powers of the Auditor General and the Ethics Commissioner. It creates a stricter operating framework for lobbyists and reduces the influence of money during election campaigns, leadership campaigns and nomination meetings. It also creates the position of director of public prosecutions, which strengthens the independence of the justice system.
We also supported Bill because it meets some of what I would call traditional Bloc Québécois demands. The Bloc Québécois has been making these demands since it was founded, and even since the arrival of the first parliamentarians who agreed to sit under the Bloc Québécois banner. As we all know, from 1990 to 1993, they were not a recognized party in Parliament and had to sit as independents.
Nevertheless, in the years since the first Bloc Québécois members of Parliament took their seats as sovereignist members—let us not forget—we have repeatedly—especially from 1993 to 1997, when we were the official opposition—asked for one thing in particular: that Elections Canada appoint its returning officers based on merit.
I see that the is applauding. I would just like to tell him, through you, Mr. Speaker, how pleased I am to see that, in this bill, he has agreed to one of the Bloc Québécois' traditional demands aimed at depoliticizing the appointment of returning officers. After every election, we have all had our stories, our little black books, our horror stories, perhaps, about decisions made by incompetent returning officers in every one of our ridings. Such incompetence does not just harm one particular party, political organization or electoral organization. An incompetent returning officer has a negative impact on everyone, including all of the candidates.
I could speak on this point alone, and I have done so in the past. We have only to think of the returning officer who agrees to have someone who can neither read nor write serve as a polling clerk or some of the unsuitable polling stations. In my riding, in Saint-Laurent-de-l'Île d'Orléans, I once took Jean-Pierre Kingsley, Canada's Chief Electoral Officer, to see a hockey players' dressing room during the June 2004 election so that he could understand the problem there. In an arena in a municipality the size of Saint-Laurent-de-l'Île d'Orléans, the players' dressing room is not as large as the Canadiens' dressing room at the Bell Centre or the Maple Leafs' dressing room in Toronto. It is a very tight space where there were six polling divisions and where, from beside the polling booths, you could literally see who someone was voting for. I could tell many more horror stories like that one, but members might wonder what my point was. I will therefore simply congratulate the government on granting the request from the Bloc Québécois to use an open, transparent competition, where the best qualified person is appointed as the returning officer, from now on. This will put an end to political appointments where a good Conservative or Liberal organizer was appointed to the position.
In response to another traditional request from the Bloc Québécois, Bill will amend the political party financing legislation, which will now be much more like the legislation in Quebec. I forgot to mention a minute ago that appointing returning officers using an open, transparent process where the position is posted in the newspapers is exactly the system Quebec has had since 1977, I believe. This system works very well in Quebec, I would add. The bill before us was inspired by the political party financing legislation in Quebec, which is part of the political heritage of René Lévesque, who cleaned up election practices and election financing practices in Quebec. This is another interesting aspect of Bill C-2, which prohibits corporate donations and caps individual donations at a more reasonable level.
We know that the Senate has engaged in its own analysis of Bill . Of course, in the Bloc Québécois, we have our own ideas about what purpose the Senate serves and we would support abolishing it outright. It is a totally pointless organization that exists only for the plum appointments that can be handed out. Whoever is in power appoints senators of his own persuasion. We should abolish the Senate outright.
However, we have to acknowledge that the two solitudes in Canada mean that we have not reached that point yet. While a majority of Quebeckers support abolishing the Senate, people in other provinces want a stronger Senate. That is probably the case for your fellow Manitobans, in your province of origin, Mr. Speaker. As a result, there can be no consensus on this question.
When I meet people on weekends, I tell them about what the Senate costs, and when we talk about how pointless it is, I also tell them that for us, the people of Quebec, the only way to get rid of the Senate is through sovereignty for Quebec. We will have nothing more to do with the Senate of Canada, just as we will have nothing more to do with the Governor General or the lieutenant governors of each of the provinces.
However, in the present system, the Senate has done its own analysis of Bill and has proposed the amendments that are now before us. We have to say that some of those amendments may be worth considering, but others are totally unacceptable. We have done a careful, serious and thorough analysis of the government’s position on the Senate amendments. As a result, I can add that the Bloc Québécois supports the government’s rejection of several of the Senate amendments, which in our opinion do not advance either ethics or transparency.
You know that a majority of the Senate is made up of Liberal Party members. The Liberals were in power for so long in the 20th century that they had time to literally pack the joint, as it were. So they are superior, in numbers, to the Conservative senators. Probably as a result of the majority being Liberal, the senators come back to us and tell us that they would like to keep their own Senate adviser. This is another anomaly of a two-chamber system. The Senate is apparently jealously guarding its constitutional prerogatives and does not want to share the same ethics adviser. It is suggesting an amendment to us: a puppet adviser who would be under the authority of a Senate committee, and who would in fact be about as effective as Howard Wilson, Prime Minister Chrétien’s ethics adviser, was.
Mr. Wilson has appeared as a witness at the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. He is a nice young man. We have nothing against him personally, but Howard Wilson was a political adviser to Jean Chrétien rather than a real ethics adviser. In this regard, we agree with the government, which is getting ready to reject this amendment tabled by the Senate.
I would like to talk about a number of other amendments put forward by the Senate. Unfortunately, since there is not enough time, I cannot do that, but my colleagues probably have some comments to make about them.
The Bloc Québécois has always maintained that strengthening legislation and policies is ineffective if there is no real will by government members to change things. Justice Gomery said in his 23 recommendations that it is all well and good to have more effective control systems, but that the culture of entitlement needs to change in Ottawa. This was the culture that existed at the time in the Liberal Party. Having been in power for a long time, the Liberal Party practically thought it was the state incarnate. The Liberals were in charge of the public purse and could pretty much do what they wanted with it.
That is what happened during the sponsorship scandal. Justice Gomery told us that regardless of whether we have the most effective control mechanisms—and I am directing this to the Conservative Party—we have to change the culture here in Ottawa. The Bloc Québécois decided to give them a chance, but a number of signs, in how the Conservatives manage, concern us. We also know that as far as lobbying is concerned, the current tolerates what he was criticizing the Liberals for at the time. That is why the Bloc Québécois is saying that the Liberals and the Conservatives are six of one and half a dozen of the other. They are the same whether they are in opposition or in power.
On the other hand, the members of the Bloc Québécois have real power to ensure that people act responsibly. Do not forget that as elected members we are in charge of taxpayers' money above all and not our own money. We have to be accountable to our constituents. Taxpayers no longer feel like paying and they find they are paying a lot for the services they are getting.
We are aware of this at many levels of government management, be it municipal, school, provincial or federal. In mentioning school and municipal levels, far be it from me to claim that these local managers and elected representatives are not doing a good job. They do a great job. Still, those who pay school taxes and municipal taxes, in addition to federal and provincial income and other taxes are citizens and taxpayers. They are entitled to receive the services they pay for. This is why people are becoming increasingly critical. In the vast majority of cases, administrators at the school and municipal levels do an outstanding job with few resources, and all the needs and aging infrastructures.
Where we are critical of the current is that he allows into his immediate entourage certain people who may have links with lobbying or with firms which they have lobbied in the very recent past. I will give you some examples. The was a lobbyist with Hill & Knowlton from 1996 to February 2004. So, for nearly ten years, his clients included such companies as BAE Systems, General Dynamics, United Defense, Irvin Aerospace, Airbus and Bennett Environmental.
The manages a portfolio of extraordinary investments and we note that the Conservatives do not have any problems finding money for defence. During the months of May and June, they purchased military equipment worth $15 billion. In a month and a half, they went out and bought tanks, boats in Halifax, and vehicles and trucks at Valcartier. They also went to Toronto and the west. In all, they bought close to $15 billion worth of military equipment. When the time comes, though, to find money for support and protection programs for women, the disadvantaged, the homeless or for SCPI, they cannot come up with any money.
Mr. Speaker, you are letting me know that my time is up. I could have gone on speaking much longer. I am almost tempted to ask you for unanimous consent so that I can continue my speech until question period, but I am going to sit down.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in the debate on Bill , the federal accountability act.
First, I do not think there is any member in this place who does not share a common objective, which I believe the said in his opening speech on April 25 of this year at the lead speech on second reading. He said, “Our goal, our commitment, simply put, is to make government more accountable”.
On this basis, I believe Bill had that goal as its fundamental principle and, as such, it received the unanimous support of all parties at second reading and through the rest of the process. I am sure all hon. members will support the bill.
However, members will know that there have been a lot of discussions over a great period of time about how the bill was done. There were concerns when the bill was first tabled. The government put forward a very significant document. I do not believe there is any other bill, which I have had to work on as a parliamentarian, that touches so many other acts. It is an omnibus bill.
The bill touches a very large number of acts and it is difficult to read. We cannot start at the beginning, go through and see the story, the lead up, the plot, the end of it and everybody lives happily ever after. It is not like that. Every section of it refers to amending some other piece of existing legislation. There are also some transitional positions, et cetera, but in the main we are basically amending a very large number of other legislation.
When we looked at Bill , we had something over 200 pages. Then we were told at the outset that the government wanted it passed. I believe April 25 was the first debate, and it wanted it passed by the summer.
It begs the question about how parliamentarians discharge their responsibilities. In the prayer we start the House with every day we say that we make good laws and wise decisions. It is not possible to have done this bill justice in such a short time and yet it was at the government's insistence that we push this matter because it wanted the bill passed by the summer. It is now November.
There have been a lot of questions about whether someone has been delaying the process, whether it be in the House or in the Senate. Parliamentarians not only have the right but they have the duty to do the job as they see fit, to make good laws and wise decisions. I do not think any member of Parliament, except those possibly who were on the special legislative committee to deal with Bill , had the opportunity and the time to get into the detail. However, we all had an opportunity to look at aspects of the bill in which we may have had some background.
Canadians should understand, when parliamentarians rise to vote on Bill tonight on the subamendment, on the amendment, on the concurrence and on the passage of the bill to be sent back to the Senate, that members of Parliament have had to rely on many other people in this chamber who have done the work in a great bit of detail.
I wanted to make that point because we have, with a very large bill, a situation where members of Parliament have been asked to rely on the work of others in order for them to make an informed decision. It is very difficult, and I have some reservation about some of the areas of the bill. However, because there was an alliance formed by the government and another party, the amount of time that was available for the debate and to consider amendments, even at report stage, was truncated substantially. There was a forced position. In fact, we did not even have a final vote before it went to the Senate. Basically, we deemed that the question was put and deemed that it was passed. There was no recorded division on it.
It suggests to me, and I am sure it suggests to those observers who watch the legislative process, that when a bill is put together in such haste, there will be mistakes. I do not think anyone in this place will deny the fact that there were mistakes made in the bill that Parliament passed and referred to the Senate.
In fact, the , in dealing with the work of the Senate, estimated that there were about 154 amendments proposed by senators. The Senate is composed of Liberal and Conservative senators, and 42 of those amendments came from Conservative senators. Of the 150-some odd amendments, the President of the Treasury Board accepted, without debate, without further consideration, 57 amendments.
The fact is the , who is the minister responsible for Bill , accepted some 57 amendments proposed by the Senate to make this a better bill. For that to happen, I think the Senate demonstrated that it did the job it was put there to do.
The Senate reviewed the legislation. It came up with changes, and we are still considering other amendments. The has laid out, and the members can see, some of the brief reasons why some of the other proposed amendments are not acceptable to the government. That is his job. I believe this debate will find there are still a couple of items that yet remain unresolved.
In the main, I think all members of Parliament understand that Bill will pass the House and go back to the Senate. I want to advise members that the Senate has already made some consideration as to what happens when it goes back to the Senate. It has decided to have the bill immediately referred back to its legislative committee to advise the Senate on the appropriate course of action to take. The Senate is ready and waiting for this bill.
I am hopeful we will see Bill pass at all stages, get it through the Senate and receive royal assent prior to the House rising. The proclamation of the bill is up to the government.
I want to make one explanation. Even though a bill passes through the House of Commons and the Senate and receives royal assent, it is not in force. It is law but it is not in force until it is proclaimed. I raise that because we have the same issue with regard to another bill, Bill , the whistleblower legislation, which passed and received royal assent in the last Parliament, and I will comment on that bill.
Bill is about accountability. I think we know that we have the support of all hon. members in the House to make the bill as good as possible, to ensure that it passes and that we get some of the important provisions started. Much of the legislation will require a lot of changes within the public service of Canada, within the administration of political parties and within all these acts. The Chief Electoral Officer will to have quite a job to do.
A week ago Friday, I was pleased to participate as a panellist at a special conference in Ottawa on the subject matter of accountability, with specific reference to Bill . It was a four day conference and I followed some of it. I found out that many of the panellists and presenters were law scholars, professors from universities and experts on various aspects of law such as access to information. Members of Parliament and senators participated as well.
I found it fascinating that a debate was going on as to what we meant by accountability. It was interesting how different speakers had different definitions for accountability. Having recognized that, I went to the dictionary to find out what a lay dictionary would say about someone who is accountable. If we look up the word “accountable”, accountability is a form of usage. It basically said that accountability has to do with someone who is required to explain or justify his or her actions or decisions. That was the short definition of “accountable”.
As a chartered accountant, I worked a lot on public financing. There is a document called a prospectus which goes out to potential investors to give them all the information they need to make an informed decision about whether they want to invest in an offering. One of the principles in terms of requirements of a prospectus, which is very important, is that it give true, full and plain disclosure.
With that as background, I spoke at this conference and defined, for our purposes, accountability as a government or as anyone explaining and/or justifying their actions or decisions with true, full and plain disclosure. We can see all of a sudden that the definition is building because someone can be accountable to different degrees. We can be accountable by giving some part of a true, full and plain disclosure but the degree to which one is accountable comes into question.
I went on that theme but also wanted to look at some examples. A very simple example was in the throne speech that the government presented at the beginning of this Parliament. The announced that there would be a decrease in taxes to 15.5% on the first marginal tax rate. In fact, the tax rate actually went up. It had been reduced in the last Parliament to 15% and the throne speech increased the tax rate on the first marginal bracket to 15.5%. It was an increase in taxes for Canadians.
The subsequently explained that the change in the tax rate by the previous government from 16% down to 15% was only in a ways and means motion that had not yet passed in the House. Mr. Speaker, you will know that when a announces changes, like what was done with the income trust, those things are all of a sudden in effect. Subsequently, as Parliament gets a chance to review and vote on the ways and means motion, it will formally ratify it but, if it should be defeated, we cannot go back retroactively. Therefore, the rate that was announced by the previous government was 15% and the tax returns of Canadians for the 2005 tax year showed an initial tax rate of 15%.
Had Parliament continued and not been interrupted by an election, the ways and means motion would have been voted on. Had it been defeated, the tax rate would have reverted to 16% but only from the date of the vote in Parliament that defeated the ways and means motion.
The said that since it did not pass in Parliament, as far as he was concerned the rate was still 16% and he reduced it to 15.5%. It is wordsmithing. It is semantics. There is no question that Canadians paid a tax rate of 15% on their 2005 return but the government in its throne speech and in the budget that was passed increased that tax rate to 15.5%.
Now we need to ask whether the government was accountable. Was it accountable to Canadians? The Conservatives said that they had decreased taxes but they in fact increased the taxes. When we go through that explanation, we do not get the chance to explain it to everyone and I am not sure everyone would understand. I am not even sure anyone will understand what I just said.
However, we need to apply the definition of accountability, which is explaining or justifying our actions or decisions in true full and plain disclosure, but this was not done. On that item the government was not fully accountable. It was sort of accountable but with an explanation or a qualification. It was not pure and true accountability.
With regard to income trusts, the government made a promise during the election campaign. At that point, the Conservative Party, wanting to form a government, was not accountable. Do members know why? It was because the making of a promise not to raise taxes on income trusts was interfering in the marketplace and any finance minister knows that the predictability and stability of the marketplace is the responsibility of a finance minister not to impact the marketplace unduly, not to jaundice or bias it so that there is no government interference in the financial markets.
The first decision to make that promise was to give some assurances, which would have affected the decision of investors. When they saw that as part of the Conservatives' platform, they decided that if those people were elected they would make that happen. If we look at the numbers on income trusts, more Canadians buy into income trusts because it offers a substantial opportunity for high return and a regular cashflow, which many seniors like because it allows them to emulate a pension plan.
The first promise not to tax income trusts was unaccountable but the second one was the broken promise, the so-called double-cross, which was to all of a sudden tax income trusts. The ethical question comes up about whether a government is responsible for keeping its promises or, if it must break its promises, to at least explain and justify them in true, full and plain disclosure. However, that did not happen. In fact, the implications to the marketplace were clear. It was the mother of all free falls in the financial markets. Thirty-five billion dollars of the wealth of Canadians was wiped out in a day and half.
The government made two mistakes. The first one was interfering in the marketplace by making such a promise. The second one was breaking the promise, notwithstanding that there was some argument that the problem had to be dealt with. Even today the Canadian Association of Income Funds is providing analyses that refute the fact that there is a significant disparity between the tax treatment of income trusts and of dividend paying corporations.
On the question of accountability, it would have been a greater degree of accountability had the announcement of that decision been taken, say, on a Friday. At least the people who would be impacted would have had the opportunity to do something before the opening of the market on Monday. Instead, the government made the announcement mid-week and Canadians did not have an opportunity to consider the change and many people lost money. Was there accountability there? I would say not.
I wish I had more time to talk to hon. members about some of the aspects of the bill. I have problems with some areas. I wish the access to information provisions were stronger, as recommended by the former commissioner, Mr. Reid. There are some other matters that I believe we can deal with at a future time, so that is not critical.
On the whole, we are moving in the right direction and I congratulate all hon. members for doing as good a job as possible in the time allotted.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to this important Bill on accountability.
The issue of accountability gets to the heart of our democratic system. We live in a democratic country. We are proud of that. We encourage and support other democracies around the world. Surely a strong democratic system of operation is a hallmark of the best of society. It is something that we wish for all people around the world.
But democracies are imperfect, including our own. We often have political democracy without having economic democracy. We see that in many countries, including here in Canada. While there are many criticisms of democracy, the solution to the problems of democracy is not to shun democracy, not to become cynical or turn away from democracy, but in fact to have more democracy and to strengthen the democratic institutions that we all support and which we represent here in this House.
It distresses me greatly to speak with people in my community who say that they are disgusted with politicians. They are disgusted with the political process. They do not want to be involved with elections or even with voting. There is a cynicism that really undermines the democratic process.
In the last election the issue of ethics was, I believe, the dominant issue. Lack of ethics has bred into a sense of cynicism and a disregard for the democratic process. This is a fundamental erosion of our democracy which we must address. I believe it is the most basic and most important issue that confronts us as parliamentarians.
It is easy to become lazy or complacent about the democratic process, but when we are lazy or complacent, surely that is when problems develop. As we saw in the last government, whether it was laziness, complacency or other motives, there were serious legitimate issues and concerns that were undermining not only a particular political party but our entire democracy. Others have spoken about this, the culture of entitlement, the sense that we were in essence a one party country, that there was only one party of legitimacy, which breeds that undermining of our democratic system. The proof of that was in the last election when voters decided to exercise their democratic right and chose a different path.
The former leader of the NDP, Ed Broadbent, is known as one of the leaders of democratic thought not only in Canada but internationally. He has led the call in Canada for a stronger democracy and a more ethical democracy. When Mr. Broadbent was in this House he raised the call for a number of changes that would lead to democratic and ethical reforms. I want to briefly outline those.
He called for democratic accountability, a fundamental respect for the voters who elect us to office. That means when voters elect us to represent a political party, we cannot just disregard those voters' wishes and cross the floor and represent another political party without going to those same voters to seek their endorsement for that move.
He called for fixed election dates so that no party could skew the outcome of an election by having complete control over when an election should take place.
He called for spending limits and transparency conditions on leadership contests. It is one thing to have limits on parties, but because parties are largely financed by the public, these principles around accountability should apply to leadership contests.
He called for electoral reform and a reworking of our antiquated first past the post system, so that the true views and desires of Canadian voters would be reflected in this House with a representative number of MPs.
He called for an end to unregulated lobbying and political cronyism, the revolving door between lobbyists, government staff and political staff. He called for tougher laws on the disclosure of fees and expenditures for lobbyists.
He called for a more ethical approach to government appointments, that the thousands of officials appointed to agencies, boards, commissions and crown corporations should be more democratically chosen and subject to the scrutiny of this House.
He also called for stronger access to information rules that would allow Canadians greater information about the behaviour of their government.
The bill before us today fails to live up to many of the goals outlined by Mr. Broadbent. However, Bill does make some progress and in that sense should be supported. I want to acknowledge that there are significant amendments made by the NDP which strengthen Bill C-2 and increase the likelihood of accountability and greater democracy in our country.
One of the areas to which there has been a real strengthening of the bill due to the efforts of my party is around the public appointments commission. As the vice-chair of the government operations and estimates committee, I was the member who introduced a motion rejecting the proposed head of the government's proposed appointments commission, Mr. Gwyn Morgan.
I was supported on that motion not only by other opposition members on that committee who joined me in rejecting his candidacy but by writers in Canadian Business magazine who said, “But making a partisan Tory (and party fundraiser) head of a department designed to usher in 'more open, honest and accountable government for Canadians' just wasn't a good fit from Day 1”.
More recently, in the Globe and Mail there was an article about how this person who was hailed by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives as the best possible person in the entire country for this position has gone from hero to pariah. Clearly, that was a good move to have his appointment rejected.
What we did was beef up the public appointments commission which was the key thing. It basically means now that patronage is against the law. The bill requires that there be accountability and openness when it comes to appointing people to all of the thousands of positions in agencies, boards and crown corporations.
This is what Canadians want. Canadians want the person who is the best equipped, the best qualified person to be in that position, and not someone who happens to be in the good books of the person doing the appointing.
The important thing now is that, because of the NDP amendment, the will have to consult with all political leaders prior to making appointments to the commission. The appointment process itself will be much fairer. This is a very significant change with which the NDP is very happy.
In addition, the NDP introduced new and stricter rules to stop the revolving door between lobbyists and senior levels of government. People do not want someone who is one day advocating for a particular company or organization, being paid for that, and in the next moment working in a minister's office. Canadians want clear rules to stop this action.
We were able to get some improvements to Canada's access to information laws, including broadening the act substantially to include all government institutions. This is not where Canadians would like it to be in terms of full access to information, but largely, thanks to my colleagues in this section of the House we have made significant changes.
We have strengthened parts of the Canada Elections Act, including outlawing the use of trust funds and lowering donation limits to $1,000. We have tightened the conflict of interest rules allowing any Canadian to make complaints to the new conflict of interest and ethics commissioner. We have also included protection of first nations rights within the act.
Canadians expect us as parliamentarians to do our job not only to represent their interests on the issues of the day, but also to be constantly reviewing the process of how we do our work. The solution for problems to democracy is a stronger democracy with more democracy. While this accountability act does not lead us to where Mr. Broadbent and the New Democratic Party would like us to be in terms of full accountability, it takes us another step down the path.
This bill has been debated, discussed, amended and scrutinized very thoroughly. Canadians want us to pass this bill into law and get going on the kinds of changes that will improve accountability in this country and strengthen our democracy.
Mr. Speaker, I would first like to emphasize that the Bloc Québécois supports Bill in principle and in much of its practice.
There is no denying that nothing is more important than ethics and accountability in the work of an MP. The way we practice politics and the way people have access to public office holders clearly reveals the strength of democracy, which is the beauty of our democratic system, even if it is not perfect.
Earlier, I heard my friends, the neo-Bolsheviks, talk about electoral reform, suggesting that the current system, the first past the post system, had given Bloc Québécois members over-representation in this House.
No matter how hard I rack my brain, I do not see how this House could possibly do without a single member of the Bloc. In fact, the Bloc Québécois caucus is a formidable democratic tool, and each and every Bloc member makes an invaluable contribution to the work of this House. Naturally, I am bound by the confidentiality of our caucus meetings, but I can assure you that every Bloc member does an outstanding job. With every voting opportunity, our constituents have the opportunity to assess the relevance of the Bloc's role, and every time, in the end, we are supported in our conviction that it is important to have a political party dedicated exclusively to defending the interests of Quebec, a party that will not compromise its principles, and one that has the ability to accurately discern what Quebeckers want.
That said, of course we are not completely opposed to the idea of holding a debate on the issue of better representation. When Quebec becomes a sovereign nation, it is not certain that we will maintain the current voting system. In fact, sovereignists have thought long and hard about this issue. I am thinking of the former member for Borduas, Jean-Pierre Charbonneau, as well as André Larocque, who was deputy minister to Robert Burns, the member for Maisonneuve, in the 1970s. Robert Burns was the minister responsible for one of the most important laws enacted by René Lévesque's government, the democratic financing legislation, which is based on the concept of knowing on whose behalf we speak.
I remember certain discussions with American senators. In the United States, it is virtually impossible to get elected if one does not have millions of dollars. Yet, in many cases, having such a fortune means that individuals become spokespeople for special interest groups. In contrast, our democratic system makes it possible to secure financing thanks to strong popular support.
For example, during the last election campaign in , I spent $25,000. Obviously, that is not very much given the number of voters in my riding. That money did not come from businesses, interest groups or lobbies. Members of the Bloc Québécois executive in my riding, Hochelaga, raised the money during meetings with grassroots activists. That is what we do every year.
Let me say a few words about Bill , which was introduced by the . The Bloc Québécois supports the underlying principles of the bill. However, much like its creator, the President of the Treasury Board, the bill is clearly not perfect. That does not prevent him from being a respectable parliamentarian, of course. The Bloc Québécois supports this bill because it provides for a ministerial code of ethics to be entrenched in the law.
The Bloc Québécois supports Bill because it will put an end to the tradition that enabled political staff to gain privileged entry to the public service. Of course, that is not to say that the people who work in the offices of ministers or members cannot be useful in the public service, or that they are not competent people, but we have said and we still say that they should not gain entry by a somewhat privileged mechanism but rather by means of properly conducted competitions.
The Bloc Québécois supports Bill because it gives greater power to the Auditor General, Ms. Fraser, and it gives more power to the Ethics Commissioner. It should be remembered—and obviously I say this very seriously—that for many weeks, and indeed for several months, the Bloc Québécois has led the battle to extend the Auditor General’s powers of audit and control. My former colleague, the member for Repentigny, had tabled a bill to extend the control of the Auditor General to include a certain number of foundations. The principle of the bill had been agreed to by the previous government, and it has also been accepted by the Conservative government. That is good news because these foundations hold and manage millions of dollars that come from the public treasury.
The Bloc Québécois supports Bill because it will lead to the disclosure of compulsory reports in the case of leadership races. It will restrain the potential for uncontrolled spending in the great public relations exercises that leadership races have become.
The Bloc Québécois supports Bill because it contains many of the traditional demands of the Bloc Québécois. I am happy to remind the House of the battle that several members of the Bloc Québécois fought to ensure that returning officers are chosen through a more democratic process. I see my friend, the parliamentary secretary, who is the youngest member of this House. Obviously, as everyone knows, being young is a failing from which one suffers a little less each day. However, I know that my colleague, who is the youngest member of this House, and who is also the parliamentary secretary to the minister, has worked very hard in committee.
For a long time now the Bloc Québécois has tried to justify a more democratic process for returning officers. It cannot be possible, on one hand, for a person at the riding level to be responsible for making the system work, ensuring there are no irregularities, that all rules are being followed and that all the candidates have equal chances, and, on the other, for these same returning officers to be appointed by the government. In my riding there was a returning officer who was very well respected as an individual, but who certainly was not neutral politically. Mr. Léger, a notary, served as returning officer in Hochelaga—Maisonneuve. He is a very respectable person, but he was my opponent in 1993.
In 1993, I had to show him a thing or two about elections and I won a majority by several thousand votes. It was at the time when Lucien Bouchard, one of the great sovereignists of the movement, was Premier of Quebec. He ran an absolutely extraordinary election campaign and, if my memory serves me correctly, the Bloc Québécois won 49% of the vote and 55 members were elected. We clearly had a very strong hold. It was a young political party and there were a number of young members such as Pierre Brien and Michel Bellehumeur. At the time, yours truly was in his early thirties. I was 31 when I was elected and I am 44 now, but I feel just as young as I did then.
Obviously, I no longer have the same resources. There was a time when I could work for 15 or 16 hours without sleeping. Today, I could no longer do that.
To get back to the subject, and to Bill , the bill contains very wise provisions to allow returning officers to be selected by competition. This was a Bloc Québécois initiative, which is to some extent reflected in Bill .
The Bloc Québécois would have liked to see more democratic funding. It had also hoped that we could have refocused the provisions relating to whistleblowers. It is important that when improper conduct, bad management or fraud is witnessed by people who have responsibilities, particularly strategic responsibilities within the public service, they be able to report it to their superior and report it publicly without suffering reprisals.
An amendment has come from the other place that expands the concept of reprisal. We must of course ensure that such reprisals do not in any way prevent a public servant from pursuing a worthwhile career plan in the public service.
We support Bill . In fact there are few questions that will call for more of our attention in the years to come than the question of ethics. What is our vision of public governance that meets ethical responsibilities? That is one of the questions that will concern us in the years to come.
A debate is underway in Quebec regarding the place for minorities in society. I am sure that such a debate is also taking place in other provinces. There is also the question of reasonable accommodation. How do we reconcile our broad democratic values with recognizing the place for minorities and preserving a spirit of a common public culture? How do we organize our social contract? This is what we mean by reasonable accommodation. How do we interpret the charters, be it the Quebec Charter, one of the most generous charters when it comes to human rights, and compatibility with individual values, particularly when it comes to religious convictions?
I hope that the parliamentary secretary will give us an explanation of this a little later. We do not understand why the government has not chosen to revise the Access to Information Act, when that act was part of the Conservative Party’s campaign platform. When we talk about democracy, political party financing and voting methods are not the only issues; our ability to make our institutions function in a way that allows us to have access to information within a reasonable time is also an issue.
The Access to Information Act is a major concern. Recently, I had the opportunity to take part in a seminar. Three weeks ago, my party whip asked me to make a speech on a Friday at 6:30 p.m., here in Ottawa. I cannot begin to tell the House how grateful I was that he would give me this opportunity to share the stage with a number of experts on the Access to Information Act. The seminar took place at the government's conference centre. What an archaic piece of legislation.
Here is a very specific example. In June, the Bloc Québécois made about 40 requests under the Access to Information Act. To this end, we relied on our research services and on my friend, Dominic Labrie, a powerful intellectual and an extremely brilliant man who is very familiar with the whole issue of the Access to Information Act. He is a highly educated person with great intellectual finesse, as there are in all political parties.
As we know, there are costs associated with this. A five dollar deposit is required for each request. We must also pay for each page of information that is provided to us.
Believe it or not, we submitted those 40 or so requests for information in June, and only about five of them had been dealt with by the time I made my speech, two or three weeks ago. We have yet to receive the information that we requested back in June and this is now November, just 10 days away from the month of December. Moreover, I was told that there is an increasingly common practice whereby a fee is charged for those access to information requests, based on the number of hours of research required to get the information. I was also told that this change coincided with the arrival of the Conservatives in office. I hope that this trend will be corrected.
Again, we cannot fulfill our parliamentary duties properly and we cannot have a true democratic system if we do not have access to meaningful and conclusive information. The Bloc Québécois longs for the day when each access to information request, and its reply, will be stored in the Library of Parliament, as is the case with the notices in the order paper. It would definitely be a good thing if all parliamentarians could benefit from that information.
I have even been informed that certain departments now refuse to produce written information for strategic executive meetings, for fear that someone will request access to it.
Once again I do not understand why the government did not make more of this bill, which has much to be said for it and which the Bloc Québécois supports. Indeed our political party believes in ethics and we know that this question will be of great concern in the coming years.
Our fellow citizens will no longer accept authoritarian models, ways of doing things in which members of parliament are not fully involved in the development of public policies.
It is quite unbelievable, I repeat, that the government chose to table 200 clauses in this bill. Would it not have been better to review the Access to Information Act? I recall that the Conservatives made a commitment to modernize it. The Conservative platform even contained this promise:
A Conservative government would:
Implement the Information Commissioner’s recommendations for reform of the Access to Information Act.
The Information Commissioner himself tabled a complete bill. He did the work; he proposed a complete bill in October 2005.
I think this is hard to understand.
I am going to end with the following comment, because time is running out.
The bill, once it came back from the other House, also proposed a number of points which the Bloc Québécois unfortunately could not agree with. I understand that the other House would have liked there to be a commissioner.
I am going to conclude by recalling three major points. For the Bloc Québécois, it is important to be able to say yes to this bill, on the basis of a number of historical battles waged by the Bloc Québécois: the appointment of returning officers by competition; more work and greater authority for the Auditor General respecting trusts and foundations; and the possibility of restricting expenditures in leadership races and making them subject to public disclosure.
We nonetheless would have liked the Access to Information Act to be modernized so that it would work better and members of parliament would have more information, and especially so that requests for access to information might be filed in the Library of Parliament.
We would also have liked to have a broader definition of the budget officer’s role. In spite of all this, the Bloc Québécois will support the proposed amendments in Bill .