Mr. Chairperson, members of the committee, I am truly honoured to appear before you this afternoon to discuss my nomination as the next and second Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner. I sincerely hope that, after we've had a chance to discuss my credentials and my plans, my nomination will be approved by the House of Commons.
As you know, this office was established some 10 years ago as an independent officer of the House of Commons to provide assistance to appointed and elected officials in ensuring that conflicts between their private interests and their public duties are prevented. This was deemed necessary by Parliament to maintain and to further enhance the confidence of Canadians in the House of Commons and its members, as well public office holders.
The Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner is responsible for administering two texts: the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons and the Conflict of Interest Act. The code, which was adopted in 2004 and subsequently amended several times, applies to the 338 members of Parliament. The act governs the conduct of current and former public office holders, including ministers, ministers of state, parliamentary secretaries, staff members, political advisers and the members appointed by the Governor in Council. In her last annual report, Commissioner Dawson, estimated that there were 2,254 incumbents on March 31.
The role of the Office of the Commissioner is first and foremost preventive, although the Commissioner has the necessary powers to investigate when a breach of the code or the act is alleged. This is in fact what the Commissioner has done a number of times since her appointment in 2007.
The main responsibilities of the office are to provide advice to individuals whose conduct is governed by the code or by the act, to review the confidential reports that they are required to submit, to establish compliance measures, to maintain a public registry and confidential files, and to administer a penalty regime under the act.
I understand that you've had an opportunity to consult my curriculum vitae. As you know, I am currently chairperson of the Immigration and Refugee Board. I have played a number of roles in the public sector since joining it as a legal adviser. I am originally from Montreal.
However, I am not a lawyer in Montreal. I left that city in 1973 and have been in Ottawa ever since.
My family moved to the national capital region shortly before I entered law school at the University of Ottawa.
I am married and the father of three adults now in their thirties. I chose the public sector originally because I wanted to contribute to issues that matter to society as a whole, as opposed to purely personal and private interests. I've always been intellectually curious, and I also wanted to ensure that I would not be restricted to the same duties for the duration of my career.
I have been privileged to be able to work in areas that are important to Canadians and that also correspond to my personal strengths as a jurist and as a leader of professionals in the public sector. I spent a total of 18 years at the Department of Justice in several senior positions, including that of associate deputy minister, and four years as assistant deputy minister with the Correctional Service of Canada.
I have been a deputy head since 2003. I've been an agent of Parliament for four years as Public Sector Integrity Commissioner between 2011 and 2014, as well as head of two independent tribunals, the national Parole Board and now the Immigration and Refugee Board.
My most important achievement is, without any doubt, the finalization of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in 2005, while I was the deputy head responsible for the resolution of issues arising out of this terrible chapter of our history.
I am therefore a career civil servant, proud to have served Canada and my fellow Canadians. This is what we have in common, whether as members of Parliament, senators or public servants.
When I saw that Mary Dawson's term was coming to an end about a year ago, I did not apply, as I had a number of objectives to finalize at the IRB. I only decided to apply late this summer after having finalized an action plan to face an almost unprecedented increase in the number of refugee claims being made at this point in time. We've developed a very organized action plan to try to maximize the use of our resources and to increase the number of claims that we are able to deal with, and we have increased by 25% the number of claims compared with last year, with very few additional injections of resources.
I also wanted to recruit a few key senior managers at the IRB before thinking about going anywhere else.
On August 18, when I sat in front of my computer—I think it was a Saturday or a Sunday—I decided it was time to apply for the position of commissioner.
Even though there wasn't a deadline per se, they were saying they would start to review candidates on July 28. They said that if you wish to apply, you nevertheless can do so afterwards—on the poster itself—so I applied. I got a call in mid-November, basically to invite me to an interview. I was interviewed less than three weeks ago, and here I am today.
I think I have the attributes to meet the requirements of this position that is very important for our democracy.
For 30 years I have been leading groups of professionals in the federal government, jurists, but also people who work in the social sciences and economics. I have the reputation of being a good leader of professionals. I enjoy running teams, planning things, and getting results. I like working on concrete and meaningful things. I love being independent, although I understand that I must be accountable.
For over 10 years, I was the associate deputy minister for Justice John Tait, the first deputy minister to give me those powers. As for the two deputy ministers who followed, they sent me all the conflict of interest issues within the Department of Justice. I have had to make hundreds of decisions about requests for outside activities, publishing papers or articles, and outside legal practices. I had to deal with codes that were constantly changing, and I did so between 1992 and 2003.
I also have some experience with investigations. When I was the public sector integrity commissioner, we conducted about 100 investigations. Those investigations often involved senior officials and took place in a difficult climate. Of course, when someone is being investigated, they are not particularly happy about it. So I had to face very difficult situations that had to be carried out with great care and discernment.
The position of commissioner also includes an education component, meaning the education of the people who are covered by the code and the act, but also the education of the general public. Both at the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner and at the Department of Justice, I led a lot of sessions that focused on education, training and teaching things that are often complex. It gives me great pleasure to try to simplify complex things without compromising the accuracy of the systems I'm trying to explain.
This is essentially why I believe I'm qualified for this position. I would like to make a direct contribution as Canada's second Ethics Commissioner, and I hope that I will enjoy your confidence to do so.
It's always difficult to make statements about one's priorities when you are not fully informed. As you know, everything that Ms. Dawson's office does is confidential, so I don't actually know much. All I know is what I see on the web and what I read in the media, so it's hard for me to launch a very informed description of what my priorities would be.
Based on what I have read—I did allude earlier to the education aspect—I think that's very important. The code and the act are very complex, in my view. Mary Dawson said the same thing three years ago when she appeared before this committee. They are complex. Therefore, it's hard to imagine that every public office holder is able to essentially, within a few hours, grasp precisely what is expected of her or him.
I would like to do more education in order to disseminate the information as well as possible. I believe that people are fundamentally honest, that people do not get up in the morning with the intent of breaching the law. Therefore, it's important to make sure they understand what the expectations are. I would like to do more of that.
One of the things I've done in several positions that I've occupied is to focus on trying to increase efficiency, to optimize the use of resources the government makes available to us. Not knowing much about the current operations, I sense that maybe there is potentially more room for increased use of technology, which I would be looking at.
Mr. Chairperson, I once again thank you for inviting me to meet with the committee this afternoon. I will be pleased to answer any questions that members may have for me.
Thank you very much.
I'll try to be brief, of course, as the chairperson would appreciate I'm sure. You always have to bear in mind that much of what is the underpinning of those two reports is confidential. Anything that does not appear in the report is still confidential.
With those limitations, essentially under the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act the commissioner is appointed pursuant to that act. We were basically doing two things. They're still doing two things. Joe Friday, my successor, is responsible to receive complaints of wrongdoing and is responsible to receive allegations of reprisals for people who have disclosed wrongdoing in the past.
There is a provision in the act that says that if somebody wishes to lodge a complaint of wrongdoing that relates to the operation of the office itself, the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada, the Auditor General is responsible to handle these things. In other words, the Auditor General does exactly what the office would be doing vis-à-vis complaints made against other organizations. It's as a result of two distinct complaints, these investigations were launched by the Auditor General under the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act.
When I was appointed there—I said in 2011, and in fact I started on December 14, 2010—it was a few days after a scathing report, as journalists usually put it, by the Auditor General, in which the former Auditor General, Madam Fraser, basically.... I recall precisely what she said. She said she had absolutely no confidence in any policy or procedure that this office had been using in making determinations since its creation. She was recommending very strongly that the new commissioner essentially review each and every one of the 228 files that had been dealt with at that point in time in late 2010.
When I arrived as interim commissioner from a short period in the private sector—I did retire in 2009 and came back on December 14, 2010 as interim commissioner—I was faced with the situation that there was a 50% vacancy rate in the office. We did not actually know how many pending files there were because there was no system whatsoever. We had to attend to a number of things. We had a profound morale problem as well.
In terms of what the Auditor General dealt with in 2012-13 in these two complaints, I admit that we dropped these two balls essentially. I did not dispute the conclusion. The context was very difficult. My responsibility was that of a leader. I was not personally blamed for something I had done myself, but we had an investigator who basically had serious difficulties at that point in time with hundreds of days of unplanned absences. That was a factor as well, as I said in my response in the report.
It was an unfortunate combination of factors that led to these two reports having come to that conclusion. We did not do the work as we should have done it, but it was taking place in the middle of a crisis, essentially, involving hundreds of other files as well.
I hear Mr. Kent's intervention in terms of continuity. That was one of the concerns we had raised in the media weeks and weeks ago, knowing that Ms. Dawson's term was coming due January 8 and that this committee would not sit until the end of January. In fact, we were the ones who first proposed the idea of the committee coming back together to find out what was going on and whether we were going to have an Ethics Commissioner at all.
That's simply a lack of planning on the government's part. If they conducted the interviews, as Mr. Dion testified today, in mid-August.... Excuse me, if they took the applications in mid-August—I don't want to get the record wrong—and interviewed three weeks ago, which is what I think we determined, and at the very last moments of Parliament's sitting, with the fear of having no Ethics Commissioner at all, this is the path the government has chosen.
My grandmother used to say a lack of planning on your part does not create a crisis on mine. With 18 months' notice, two years plus in government, the government knew this day was coming and chose the eleventh hour in which to put this through.
I don't know about Mr. Dion or my colleagues, but I have more rigour in hiring my legislative assistants and staff assistants in the riding in an hour's interview from a list of one. This is such an incredibly important position. The officers of Parliament have great sway, as Mr. Dion and others have said. This is the process, and the still today chose to call this meaningful consultation. I don't understand how my Liberal colleagues can see it as that. They would certainly not accept it if they were sitting on this side of the table.
In the past, when we've hired Sergeants-at-Arms and other officers of Parliament, other people who work for all of us, we've had multi-party committees. It worked, because every party had input into the candidates, short-listed them, and then put that forward to the for the nomination of a candidate. That's still giving the Prime Minister an enormous amount of discretion, to choose from a list of three or four, but importantly, with all-party support throughout the process so that, as Mr. Dion and others have pointed out, these officers remain beyond any concern of partisanship or influence or any of those things, as was rightly questioned by one of my Liberal colleagues today.
To push the opposition completely out of the process, to send what I think is an insulting letter saying, “Here's the one name. You've been consulted. Congratulations. Have a one-hour meeting and then a vote tomorrow in the House of Commons”, and call that due process.... My Liberal colleagues know it's not.
It's unfortunate, because it creates this tension that, I would argue, is totally unnecessary. We want to get this right. We want the best people in the position, because they run our elections, they guide us on ethics and lobbying, and do all these important things. To create an insulting process is really unfortunate, and it's certainly not the expectation of the promise made by the Liberal when he was running as a candidate for this office. It's unfortunate.
I'll be abstaining again.
As I said to Mr. Dion, it's no reflection on his candidacy. It's just a totally disgraceful process that got us to this place.