Thank you very much.
Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, first of all, allow me to congratulate you on your election, or re-election, and on your appointment to this committee. Thank you for inviting me here today.
With me today are Catherine MacQuarrie, assistant commissioner responsible for policy and communications, and Gail Lidstone, a manager in our advisory and compliance section. Gail has special responsibility for the administration of the code for members of Parliament.
For those of you who are new and may not yet be familiar with my role and responsibilities, I thought I would start with a few quick words on that. I've been commissioner since July of 2007 when the Conflict of Interest Act came into force. At that time the position of the Commissioner of Conflict of Interest and Ethics was created as well. My mandate is twofold. I am responsible for the administration of the Conflict of Interest Act, which applies to all public office holders across the federal public sector, including ministers and their ministerial staff. I'm also mandated under the Parliament of Canada Act to support Parliament in governing the conduct of its members through the application of the conflict of interest code for members of the House of Commons. The code and the act are different regimes, although there are some basic similarities. Members of Parliament who are also ministers, ministers of state, or parliamentary secretaries are subject to both the act and the code. Most Governor in Council appointees are also covered by the act.
The code was developed by members for members. It's been in place since 2004 and has been amended twice following reviews by this committee. I believe the regime under the code is generally going well. Members are complying with their key obligations to disclose their financial and other interests. Over the past year, we've received a good number of inquiries, both from members and to some extent from the public, and that suggests a growing awareness of the code. There remain some challenges, however, and I want to use my opening remarks today to review some of these with you. The matters I propose to raise are among those referred to in my annual report tabled in June of 2008. They were outlined in the briefing book I sent to the committee last week. You can find a copy of the report under tab 4 of your briefing book. I'd also be very pleased to hear about any matters relating to the code that the committee would like to raise, and to follow up with you in the most appropriate way.
My priority issues today, as outlined in part 1 of the briefing book, relate to section 30 of the code regarding forms. More specifically, I have two priorities relating to the forms: first is the approval of the disclosure forms, and second is the approval process for disclosure forms and procedural interpretive guidelines. If time allows, I'd also like to hear any advice you may have on educational activities as required under section 32 of the code and perhaps have a preliminary discussion on how to approach and work together on one of the more difficult interpretive areas in the code, namely gifts and other benefits.
I'll start with the forms. Following a review of the code in June of 2007 by the previous committee in the 39th Parliament, section 30 was amended to require that the commissioner submit all forms relating to the code to your committee for approval. They would then be reported to the House for its concurrence. Section 30 also specifies that the forms are to remain confidential until they're reported to the House. Currently, there are still no forms approved for confidential disclosure of assets and liabilities nor for any other declarations or statements required under the code. Indeed, as my annual report noted, there have been no forms approved since the code came into effect in 2004. Because I had to use some forms to administer the code, I sought advice from the previous chair of this committee as to whether to use the older versions of the forms or the versions that were approved by the subcommittee last winter, since neither was ever approved any further. I was advised to use the older versions, which I did. Because unapproved forms need to be kept confidential, this was awkward, but the older forms were at least already in the public domain when I took up office because they existed before the requirement for confidentiality was required.
In the second session of the last Parliament, my office worked very closely with this committee and their former subcommittee on the conflict of interest code to develop new forms. The subcommittee was chaired by Mr. Scott Reid, who, as you know, has returned as a member of this committee. As a result of these proceedings, the subcommittee approved five forms, which you have in your briefing book under tab 1. Unfortunately, events made it impossible for them to be approved by the standing committee and consequently to be reported to the House.
Considering the effort that's already gone into the development of these forms and the fact that we don't have any approved forms in place, I would ask the committee to consider adopting the draft forms that I have presented to you in my briefing book and to seek approval of the House at the earliest opportunity. That would be my very first priority, and I would really appreciate anything this committee could do in that regard.
My second priority for discussion today is directly related to the first one: the approval process outlined in section 30 that requires that both the standing committee and the House of Commons approve not only the forms but also any procedural or interpretive guidelines that I may develop. As for procedural or interpretive guidelines, my office has made no attempt yet to bring any guidelines forward in light of the difficulties that were faced with the forms, although we have done some preparatory thinking in the area of gifts.
The publication of guidelines will be very helpful in fulfilling my advisory and educational role. They're very often requested by members themselves. Such readily available information would enhance and strengthen the guidance to members and help inform the public at large.
I certainly appreciate the importance of, and truly welcome, the involvement and direction of the committee members in the development of forms and interpretive documents or guidelines for what is, after all, their own code. I continue to wonder, however, what the most efficient process would be to get that involvement and direction, and what level of approval really needs to be necessary.
I have just a few more words. On the educational activities, while the issues I've already mentioned are my priorities for today, should time allow I'd also welcome the committee's suggestions with respect to my mandate to undertake educational activities for members and the public at large. Some of my previous and planned educational initiatives are outlined under tab 1C of the briefing book.
Just last Thursday, as part of a Library of Parliament follow-up orientation program for new members, I held a special information session on the members' conflict of interest code, with a particular focus on their immediate disclosure obligations. The session was attended by nineteen new members from all four parties, and in my view it went very well. There were many good questions. It resulted in several follow-up meetings with my office to deal with some individual issues.
Following the session, I posted the presentation on my website. It's also my intention to develop a set of frequently asked questions and answers using some of the questions raised by members last week along with others that we often receive. These would also be posted on my website.
So I continue to see education and outreach as major priorities for my office. I would be pleased to receive further suggestions from the committee on what other activities they'd wish to see.
Finally, I'd like to mention the challenges I'm having in interpreting section 14 of the code relating to gifts and other benefits. The committee might prefer to schedule some separate time for discussion of this one, but I would be prepared to begin it today, if you wish.
As I mentioned in my annual report, I've been asked for advice on a number of specific instances of gifts and benefits--expensive tickets to charitable galas, free memberships with golf courses, and prizes donated to caucus events by the private sector, to name a few concrete examples.
Subsection 14(1) of the code as written seems to be very broadly prohibitive of virtually any gift or benefit that's more than a modest token of hospitality or courtesy, regardless of whether there's a conflict of interest for the member. This is because it prohibits any gift that's related to the member's position other than those received as a normal expression of courtesy or protocol or within customary standards of hospitality that normally accompany the member's position. It's hard to imagine many gifts arriving that are not because of the member's position.
If that's indeed the case, then it would seem to rule out a great many activities that I imagine members of Parliament are currently invited to take part in free of charge because of their position as members. I'm thinking particularly of charitable galas in their ridings or free participation in conferences, again regardless of whether these activities pose a conflict of interest. Section 5 of the code states, however, that “A Member does not breach this Code if the Member’s activity is one in which Members normally and properly engage on behalf of constituents.” It's not clear how far this section cuts into the prohibition.
I do not have an immediate response for you to these questions. As I said, I think the matter of gifts and benefits is an important and substantive discussion the committee may wish to have on another occasion. I raise it today as an example of the kind of issue for which ongoing committee engagement in the code is both welcome and needed.
Again, thank you very much for having me here today. I will now gladly answer your questions.