Hon. John McKay PC, MP Speech at the Queen's University Gow Lecture Series, April 24, 2009


Hon. John McKay PC, MP Speech at the Gow Lecture Series,
International Development & Security Panel


Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario
Friday, April 24, 2009

Thank you for the opportunity to speak at these lectures.

I consider it a great honour and delight to have been invited back to my alma mater to talk about C-293, otherwise known as The Better Aid Bill. Also in the audience is my daughter Caitlin who just completed her 1st year exams. I also wish to thank Senator Segal, my collaborator in C-293 for suggesting that I speak today.

I might call this lecture the tale of three Private Members’ Bills and the real opposition to Parliament. I have had the good fortune to present three Private Members’ Bills to Parliament – two of which have received Royal Assent and the third is now before the Foreign Affairs Committee having passed its vote in principle last Wednesday by the narrowest of margins.  The chances of getting Royal Assent vary between slim and none so I have been very, very fortunate. While I propose to focus on C-293, each in its own way is instructive on how a bureaucracy deals with ideas not initiated by them.

C-260 was a Bill that proposed the manufacturing of fire safe cigarettes. Cigarette companies have known for years how to manufacture a cigarette which self-extinguishes if not inhaled. Just because you’re stupid enough to smoke and kill yourself doesn’t mean that you need to burn your house down and kill everyone else as well.

Initially the bureaucracy resisted and gave me all the technical reasons why this couldn’t be done. Then the Minister changed and voila, all these technical reasons disappeared and the Bill moved forward, ultimately to Royal Assent. So this was an example of resist first then collapse. It was also an example of a Minister having her own mind. I will be eternally grateful to Anne McLellan for her support.

The Non-Smokers Rights Association have monitored and adopted this Bill as their own. It is now the model Bill for 20 other countries.

C-293 is however another story. It’s a Bill about Canada’s Official Development Assistance. Our ODA can rightly be criticized on 2 grounds: (1) quantity and (2) quality.

I propose to restrict my remarks to the latter although much can be said about a nation as rich as Canada that can only manage to find 0.29% of its GDP for Official Development Assistance.

But today I wish to be critical of the unfocused nature of our ODA. For years we have tried to be all things, to all people, at all times and as a consequence we’ve been nothing to anyone.
Senator Segal’s report rightly criticized the billions that we have poured into Africa to no discernable effect. We lack focus because we lack moral clarity. At times we don’t know why we do what we do. Whatever else C-293 stands for it does stand for moral clarity. It is a statement that our ODA is to be directed to poverty alleviation, to take into account the perspectives of the poor and to be consistent with international human rights standards.
Up until May of 2008 our ODA was subject to “flavour of the month” priorities. Our priorities changed almost as frequently as our Ministers. Every Prime Minister and every Foreign Affairs Minister who needed a little extra cash for some worthy project felt perfectly free to raid the CIDA coffers.

The biggest opposition to C-293 came not from the Conservative Members (many of whom had an awkward moment voting against something they advocated in Opposition) but from the senior bureaucrats who saw it as a challenge to their private prerogatives. Bob Wright, for whom I have a lot of affection and am very pleased he and his colleague have emerged unscathed from their kidnapping ordeal, led the charge to kill the Bill in the Senate. He whispered to me as he as he was going up to give testimony not “to hate me.” The core argument was that our ODA is to be spent in the best interests of Canada. It has to be part of our 3 Ds (Diplomacy, Defence & Development).

Ambassador Heinbecker vigorously denounced C-293 in a CIDA public meeting in October. He in turn was challenged by the other panellists while the President of CIDA, Margaret Biggs, blandly asserted that the Minister and senior staff were working on it.

One very pleasant lady at CIDA congratulated me on moving the goal posts. My impression was that I had moved them far enough thank you very much and it would be better if the adults took over now.

The problem is that C-293 puts the proverbial cat in with the pigeons.

We have always wanted a little payback when we do good works. Being the pathetic Canadians that we are we want people to like us, vote for us at multi-lateral organizations and trade with us. So we spread our largess so thinly that we cease to be effective. We seem to have difficulty in saying no. Simultaneously though we want those developing countries to trade with us and/or vote for us.

Witness at the government’s recent re-profiling of our aid interests: “Delivering on its commitment to make its international assistance more focused, more effective and more accountable, the Government of Canada announced that it was moving forward on another element of its ‘Aid Effectiveness Agenda.’ It will be focusing its efforts in 20 countries by concentrating resources, focusing programming and improving coordination.”
There’s much back channel talk about what is in Canada’s best interests – that it would enhance our sphere of influence – that it aligns with our economic and diplomatic interests.

When I asked the officials sent to brief us on the implementation of C-293 there were some awkward moments when I pointed out that the government’s press release said nothing about poverty alleviation, taking into account the perspectives of the poor, and international human rights standards. I was startled to discover that C-293 only applies at a program level not a policy level. A curious distinction I’m sure that you’ll agree.

Doesn’t policy drive programs rather than the other way around? How does one apply the law (C-293) when the government says we are pursuing what is in Canada’s best diplomatic and economic interests? It seems to me that Canada’s best interests are secondary to poverty alleviation, the perspectives of the poor, and international human rights standards.

I was in Washington this week. Secretary Napolitano announced that U.S. Aid was being deployed to interdict drugs and guns. Poor people take a back seat to criminals.

Haven’t we already seen this movie? Hasn’t study after study shown that that our aid is ineffective because we lack focus? The Bill applies to ODA. It applies to programs and policy. The officials are not fully implementing the Bill.

Looks like sabotage, smells like sabotage – may even be sabotage.

The officials from CIDA were really quite pleasant, sincere folks. They had a lovely power-point presentation. They seem to have mastered the intricacies of the legislation. It was loaded with jargon: “whole of government,” “enhance Agency consultation” and the de rigueur “clarity and transparency.” Ottawa is all about “clarity, transparency and accountability” these days. Thank you Justice Gomery.

When I practiced law I was always more suspicious of the lawyer who agreed with me than the one who stated his or her position plainly.

It seems to me that CIDA has come to ground (sort of) on C-293 as a program driver but is either confused, clueless or outright hostile towards C-293 as a policy driver. So what’s new?

There is a certain smug paternalism – a “Father Knows Best” – attitude which may be conscious or unconscious toward a Bill which was ultimately passed unanimously by Parliament after 2 ½ years of debate and numerous legislative potholes. For an Agency like CIDA that is not used to taking direction from anyone or anything C-293 is a problem.

So where do we go from here? An MP should not have to harass the government into applying the law. I like to hold onto the illusion that Canada operates under the Rule of Law. But gracious me folks it’s a year since the Bill received Royal Assent. The Prime Minister advocated for it when he was in Opposition. It’s not as if they didn’t see this train coming. The Minister, in my view is not a “player.” It is the bureaucracy which is having the “gag” reaction. 

So we’ve formed a “friends of C-293.” It’s made up of legislators and NGO’s who see C-293 as a “game changer.” Unfortunately, my strongest proponents are dependent upon CIDA for their very survival. Equally, legislators lose interest after Royal Assent.
So is it time to jump of the Peace Tower and defer to the “greater minds” of CIDA and other bureaucrats? I hope not or else we are in for a lot more trouble than a tiny bill like C-293 can create. I find it an irritating attack from the rear.

Interestingly on my latest Private Member’s Bill C-300, An Act Respecting Corporate Accountability for the Activities of Mining, Oil or Gas (Companies) in Developing Nations,  a bill on Corporate Social Responsibility, the attack is frontal.

The Bill proposes that the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and International Trade be given the responsibility to investigate, make findings, and ultimately gazette those Canadian companies that don’t meet CSR or environmental standards. The sanctions include exclusion from eligibility for financing from EDC, BDC, CPP and government promotional activities. Within the limitations of a Private Members’ Bill it was as aggressive as we could be.
Just prior to 2nd hour of 2nd reading the Minister issued a press release with an Order-in-Council appointment attached which was designed to head C-300 off at the pass. Ironically it had the effect of confirming that Canada has a significant CSR problem in the extractive sector. The NGO response was swift and scathing.

They rightly observed that a mediation proposal dependent upon the co-operation and consent of the accused is no way to deal with Canadian companies accused of serious breaches of CSR and environmental standards.  If the police need the consent and co-operation of an accused prior to an investigation we would have a very ineffective criminal code.

So on three Bills we have three bureaucratic techniques:

• C-260 – resist then co-operate;
• C-293 – passive resistance then sabotage;
• C-300 – aggressive resistance with a view to derail.

What conclusions can be drawn? I leave it to greater minds than mine to comment on the subversion of democracy but I would just like to point out that we (MPs) are elected and the bureaucrats are not.

As I detailed in my brief synopsis of the C-293 legislative journey it is quite an effort to get MP’s and Senators agreeable at each and every stage and to keep the momentum going in the right direction. When parliament speaks it speaks. If some merely interpret the will of parliament as an inconvenience we have a very significant problem.

Let me end with a quote from a grade three student in my riding who sent his complete essay on Socrates to a friend of mine:

 “Socrates was a politician,
He talked a lot,          
The people killed him.”

In order to avoid the same fate as Socrates I will end my discourse on this legislative and bureaucratic journey. Once again thank you for inviting me to speak to you today.

I hope that my comments have provided you with some greater insights into the legislative process, and the bureaucratic world.

Hon. John McKay PC, MP