November 29, 1909

PUBLIC ACCOUNTS COMMITTEE.

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Mr. A. B.@

WARBURTON (Queens, Prince Edward Island) moved that the Public Accounts for the fiscal year ending March 31, 1909, and volumes I. and III. 'of the report of the Auditor General for the same period, be referred to the Committee on Public Accounts.

Mr. HAUGHTON LENNOX (South Sim-coel. Before that motion is put I wish to direct the attention of this House to the advisability of making some change in our method of procedure in the Public Accounts Committee. There is no member of this House, whether he be a member of the Public Accounts Committee or not, who has not some knowledge of the very great difficulty experienced in getting at the information which the public of this country require in relation to the Public Accounts of Canada. There is no member of this House who. aside from political considerations, would hesitate to admit that in certain cases our investigations are not as full as thev ought to be and that we do not get at the true state of the facts to

the extent we should. The opposition which we who investigate axe met with [DOT]from time to time by certain gentlemen in the House is one conspicuous cause of the failure to elicit the facts. In the years that have gone by it is true we have been able to divulge very startling conditions in reference to the public expenditure of Canada, but I venture to think, and I believe most people in Canada who follow the trend of public affairs think, that we are only on the threshold of all that could be divulged did we have the proper facilities to elicit it. I would be glad to feel-and for the present I will assume, and the subsequent attitude which the government takes will show whether I am justified or not- I would be glad to feel that the government is as anxious as are the members of the opposition that full light should be thrown on the circumstances surrounding the expenditure of public moneys. Following a time honoured precedent the hon. gentleman (Mr. Warburton) has to-day moved that the Public Accounts and 'the Auditor General's Report for the year ending March 31 be referred to the Public Accounts Committee for investigation.

Now, what I propose, Mr. Speaker, is that we 'should have a wider range; that instead of referring the public accounts merely for the year ending the 31st March last and the Auditor General's Report for the same period, we should Tefer at least two ; years of the public accounts to that committee. I do this for various reasons, one of which is that it is the Public Accounts and the Auditor General's Report for the year ending 31st March last which give the true bearing of certain items in the accounts of the year preceding. Therefore as it should be the object of every member of this House to get at the true state of the facts in the most expeditious manner possible, it is important that we should be able, after these accounts have come in, to go back to the preceding year and avail ourselves of the information afforded by the subsequent transactions in connection with the same item. We cannot close our eyes to the fact that many hon. gentlemen who believe they -are acting in the interest of their party set themselves deliberately to block the investigation which is going on, impelled by the belief that if they can prevent it for one year it will be dropped altogether. The matter comes up within a few weeks of prorogation, and they will not allow the investigation to proceed rapidly; they take all the technical and captious objections possible, with the result that very little information is elicited during the balance of the session; and when we come to another session we are confronted with the statement: You cannot go into that, because the only public accounts referred to the committee are those of the year ended the 31st of March last. If the public ac-Mr. LENNOX.

counts of the two years w7ere referred, to the committtee, we would not be met with that difficulty, because these hon. gentlemen would realize, contrary to what they believe now, that we could not be blocked altogether in our investigations. It may be suggested that it would be rather unfortunate if the committee went back to investigate not the public accounts of last year, but those of the year before. To that I reply that no hon. member of this House is going to ask the committee to investigate for two years back, unless there is some good reason for doing it. It is said that there are no birds in last year's nests, and we realize that in the majority of cases our best work is done on the recent accounts; but there are a great many cases in which light can be thrown on a transaction on which the public should be informed if the rule did not confine us to one year's accounts, but gave us liberty to investigate the accounts ot two years. I had intended to move an amendment to this motion, but I have decided not to do so on this occasion. I have listened, not always with approval, to the remarks of hon. gentlemen opposite in regard to long sessions. I have tried to believe, but have not succeeded in believing, that these hon. gentlemen are sincere in the ideas which suggest these remarks. Any one who reads the records of this House will, on a careful study of this matter, come to the conclusion, that the evidence is not strong that the government is sincere in desiring short sessions. If we want to have short sessions combined with efficiency of investigation, we will adopt the suggestion I make. If hon. gentlemen desire to have the time of the Public Accounts Committee used to advantage, and a rule broad enough to enable us to work effectively without having to make special applications to the House, they will agree to the suggestion I make, and say that in years to come, as long at any rate as this government is in power-and I think I can promise that when we get into power in the near future, we shall be quite willing to continue the rule-we shall have the right, without making any special motion in the House, to investigate the public accounts and the Auditor General's Report for at least two years whenever any hon. gentleman of this House deems it in the public interest that such an investigation should be made.

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LIB

William Stevens Fielding (Minister of Finance and Receiver General)

Liberal

Hon. W. S. FIELDING.

Mr. Speaker, as my hon. friend has not made any motion on the subject proposed, it is not necessary for me to discuss the matter at length. The impressions I have received of the Public Accounts Committee are not the same as those which my hon. friend seems to entertain. I think that those who have given the closest attention to the Public Accounts Committee will be able to testify th^t the

investigations of that committee are very thorough, and they take a very wide range. If one wanted to be critical, he could often complain that the committee enters into the consideration of matters which strictly speaking do not pertain to its duties at all. But on a question of that character it is well to take a very liberal view not to be too technical. Inasmuch as we have annual parliaments, it follows that there should be annual inquiries into the public accounts. These matters are all regulated by the long experience of the mother of parliaments, and the rules and practices found to be successful in the mother country may safely, in most instances, be continued here. I quite understand that there may be cases in which the events of one year may be closely connected to those of another; the transaction beeinning in one year may extend into another year. In cases of that kind it would not be unreasonable that the whole transaction should be reviewed, and I am sure that the Public Accounts Committee would at all times be willing to grant such an investigation. If there be any special circumstances which seem to call for such an inquiry, I think we can safely trust in the future as in the past the wisdom of the Public Accounts Committee and ultimately the wisdom of the House of Commons. It is unfortunate that in the discussion of questions in that committee occasionally some party feeling may be manifested on one side or on the other; a man who has strong party views may sometimes think that a man who has strong party views on the other side is a little unreasonable. We must learn to make allowance for one another in these things. 1 am persuaded that, all in all, the work of the Public Accounts Committee is well done; and if it should be desired at any time to inquire into a matter that is not before the committee in the usual formal way, I am sure that the committee and the House of Commons itself will always, on a statement of the facts, be prepared to provide a remedy.

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CON

Frederick Debartzch Monk

Conservative (1867-1942)

Mr. F. D. MONK (Jacques Cartier).

I would like to say a word in support of what the hon. member for South Simcoe (Mr. Lennox) has said. My experience of the Public Accounts Committee differs entirely from that of the Minister of Finance; and when he invokes the example of the mother of parliaments, my hon. friend cannot ignore the fact that the investigation of the public accounts is very differently conducted in the mother country. In England, under the rules of the House, the Public Accounts Committee is composed of eleven of or at most fifteen members of the House. The chairman is always by custom a member of the opposition. It would be entirely unheard of in England that one of the members of the committee, desiring

infox'mation on some particular transaction, would be opposed by a member of the same committee on legal technicalities. The thing has never occurred, and never could occur there, because the idea that dominates the Committee of Public Accounts in the British parliament is that any man can ask any question which may lead him to a full understanding of the transaction under consideration. But what do we find here? So far from exhibiting any wisdom, the proceedings in the Public Accounts Committee, during the past four or five years, have degenerated into a farce. People go there just to see the kind of a battle that is carried on, just to hear the objections made and the difficulties put in the way of getting any information on any transaction. I appeal to any hon. gentleman who has attended any of the meetings, if that be not the case. That committee is the place where it is most difficult to get any information. What usually happens? A number of gentlemen, who form part of the committee, come to the meeting, and a certain number do not find a single matter to investigate. It is but fair to presume therefore that they are satisfied with the accounts presented to them. They do not ask any questions, but are perfectly content. Other members come there who are not so easily pleased. Certain transactions have come under their observations on which they desire to be informed, and they call for the papers. These are brought down, and on looking over them, these members of the committee find reasons for pushing their researches a little further. Witnesses are then brought before the committee, but the minute you begin to examine them, other members of the committee, who 'seldom come there, who have asked for no papers, who presumably are satisfied with everything, make their appearance on such occasions, and make it their business to enter objections and prevent the investigation. Is that the case or is it not? Some four or five members, in some cases more, troop into that Public Accounts Committee room for the sole object of blocking the investigation. There can be no doubt about that. The best proof is that these gentleman, as a rule, are able lawyers, and they interpose objections just as they would in a court of law. An hon. member from Nova Scotia will base his objection upon the rules of investigation which obtain in his particular province. Other members from other provinces will make objections founded on rules of evidence which govern in their respective provinces. The result is you cannot proceed. If the case be one which seems to lead up to discoveries of irregularities, the stronger are the objections and the greater is the number of members who come in to support them. It seems to me that proceeds from an entire mis-

conception of the duties of that committee. There is no possible ground, I submit, on which one hon. member can object to another obtaining information, unless the latter ill-treats the witness or clearly wishes to obstruct the work of the committee, but when he puts a question to a witness with regard to a fact, is it tolerable that one of his colleagues should object because that question violates some rule of evidence in some provincial court, For instance, the objection will be urged that you cannot put that question unless you have a commencement of proof in writing or some other absolutely technical objection, which could only be made in a court of law. We have all seen some particular member apparently designated as being an able lawyer accustomed to cross-examine,, come into that committee when there is some ticklish matter under investigation, involving irregular transactions on the part of the government. We have seen four or five such members come there and sedulously one after another, object to questions on some technical rule of evidence. All members of parliament are not lawyers, and it is quite clear that this group of members has for its object the blocking of evidence and the preventing of our obtaining that information which the committee ou^ht to have. I am very glad that my hon. friend from Simcoe has brought that matter to the notice of the House. It has been noticed by all strangers and witnesses attending the committee, and the result is that the examination before that committee, instead of being serious, becomes a farce.

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LIB

Frank Broadstreet Carvell

Liberal

Mr. F. B. CARVELL (Carleton, N.B.).

I am very much surprised at the statements of the hon. member for Simcoe (Mr. Lennox) and the hon. member for Jacques Cartier (Mr. Monk). If these came from other members of the opposition, I would say that they were drawing upon their imaginations, but my hon. friend from South Simcoe (Mr. Lennox), I think, is the last person who ought to complain of the treatment he has received from the Public Accounts Committee. I have been rather a regular attendant at the meetings of that committee during the past three or four sessions

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Some hon. MEMBERS

Hear, hear.

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LIB

Frank Broadstreet Carvell

Liberal

Mr. CARVELL.

And I challenge the hon. member for South Simcoe (Mr. Lennox) to point out one specific case in which he ever asked a proper question for proper information and failed to have that question allowed.

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CON

Haughton Lennox

Conservative (1867-1942)

Mr. LENNOX.

I may say that I have not asked many questions altogether in the Public Accounts Committee. and I do not recollect that my hon. friend ever interrupted me, and I would not be particular Mr. MONK.

if he did, because I am able to fight my way, but I have heard, on many occasions, objections made on technical grounds to questions put.

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LIB

Frank Broadstreet Carvell

Liberal

Mr. CARVELL.

I knew that the hon. gentleman could not point to one instance when he put a proper question and it was objected to. But let me point out what has occasioned this irritation on the part of the hon. members for Jacques Cartier (Mr. Monk) and South Simcoe (Mr. Lennox) and others of their friends. In the first place, they ask for the papers and the original papers are brought down. Then they ask that witnesses be summoned; and to the best of my recollection, there never has been a refusal to bring witnesses from any part of the country, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Thousands and tens of thousands of dollars have been squandered bringing witnesses, who, not only could not give any information, but who, I believe, these gentlemen knew could not give any; but they brought them because they had some ulterior object in view. After asking a few questions regarding the item under discussion, they drift off to some other outside matter, and when members of the committee who have some regard for the rules of order and decency

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Some hon. MEMBERS

Oh, oh.

Mr. CARVELL-attempt to hold them down to the question under discussion, these gentlemen make the charge that an attempt is being made to burk the investigation. Let them ask for their witnesses, and confine themselves to the subject matter under investigation and I can promise, as far as I am concerned, that they will meet with no difficulty, and I challenge them to point out where I or any other member, in the past four sessions, have attempted to obstruct investigation into any particular subject before the committee.

I am very glad this matter has come up. These accusations have been hurled at members on this side of the House from one end of Canada to the other. And I may say that my own name has been bandied about from the Atlantic to the Pacific as one of the leaders of a dark lantern brigade. I have only to repeat that I have not a word to take back that I have ever uttered in that committee. I have never objected to a solitary question that was proper;-I do not mean technically proper; I am not talking along the line of whether a question is one that would be allowed in a court of law or not; I mean a question bearing on the subject at issue. If these hon. gentlemen opposite will direct their investigations to the subject under discussion and not to some extrinsic matter they will have no difficulty. But I am afraid that if they continue to carry out the policy they have

pursued in the past, of attempting to bring out matters that have nothing to do with the subject under discussion, if they will attempt to use the Public Accounts Committee and the money of Canada as a means of trying to get some information which they think may possibly be of benefit to them in their constituencies but has nothing to do with the subject of the investigation, they will meet with the same treatment that they have met with in the past and of which they are complaining here to-day. We might as well have a clear understanding on this point. As a matter of fact, so far as I, for one, am concerned, there has been no objection in the past, and will be no objection in the future, to any proper investigation; every subject can be laid as bare as it possibly can be laid. On the other hand, I can only warn hon. members that if they will attempt to use this power of investigation in a way in which they are not entitled to use it, I am afraid they will meet with the same treatment as in the past.

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CON

Samuel Barker

Conservative (1867-1942)

Mr. SAMUEL BARKER (East Hamilton).

I do not desire to occupy the time of the House in repeating what other gentlemen have said on this very important subject. I think (that, especially seeing that we have a new chairman, not so much accustomed as others to our ways, even what the Minister of Finance (Mr. Fielding) has said, may do a great deal of good. I can say that I have nothing to complain of particularly myself; but I have again and again in that committee heard gentlemen who are not versed in the methods and forms of the law, attempting to ask a question of a witness, a perfectly proper question, when three or four gentlemen would at once spring to their feet objecting that the question was not put in proper form. There is not a member of that committee who hears me but knows that that is the case. The hon. member for Carleton, N. B., (Mr. Carvell) asked the hon. member for South Simcoe (Mr. Lennox) to give an instance. I can give him a very common instance of most outrageous interference with the witnesses, i have myself, again and again, in examining witnesses as to the value of property which they have sold to the government, asked them, as the very best test of that value, what they had paid for the property, which, perhaps, they had bought within a month and may not even have paid for; and everybody knows who is on that committee who the gentlemen were who objected that this was an attempt to compel a man to disclose his private business. The hon. member (Mr. Carvell) will not deny this-

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LIB

Frank Broadstreet Carvell

Liberal

Mr. CARVELL.

Will the hon. member name a specific instance; I cannot recall such a thing.

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Some hon. MEMBERS

Oh, oh.

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LIB
CON
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Some hon. MEMBERS

Oh, oh.

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CON
LIB
CON

Samuel Barker

Conservative (1867-1942)

Mr. BARKER.

That is quite enough; I will not give names unnecessarily; I know what I am talking about, and I do not think that there is one of the gentlemen here who has been declaiming but knows that I have only stated the facts. We have investigated the prices of articles sold to the government where we know that the most extravagant prices have been paid. I have asked what the seller paid for it, and what was his reply? His reply, suggested by a member of the committee, was that that was prying into a man's private business. I have even heard the chairman say that the witness was not bound to answer. Is that decent? Is that right? Is that reasonable, fair investigation? The hon. member (Mr. Carvell) knows that for a whole week we struggled with one witness to make him produce his invoices. He refused. We, at last, put him in a position where he would be forced to produce them, and then he said they were burnt. And we had to bring a man all the way from Galt, Ontario, to tell us at what price he sold these articles to the witness when the witness might have told us at once. I have heard members, not of the legal profession, asking a witness questions who were persist-tently interrupted by some legal gentlemen until the witness, alive to what was going on, found in what he should be careful, and then we might as well abandon the investigation. That is a very common thing, and every member of that committee knows it. As I have said, however, I think this little discussion will do good. It tends to show the absurdity of pretending that this is a court of inquiry to be conducted according to legal procedure. It is an investigation of business questions by business men, and ought to be carried on in the way in which business men would investigate such questions in their own office.

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CON

Thomas Simpson Sproule

Conservative (1867-1942)

Mr. T. S. SPROULE (East Grey).

As one member of that committee, for some time past I have regarded it as of little value in ascertaining anything with regard to the expenditure of public money. There is hardly a layman in this House, except one or two, who would go before that committee to investigate any of the matters referred to, for we know from experience that as soon as it appears that information is being brought out of value to the country,

we are badgered by a number of lawyers in that committee under the plea that we are not following the procedure laid down for a court of law. These gentlemen seem to forget that the rules that apply in a court of law do not apply here. I am well within the mark when I say I have heard that plea raised a hundred times, and I have often seen fifteen or twenty minutes of the valuable time of that committee wasted in a discussion which finally resulted in the member being prevented from putting his question because it was not according to the rules of evidence in a court of law. And I do not know a much greater sinner in this respect than the hon. member for Carleton (Mr. Carvell). The Minister of Finance (Mr. Fielding) says that the effort is to make the investigation thorough, and that it is thorough. It may be thorough as far as it goes, but, unfortunately, it does not go far enough. The time at the disposal of the committee is not sufficient to enable it to make a fair inquiry, by the examining of witnesses, when members are hampered in putting their questions. Of the thousands of items in the Auditor General's Report, only an extremely small proportion can be investigated owing to the absolute obstruction in that committee. That has been found to be the case over and over again. It may be said that if you go back over more than one year you even increase the number of subjects to he investigated. That is true. But one advantage of going back, as any one who has been in the House any considerable length of time will know, is that you may get most valuable information regarding these transactions after a year has passed. Generally, parties are close-mouthed for a year, but when they begin to settle up they are apt to be dissatisfied with one another and to disclose information which would not otherwise be in the possession of members or of this House. But, try to go hack into the previous public expenditures and you are met at once with the objection: 'You are going beyond the fiscal year.' That objection has been raised over and over again.

The members of the committee who have been endeavouring to get information have ' been prevented from getting it on that one ground alone, I do not'think that is right. I remember a long inquiry that took place in 1893, and when the then opposition desired to go back two years, the offer was made to them that they might go back two years, or three years, or four or five years, and they got that right. We said they had the right to go back just as far as they liked, only they would have to say that thev had reasonable grounds for suspicion that something was wrong; and if they desired to bring evidence with regard to anything that took place three or four years ago, we allowed that to be done. I Mr. SPROULE.

thought that was right. I always agreed with it when our friends were in power.

I think if there were not an effort made now to restrict the inquiry within the limit of one year, and that the last year, there would not be so much inclination to go back. But only in cases where there was a strong ground for suspicion that something could be got out which had not been brought to public attention, would any member of parliament desire to go back beyond a year. I think it would do a great deal of good if we had the right, though we might not exercise it very often. The Minister of Finance says: If you make certain allegations of fact the House will consent. Well, allegations of fact have been presented to that committee over and over again, and the committee did not consent; and I think in one or two cases when it was brought up in the House, the House did not consent. There is always some excuse made, so that no matter what you do you are confronted with obstruction, and you are prevented from doing what you conceive to be your duty. The hon. member opposite who just took his seat said that no proper question was ever refused. Well, what is meant by a proper question depends altogether on the mind of the gentleman who uses the word. If we were only to ask such questions as the hon. gentleman thought were proper questions, we would never bring out the information that we desired. Besides, one hon. gentleman might have something in his mind that others did not have, and he might desire to ask the question in a way that wrould bring out information which other hon. gentlemen could not bring out. I know that many laymen have been prevented from asking questions in the committee to such an extent that they have abandoned the attempt to go before that committee and endeavour to get any information, because of the way they are badgered by, I was going to say, the brigade of lawyers who have been constantly in the Public Accounts Committee session after session apparently to obstruct for many years past.

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November 29, 1909