Mr. G. W. Baldwin (Peace River):
Mr. Speaker, I will not keep the minister long from replying to the very pertinent questions put to him. However, there are a few comments I wish to make in this debate. What the hon. member for Nickel Belt (Mr. Rodriguez) said may in the course of my remarks provide a very useful prelude.
I first want to congratulate Your Honour for sitting where you do. The wisdom of that has been shown by the remarkable perception you just showed in your comments on the point of order.
This is a rather traumatic experience for me. I will be compelled during the course of this debate to say something complimentary to the minister. After 16 years in opposition, that is rather hard to do. During the 16 years I sat in opposition, I tried desperately to find ways and means to compliment ministers then sitting on this side. Unfortunately, they gave me little opportunity to do so. I want to put on record that I am not going to make a practice of this, that even on this side ministers will have to earn the right before I say things which are satisfactory and complimentary.
In this bill the minister has been wise to repair an omission which took place during the aegis of the former administration. He has also been wise as a lawyer to take a decision to regularize attempts made by the previous administration to fix postal rates by regulation and order in council under section 13(b) of the Financial Administration Act.
The government won the first round in the court of first instance, the Federal Court. I read the judgment and the reasons for judgment. Over the two or three years this has been an issue, I have examined the statutes and regulations. In my opinion, the government would have lost and deserved to have lost on appeal in connection with this particular trial.
Let me put on record very briefly the circumstances leading up to this amendment. The Postmaster General (Mr. Fraser) has already done that, but I would like to elaborate to some extent. The fixing of postal rates has, over the years, been the prerogative of Parliament. It so intimately and in such detail affects the lives of ordinary people that, to all intents and purposes, it is akin to a form of taxation. If there is one principle which should abide in this House, it is that taxation of the public and the taking of money from the public in the form of fixing of postal rates should not be done until there is an opportunity to redress grievances.
That is the crowning feature in the process of legislation and taxation by legislation. I am not going to go into the details of the problems we have had with the Post Office. They are there. No doubt they will be discussed and debated for some time and new legislation will be brought forward. However, there is no doubt that over the past three or four years, if the government had seen fit, as it should have, to bring in legislation to fix postal rates, as has been the custom since confederation, it would have provided an opportunity for members of this House, the public, the unions and consuming public to have ventilated their grievances. There would have been a fair chance from 1974 or 1975 on for bills to be brought into this House to increase postal rates and for representations to be made during the course of debate and committee hearings.
I am not naive enough to believe that this House has the magic cure for all problems. I recognize its virtues as well as the fact that it has warts and defects, but it does provide a forum in a situation of this kind. I suggest to members of this House and the government that they not neglect in future any opportunity to provide to the members of this House, representing the public, the opportunity to debate and discuss at length and in detail problems which arise. I have every reason
October 24, 1979
to believe if that had been done, it would have alleviated or smoothed over some of the problems.
For many years I practised law in a small town. I had people come to me and say "Mr. Baldwin, 1 have a problem with my neighbour. If I get a good crop next year, I will pay you some money if you will sue him." I said I did not think they could sue because they would not win the case. They informed me that all they wanted was their day in court. The public which use the mails wanted their day in court through the medium of a committee of this House.
The unions could usefully have had a day in court five, six or seven years ago. I am by no means condoning some of the things the unions have done. However, if they would have had that opportunity, it might have been better. The management of the Post Office should have been before a committee of this House to explain and justify what was being done. I am not going to blame the last postmaster general. He received advice from officials in the Department of Justice. Anyone who reads the law reports will accept the fact there are many decisions in the courts that are against the government. That suggests that advice given by officials in the Department of Justice is not always right. I have a friend in Montreal, Peter Treu, who is a shining example of that fact.
In 1974, the then postmaster general, the hon. member for Papineau (Mr. Ouellet), said the following in response to a question:
Rates of postage for domestic letter mail are set out in section ten of the Post Office Act. Changes in those rates therefore are only possible by Act of Parliament. Any proposal for amending the Post Office Act will be announced in the government's legislative program at the appropriate time.
So there was a clear statement, a good statement, a proper statement, a legal statement by a member of this House who had responsibility for the Post Office, that the only proper legal way to fix postal rates was by coming to the House. But two years later we find the then postmaster general, Mr. Mackasey, I think, succeeded by others from time to time, saying: "We have found a new way; we can bypass Parliament, we can do it by regulation". And they proceeded to introduce a regulation under section 13 of the Financial Administration Act. Mr. Speaker, I say this as a warning to other ministers: that is a section of the act whose use is not justified in circumstances of this kind.
I have read the debates in 1968 and 1969 when the present section 13 of the Financial Administration Act was introduced. Mr. Drury, then president of treasury board, introduced this amendment and made it clear during the debate that there was no intention section 13 would ever be used for such a purpose as the fixing of postal rates. I took part in that debate. If his intention had been otherwise I would have had a lot more to say and the bill would not have carried as quickly as it did; a storm would have been raised in the House, and rightly so. However, the amendment was introduced. From 1968 to 1976 no attempt was made to use it. Suddenly, though, the government discovered it had a problem with regard to postal rates
and thought: here is an easy way of doing things; we can change postal rates without going to Parliament.
This is no small, piddling matter, Mr. Speaker. The estimates of the Post Office run in the neighbourhood of a billion dollars. The deficit is very substantial and that deficit is taken care of in part by income from postal charges. I say this to the minister: it may well be that having regularized by statute what I consider to be irregularities and possibly illegality in the actions of the previous government, the present administration might desire to go ahead and secure an amendment to the Post Office Act giving it the right to fix rates by order in council until such time as Parliament comes to a decision with regard to the possible setting up of a Crown corporation.
If that were the case I would have no objection to its being done, but I suggest to the minister that attached to any amendment to the Post Office Act giving the government the right to act by regulation there should be provision for a negative resolution so that this House and the other place would always have the authority to consider the feasibility and propriety of changes which may have been made. This House should never cut the umbilical cord of its responsibility to hold government accountable when it comes to changing the law to effect the imposition of taxation or the fixing of rates. When we give the government the right to act by order in council, there remains with us a responsibility to ensure that we have the authority to take another look at the situation if we wish.
I pause there for a moment. Mr. Speaker, I have been very impressed by the calibre of the new members of the House, though I retain my affection for the older ones as well. There are 157 new members. This is a minority Parliament; it appears that the people of Canada like minority Parliaments and are not prepared to give one government a massive majority enabling it to do whatever it likes.
I hope that in the course of the operations of this Parliament members on all sides will watch with great care the use made by the government of regulations and orders in council even though such a practice is probably a necessary part of our administration today, government having seen fit to intervene so massively in every aspect of human life. It would be literally impossible to legislate all the things it is thought desirable to legislate, bearing in mind the infinite variety of human circumstances affected. But when we give the government the right to act by order in council, it is up to us to see that it is used, not abused. It is a responsibility which rests with every member of the House.
Topic: GOVERNMENT ORDERS
Subtopic: POST OFFICE