This week is another very active one in Ottawa. On Monday our Government tabled a motion to extend the House of Commons sitting hours until midnight each evening to allow for more opportunity to debate the many bills still moving through the House. At the time of writing, the motion for extended hours has so far been supported by the Liberals and opposed by the NDP.
One of the Bills up for debate this week that I have spoken in support of is Bill C-17 “Protecting Canadians from Unsafe Drugs Act”- also known as “Vanessa`s law” as a result of the untimely passing of a 15 year old girl who was prescribed the drug “Prepulsid” that subsequently caused a fatal heart attack.
Ultimately this tragedy has illustrated that Canada`s drug protection laws are out of date and in my view do not provide sufficient protections for Canadians.
As I shared in the House of Commons that under our current Food and Drug Act, if a drug poses an unacceptable risk to patient health only the drug manufacturers can initiate a recall. In other words it is up to the manufacturer to determine whether or not a health risk is serious enough to warrant a recall. Health Canada plays a secondary role. In fact, under our current laws Government cannot step in and order a manufacturer to recall a drug that is unsafe. Where our existing laws become more bizarre is that if something like a candy bar is deemed unsafe to the public- the Minister of Health can issue a recall. To summarize: the Minister of Health can issue recalls for dangerous and unsafe foods, but not for dangerous and unsafe drugs. In my view this is completely unacceptable and why I am supporting Bill C-17 that proposes to remedy this by ensuring the Minister of Health has mandatory recall power to compel a manufacturer to recall a drug if it is determined to present a serious or imminent risk of injury to Canadians. Bill C-17 also applies to medical devices and provides significantly increased fines and potential for prison time in circumstances of very serious offences. Health Canada will also retain flexibility to provide exemptions in special circumstances where unique health care considerations exist.
Another new measure approved this week that is long overdue are changes that will allow airline passengers to use portable electronic devices for the entire duration of a flight including takeoff and landings, provided the device is in non-transmitting “airplane mode”. These changes are enabled through an exemption to the Canadian Aviation Regulations and require individual airlines to apply for the exemption and implement specific measures that incorporate these changes. It is estimated airlines may require 6 months to a year to complete this process.
I would also like to thank District of West Kelowna Mayor Findlater, council and staff for extremely constructive and valuable input on Canada’s gas tax program. Last summer I was fortunate that our Prime Minister and Government caucus MPs from British Columbia accepted my invitation to meet in West Kelowna. During our meetings the leadership from West Kelowna was able to provide very specific suggestions on how gas tax funding can work better for municipalities and local government. These changes were also largely endorsed by other communities such as Summerland and Kelowna. Working with MP Ron Cannan in Ottawa on these proposals and the BC caucus has been successful as the new gas tax agreement announced last week will result in our Okanagan-Coquihalla communities having access to more funding than under the previous deal and greater flexibility and options for projects that reflect local priorities. This stands as a good example of different levels of Government working together to reduce regulatory red tape and create a more efficient and workable process.
Last week was an unusually partisan one in the House of Commons even by Ottawa standards. At Issue was the Standing Committee on Procedure & House Affairs (often referred to as PROC) where the leader of the official opposition appeared as a witness to answer questions on the use of taxpayers’ funds in what some have described as partisan political satellite “outreach” offices. The testimony and exchanges were testy, aggressive and revealing. Ultimately this issue also exposed what can be a fine line between activities that are deemed to be partisan as opposed to non partisan. This issue also illustrated there is a general difference of opinion and in some cases a lack of understanding, on what the role of a Member of Parliament's office should be.
From my perspective, a Member of Parliament's office is ultimately a location to host meetings, meet with constituents and assist citizens on issues and concerns of importance that are raised relating to the Federal Government. Often providing information or other assistance to access Government services or resolving conflicts are also common items that arise. Collectively a MP office budget is funded from the House of Commons following regulations established by the all party Board of Internal Economy and then administered through non partisan public officials. Although there are many safeguards and oversights to protect the interests of taxpayers there are still aspects of a MP's office that operate on a discretionary basis set by the Member, who we should recognize is ultimately responsible. Offices may have different operating structures based on how an individual MP allocates resources provided from what is known as the Member's Office Budget, often called the MOB internally.
Each fiscal year a set amount of funds is advanced to a Member of Parliament that covers all operational costs. At the end of a fiscal year (March 31st), if the full amount of funds allocated are not used by the Member of Parliament, 95% of the balance will be returned to the House of Commons and 5% can be carried over towards the next year’s budget. Conversely, if a Member of Parliament exceeds that office budget allotment, then the Member is personally responsible for the amount over the fixed budget. Once a MP retires, resigns, or is defeated in an election, all funds remaining are returned to the House of Commons. It should also be pointed out that there are reasonably firm guidelines in spending with requirements for receipts that ultimately are checked over by financial administration staff in Ottawa. Over time many unique rules have also been implemented typically in response to questionable spending or other practices that occurred because a loophole was identified or a specific limitation was not in place outlining a prohibited action. For example, it is now in the Members' Office rulebook that a short term “travel companion” cannot be hired. While I can only speculate how this rule came into being, it is the rule that for any employee to be eligible for a travel expense, said employee must now be on staff for a minimum of 90 days.
One of the most important prevailing guidelines is that outside of Ottawa, office spending is for constituency related work on behalf of constituents and should not be used in any way for partisan political activities. In other words, activities that are intended to promote political interests should be funded by political parties and not from taxpayer provided office budgets. On that note I would like to confirm that both my Penticton and West Kelowna offices operate under these principles in a non partisan manner. Office budgets are very carefully managed for maximum savings and political activities of any kind are not allowed. It is important for me that citizens have access to non partisan offices that are focused on areas of citizens' concerns and providing information as opposed to political objectives. If you have further question on this or any subject before the House of Commons please contact my office directly. As the House of Commons is not sitting during this shortened week, I am in Okanagan-Coquihalla and welcome hearing from you. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or toll free at 1-800-665-8711.
Last week a group of concerned local citizens dropped of a petition to my Penticton office on “The Right to Save Seeds”– this petition, signed by 37 residents, is the second on this topic that I have received. On a related note, I was also asked recently how petitions work in the House of Commons and what happens to them once they have been tabled. In order to be deemed “valid” in the House of Commons a petition must be verified by the Clerk of Petitions– a process that has been in operation since roughly 1910 with some further modification in 1986. As a Member of Parliament, the petition I received this week will be forwarded to the Clerk for verification. Guidelines for petitions can be found online however it is important that petitions be addressed to the House of Commons and typically contain a statement identifying the petitioners and the issue in question that is the focus of the petition.
This week will be a slightly shortened one in Ottawa as the
House will be adjourned on Friday for Members of Parliament to attend National Day of Honour ceremonies to mark the end of Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan. For many Canadians, including families and friends here in Okanagan-Coquihalla, Canada’s service in Afghanistan was a life changing experience. There are times when words cannot properly reflect the magnitude of loss for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice serving in our armed forces. It is also important that we recognize the service of our non-military personnel who also volunteered to accept positions in Afghanistan at great personal risk to themselves. These brave Canadians had a commitment and a desire to help build a better country that protected the values of those more vulnerable citizens from tyranny and oppression. While there will always be debate on the success of these efforts, let us never question the sacrifice or the commitment of the many brave Canadians who served with dignity and respect.
Prior to Friday there will be a number of private members bills coming up in debate. Some of these bills include Bill C-560 An Act to amend the Divorce Act (equal parenting) and to make consequential amendments to other Acts, Bill C-570—An Act to amend the Criminal Code (mandatory minimum sentences for rape) and Bill C-539— Promotion of Local Foods Act. Also debated will be the opposition day motion on temporary foreign workers along with votes on Bills
C-479 An Act to Bring Fairness for the Victims of Violence, Bill C-208 An Act to amend the Supreme Court Act, Bill C-483 An Act to amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (escorted temporary absence) and Bill C-567- An Act to amend the Access to Information Act (transparency and duty to document).
On the topic of Private Members Bill C-587 from Okanagan-Shuswap MP Colin Mayes. Bill C-587 (formerly Bill C-478 from Selkirk-Interlake MP James Bezan) “Respecting Families of Murdered and Brutalized Persons Act” that I referenced in my April 22, 2014 MP report, will come before the House of Commons on May 30, 2014.
I would like to pass on special thanks to many in Okanagan-Coquihalla for expressing strong support for this particular bill that will help prevent families of very serious crime from being re-victimized on an ongoing basis through the parole process. The Penticton Herald ran a poll on this bill and while not scientific, 86% of those who responded expressed support for Bill C-587. Locally I have also had a number of citizens come in to sign the petition that opposes parole for Mr. David Ennis (formerly known as David Shearing), the man responsible for taking the lives of the Johnson-Bentley family in August of 1982. This level of support is very helpful as it helps me to take a strong message to Ottawa: that the family and loved ones who are left behind should not be forced to relive these tragedies. The petition will continue to be available at both my Westbank and Penticton offices through the month of May and early June.
I would also like to express regret on the recently announced resignation of Chief Shawn Atleo of the Assembly of First Nations. Chief Atleo is a British Columbia based aboriginal leader who worked tirelessly to further aboriginal education and other challenges at the national level. This is an incredibly demanding and difficult job and I am not alone in expressing appreciation for Chief Atleo’s efforts in this regard.
If you have a comment, question or concern on any matter before the House of Commons I can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 1-800-665-8711.
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Dan Albas is the Member of Parliament for the riding of Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola.