House of Commons Hansard #130 of the 36th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was defence.

Topics

10 a.m.

Liberal

Don Boudria Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

Mr. Speaker, there have been consultations among all parties in the House and I believe you would find unanimous consent for the following motion:

That, at the ordinary time of daily adjournment on Tuesday, October 17, 2000, today, no proceedings pursuant to Standing Order 38 shall be taken up and the House shall continue to sit for the purpose of considering a motion that this House take note of possible Canadian peacekeeping activities in Ethiopia and Eritrea; that during the debate on the said motion members may speak for no more than 20 minutes, with a 10 minute question and comment period, provided that two members may divide one speaking period; that during the debate on the said motion the Chair shall not receive any dilatory motions, quorum calls or requests for unanimous consent to propose any motions; and, that at 10 p.m. or when no member rises to speak, whichever is earlier, the House shall adjourn to the next sitting day.

10:05 a.m.

Reform

Chuck Strahl Fraser Valley, BC

Mr. Speaker, there have been negotiations and we look forward to tonight's debate.

As part of what we discussed earlier, we had hoped to have more detail as to what exactly this peacekeeping mission may entail, how many troops may be involved, what kind of terms of reference there are and so on. Does the House leader have information that he can table or that he is prepared to give to all the opposition parties about that?

10:05 a.m.

Bloc

Michel Gauthier Roberval, QC

Mr. Speaker, I know that there have been discussions among the parliamentary leaders concerning the emergency debate this evening.

I would like to ask the government House leader if it would not be possible to consider that eventuality after the question I am about to ask of you relating to the necessity of an emergency debate on another matter.

I have not had the opportunity to discuss this with the government House leader, but we are aware that all these matters need to be addressed within the next few days.

I will not therefore be able to give my consent at this time. I would prefer it to be considered a little later, after we have been able to hold discussions.

10:05 a.m.

The Deputy Speaker

We will not proceed with the request for unanimous consent at this time.

Privilege

10:05 a.m.

Progressive Conservative

Peter MacKay Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough, NS

Mr. Speaker, I rise on a question of privilege concerning the systemic intimidation of an officer of the House of Commons. This is a very serious allegation, I admit, but in the past 24 hours our attention has been drawn to the government's use of its levers of power to intimidate the office of the access to information commissioner.

As you would know as an officer of this House, the decision on the definition of what constitutes contempt is reserved for the collective House of Commons, that is, the issue now before the Chair is whether there is sufficient evidence to give this matter to the House for examination and decision.

Yesterday the Speaker laid on the table the report of the access to information commissioner, who is similarly an officer of parliament, both of the House of Commons and of the other place. The commissioner has made very disturbing and troubling allegations. I refer to his report at pages 9 and 10. I quote:

For its part, the Privy Council Office (PCO) decided to resist and challenge almost all of the Commissioner's investigative powers. To this end, officials of PCO have ignored orders for the production of records; failed to fully comply with such orders (in one case non-compliance persisted until after two Federal Court judges had ordered PCO to comply);

It goes on in the next paragraph to say:

In this latter regard, PCO lawyers advised a senior PCO official, of Deputy Minister rank, to refuse to answer questions under oath put to him by the Commissioner, because there could be no punitive consequences. When the Information Commissioner cited the official for contempt and began the enforcement process, PCO also agreed to pay the legal costs associated with the constitutional challenge....

This is blatant contempt for the commissioner.

It goes on in the final paragraph on page 9 to say:

...with no prior notice or consultation, to rescind a protocol with the Commissioner's office which was adopted and followed since 1984. The protocol governed the process by which the Information Commissioner could obtain a certificate from the Clerk of the Privy Council officially attesting that records claimed to be Cabinet confidences are, indeed, confidences. PCO claims now that it may exclude confidences from access without any obligation to certify through the Commissioner (as it must for a court) that such records are, indeed, confidences.

Finally, on page 10 of the information commissioner's annual report for 1999-2000, it says:

As for Justice Canada, the “home” department of the access law, it decided not to defend the Access to Information Act against the above-mentioned constitutional challenge brought against it by the senior official of PCO and funded by the Crown. Indeed, in proceedings before the Information Commissioner, an agent for the Attorney General took the unprecedented position of impugning the constitutionality of the very legislation which the Attorney General has the duty to defend.

There is a blatant conflict of interest at work based on the words and in this report.

As part of my submission I refer to page 11 of the report which says:

The government's palpable animosity towards the “right” of access (it would prefer to dole out information by grace and favour in well-digested mouthfuls) is no more apparent than in the disconnect between talk and action in the matter of reform of the Access to Information Act. Every study of the Act (from Parliament's own review in 1986, to the Justice department's internal reviews, to the Information Commissioner's reviews, to independent, academic reviews and careful reviews conducted by private members) has concluded that the law needs to be modernized, strengthened and expanded.

These are very heady and very heavy words. I submit that this report to parliament, written by an officer of parliament, raises sufficient questions and alarms to constitute a prima facie case that should be put before the House for examination and disposition.

The commissioner states that the privy council office, at public expense, has systematically challenged its powers and that the treasury board has systematically denied the commissioner resources to go about his duties. These are grave allegations and grave findings which are deeply troubling and should be deeply troubling to every member of the House.

The House has a duty to give this report a priority over other business which the government seeks to place before the House in its rush to a premature election call. We cannot allow this damning report to be swept aside in a rush to the Prime Minister's vanity election.

It is the Prime Minister himself, the man responsible for the privy council office, who stands accused of impeding an officer of parliament in his duties. The Prime Minister is going to dismiss the House before we can take action using the normal processes of examination of this report.

I call upon the Chair to put the House of Commons first, to rule that the findings in this report raise sufficient questions that they merit action and that the debate in the House should take place immediately.

I am of course prepared to move the necessary motion to let the House proceed with this issue. I expect that other House leaders will have similar comments. Mr. Speaker, I urge you to take action on this matter.

Privilege

10:10 a.m.

Reform

Chuck Strahl Fraser Valley, BC

Mr. Speaker, I have two things to add to what the member said.

Personally, I have never read or seen a report from any officer of the House so condemnatory of the government as this one. The report talks about the denial of resources to the information commissioner; that working for the information commissioner is the death of one's career because of the way the government reacts; that the privy council office is actively involved in denying information; and that the justice minister is not only complicit in this, but her department is actually attacking the very legislation that gives the information commissioner the right to do his business.

I have never heard such strong language in the seven years that I have been in parliament. Never have I read language which basically says that the government is trying to stop an officer of the House from doing his job. It is doing it systematically, routinely, day after day and across the departments. That is something that should cause all Canadians great alarm.

We just have to read not only the report but Mr. Reid's comments that were published today in papers across the country in which he said that democracy itself was at risk when the government gets away with what it is doing right now. I could not agree more.

I would also like to bring to your attention, Mr. Speaker, something that happened yesterday. It does seem to fit the trend that we see from the government. At 11 o'clock in the morning the information commissioner's report was tabled in the House. We in the opposition could not get copies of it until question period had begun, three hours later. The report was tabled in the House at 11 a.m. and we were denied access to it. That too should be part of the debate. How can we have things tabled in this place and then not have them available to the members of parliament?

I do not have the exact date and time but I remember, within the last couple of months of Speaker's rulings, where the Speaker actually said that when anything is tabled at the Table in the House of Commons it should be available immediately. He also chastized the government for not making sure it was available.

I am not sure how or why that happened. I just know that for three hours we checked the website, phoned the office of the commissioner and did everything we could to get copies and we were denied access to something that was tabled in the House. There is something wrong with that and it should also be part of the debate that I hope we enter into today. How on earth can the government say that it is defending democracy and our parliamentary traditions when the information officer of the House says that the government is complicit in hiding information that should be available, not only to the House but to Canadians at large? Everything around here is based on our access to some kind of information.

We should be debating this. It is an absolute condemnation of the government in the way it has handled this whole issue. I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, will rule that we can enter into a debate about the confidence this place has in the government.

Privilege

10:15 a.m.

Bloc

Michel Gauthier Roberval, QC

Mr. Speaker, our hon. colleague has raised a point of privilege I feel is of such importance that it requires us to intervene at this time, adding our voice to theirs and to that of the leader of the official opposition, in order to call for this matter to be addressed with the utmost urgency, as well as the serious accusations made in the information commissioner's report.

I believe it is appropriate to point out at this time—since we have gone to the heart of the matter—that I myself asked under Standing Order 52 that there be an emergency debate at the end of the day today on this matter, given the serious nature of the accusations and the fact that the report states in black and white, and I quote:

PCO refuses to accept the clear words of Parliament giving the Commissioner the powers of a Superior Court of Record in the conduct of his investigations.

Of all the accusations, the serious nature of this one is without precedent. Privy council shunts aside and rejects the wishes of parliament to which the information commissioner is answerable. I would be prepared, in one way or another, to go along with the hon. member's request for an immediate debate on this issue, for a motion to be introduced and the issue debated. If that were to be done, it would pre-empt the emergency debate we had called for this evening, or the Chair should bear in mind in its ruling that if it does not allow an immediate debate, we should at least use the evening to debate the matter pursuant to Standing Order 52. Whatever is decided the final days of this government are a sorry spectacle.

As its mandate draws to a close, a matter of days now, our worst fears and doubts are being confirmed. Our complaints to the House about the answers being given by ministers about the unavailability of documents under the Access to Information Act are being borne out. This is a very serious situation.

For three and a half years, the Bloc Quebecois has had a hard time because it has been systematically unable—this was how the privy council wanted things—to obtain any useful documents that would show the public what was actually going on behind the scenes in this government.

It is quite terrible that this is happening in a system such as ours. The control of information is something we thought was reserved for certain dictatorships, certain totalitarian countries. The first requirement of a dictatorship is to control information and release only what it wants.

It is a sad day for this parliament. It is a very sad conclusion to the government's stay in office.

It is vital that the question of privilege raised by the hon. member be debated immediately or that you at least allow an emergency debate on the matter in the coming hours. Otherwise, we will no longer know what deference to the will of parliament means.

The spotlight is now on the PMO and the privy council.

Privilege

10:20 a.m.

NDP

Bill Blaikie Winnipeg—Transcona, MB

Mr. Speaker, on behalf of the NDP caucus, I would like to comment on a point of privilege brought forward by the hon. member for Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough, the House leader for the Conservative Party.

The point of privilege arises out of the tabling of the annual report of the information commissioner for 1999-2000. I would just like to remind the House, but more specifically the government, that Mr. Reid presents his report to the Speaker of the House. He says:

Dear Mr. Parent:

I have the honour to submit my annual report to Parliament.

This report covers the period from April 1, 1999 to March 31, 2000.

The point I am trying to make here is that this report and the officer who has made this report is a creature of parliament and answers to parliament. What we see developing here in the report of the information commissioner is part of a larger disease that affects the Canadian body politic, and that is, the relationship between the government and parliament is not what it should be. What we have reported here, and which should be a concern for anyone, especially the Chair who is concerned with the integrity and the reputation of parliament, is evidence of what most of us see here every day, and that is that the government has contempt for the role of parliament and the democratic process.

In this case, it is contempt for an officer of parliament. In this case, we see evidence of the systematic attempts to frustrate the efforts of an officer of this parliament, the information commissioner, the person who reports to this parliament, to obtain the kind of information that he is mandated to obtain under the freedom of information act.

This report comes from someone with extensive experience in government and who was actually once a Liberal member of parliament. This would certainly, in fairness, give the lie to some of the things we sometimes think, that just because someone has partisan considerations he will never give the government a hard time. This guy is giving the government a hard time and properly so, but it points even more so to how bad the government practices must be in this particular instance.

I think, Mr. Speaker, that you should consider this point of privilege very favourably. For me it is just one more symptom of a larger disease, and that is the contempt that this government has for this House.

I am not pointing fingers at the government House leader. In many respects, as is too often the case unfortunately, the people above the government House leader, those people in the Prime Minister's Office, in the senior bureaucracy and in treasury board, treat us all with contempt.

It is not a question of government members treating opposition members with contempt. It is a question of the Prime Minister's office, that small circle around him, and the senior bureaucracy treating all of us with contempt, whether we are a government House leader or an opposition House leader. We have all fallen into the same basket as far as they are concerned: people whose will is to be thwarted, whose status is to be diminished and who, instead of being respected because they are elected, are held to be the very people that obstruct their will.

Time and time again we see the collective consensus of those in the senior bureaucracy and in the Prime Minister's office. The information commissioner has laid bare the reality of this as far as freedom of information is concerned. It behooves us all, including you, Mr. Speaker, to seize this opportunity to initiate a debate on what is a growing problem.

Although points of privilege cannot become election issues, this frankly is something that the Canadian people ought to take into account. We have seen another contempt of parliament just today when people are appointed to cabinet who have never been elected. It is better to be an unelected friend of the Prime Minister than an elected member of parliament who the people vote for. Imagine that. Let us bring in some of the backroom boys.

Privilege

10:25 a.m.

The Deputy Speaker

The hon. member for Winnipeg—Transcona says he is trying to be relevant. I hope he will try a little harder.

We are dealing with a point of privilege raised by the hon. member for Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough which has nothing to do with cabinet appointments. Perhaps he can stick to the point. I know he is doing his best.

Privilege

10:25 a.m.

NDP

Bill Blaikie Winnipeg—Transcona, MB

What I am trying to point out is a pattern of contempt. It is just a coincidence that on the very day we are talking about a report that shows this kind of contempt for parliament in terms of the government's actions with respect to the freedom of information commissioner and the work his department does, we have another example of this in the way in which the Prime Minister has appointed people to cabinet who are not at this time elected, some of whom have never been elected to the federal House of Commons.

I think it is fair ball to try to place this particular violation of parliamentary privilege, that is to say, those things the freedom of information commissioner points to, in the context of the larger contempt which the Prime Minister in particular has for the House and even for his own members.

Privilege

10:25 a.m.

The Deputy Speaker

I remind the hon. member for Winnipeg—Transcona that we are not yet having a debate on this subject.

The hon. member is rising on a question of privilege. I hope he is trying to assist the Chair in coming to a decision as to whether or not to recognize this as a question of privilege. If he has remarks along those lines, I would appreciate hearing them rather than what I think might be a very good speech on a motion, were there one permitted before the House.

Privilege

10:25 a.m.

Liberal

Jim Peterson Willowdale, ON

The polls are relevant.

Privilege

10:25 a.m.

NDP

Bill Blaikie Winnipeg—Transcona, MB

Mr. Speaker, a member across the way says the polls are relevant to this debate. That is all the government thinks about. Nothing else is relevant except the polls. I suppose if the polls said that the government should take out a bunch of people and shoot them, the government would say “Fine, the polls say that is okay. We will just do whatever”. Instead it is members of the other side who aspire to be in cabinet who have been politically executed, while others have been brought in who are not even members of the House.

I know you think this is not relevant, Mr. Speaker, but the point I am trying to make is that all of us should be concerned about the respect for this institution. Whenever a government acts in a way that is disrespectful of democracy and disrespectful of parliament it is something that the Chair should concern itself with. This point of privilege is an opportunity to give the members in the House a further opportunity to speak their minds, including those government backbenchers who may be embarrassed by the way they have been passed over and abused by their own Prime Minister

Privilege

10:25 a.m.

Glengarry—Prescott—Russell
Ontario

Liberal

Don Boudria Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, of course there is no question of privilege here this morning, as the Chair no doubt has already recognized or, I suspect, as he is about to.

There has been some discussion here as to whether or not the speaker should recognize an emergency debate under Standing Order 52.

I will acknowledge that it was raised. I certainly do not want to contribute to that process because that is the Speaker's decision and only the Speaker's decision. I recognize the Speaker will do that with the usual wisdom.

Whether one likes or dislikes a report tabled in the House does not constitute privilege. That is not the case. Whether someone receives the budget and he or she wants to do his or her function is not a matter of privilege.

The member from Central Nova said that certain government departments sought legal counsel when there was a difficulty or a challenge to the interpretation of law. Surely the learned member of the House should not be offended by the fact that people seek legal counsel in the interpretation of laws. It is certainly not a question of privilege. I do not see how anyone could even take that allegation seriously.

The House leader for the official opposition said that the access commissioner did not provide sufficient access to his own document. That may be interesting as a point but the government does not distribute the copies of the access to information commissioner's document. My own colleagues were trying to get copies of this yesterday and could not get it either.

I was reminded by members across the way that this is an independent officer of the House. Surely the independent officer of the House is not going to be dictated to the government as to how many copies to bring along. That is something to be discussed between the Speaker and the independent officer in question, whether it is the auditor general, who will table documents later today, or whether it is the privacy commissioner or whether it is some other independent officer.

When independent officers who report to parliament do not provide sufficient copies of their documents, the Chair will discuss that with that independent office. It is not something that the government is in any way responsible for or otherwise. The mere allegation of that is bordering on the preposterous.

I know someone raised and was quite nervous about the fact that the Prime Minister made excellent cabinet appointments this morning. That nervousness was duly noted. I will not comment on it further other than restating that I do not believe a question of privilege has been raised today with the Chair.

Privilege

10:30 a.m.

The Deputy Speaker

I do not know how much longer the Chair needs to hear members on this point. I must say the Chair has heard enough to take the matter under advisement at this time. I will allow brief comments from the three members who rose.