House of Commons Hansard #107 of the 37th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was finance.

Topics

Business of the House
Oral Question Period

3:05 p.m.

NDP

Bill Blaikie Winnipeg—Transcona, MB

Mr. Speaker, I do not want to negotiate on the floor of the House. Our party had a concern with respect to the request to move the emergency debate from Thursday to Tuesday. If it is an emergency I do not know why we should not be having it tonight. We need to be careful what we ask for because we might get it. That is what we learn from these things.

We wanted to have a take note debate on the WTO. There is a big meeting of the WTO at the end of next week. Unless we can be guaranteed or unless we have agreement that we will have a take note debate on the WTO, we cannot agree to sabotage that in order to move an emergency debate from one week to another.

Business of the House
Oral Question Period

3:05 p.m.

The Speaker

Might I suggest that negotiations continue on this point. When that happens I am sure the House leaders will come back to the House with wondrous proposals.

Business of the House
The Royal Assent

3:05 p.m.

The Speaker

I have the honour to inform the House that a communication has been received as follows:

Government House

Ottawa

November 1, 2001

Mr. Speaker:

I have the honour to inform you that the Honourable Jack Major, Puisne Judge of the Supreme Court of Canada, in his capacity as Deputy Governor General, will proceed to the Senate chamber today, the 1st day of November, 2001 at 4.30 p.m. for the purpose of giving royal assent to certain bills.

Yours sincerely,

Michèle Lévesque

Deputy Secretary, Policy, Program and Protocol

Privilege
The Royal Assent

November 1st, 2001 / 3:10 p.m.

Liberal

John Bryden Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot, ON

Mr. Speaker, I realize you have important guests so I will try to be brief on my question of privilege. Opinion is divided on whether or not this is a question of privilege. I am told by some that it is and some that it is not. It is however an important matter to bring to the attention of the House as it pertains to the right or opportunity of ordinary MPs to have access to government officials.

It is something that has arisen in exceptional circumstances. We will need your decision on whether it is a question of privilege, or even has the aura of a question of privilege, to decide whether or not it should be considered.

I will remind everyone that in the House we are a company of equals. When I stand or sit at my place I am exactly equal to the Prime Minister in his place. Every colleague is equal to every other colleague, be they ministers, parliamentary secretaries, members of the opposition or otherwise.That is why all our desks are exactly the same.

That is why, I might add, Mr. Speaker, you sit in an elevated chair, not because you lord it over us but because you are our servant. You are the one who makes sure that we do act as equals in the Chamber and indeed on Parliament Hill because as members of parliament we serve the public equally. We do many things by common consent. We decide who is the government. We set up rules in the House. Everything functions in the House by common consent.

I have an instance that appears to be outside the rules of parliament. No rules exist to cover the situation that occurred to me as an individual MP. I am referring to attempts last June by a group of members of parliament to set up a special committee to examine an issue of immense public interest.

The special circumstance was that it was summer and the House was not sitting. We thought we had a deadline. We wanted to present a report before a bureaucratic task force that existed on the Access to Information Act. We thought it was very important that we do this as soon as possible during the summer months.

Part of our plan was to receive briefings from government officials. We sought out those government officials and we had a work plan. We lined them up and many of them agreed to appear before our group.

We were going to hold meetings for the record in the open on Parliament Hill with all the attention to detail of a normal standing committee. However, and this is so important, we were not a standing committee. We were a group of MPs from all sides of the House who were not part of government and who were concerned about an important public issue.

To our surprise, the government suddenly ordered the officials we had lined up not to appear before our committee. The order extended not only to the government officials that we lined up but also to officials from crown corporations. It was every official in government. We had also hoped to talk to some very junior people with respect to access to information.

The issue is not the reason why the government decided to do this. We recognize that the government has certain powers that we by common consent give to it. One of those powers is the right to determine when public officials appear before members of parliament.

What is different in this particular case is that a situation occurred where backbench members of parliament were not carrying out ordinary business. They were carrying out exceptional business, in the sense that the law we were looking at was a law that was quasi-constitutional and affected all members of parliament. Ironically there is a direct analogy with Bill C-36, the anti-terrorism legislation that is before the House because this is a piece of legislation that affects civil liberties. Consequently it affects all members of parliament.

There are situations which occur in which backbench members of parliament or ordinary members of parliament, if you will, might find an absolute necessity to receive briefings from government officials. This is not trivial. It is not as though this was just a casual incident where a group of MPs wanted a briefing from government officials. I think we would all agree that the government would be correct in determining when and where it was appropriate to do this. This was an exceptional circumstance. The government said no and the officials were unable to come.

Mr. Speaker, the guidance I seek from you is that I think there are exceptional circumstances where members of parliament are acting in the most absolute interest of the public, in which the government needs some guidance from parliament, some guidance where it recognizes there are exceptional instances where there should be some sort of mechanism whereby the MPs who are seeking these briefings from officials, briefings in public I might add, can go to perhaps you, Mr. Speaker and say “Mr. Speaker, this is an exceptional circumstance. Will you advise the government on whether this is an appropriate request?”

Mr. Speaker, what I am asking is if you feel that I as an individual have had my work compromised as a result of this decision of the government.

I have before me the report of this committee of MPs who were studying the Access to Information Act which was presented to the public today. It is entitled “A Call for Openness”. It is an excellent effort on the part of backbench MPs to examine a very important issue. Mr. Speaker, I regret to tell you that although I think it is an excellent report, it is less than what it could have been because we were unable to receive briefings from public officials whom we had asked to appear and had no opportunity to question them.

It seems to me that this strikes to the very heart of the privileges of a member of parliament. Whether we are prime minister or backbench MP, when we set out to examine a policy issue that is in the deep public interest, we must have access to the officials whom we need to have access to. It cannot be left absolutely to the government to decide that issue. I am not saying that on a day to day rhythm of things that the government should not have this say, but there are exceptional instances and I believe this report “A Call for Openness” is an exceptional instance.

This report contains 11 recommendations. It is a clarion call for more transparency on the part of government. I have to say that it is a unanimous report by 12 backbench MPs covering most of the major parties. The contribution was entirely non-partisan. I want to particularly mention the Bloc MPs, the member for Saint-Jean and the member for Kamouraska--Rivière-du-Loup--Témiscouata--Les Basques, who made a particular contribution that we all applauded. So, Mr. Speaker, I do not want you to think that this was not an entirely joint effort.

I do not know what the answer is. I think the government acted the way it thought it should act. I think it was perhaps afraid that if backbench MPs can call government officials, that this might happen all the time. I can assure you, Mr. Speaker, it would happen only rarely. I think every one of us on the committee still believes in partisan politics. We were no less members of our parties because we were acting in a non-partisan way. It was a very fine example of the kind of co-operation that can occur in the House.

Consequently, Mr. Speaker, I would ask you to consider my remarks. What I would like to do is that if you feel that there is a prima facie case for a breach of privilege here, I would like to suggest that I would move a motion that the matter be referred to the appropriate committee of the House to give guidelines to the government on how to deal with these very exceptional instances where backbench MPs might feel they have to gather in a non-partisan manner, and I mean non-government MPs, to consider a major issue. Mr. Speaker, I do thank you.

Privilege
The Royal Assent

3:20 p.m.

Halifax West
Nova Scotia

Liberal

Geoff Regan Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, I have listened with interest to the remarks of the hon. member for Ancaster--Dundas--Flamborough--Aldershot. He seems to recognize this is not a question of privilege. On that point I must agree with him.

Mr. Speaker, I refer to page 71 of Marleau and Montpetit where it states:

The rights, privileges and immunities of individual Members of the House are finite, that is to say, they can be enumerated but not extended except by statute or, in some cases, by constitutional amendment, and can be examined by the courts. Moreover, privilege does not exist “at large” but applies only in context, which usually means within the confines of the parliamentary precinct and a “proceeding in Parliament”.

Those are the key words because the group about which my hon. colleague has spoken was not a committee of the House. That is the essential important point and therefore no parliamentary privilege is involved in this case.

Privilege is strictly ancillary in nature. Members of parliament do not have any privileges per se except insofar as it relates to parliamentary proceedings which this was not.

The hon. member claims that the government denied him briefings. This is not accurate. In fact he was told that officials would be available to brief these members of parliament in private. However, I understand the member insisted that it would have to be in public, that is, that the meetings were going to be held in public.

A public meeting is not a briefing and the hon. member was told that. I want to read from a letter that was sent by the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons to the hon. member on August 9. It has an introduction and then it goes on:

My colleagues and I must, however, repeat the view, which we have maintained for two months, that officials should not meet with your group, which, although meeting in public, is not a committee of the House of Commons and, therefore, cannot offer persons who meet with it any of the protections offered by the rules, privileges and immunities of the House. In addition, as we have stated previously, there are cases now in litigation that could be affected by such proceedings.

I should also point out that the same officials who you would seek to have appear before your group are, in the course of their duties, participating in the work of the Task Force on Access to Information announced by the responsible Ministers. We would not want their contributions to the Task Force to be compromised in any way by any confusion or misunderstanding that could well arise from anything they may say to your group, which may, of course, be interpreted wrongly or taken out of context, especially by the media.

It is important to note that, once the Task Force has reported and the Government has developed policies based on the report, Parliament and its Members will have a complete opportunity to examine the matter before such policies are put in place. At that time, the appropriate Standing Committee of the House of Commons will be fully empowered to study those proposed policies, whether in the course of considering proposed legislation or through undertaking a study pursuant to Standing Order 108. In those circumstances, Ministers and officials would, naturally, co-operate fully with the Standing Committee.

It is our view that the review of the Access to Information legislation in an ad hoc fashion would be incomplete and unsatisfactory. This very important task ought to be undertaken in an orderly and rational process, fully regulated by the rules of Parliament, and it is our intention to proceed in this manner.

Another letter was sent to the hon. member on August 17 providing information with regard to the question of cabinet confidences, the application of solicitor-client privilege and so forth and enclosing background documentation on cabinet confidences.

Mr. Speaker has previously insisted numerous times that questions of privilege, if this were one which it clearly is not, must be raised at the earliest opportunity. It is clear that has not happened here, Mr. Speaker, and I would ask you to rule in that regard. I have numerous other references from Marleau and Montpetit that I could refer to but I understand you are pressed for time and I now conclude.

Privilege
The Royal Assent

3:25 p.m.

The Speaker

The Chair wants to thank the hon. parliamentary secretary to the government House leader for his remarks and the hon. member for Ancaster--Dundas--Flamborough--Aldershot for raising this matter.

I am inclined to say that the matter was raised at the earliest possible time, given the hon. member deliberately waited until his report was ready so that as it were, his question of privilege had grown into full blossom by the time he brought it to the attention of the House.

Having raised the question and suggested that it was a question of privilege, I have to say that in my view the matter is not a question of privilege.

The member who raised this issue is an experienced member. I think he is well aware that members do have certain privileges but I do not believe that any one of us has the right to call before us a government official and insist on answers to questions. That is in effect what he is saying because by his own admission in the course of his remarks, he stated that the committee that he was chairing was an ad hoc caucus of members. It clearly was not a committee of this House. Had he wished to have a committee in place, he could have introduced a motion under private members' business to establish a committee for the very purpose of studying the materials and issues that his ad hoc group in fact studied.

Had he done so, I have no doubt that the motion establishing the committee would have empowered the committee in accordance with Standing Order 108(1) to send for persons, papers and records. That great power that our committees have would have enabled his committee to summon these officials, whether or not the government House leader said they were to appear, because had they failed to appear, the committee could have reported the matter to the House. Of course the House could then have summoned the individuals to appear at the bar of the House for chastisement for a contempt of parliament.

Privilege
The Royal Assent

3:25 p.m.

An hon. member

Caning.

Privilege
The Royal Assent

3:25 p.m.

The Speaker

An hon. member suggests caning but that has not been in our lexicon of punishments. However, there is the fact that people can be called to the bar of the House and chastised for contempt.

Of course the ad hoc group had no such powers and so it was perfectly legitimate in my opinion for some to say, “No, you may not appear”, and for people to refuse to appear either on instructions or because they themselves chose not to appear, because the ad hoc group had no power to compel attendance.

In the circumstances, I am unable to find there was any breach of the hon. member's privileges. I would urge him in future to look to the other options that are available to him and to all hon. members in asserting their claims, by going through the proper channel of a parliamentary committee with all the wondrous powers that each of those committees enjoys.

Privilege
The Royal Assent

3:25 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Grant McNally Dewdney—Alouette, BC

Mr. Speaker, I will be very brief. Obviously there is a conflict among government members on this particular issue. You have ruled, Mr. Speaker. We acknowledge and accept that ruling. I am wondering if there might be a way to compromise in good faith among members of all parties.

I was a member of the ad hoc committee. We did good work together. The member for Ancaster--Dundas--Flamborough--Aldershot did a good job.

I am wondering if we might be able to receive this report in a formal way and have it tabled here. I would ask for consent that we be allowed to do that because there are many good recommendations that we came up with as a committee.

Privilege
The Royal Assent

3:25 p.m.

The Speaker

The hon. member has asked for consent to table the report of this group. Is there unanimous consent?

Privilege
The Royal Assent

3:25 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Privilege
The Royal Assent

3:25 p.m.

Some hon. members

No.

Business of the House
The Royal Assent

3:25 p.m.

Glengarry—Prescott—Russell
Ontario

Liberal

Don Boudria Minister of State and Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of order. Pursuant to your excellent advice, there have been further consultations among House leaders on issues that were before the House earlier this day. I believe if you were to seek it, you would find unanimous consent for the following. I move:

That, the emergency debate ordered for later this day be deferred until Tuesday, November 6, provided that during the said debate, the Chair shall not receive any dilatory motions, quorum calls or requests for unanimous consent, and when no member rises to speak, the House shall adjourn until the next sitting day; and

That, pursuant to Standing Order 53.1 a debate shall be held at the conclusion of government orders on Monday November 5 to consider a motion that this House take note of the upcoming WTO meeting in Doha, Qatar.

Business of the House
The Royal Assent

3:30 p.m.

The Speaker

Does the hon. government House leader have the unanimous consent of the House to propose the motion?

Business of the House
The Royal Assent

3:30 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.