House of Commons Hansard #117 of the 39th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was chair.

Topics

Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics
Points of Order

June 20th, 2008 / 10 a.m.

Prince George—Peace River
B.C.

Conservative

Jay Hill Secretary of State and Chief Government Whip

Mr. Speaker, I rise today on a point of order that is extremely serious. It concerns a matter that occurred at the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.

The chairman made a ruling that I submit violates the Standing Orders, violates the practices of the House and its committees, and violates the spirit of your ruling, Mr. Speaker, of March 14, 2008.

The motion that was proposed to the committee was as follows:

That the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics investigate the actions of the Conservative Party during the 2006 election, in relation to which Elections Canada has refused to reimburse Conservative candidates for certain election campaign expenses in order to determine if these actions meet the ethical standards expected of public office holders;....

The government argued that this study was outside the mandate of that committee. It was argued that the proper committee for such a study was the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. The mandate of the procedure and House affairs committee is outlined in Standing Order 108(3)(a)(vi). It states that the mandate includes “the review of and report on all matters relating to the election of Members to the House of Commons”.

The chairman ignored the Standing Orders and ruled the motion in order. This same chairman, supported by the same opposition majority on that committee, already had one report rejected by the Speaker because it was outside the mandate of the committee, and now they are doing it again.

As you are aware, Mr. Speaker, the position of the Conservative Party in this matter is sound. If there is to be an investigation, that investigation ought to be fair and include all parties. This is a reasonable position. Apart from the issue of the mandate of the committee, we have no qualms with an investigation. We just think that if a study is to be conducted, then that study should include all parties, and not just one. If the opposition has nothing to hide, then it ought to agree with our position.

In addition to ruling the motion in order, the chairman yesterday arbitrarily decided during debate on the motion that he had heard enough and refused to recognize members who were seeking the floor on debate.

Standing Order 116 states:

In a standing, special or legislative committee, the Standing Orders shall apply so far as may be applicable, except the Standing Orders as to the...number of times of speaking and the length of speeches.

The chairman of the ethics committee has no authority to cut off debate. By overriding Standing Order 116, the chairman went beyond the powers conferred upon him by the House.

Mr. Speaker, you made the exact same argument when you ruled a report signed by this same chairman out of order because the committee went beyond the powers conferred upon it by the House.

During the debate on the motion, the chairman interrupted the debate and made the following statement:

“Let's just take a moment here. We have had over 10 hours of debate on these motions, and it has deteriorated into procedural wrangling, points of order which are not points of order, repetition in the extreme, irrelevance on dealing with the matter before us. We could carry on like this just as the procedure and House affairs committee went for a very long time. I'm not sure that's in the best interest of this committee. I'm not sure whether I want to be part of where the members are going to continue to be, put in this position where we are spinning our wheels.

Accordingly, I'm going to rule that we are going to put all the questions necessary to dispose of the matter before us now”.

Mr. Speaker, this decision was upheld by the committee. This must sound familiar to you. This trick has been used twice in the past, a trick that resulted in the chairmen in both cases offering their resignations. The chairman in question in this incident has not offered his resignation.

On March 21, 1990, a Liberal member raised a question of privilege concerning a similar matter that arose at the Standing Committee on Finance. At that time, the bill to implement the GST was before the committee. The chairman, like the chairman of the ethics committee, shut down debate and put the question.

Liberal members argued at that time that the chairman had no authority to disallow points of order; that the chairman had no authority to disallow debate on what was clearly a debatable motion.

The opposition in 1990 referred to an incident in 1984 when Claude-André Lachance, as chairman of the justice committee, brought down the exact same decision as the chairman of the finance committee did in 1990 and the chairman of the ethics committee did yesterday. The circumstances were exact.

In 1984, Mr. Lachance offered his resignation. In 1990, Mr. Blenkarn, then chairman of the finance committee, did the same. I await the offer of resignation from the current chairman of the ethics committee.

On March 21, 1990, John Rodriguez, an NDP member, said the following with respect to this matter:

--the majority, may not have liked the fact that we were waging a filibuster. They may not have liked that. But, the fact was that we were not doing anything that was outside the parameters of the law. The law of the Standing Orders of the committee provided for that. We did not violate a law. We were simply conducting ourselves within the law.

The NDP members could have taken the same ethical position on this issue today, but they chose not to. Instead, they are supporting the tyrannical actions of the chairman of the ethics committee yesterday.

You, Mr. Speaker, were involved in that debate as well. On page 9603 of Hansard, you said that the chairman of the finance committee in 1990 “had the honour to resign”. Where is the honour today? The ethical standards of the opposition in this Parliament are well below grade.

While Speaker Fraser did not intervene in 1990, he did say that “committees are responsible for adhering to the normal procedural means and are expected not to behave in an arbitrary manner”.

What is different in this Parliament is that you, Mr. Speaker, have determined that committees are already heading toward anarchy, and since your warning of March 14, the ethics committee has ignored your warning. It tabled an illegal report that was ruled out of order. It is heading down the same path again and has also deployed behaviour that, by 1990 and 1984 standards, resulted in the chairmen both times offering their resignations.

In your March 14 ruling, you quoted Bourinot and how he described the first principle of our parliamentary tradition as:

To protect the minority and restrain the improvidence and tyranny of the majority, to secure the transaction of public business in a decent and orderly manner....

What took place at the ethics committee yesterday was a clear case of the tyranny of the majority trampling upon the rights of the minority. There are two sides to every story and the majority opposition has silenced one side.

On April 14, 1987, Speaker Fraser said:

It is essential to our democratic system that controversial issues should be debated at reasonable length so that every reasonable opportunity shall be available to hear the arguments pro and con and that reasonable delaying tactics should be permissible to enable opponents of a measure to enlist public support for their point of view.

If it is essential to our democracy that both sides should be heard, then it is then essential that you, Mr. Speaker, intervene in this matter and prevent the ethics committee from conducting this one-sided partisan study until you have ruled. This is the only way that some protection can be afforded to innocent people whose reputation may get damaged in this process. They cannot afford to wait for a report to come down before you intervene, because by then the damage is done.

The opposition on the ethics committee knows that its report will once again be ruled out of order, but that is not the point. Its objective is to tarnish reputations, hiding behind the immunity of parliamentary privilege. The majority opposition cannot be allowed to abuse the rules to protect themselves and at the same time override those rules that protect the minority.

Mr. Speaker, I ask for your assistance in this matter.

Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics
Points of Order

10:10 a.m.

Liberal

Marlene Jennings Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, QC

Mr. Speaker, while I am not a member of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, I do know that the chair is not present today. I would hope that before the Speaker makes a ruling on the point that has been raised by the government whip, the Speaker would afford the chair an opportunity to address the point that has been raised here.

Second, in the absence of a report, the Speaker might feel it premature to issue a ruling, because one can only speculate as to what the report would deal with. It is quite possible that the Speaker would deem in fact that the report is in order and may be received and properly tabled in the House.

It is only the content of the report which would allow such a ruling, so I would ask the Speaker to allow the chair of the committee an opportunity to address this point of order. It is his ruling on the motion. The chair of that committee ruled the motion in order. It is that ruling which the government whip is contesting, so I would think it appropriate to allow the chair to address that issue here in the House.

As I said, the Speaker may feel it premature to make a ruling when there is no report before the House.

Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics
Points of Order

10:10 a.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Peter Milliken

The hon. member for Saint-Bruno—Saint-Hubert rising on the same point.

Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics
Points of Order

10:10 a.m.

Bloc

Carole Lavallée Saint-Bruno—Saint-Hubert, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am a member of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, and I am one of the few members who was there during the Conservative members' 10-hour marathon.

We had five meetings on the issue, including one that ended at 11:30 p.m. The Conservative members constantly had to be reminded that they were repeating themselves, that their arguments were repetitive and that they had already said the same things or that the things they were saying were not relevant.

They tried to bring up a number of things that had nothing to do with the subject at hand: the ethical practices of the Conservative Party during the last election, which resulted in Elections Canada and the RCMP carrying out a search warrant. They made endless accusations and false claims about the other parties, and each time, they were called to order. The committee chair did an excellent job; he was very patient.

Mr. Speaker, I know that you often have rough question periods here, in this House. But what happened in the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics was nothing compared to Wednesday afternoon question periods, if I may say so.

Conservative Party members were especially insulting and contemptuous towards the chair, to the point where the chair himself asked one of the said members to apologize, which the member refused to do. Insults and contempt are the result when arguments run out. When someone has nothing to say and has no more arguments to make, things start to go downhill.

And so, yesterday, at the beginning of committee, I felt I had to make a point. I made a list of the Conservative Party's arguments, as well as a list of my arguments and those of the other parties. And at the start of the meeting yesterday, I listed all of the points that had already been raised.

I did that because there is a rotating membership. Members are invited, and that is fine. I have nothing against members coming to replace others who are permanent members of this committee. They come, but they do not find out what has already been said.

After 10 hours of debate, 10 hours of endless rhetoric, 10 hours of hot air, 10 hours of contempt and occasional insults, we had to make a decision, and the committee chair made a very good one.

In my opinion, Mr. Speaker, this committee should be allowed to continue its work. And when we table our report in this House, I imagine that you will rule on the pertinence of the report, as that is your role. And I have no doubt that you will find this report pertinent because we are concentrating on the ethical practices of public office holders in the Conservative Party during the 2006 election.

Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics
Points of Order

10:15 a.m.

Bloc

Pierre Paquette Joliette, QC

Mr. Speaker, the hon. member for Saint-Bruno—Saint-Hubert presented arguments about what went on at the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.

I would like to remind you, however, that in House of Commons Procedure and Practice, also known as Marleau and Montpetit, in chapter 13 entitled “Rules of Order and Decorum”, in the section on repetition and relevance, it states: “The rule against repetition can be invoked by the Speaker to prevent a Member from repeating arguments already made in the debate by other Members or the same Member.” That is on page 527.

With respect to relevance, it also states on page 530 that: “The Chair can use the rule to curtail prolonged debate by limiting Members’ speeches to points which have not already been made.”

Thus, the relevance of comments and repetition are factors that would allow a committee chair to put an end to a debate if all the arguments have been put forward one way or another by one or more committee members.

In my opinion, the decision made by the Chair of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics was perfectly compliant. If only other committee chairs—particularly those from the governing party—used existing provisions to help committee work move forward. This applies to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, and the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development over the past few weeks and months.

That is why the Chair of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics should not be criticized for having made that decision.

I would also like to point out that the committee had quorum and that the rules for quorum were followed. This committee deals with ethics, and it is not a stretch to suggest that the so-called “in and out” file has a lot to do with ethics issues. That is why it seems to me that the committee and its members should have the opportunity, as is customary, to decide what they want to work on.

Given that all of the rules were followed, it seems to me that the Speaker will not want to allow the point of order raised by the Secretary of State and Chief Government Whip.

In closing, I just want to say that the rules of procedure that guide you, Mr. Speaker, and that ought to guide the rest of us, should be followed. The Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics followed the rules.

Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics
Points of Order

10:15 a.m.

NDP

Charlie Angus Timmins—James Bay, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am not surprised that the Conservative House leader has brought forward this pernicious motion today because it speaks to one of the fundamental dysfunctions of what has happened in this Parliament.

I sat on the procedure and House affairs committee for a period and I must say that I have never in my entire life sat in a more malignant and toxic environment than what was allowed to happen at that committee under the Conservative chair from Cambridge. He was often unilateral in cutting off microphones, cutting off debate and interfering with members whenever it suited him. However, when it came to irrelevant filibustering, obstructionism and a completely poisonous atmosphere by the Conservative members he turned it into a mockery.

What the Conservative Party is doing here is basically shutting down all the areas of committees where we are doing necessary work because it wants to control this Parliament from the BlackBerries and the war rooms of the PMO.

We are parliamentarians and we need to protect the right of the committees and the members of Parliament to undertake investigations, regardless of whether the little pointy heads in the war room want to reduce it down to black and white, one syllable or one slogan issues.

What we saw at the procedure and House affairs committee was an absolute disgrace. It was hour after hour, day after day, month after month of interfering and shutting down the work of Parliament. This committee is a very important committee.

The ethics committee is another committee that plays an important role in Parliament. We were attempting to examine at the procedure and House affairs committee the question of the potential illegality of the Conservatives election financing scheme. It is an ethical issue that should have been and could have been debated in the procedure and House affairs committee and yet the Conservatives took over that committee and ran it into the ground.

When the chair of the committee, the member for Cambridge, lost the confidence of the committee and the Conservatives brought in the member for Elgin—Middlesex—London, he refused to sit as the chair because he said that he did not know how. We are professionals here. We are here to do the legislative business of the country.

What we see is an undermining of the fundamental confidence of Parliament.

I appeal at this point on the issue of allowing the ethics committee to do its work and not be undermined by the continual filibustering and game playing by a party that is now attempting to portray itself as somehow a wounded minority.

The member said that there was a tradition of allowing reasonable length and delay tactics. Certainly, reasonable delaying tactics is a fundamental tool. However, when we see an entire committee shut down for an entire parliamentary session, that does not meet the test of reasonableness by any standard of imagination.

Mr. Speaker, if you were to look at the record of the ethics committee, I think you would see that the chair, who is well-respected, acted properly. The record will show the poisonous and pathetic game playing that went on. The chair made a ruling, not on partisan grounds, but on the fundamental issue of parliamentarians being able to do their work.

Mr. Speaker, when you rule on this, as you most certainly will do in a very judicious manner, you will be cognizant of the fundamental issue here. Is this a pattern of obstructionism and contempt for Parliament or is the committee actually trying to do the work of Parliament? That is where the decision needs to come down.

Mr. Speaker, if you look at the record from the ethics committee, you will clearly see that reasonable delaying lengths and reasonable debate were allowed, even when it was extended into contempt and interference. It went on for a fairly long period of time. Mr. Speaker, you have always recognized that committees are the masters of their own house. The chair had to make a ruling that it was time to move on.

I think what we are seeing from the Conservatives is that they are simply trying to walk the clock down on Parliament by throwing more interference into the work of Parliament. Mr. Speaker, I appeal to you to basically throw this out.

Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics
Points of Order

10:20 a.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Peter Milliken

I am reluctant to hear a lot more arguments on this point because I have a question of privilege arising out of the same proceedings.

We will go to the hon. member for Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington.

Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics
Points of Order

10:20 a.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, ON

Mr. Speaker, the member for Timmins—James Bay made a couple of incorrect statements. He incorrectly made an assertion about the conduct of the member for Cambridge in his chairmanship of the procedure and House affairs committee. Happily, the committee evidence will reflect and demonstrate that his assertion about the arbitrary nature of the decisions made by the chair was actually incorrect.

I would also note that his suggestion that if there are problems on one committee that justifies a suspension of the rules on another committee is clearly nonsense. It reminds me a bit of the ad where the football referee says, “I made a wrong call against team A, but don't worry, in the next half I am going to make an equally egregious call against team B and things will even themselves out”. That is now how we work here.

I do agree with something that the Liberal deputy whip said in her comments. She said that since the chair of the ethics committee is not here today to respond that it would be inappropriate for you, Mr. Speaker, to rush to a decision today. There is some wisdom in that. It seems to me that it would be appropriate to take your time and make a decision in the appropriate manner. It would be appropriate in particular to take your time and deal with this because we do not want to have a situation in which the chair of that committee makes further decisions that are abusive toward the rules by which we govern ourselves here and that put this institution into disrepute.

Therefore, a decision as to whether the chair acted in a manner that is so egregious that he ought to resign is something that can wait until the House returns this autumn. However, I think you ought to take the pre-emptive measure of ensuring that the committee does not sit this summer and continue to engage, potentially, in abusive behaviour unchecked and uncontrolled over an entire summer.

In saying that, Mr. Speaker, I would draw your attention to something that, unless it is simply untrue, though there is committee evidence that will demonstrate it, is clearly an abuse of his position, and that is in not allowing members of Parliament on the Speakers' list to rise to speak and calling a question when other members have not yet been heard from. There is no excuse one can dream up.

One cannot say that the members were being repetitive. One can argue that an individual member can be cut off for being repetitive, even for repeating a point made by another member, but how could someone not yet on the speaker's list know that unless he has some sort of telepathic power that the rest of us in the House are not bestowed with? It seems to me that that kind of abuse this summer would be a very dangerous thing.

Mr. Speaker, I want to draw your attention to the fact that this matter that has been before the procedure and House affairs committee, which was the proper committee for it, as long ago as last August has been the source of the acrimony, partisanship and poison, which I think was a word used by my colleague from Timmins—James Bay, is the source of the problem. It is not, as he suggests, the moral inferiority of one of the parties in the House.

To allow a highly partisan subject to be discussed over the summer under the chairmanship of a chair who we are asserting has acted in a manner that is wildly outside the allowable role of a chair, is a very dangerous thing. The fact that the member has absented himself and is not here today is no reason why he, therefore, ought to be given free rein over the summer to do what he will in his role as chair on a highly partisan matter where every vote, whether in this committee or the previous committee, was taken entirely on partisan lines. Chairs were challenged regularly and challenges were pre-emptory.

An examination of the record for the procedure and House affairs committee shows speakers were regularly cut off, interrupted by each other and points of order were called on each other. On this kind of subject matter, it seems to me that over the summer it could do a lot of damage to the credibility of our institution.

Mr. Speaker, I also would draw your attention to the fact that as long ago as last September, I made an argument before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs that in discussing this matter at all we were violating the sub judice convention in which matters that are before the courts ought not to be dealt with in parliamentary committees because we are simply not set up to be effective institutions for making decisions as to the guilt or lack of guilt of any party in a court proceeding and it could taint court proceedings.

Therefore, to have a parliamentary committee, under the chairmanship of someone who is clearly willing to violate the rules egregiously over an entire summer, with no recourse to shutting it down or stopping it, or limiting the damage that it can do in a matter that is before the courts, which is highly partisan and very charged, seems to me is a recipe for the kind of disaster that would seriously put this institution into disrepute.

Finally, Mr. Speaker, I want to draw to your attention a very important rule of this place.

Committee chairs are given powers, but they are given no more power than the Speaker has in the House of Commons. We have had a chair who has asserted, effectively, that he has powers that exceed those of the Speaker of the House of Commons and that it is okay for him to do things that are not permitted in this place.

If we allow him to continue to carry on in this manner over an entire summer, as he engages in a court of star chamber, we set the precedent that it is okay to do that, not only in other committees, but in this place. We should all ask ourselves if we really want to unilaterally rewrite the rules so the minorities can be shut down, so free speech can be cut off and so dissent can be destroyed? Is that really what we want to do in this place?

This is the reason we do not want to have this committee sit this summer. This is why we want to ensure that you have the time to make your ruling, Mr. Speaker, so the committee can conduct its business appropriately in the autumn after the House returns.

Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics
Points of Order

10:30 a.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Peter Milliken

I have a question for the member for Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington. Has he any precedent for the Speaker shutting down a committee? I am unaware of one. I would be interested if he has a precedent for that, which would assist the Chair in making a decision of that kind in the circumstances.

Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics
Points of Order

10:30 a.m.

NDP

Peter Julian Burnaby—New Westminster, BC

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to speak on this point of order raised by the House leader from the Conservative Party.

Having lived through on the opposite side of exactly what the House leader is now complaining about today, I can tell you, Mr. Speaker, that the precedent you have set, given the guidelines in Marleau and Montpetit and given the guidelines in parliament precedence, are very clear. You have said that committees have the responsibility of maintaining their own decorum, that it is something that is incumbent on the chair of the committee to do.

Marleau and Montpetit and parliamentary precedence is very clear on this. When we look at page 827 of Marleau and Montpetit, it says very clearly that the chair is responsible for maintaining order in committee proceedings. It is a very clear precedent and a very clear mandate.

It refers to the right to speak. On page 857 of the English version, Marleau and Montpetit clearly states:

Members must be recognized by the Chair before speaking. On occasion, committees place strict limits on the amount of time during which a given item will be considered.

It is in black and white in Marleau and Montpetit. Now, we must examine what happened.

I am a long-time member of the Standing Committee on International Trade. You are aware, Mr. Speaker, as I am of what transpired in the fall of 2006. In 2006 the chair of the Standing Committee on International Trade simply stopped allowing the interventions of the NDP to revise and take out the most egregious aspects of the softwood lumber agreement. The chair, working with members of the committee, agreed to first limit the interventions that we could make on the many amendments we brought to that most egregious agreement, something that has cost 10,000 jobs, but that is not relevant to this point of order. However, we brought forward 100 amendments and the committee chair, with the majority of the committee, then decided to limit speaking time to three minutes on any one of those amendments.

Later on, the same committee chair, the Conservative committee chair, working with the support of other opposition parties in that committee, limited the time of debate to one minute. Further on, on these same amendments, which were designed to stop the almost certain hemorrhage of jobs that we foresaw through the softwood lumber agreement, the debate was limited to 30 seconds. Then finally the Conservative committee chair said that there would be no debate on amendments, no debate on the actual implications of each and every clause, clause by clause, of the softwood lumber agreement and the amendments to the softwood lumber agreement were adopted with no debate, not one second of debate. There were no points of order allowed and no opportunity to raise our concerns.

As you are well aware, Mr. Speaker, having gone through that process where Conservatives decided that an agreement and a bill, which had substantial and profound consequences for people in softwood communities from coast to coast to coast, from northern Quebec to northern Ontario to northern Manitoba to northern Saskatchewan to northern Alberta and throughout British Columbia, the Conservative chair decided there would be no debate whatsoever.

As you are well aware, Mr. Speaker, I brought and the NDP caucus brought forward our concerns that we were adopting legislation that had not been vetted appropriately, where there had not been discussion over the clauses of the bill, no discussion whatsoever on the amendments that would make a difference and save jobs and no witnesses called at that point to talk about the various aspects of the bill.

Therefore, the precedent was very clear. We brought this forward to you, Mr. Speaker. We raised our concerns and you, referring back to Marleau and Montpetit, and obviously I believe you have been consistent in your rulings, and in this case there is very clear consistency in this previous ruling, you ruled that the committee chair was right to do that, that the committee as a whole had the ability to not only curtail debate, but eliminate debate, that a majority of the committee could simply say no, that there would be no debate whatsoever.

We come back to this issue because in this committee case there was very clearly, and we had a comment from the member from the Bloc Québécois who participated in the ethics committee, profound, widespread, ongoing debate, debate that continued on and on. Then finally the chair of that committee faced countless points of order. We are not talking about substantial interventions like the NDP offered on the softwood lumber agreement, where there were real amendments that would have made a difference in changing the agreement and stopping the hemorrhage of jobs. We are talking about, from the transcripts, spurious points of order that were raised.

Yet for the Conservatives now to say that the committee majority of other parties and the committee chair were doing something untoward when they had practised it themselves consistently, simply defies imagination.

I know we will move forward on Bill C-5 and debate time has been allocated to that this morning. However, it is important to point out that the House leader is one of the people who may be brought forward at the ethics committee. For him to raise it as a point of order is inappropriate.

The ethics committee is seeking to examine those individuals and riding associations that have been tied to the in and out scandal and seeking to follow up on Elections Canada's very legitimate concerns around certain ridings and certain candidates, all of whom are Conservatives. Elections Canada is not in the process of looking at other candidates, but it certainly does that on an ongoing basis.

It seems inappropriate to me that members of the House, who may be called before the ethics committee, are now trying to essentially beseech you, Mr. Speaker, to not have the ethics committee call those members before it and testify on their involvement in the in and out scandal.

Those are the points I wanted to raise in addition to those that have been raised by my colleague from Timmins—James Bay.

Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics
Points of Order

10:35 a.m.

Conservative

James Rajotte Edmonton—Leduc, AB

Mr. Speaker, I feel compelled to add some comments on this point of order. I did observe some of the goings on at the ethics committee. I want to add my perspective as the chair of the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, a committee which I feel functions very well.

First, committees are masters of themselves, and I certainly know that as a chair, but chairs must follow the rules of Parliament. I, as the chair of the industry committee, cannot arbitrarily determine things. I have to follow a set of rules. I have a very capable clerk who advises me as to what those rules are and procedurally, whether motions are in order.

In my view, what has happened in this situation is the rules have not been followed. The fundamental right of members of Parliament to speak, the fundamental right of freedom of speech, was not followed in this instance. Mr. Speaker, I refer you to page 71 of Marleau and Montpetit which states:

By far, the most important right accorded to Members of the House is the exercise of freedom of speech in parliamentary proceedings.

As you know, Mr. Speaker, the House and committees can allocate time to the length of speeches, but that was not done in this case. There was no such motion put forward and passed at the committee, which allocated the length of time members could speak. As the member for Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington pointed out, the fact is when we call relevance on a speaker, we have to hear the speaker before relevance is called. A chair must recognize a member to speak.

I want to refer, especially members of the Bloc Québécois, to a bill that was before our committee before prorogation, Bill C-47. Three of the parties wanted the bill passed very quickly, but the Bloc Québécois did not. I had three parties telling me quite loudly that I should cut the member off, get to the point, that they wanted to pass the bill, but I did not. Even though I did not share the same party as the member, I allowed the member to speak because it was his right to do so. It was the fundamental right of free speech to speak on that issue. He was filibustering, but that was his right and I as the chair recognized that. I checked with the impartial clerk provided by the House of Commons. He told me that I might not like it as the chair, that other members may not like it, that other parties may not like it, but the member had the right to speak. That is what members should realize, especially in a minority government situation.

There will always be different dynamics at committee. Sometimes the Bloc will want the right to speak. Sometimes it will be the Liberals, or the Conservatives or the NDP. That is why we have rules. The rules were not followed in this case.

A chair must recognize a member. A chair cannot cut off debate unless it has been provided for by a vote, or closure vote or something in the House of Commons or at committee. That was not provided in this case.

I thank all members who worked very well on the industry committee. Other committees are working well. The fact is there are, and it pains me to say this, a number of committees that have become dysfunctional.

You took a very strong step in this place, Mr. Speaker, of standing in the House, as our Speaker, and admonishing us, saying that the rules at committee must be followed, that chairs could not step outside those rules. They do not have the authority to do so. You were right to stand in this place and do so.

I implore you, Mr. Speaker, to rule on this point of order and find in favour of the chief government whip. If you do not, my fear is more committees will become dysfunctional and more committees will look at things that are not substantive.

I hear members across laughing, Mr. Speaker. The Bloc Québécois can talk to members on the industry, science and technology committee about how we can focus on substantive issues.

The fact is if we get away from substantive issues and if we allow chairs to unilaterally make decisions that are not in accordance with the rules of this place, we will have more dysfunctional committees and we will have a more dysfunctional Parliament, and that is not what any of us should want in this place.

Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics
Points of Order

10:40 a.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Peter Milliken

The hon. member for Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington is rising to answer a question I asked.

Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics
Points of Order

10:40 a.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, ON

That is right, Mr. Speaker. You had asked a question at the end of my remarks. I am concerned that you may have misunderstood what I was asking you to do, or perhaps I expressed myself poorly and therefore created a situation where a misunderstanding occurred.

Mr. Speaker, I am not asking you to shut down the committee, which I think was what you understood I said. I am not asking you to make an immediate ruling, given the difficulties that are involved, including the fact that the chair of the ethics committee is not here to present his case, which does of course deserve to be presented.

I have my own feelings on whether or not he broke the rules, but that is separate from the point I was trying to make.

Without finding on either side of the point of order, I am asking you, Mr. Speaker, to accept that the disorder that you referred to earlier in March, when you talked about committees that were approaching chaos, potentially has occurred, that effectively this committee may be operating in disorder. What is appropriate for a chair to do, when a committee is in disorder, is to cause the committee meeting to be suspended so it can be reconvened in good order.

The assertion I have been making is that, effectively, this committee, by meeting this summer, may continue to operate in disorder, engaging the tyranny of the majority in what amounts to chaos because the rules are being suspended whenever they do not suit the will of the majority. That is why I used the phrase “star chamber”.

Mr. Speaker, I would like you to simply suspend the committee for the summer and then make a ruling this autumn. If you find the committee has been operating in good order and that the chair's rulings were in fact reasonable and appropriate, then the committee could carry on.

There is far less damage to be caused by holding off on those hearings until the autumn than there is in allowing them to forward if the hypothesis that I have been presenting, that the chair is operating outside the rules and ignoring the rules, is in fact the case.

I want to put forward this very important point. With regard to setting precedents, I should point out that if you allow the committee to continue to operate, if you do not suspend it, you are setting the following precedent: that it is acceptable for a committee, on the very last day of Parliament, to rush through a decision which is an abuse of the rules, even a grotesque and obvious abuse of the rules, and by ensuring that at least one or two of the players who were involved are not present to comment, effectively, makes it impossible for you or any future Speaker to make a ruling, thereby allowing the committee to have a whole summer, free to ignore all the rules of Parliament, and to engage in potentially grotesque abuses.

I do anticipate, Mr. Speaker, if you do not suspend the committee, that we can anticipate that the current chair will carry on in a manner that I regard as being a grotesque abuse of the rules, and will ensure that by the time we come back, the Conservative Party will have been found guilty by the committee of all the allegations being made.

That is the precedent that could be set. I therefore point out that you, Mr. Speaker, are really caught in a situation where you cannot avoid setting a precedent. This seems to be the more dangerous precedent.

The safer precedent would be to establish the precedent that when something happens at the last minute and, as is at least possible, is done in a coordinated fashion to ensure that no full ruling can be made, it thereby opens the door to whatever abuses might occur.

The only avenue I could see for governments in the future to deal with this sort of thing would be for the House to prorogue every summer as a way of ensuring that any minority government has a way of ensuring these abuses do not occur. Because, effectively, the precedent will have been set where, even if that is not what is happening here today or happened yesterday, that is what would be permitted in the future. I think that is a very dangerous precedent to set.

Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics
Points of Order

10:45 a.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Peter Milliken

The Chair is prepared to rule on this matter. I have heard plenty of arguments, and I am quite prepared to make a ruling and deal with this issue at this moment.

Unfortunately, the member for Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington did not come up with any precedents where Speakers had made the ruling he is asking me to make in suspending this committee from operation until a ruling is made on the point of order. However, I am having no difficulty in making a ruling on the point of order today, and I stress that the past practice in this regard is, in my view, quite clear.

I will read from Marleau and Montpetit at page 804:

Committees, as creations of the House of Commons, only possess the authority, structure and mandates that have been delegated to them by the House. These are found in the standing and special orders which the House has adopted concerning committees. The House has specified that, in relationship to standing, special or legislative committees, “the Standing Orders shall apply so far as may be applicable, except the Standing Orders as to the election of a Speaker, seconding of motions, limiting the number of times of speaking and length of speeches”.

With these exceptions, committees are bound to follow the procedures set out in the Standing Orders as well as any specific sessional or special orders that the House has issued to them. Committees are otherwise left free to organize their work. In this sense, committees are said to be “masters of their own proceedings”.

What we have in this case is a situation where the chair of the committee made a decision, which I understand was appealed to the committee and the majority of the committee upheld the chair's ruling.

It was a decision made by the committee as a group. If I have an opinion about the committee's decision, I can do nothing about it until the decision is forwarded to the House in a report. It is only in such cases that the Speaker of the House has the authority to do something about a committee. There is no other precedent in this regard.

I do not make rulings whether committees have to meet or not meet. I have no power to direct a committee to do something until its report has come here and I make a ruling on the report. I have made a ruling on one. The chief government whip, in his argument, pointed out a report that came here. I ruled the report out of order and that a motion to concur in the report would be out of order, and I chucked it. I can do that if the committee brings in a report, but it has not.

Members are asking me to decide that the decision of the chair of the committee or, alternatively, the decision of the committee itself, because there was a vote in the committee, is somehow improper, and that therefore, I can overrule it or stop it from proceeding. I do not believe that I have that power.

Indeed, no Speaker previously in any precedent that has been quoted to me has exercised that kind of power.

Accordingly, I do not believe this is a point of order. I do not believe it is well founded. I believe that it is something that has to be resolved in the committee. Committees are masters of their own procedure. They can proceed as they wish, within limits. It is when they come back to the House that they run into trouble.

I point out for the benefit of hon. members that in the old days prorogation was a standard feature at the end of a session in June and the House would start a new session in the autumn. That used to be the case all the time until the seventies when that was kind of abandoned.

Second, in the old days, committees could not sit when the House was not sitting. They were only allowed to sit when the House was sitting. Hon. members, I am sure, are familiar with the rules of the Senate, which are perhaps a little older than ours in this sense, where if the Senate has adjourned for more than a week, a committee needs the consent of the Senate in advance in order to sit during that week. A whole bunch of motions were passed in the Senate the other day permitting sittings of committees between now and next Thursday when the Senate is sitting again because it adjourned for more than a week.

Members can change the rules of the House and make impossible for the House committees to sit when we are adjourned if they want to, but we significantly expanded the powers of committees years ago. It is not for the Speaker, in my view, to sit here and decide what powers committees have.

The House itself decided to grant all kinds of powers to its committees. It may not have happened during this parliament, but the members of the House of Commons have decided in the past to act otherwise. Now we have Standing Orders adopted by the House. It is the Speaker's duty to apply these Standing Orders.

In my opinion, the Standing Orders are in place. I have nothing in front of me at this point that I can say regarding the business of this committee because there is no report upon which to base a decision.

I believe that is the end of that matter.

The hon. member for Edmonton—Sherwood Park has a question of privilege and the Chair has received notice of that. It arises out of the same committee proceedings, so I will hear his question of privilege now.

Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics
Points of Order

10:50 a.m.

Conservative

Ken Epp Edmonton—Sherwood Park, AB

Mr. Speaker, before I begin my question of privilege, I would like clarification based on the ruling that you just made. Is it then now going to be acceptable for a committee, within its own power, to establish its own mandate, its own terms of reference? I was of the opinion that it was done by the House of Commons and that individual committees do not have this power. It seems to me that your ruling might bring us to that, so I would like clarification on that.