My colleagues, I am now ready to rule on the question of privilege raised by the hon. member for Red Deer on November 15, 1994 concerning media disclosure of portions of the content of the report of the Special Joint Committee Reviewing Canada's Foreign Policy prior to the report's presentation to the House.
I would like to thank the hon. member for bringing this matter to the attention of the House and the hon. member for Kingston and the Islands for his intervention.
I wish to state at the outset that I view such matters very seriously, and I expect all members to do the same. The work of committees is very important and can only be successful if members can function knowing that their deliberations in the preparation of their reports can be kept confidential until presented in the House. All those involved in committee activity must know that they, along with the members of the committee, bear the responsibility to ensure that such committee matters are kept confidential.
If our parliamentary system is to work efficiently and effectively committee members must be able to function without the fear that the fruits of their investigations will be disseminated to the public before they have been finalized and before the House has had an opportunity to see the product of their labours. This is why committee reports are confidential until tabled and why to break this confidentiality is a breach of privilege. This is not a new problem and as the hon. member for Red Deer noted I have commented on it in this session.
The hon. member quite rightly pointed out referring to citation 877(1) of Beauchesne's sixth edition that the premature disclosure of a committee report constitutes a breach of privilege.
This unauthorized release of committee information is indeed a contempt of Parliament. I must therefore commend the hon. member for having respected our traditions by refraining from commenting on the report before it was presented to the House. However now that the report has been tabled the member will have opportunities both inside and outside the House to explain his party's views on the contents of the report and to correct any misconceptions which may have been formed by the member's silence.
The member has also cited section (2) of Beauchesne citation 877 which notes that for a question of privilege to be prima facie in these circumstances, it must be more specific that a blanket accusation against the publication of a confidential document by the press. This citation is based on an extensive ruling given by Speaker Jerome on June 23, 1977 at pages 1203 to 1210 of the Journals .
I appreciate the hon. member's attempt to tie his argument to this portion of the citation. However, in carefully reading Speaker Jerome's ruling, it is clear that the point he was trying to make, and this is important for us today, was that it is necessary to look at our conduct in this matter. This, I feel, can only be done if specific allegations are raised about the conduct of a specific individual or group of individuals, as the Speaker ruled in 1977. Indeed, when similar matters have come before the House in recent years, most notably in 1987 and 1988, the practice has been to pursue the issue only when a specific individual can be cited.
In 1987 it was alleged that a member revealed information about in camera committee proceedings. The committee in question reviewed the matter and upon its reporting to the House the Speaker found the incident to be a prima facie question of privilege. The matter was referred to the then Standing Committee on Elections, Privileges and Procedure for examination.
The 1988 case involved the leaking of information to the media concerning a draft report of the Standing Committee on Finance. An unnamed employee of the member was found to have released the information but the issue was resolved by members of the committee who brought the matter to the attention of the House by way of a question of privilege. At that
time Speaker Fraser ruled that the issue had been dealt with by the committee and there was therefore not a prima facie question of privilege.
This said, as the hon. member for Red Deer has not made allegations against any particular individual I must state that at this time I am unable to accept this matter as a prima facie question of privilege. We are nonetheless faced with a very serious matter, for leaks of committee reports are not to be treated lightly.
As all members are aware the Speaker is loath to intervene in committee matters. Difficulties arising in committee are traditionally brought to the attention of the House by way of a report from the committee. In circumstances similar to those currently before us a standing committee might decide to examine the matter of a breach of confidentiality and make a report to the House.
The matter before us however is quite different for here we are dealing with a special joint committee which has tabled its final report. It has traditionally been interpreted that once a special committee tables its final report the committee ceases to exist.
As I stated earlier, while I do not find that there is a prima facie question of privilege, the seriousness of a leak of confidential committee information should not go unchallenged. Should the House consent to have the question of premature disclosure of the committee report examined, there is nothing to prevent the House from doing so by way of a special order of reference to a committee.
The matter of confidentiality is one of great importance to the House and I remind all members of their responsibility to ensure that confidential proceedings and reports of committees remain so.