I am now ready to rule on the question of privilege raised on March 4, 1997 by the hon. member for Laurier-Sainte-Marie, concerning a Health Canada advertisement published in certain daily newspapers.
I would like to thank the members who spoke to this matter on the following day, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons, the hon. member for Lethbridge, the chief government whip, the hon. members for York-South Weston, Joliette and St. Albert.
In his statement, the hon. member for Laurier-Sainte-Marie said that an advertisement placed by Health Canada, which appeared in Quebec's major newspapers on March 4, 1997 concerning the "anti-tobacco law", was false and affected the privileges of the House. He said that the advertisement assumed that the House had already enacted Bill C-71, whereas this was not the case. By unanimous consent, he tabled a copy of the advertisement.
I have carefully examined the advertisements in question. In their statements, the hon. members for Laurier-Sainte-Marie and Lethbridge drew a parallel between the case before us now and one that was the subject of a ruling by Speaker Fraser in October 1989. Although both cases concern advertising in relation to not-yet enacted legislative provisions, there are certain basic differences that make the comparison dubious. Before elaborating on these obvious differences, I would first like to remind the House of the circumstances surrounding the 1989 incident.
On August 26, 1989 the Department of Finance published an advertisement concerning the goods and services tax, the GST, in newspapers across the country. Although the GST legislation had not yet been given first reading the advertisement read as follows:
On January 1, 1991, Canada's Federal Sales Tax System will change. Please save this notice. It explains the changes and the reasons for them.
On September 25, 1989, the then Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. John Turner, raised a question of privilege on this issue, arguing that the advertisement as published constituted a contempt of Parliament. On October 10, 1989, at pages 4457 to 4461 of the Debates , Speaker Fraser stated that the purpose of the advertisement was not intended to tarnish the dignity of the House and that, accordingly, there was no prima facie contempt of Parliament. He thought, however, that the advertisement was ill-conceived.
Similarly in a recent case before the Ontario legislature Speaker Stockwell dealt with a question of privilege concerning government advertising. It was alleged that whereas legislation had yet to be adopted by the assembly a pamphlet was issued by the minister of municipal affairs and housing regarding the government's program for reforming municipal governments in metropolitan Toronto.
On January 22, 1997 Speaker Stockwell considered that the contents of this brochure were worded in a very definitive way and conveyed the impression that passage of the required legislation was not necessary. Consequently, the Speaker determined that a prima facie case of contempt had been established.
On the basis of the two examples just examined and with particular attention to the wording of the advertisement published by Health Canada, I am of the view that this situation is quite different. On the one hand, the 1989 advertisement concerned specific provisions of the GST legislation and was worded a style that might be described as a categorical affirmation.
On the other hand, the Health Canada advertisement appears to me to be primarily of an informative nature: certain statements are
made about the use of tobacco in Quebec, ending with the slogan "J'appuie la loi anti-tabac-C'est une question de santé".
As has been pointed out in discussions on that issue, there is nothing that indicates that Bill C-71 has been enacted or even that a particular provision of it will come into force on a specific date. Also, the English version of the same advertisement refers to "anti-tobacco legislation". In my opinion, it cannot be concluded that this advertisement gives the impression that the House has already passed Bill C-71.
In the case before us, the Speaker's role is to determine whether the Health Canada advertisement constitutes a prima facie breach of the privileges of the House. Like the hon. member for Joliette, I have been unable to find
malicious intentions'' or an attempt atfalse representation'' on the part of the government representatives.
Is this advertisement false and did it tend to diminish the authority of the House in the eyes of the public? In the light of the facts that have been presented to me, I do not think so and, in the absence of evidence to that effect, the Speaker finds it impossible to conclude that the advertisement in question is a prima facie breach of the privileges of the House.
In a decision handed down on June 12, 1996 concerning government advertising for Bill 33 on drug insurance, the Speaker of the Quebec National Assembly, Jean-Pierre Charbonneau, stated, at page 2094 of the Journal des débats :
The constituted authorities are fully entitled, in our political system, to publish their decisions and choices affecting their area of jurisdiction."
I share the views of Speaker Charbonneau. The government has the right to communicate with the public and inform it of its policies and its programs. On the other hand, where the government issues communications to the public containing allusions to measures before the House, it would be advisable to choose words and terms that leave no doubt as to the disposition of these measures. The use of certain terms or, in the words of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House, "colloquialisms that are not, strictly speaking, precise" may occasionally give rise to unwanted interpretations.
Those whose duty it is to approve the wording of communications to the public for a minister must surely be aware that the terms used in parliamentary language have a very specific meaning. Trying to avoid them or to use them for advertising purposes shows a lack of consideration for the institution of Parliament and the role of the members in the legislative process. If there is no ambiguity in the choice of terms the public will be better served and the House can get on with its work without being called upon to resolve the difficulty caused by such misunderstanding.
Once again, I thank the hon. member for Laurier-Sainte-Marie for bringing this matter to the attention of the Speaker.