I am now ready to rule on the question of privilege raised by the House Leader of the Official Opposition on October 19, 1998, concerning the Canada Millennium Scolarship Foundation.
First, I would like to thank all the hon. members who made comments on this matter: the Leader of the Government in the House, the hon. member for Calgary-Nose Hill and the hon. member for Kamloops, Thompson and Highland Valleys.
The House leader of the official opposition has recalled a matter which had been previously raised by the hon. member for Calgary—Nose Hill on February 26, 1998 concerning the Canada millennium scholarship foundation.
In his submission the hon. member for Langley—Abbotsford argued that an issue relating to the February 26 question of privilege remained unresolved. That issue was the allocation of money for the establishment of the foundation before parliament had the opportunity to consider the matter. He deplored the fact that there had been no legislation setting up this foundation, nor had the budget announcement allocating $2.5 billion to the foundation been adopted. In his opinion this constitutes a contempt of parliament.
It has been several months since this matter was first raised and I took it upon myself to refresh my memory as to the sequence of events.
The Millennium Scholarship Foundation was refferred to in general terms in the Speech from the Throne in September 1997, and was subsequently a provision of the Budget presented on February 24, 1998. This Budget was adopted by the House on March 10, 1998, and Bill C-36, the legislation implementing its provisions, was introduced on March 19, 1998, and was given Royal Assent on June 18, 1998.
Budgets by nature refer to actions the government intends to take and often include the proposed amount of money to be allocated. The announcement of such policies does not preclude parliament from making a decision on the subsequent implementing legislation.
In support of his argument the hon. member referred to new evidence relating to this matter. In particular, he alluded to the auditor general's report to parliament as well as an article that appeared in the Ottawa Sun on October 18, 1998. The member quoted from this article in support of the view that the government had not followed proper accounting practices when it charged the costs for the millennium scholarship fund to fiscal year 1997-98 when the expenditures would not take place until a year later. The hon. member noted how this action by the government was being portrayed as a contempt of the House. The member went on to state correctly that contempt of the House is a matter that must be resolved here in the House of Commons and nowhere else.
The Chair always takes very seriously any allegation of contempt. On the subject of contempt, Maingot states at page 229 of the 2nd Edition of his work, Parliamentary Privilege in Canada :
“Any act or omission which obstructs or impedes either House of Parliament in the performance of its functions, or which obstructs or impedes any Member or officer of such House in the discharge of his “parliamentary” duty, or which has a tendency, directly or indirectly to produce such results may be treated as a contempt even though there is no precedent for the offence.”
My colleagues, in the matter before us the hon. member argues that the government by its accounting practice of charging the costs of the millennium scholarship foundation to fiscal year 1997-98 before legislative action is taken by the House is making a mockery of our parliamentary system and that this constitutes contempt of the House. However, as Maingot indicates, the test is whether the action of the government obstructs or impedes the House in the discharge of its parliamentary duty.
I do not believe the House has been obstructed or its members impeded in the discharge of their parliamentary duties. Members have not been prevented from debating the matter at issue here, nor has the authority of the House been brought into question or circumvented. Indeed the auditor general's reports on these matters are permanently referred to the Standing Committee on Public Accounts pursuant to Standing Order 108(3)(e) and that committee can pursue these matters at length and report to the House thereon if it so wishes.
Whether or not the accounting practices of the government are appropriate is a matter for political debate and it is also a subject that members may choose to raise. Notwithstanding the previous debates on the budget and the implementation legislation, members are not precluded from bringing up this issue for consideration by the House through the usual procedures available.
In my view it is not the Speaker's role to comment on the government's accounting practices and interfere thereby with matters which the House has given to the auditor general by statute and to the Standing Committee on Public Accounts by standing order.
In my opinion the information offered by the hon. member for Langley—Abbotsford does not represent evidence, prima facie, of a contempt of parliament or a breach of privilege.
I thank the hon. member for having brought his matter to the attention of the House.