House of Commons Hansard #159 of the 36th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was smoking.


Parliamentary PrivilegePrivate Members' Business

5:40 p.m.

Peterborough Ontario


Peter Adams LiberalParliamentary Secretary to Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate the motion of the hon. member for Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre.

Motion No. 53 proposes to abolish a parliamentary privilege that permits members of the House and the other place to be exempted from appearing in a court of law as witnesses, and the member rightly stressed that. It is appearance as witnesses that we are discussing.

I believe this motion should not be supported. The concept of privilege has a long history in our system of parliamentary government. It was developed during the 14th and 15th centuries, as the member mentioned, to ensure that the authority and liberties of the British House of Commons should not be challenged by the monarch.

I point out that Canada is one of several countries that have developed parliamentary privileges. They are also available in parliaments in jurisdictions abroad. Both the United Kingdom and Australia recognize the priority of the attendance of members in their houses of parliament over their appearance before a court.

Exempting members from appearing in court as witnesses is closely related to the privileges that exempt members from jury duty and the freedom from arrest and molestation. I suggest to my hon. colleagues that it continues to be needed today.

First, this basic principle for the good functioning of the government in Canada is recognized in the Constitution Act of 1867, but also in section 4 of the Parliament of Canada Act. The Constitution Act provides that: “The privileges, immunities and powers to be held, enjoyed and exercised by the Senate and by the House of Commons and by the members thereof respectively shall be such as are from time to time defined by the Act of Parliament of Canada”.

The Parliament of Canada Act recognizes these privileges as: “Part of the general and public law of Canada and they shall, in all courts in Canada and by and before all judges, be taken notice of judicially”.

Privilege is based on the pre-eminent claim of the House to the attendance and service of its members. That means members themselves do not have privilege. Only the House of Commons has privilege. Members are covered by this privilege insofar as they are serving as members of this House.

While privilege is intended to ensure that members are not obstructed in the performance of their duties, it does have limitations on its use. It is not intended to be used to impede the course of justice. It does not protect members from criminal prosecution. For example, it does not stop members of parliament from being sued.

In other words, privilege ensures that this House will function effectively. Members must be able to carry out their responsibilities and duties as legislators of public policy and in the service of all Canadians. As noted by Maingot, “parliament has the paramount right to the attendance and service of its members”.

The work of this House depends on the input of all members from all regions of this country. I would suggest that their participation is even more important given the fact that we now have five official parties comprising the legislature in the House of Commons.

Second, parliamentary privilege supports the House by protecting individual members from frivolous or vexatious attacks which would keep them from their duties.

As the hon. member may know, a former leader of his party used this protection while serving as a member of this House. The motion before us, in other words, is inconsistent with the action of a former leader of the member's party.

We need to be vigilant in preserving parliamentary privilege against frivolous attack.

Third, the member's motion responds to a problem that does not exist. I am not aware of any public criticism in this area, nor am I aware of any significant abuses that need to be addressed. In other words, I do not understand what the point of this motion really is.

Indeed, I believe Canadians would agree that this privilege is required so that members may carry on their legislative and House duties. It is a necessary privilege that members not be impeded in their work in the service of their electors.

While members may claim this privilege, they must also be guided by their consciences. Given these considerations in the modern context, members rarely invoke their privilege to be exempt from appearing as a witness. However, as noted in Bourinot's Parliamentary Procedure and Practice , the Commons generally gives leave of absence to members to attend elsewhere as witnesses when it is shown that the public interest would not suffer by their absence.

In conclusion, it is for these reasons that Motion No. 53 as proposed by the hon. member for Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre should not be supported. If there are specific matters of privilege that the member wishes to examine, I would suggest that this is a matter that might more properly be considered by the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs of which my hon. colleague is a member and of which I am the chair.

I hope that he and I can continue to work together on that committee to further strengthen this parliament.

Parliamentary PrivilegePrivate Members' Business

5:45 p.m.


Randy White Reform Langley—Abbotsford, BC

Mr. Speaker, it is an interesting debate and I am glad to be involved in it. I have a deep interest in the issue having been served with several documents to go to court. It kind of comes home when one does these things.

I want to read the motion because I am actually that close to where the hon. member is from with just a minor deviation from it:

That, in the opinion of this House, Members of the House of Commons and Senators should be treated equally before the law and therefore the parliamentary privilege that allows Members of the House of Commons and Senators to refuse to give evidence in a Canadian court of law should be abolished.

In the recent Sun column of November 6, 1998 titled “Lawmakers above the law”, Robert Fife comments on this motion and points to two cases that prompted the sponsor to introduce this motion. He cited the case when in 1989 NDP MP Dave Barrett claimed parliamentary immunity to avoid a summons in a case involving non-payment of his leadership debts and when Conservative Senator Eric Bernston used the privilege to excuse himself from answering a subpoena in a trial involving a fraud ring that operated in the Tory caucus of former Saskatchewan Premier Grant Devine.

While Motion No. 53 only addresses one privilege, there are actually three privileges dealing with the attendance of members and the potentiality for a conflict between duty to parliament and duty to obey a court order. These three privileges are freedom from arrest, freedom from giving evidence and freedom from serving on a jury.

It should be noted that these privileges do not involve cases of criminal matters or breaches of provincial statutes that involve the summary jurisdiction of the Criminal Code. They only apply to civil cases as was earlier said.

Historically, and according to Joseph Maingot's Parliamentary Privilege in Canada “the first privilege accorded to parliamentarians in England was an assurance that the barons and other lords were not impeded on their way to the council with the monarch because of civil process”. We have run out of barons and lords in this House of Commons to a large extent, except for an odd few in the cabinet over there. “The concern was to secure the attendance of members, and it remains to this day the principal reason for the privilege of freedom from arrest, from attending as a witness in a court or elsewhere than parliament, and from serving on a jury. This is because the most important body in the country, the Parliament of Canada, has first call on the services of its members and parliament will not tolerate impediments to members who are on their way to attend the sittings”.

It seems reasonable that a member could ignore an order to appear before court if called to attend a vote in the House if that vote was considered important. If a member was to be charged with contempt of court in such a case, it seems reasonable that the House should protect that member. In such a conflict, the duty to parliament clearly outweighs the duty to the courts.

The potential for the abuse of these privileges seems to arise out of the automatic nature of the immunity and when a member uses the privilege for personal advantage. This automatic immunity should be abolished. At the same time, the House should maintain first call on the services of its members and should be able to exercise authority in extraordinary cases.

I want to talk a bit about freedom from arrest. Joseph Maingot's Parliamentary Privilege in Canada sums up the privilege of freedom from arrest as a protection from arrest for any civil process, such as failing to obey an order or judgment of the court in a civil matter, including civil contempt. A member of parliament does not have immunity from arrest in criminal matters and may be imprisoned for a criminal or quasi-criminal offence, including criminal contempt of court.

On the other hand, page 158 suggests that the House has the authority to intervene if it felt the circumstances were extraordinary. It says:

While neither House of Parliament has waived or would likely waive its right to intervene if and when Members are convicted and committed for contempt (of court), and thus could in theory consider each case on its merits, it is unlikely that either House of Parliament would take any matter into consideration relating to the civil process unless the circumstances were extraordinary. It is also unlikely that Parliament would actually interfere in a criminal arrest of a Member, including criminal contempt of court. While cases may arise, the position of the House of Commons is that the House will at least investigate every such matter brought to its attention in order to be assured that the privileges of Parliament are not affected.

Therefore if the House has the authority to intervene in extraordinary cases to protect its privileges, then members do not need an automatic privilege of freedom from arrest. This would be consistent with most other cases involving members' privileges.

When members feel that their privileges have been breached, they first raise it with the Speaker who determines whether or not there is a prima facie case of privilege. If a member's question of privilege is prima facie, then the House considers the case and makes a decision.

What about the privilege of not being required to attend as a witness? Here we get into the specific privilege referred to in Motion No. 53. Once again the problem is not with the idea that the House has first call on the services of its members, but the automatic immunity granted to a member. As it stands now, the House would likely uphold a member's privilege of freedom from giving evidence without question. The House should instead consider the circumstances and decide based on the merits of the case.

If we abolish a member's individual privilege of freedom from giving evidence, to be consistent we should probably ensure that the House maintains the authority to intervene in extraordinary cases. That should prevent individual members from abusing the privilege but at the same time preserve the right of the House to first call on the services of its members.

What about privilege of exemption from jury service? Freedom of jury duty is in keeping with the principle of the House having first call on the services of its members. While this exemption from the law is less offensive than the others, it still puts members above the law compared to other citizens.

To be consistent, we could apply the same standards to this freedom as the other freedoms mentioned beforehand. The right of immunity should be taken away from individual members and placed in the hands of the House itself.

These are things the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs should probably look at.

The privilege of freedom of speech is another issue. The privilege of freedom of speech is in a totally different category and is probably one of the most essential freedoms enjoyed by members. According to Maingot the privilege of freedom of speech is not so much intended to protect the members against prosecution for their own individual advantages, but to support the rights of the people by enabling their representatives to execute functions of their office without fear of either civil or criminal prosecutions.

According to Bourinot, freedom of speech is one of the first and greatest of a member's privileges. He says that one of the advantages of legislative bodies is the right of exposing and denouncing abuses by means of free speech.

Often in debate and question period cabinet ministers, including the Prime Minister, will accuse the opposition of abusing their freedom of speech. It happens here once in a while. These comments are not only misguided and inappropriate but they strike at the centre of the problems facing this government. The government tolerates free speech as long as it is not being criticized by it. Freedom exercised in this way is viewed by the government as an abuse.

On page 25 of Joseph Maingot's book on parliamentary privilege he talks about the origins of freedom of speech:

Until the 19th century, in the U.K. reporting what was said in parliament was treated as contempt; until then, members required this privilege only for the purpose of avoiding prosecution by the king.

As members were once afraid of the wrath of the king, today backbench members of parliament bear the wrath of the Prime Minister who sometimes thinks he is a king. The Prime Minister cannot prosecute members but he does have ways of punishing and controlling them. It is unfortunate that we do not have a privilege protecting us from the Prime Minister.

In conclusion, in regard to privileges relating to the services of members to the House, members for the most part should be treated like any other citizen before the law. At the same time parliament should maintain its right to first call on the services of its members.

Therefore, any privilege applied should not be automatic, with the exception of freedom of speech, but should be subject to the judgment and decision of the House.

With this modification, members would not be above the law unless the majority of lawmakers felt it necessary to resolve a legitimate conflict regarding the public demand on the services of members of parliament.

Parliamentary PrivilegePrivate Members' Business

5:55 p.m.


Stéphane Bergeron Bloc Verchères, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak on Motion M-53, introduced by our colleague for Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre, on abolition of the parliamentary privilege that allows members of the House of Commons to refuse to give evidence in a Canadian court of law.

I would like to point out first of all that the motion being addressed by this debate raises several fundamental principles of parliamentary practice: the separation of powers and the primacy of parliament over legal institutions, as well as the matter of parliamentary privilege.

I am one of those who feel that the workings of parliament and the work of legislating are, and must remain, the principal duty and foremost obligation of a member of parliament. Moreover, the primacy of parliament over the judiciary has been guaranteed, since the earliest days of parliamentarism, in order to ensure that the business of the House runs smoothly. The sovereign did not tolerate that members could be prevented from assembling in parliament.

A summons to testify in court did not constitute for the crown a valid reason for preventing a parliamentarian from taking part in a sitting. This underlying principle and the ensuing parliamentary privilege have down come through the centuries and are still valid today. I will quote from Joseph Maingot, in his Parliamentary Privilege in Canada , at page 161:

Since Parliament has the paramount right to the attendance and service of its Members, any call for the Member to attend elsewhere while the House is in session is not in law a call that need be answered.

The aim of this privilege is to enable us parliamentarians not to arbitrarily escape the administration of justice, but to properly acquit ourselves of our duties, with no outside obstruction or interference of any sort. To put an end to this would mean that we recognize the primacy of the judiciary over the legislative, whereas the judiciary arises from the legislative power, which precedes it.

In addition, Standing Order 15 on member attendance, provides, and I quote:

Every Member, being cognizant of the provisions of the Parliament of Canada Act , is bound to attend the sittings of the House, unless otherwise occupied with parliamentary activities and functions or on public or official business.

Clearly, our presence in Parliament is not only desirable but required. Moreover, the obligation of testifying at a trial is not specifically included in the list of valid reasons for not attending sessions of the House. This parliamentary privilege, based on a long tradition, and on totally defensible principles and arguments, is embodied in the letter of our Standing Orders.

I have no intention here of discrediting or minimizing the importance of the role of Canadian courts. Our legal institutions are cited as examples worldwide. They ensure compliance with the laws passed by Parliament. Those who have committed offences or crimes must be brought before the courts and punished, as appropriate.

Should members by chance witness illegal acts, it is appropriate for them to participate in the operation of the judicial system by appearing, as required and when circumstances permit, as witnesses. But we must not for all that forget that our prime obligation is to perform the functions for which we were elected.

Appearing as a witness when summoned is part of everyone's civic duty. The parliamentary privilege the member for Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre is proposing to abolish does not, however, exempt us as parliamentarians from this civic duty. Privilege simply means that, in the event of conflict between our civic duty to appear as a witness and our parliamentary duties, the latter should take precedence.

The second point I wish to raise concerns parliamentary privilege specifically.

All the protections that we enjoy in this House and that we inherited in 1868 when the Parliament of Canada declared that it was adopting the privileges of the House of Commons in London come to us through the long and rich parliamentary tradition of Britain.

Over time, there has been a slow but inexorable erosion of parliamentary privileges. This phenomenon can certainly be attributed in part to the increasing concentration of powers in the executive branch to the detriment of the legislative branch. But we have also seen parliament become increasingly reluctant or unable to defend its privileges effectively.

Decisions in recent years has been particularly telling. I need only point to the way the infamous flag affair was dealt with by the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. It would therefore be improper for this House to knowingly and willingly help to undermine the privileges it enjoys.

Before I go further, I believe it is appropriate to agree on the meaning of parliamentary privilege. I will cite the 6th edition of Beauchesne's Parliamentary Rules and Forms , which defines it as follows at page 11, and I quote:

—the sum of the peculiar rights enjoyed by each House collectively as a constituent art of the High Court of Parliament, and by Members of each House individually, without which they could not discharge their functions—

Motion No. M-53, in suggesting equality between members and senators and our fellow citizens in the obligation to respond to a summons to appear as a witness, indicates to me the subordination of the legislative to the judiciary. Let me explain.

As parliamentarians, we are first charged with introducing bills, amending other laws and voting on laws. We form what is called the legislative power. Under such a motion, a member of Parliament could at any time and in any place be summoned to appear before a Canadian court without regard to his role.

Thus the judiciary could, with a summons to appear, govern our activities and interfere in the functioning of this House, something that cannot be allowed to happen under the principle of the separation of powers.

Thus the motion under consideration at the present time would prevent parliamentarians from carrying out their duties effectively, and would mean that henceforth the judiciary would take precedence over the legislative.

Our presence in Parliament, as Joseph Maingot said, is a vital one. Our fellow citizens have made us their legitimate representatives so we can express their concerns here in this House. This status confers upon us inalienable privileges that are necessary to the performance of our duties.

In the eyes of the law, we are not superior to our fellow citizens. We merely enjoy certain rights and protections which enable us to be more effective in representing them.

I am concerned at the erosion of parliamentary privileges. In this connection, even if Motion M-53 is non-votable, the mere fact that it was introduced is indication of what is, at the very least, a lessening of the respect for parliamentary heritage to which I referred earlier.

All our parliamentary practices, as outlined in the Standing Orders and in other pertinent documents of jurisprudence, have demonstrated what parliamentary precedence is all about, what parliamentary privileges are, and why they exist. I know very well that we are familiar with those great principles, but it is a good idea to go over them from time to time.

I do, however, view with alarm the fact that we have reached the point of believing that the roles can in fact be reversed, and that the legislative can, on occasion, be subordinated to the judiciary, as this motion implies.

Finally, I deplore the lack of respect being shown at times for our parliamentary system. On the one hand, this motion reduces our parliamentary privileges. On the other hand, it is converting our committees from quasi-judicial parliamentary bodies into entities under the control of the executive, which makes government members toe the party line, thus taking away the committees' independence to make decisions.

It is high time we turned more to the rich British parliamentary tradition for our inspiration.

Parliamentary PrivilegePrivate Members' Business

6:05 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

Peter MacKay Progressive Conservative Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough, NS

Madam Speaker, I am pleased as well to take part in the debate pertaining to Motion No. 53 presented by the hon. member for Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre. The motion calls on the House to declare that all members of the House and the Senate be treated equally before the law.

I have no difficulty with that whatsoever, particularly in view of the fact that all Canadians are certainly equal under the law. Every Canadian, parliamentarians included, must enjoy equality under the law. Protection and prosecution apply by virtue of the Canadian charter.

The member asserted that parliamentary privilege somehow creates inequality before the law for members of the House. He calls on the House to therefore renounce what he contends is an inequality.

This is a noble motion by all means but there are some misnomers that have to be dispelled. Members of parliament and senators are not free from arrest. Let us get that straight.

Privilege on the Hill, were it to be exercised in such a way that a member of the House or the Senate were attempting to avoid prosecution by remaining on the Hill 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, would perhaps be a worse fate than criminal prosecution.

This would leave a wrong impression if we were to suggest this were the case.

It is unfortunate as well that the word privilege carries so much baggage. It is not unusual for people who encounter the term to be offended by the notion that parliamentary privilege might somehow denote a special status for members. The vocabulary itself often offends the senses and sensibilities of those whose world is not so close to the study of law and history.

Like many specialities, parliamentary law has its own particular vocabulary. Sometimes the vocabulary can be confusing. The expression parliamentary privilege sounds somewhat like a perk or a class system that exists here, or even an economic advantage. We say that he is a rich man and leads a life of privilege. That is not the context of privilege as it has come to be understood on Parliament Hill. This has nothing to do with parliamentary privilege.

Parliamentary privilege is immunity under the Constitution that is necessary to allow members of this legislature to perform duties without interference. The crown recognizes and reiterates that parliament's claim to privilege at the beginning of each parliament is vital to the operation of this place. It is claimed by the Speakers on behalf of the members of the House and the Senate as they addresses the governor general. It is not an exercise in pageantry. It is not ritualism. It is a basic assertion of freedoms that enable the members of the House to discharge their duties without hindrance by persons who may seek to impede parliament through agents of the crown or through agents of the court.

We should recall that courts are the crown's courts. It is also forgotten that this is the Queen's parliament. Keeping this in mind, we can delve into the argument a little clearer. It was certainly heart warming to hear the previous speaker from the Bloc acknowledge there is a great deal of importance attached to those particular laws we have adopted in this country. Like are parliamentary history, there is rich importance to all Canadians that the matter of parliamentary privilege be respected.

In the initial appearance before the governor general the Speaker of this House on the very first day will appear. The Speaker will on behalf of all members of this House proceed to the Senate chamber. He will make a representation on behalf of this place. Let us look at those words:

The House of Commons has elected me their Speaker, though I am but little able to fulfill the important duties thus assigned to me. If, in the performance of those duties, I should at any time fall into error, I pray that the fault may be imputed to me, and not to the Commons, whose servant I am, and who, through me, the better to enable them to discharge their duties to the Queen and country, humbly claim all their undoubted rights and privileges, especially that they may have freedom of speech in their debates, access to Your Excellency's person at all seasonable times, and that their proceedings may be received from Your Excellency the most favourable construction.

This sets out the request of this parliament through the Speaker for privilege of freedom of speech in this Chamber and privilege that allows these members present to do their jobs effectively.

When we return to this Chamber there are certain privileges that attach the ability to question the government, to ask probing, important questions, questions that might in some instances lead to a legal action were they to occur outside of these hallowed halls. I suggest it is one of the most important duties that members of the Chamber can engage in, particularly from the opposition side of the House. I think all members will be quick to agree that is a useful exercise to engage in a process where the government is required to at times defend its actions.

Privilege is a particular immunity under the law. There are types of privileges that the crown recognizes in law. These include the privacy of a confession and limited conversations between a person and their lawyer or physician at times. I doubt there are any members present who would want to see these privileges abandoned. Similarly, parliamentary protections or immunities exist for a single purpose. They were not just dreamed up by parliamentarians of a superior class. These immunities are in place to protect parliamentarians from intimidation and threat.

Constituents need to feel a sense of confidence that their parliamentarians, their representatives, will respect and represent them with a certain level of decorum and competence. Privileges should be exercised with discretion and common sense that is of benefit to all Canadians. Service on the Hill should meet that same standard.

There are practical reasons that need to be respected in order for these exercises to be fulfilled. Parliamentarians are not above the law. I do not think that suggestion should be left in the minds of any Canadians. They are certainly not immune from prosecution when those unfortunate circumstances might arise.

Canadians in free elections send members of parliament to the House to probe, to pry, to admonish and to advocate. We are armed with the right to speak freely within these rules. We cannot be questioned in the crown's courts for anything that we might say in the House. Other citizens may be subject to the actions of the courts but we are only subject to our own limits. not those of the crown's courts.

Americanization is a fear we might have with respect to the abolition of privilege. It might turn us into a circus-like atmosphere that we have seen in the United States in recent months. Perhaps that is not egalitarian in the eyes of the hon. member, and I say this with respect. I think this is the root concern of his motion.

However, members must be free to engage in this process that is so important to the protection of democratic rights. The abolition of our immunity would result in the egalitarianism of an oppressed society. There would be no freedom of speech in parliament.

Just think of some of the issues that we could not have debated had the rules of privilege been abandoned. Would the member for Palliser in the hon. member's own party been permitted to ask the questions that he did ask with respect to the former solicitor general in pursuit of justice? Would I in my party have been able to ask questions with respect to illegal campaign fundraising that was happening in the province of Quebec and be free from prosecution?

The literary community has recently raised the danger of what is called libel chill. The abolition of parliamentary privilege would make it open season on every elected representative, particularly those who expressed unpopular views. Libel chill would become a parliamentary petrification.

Immunity, privilege, whichever is preferred, is a necessary protection from a malevolent ruler. In ancient days it was a malevolent king who opposed parliament. Now there are very powerful forces that would be only too pleased to silence probing and prying. If we were to abolish immunity, we would invite those who disagree with any member to sue or engage us in the courts to bring about potential financial ruin if we have the courage to vigorously pursue the rights of all Canadians.

Specifically the issue of jury duty has been raised. Lawyers at the bar, prosecution lawyers, are also excused when it comes to jury duty. It has been touched on in a very practical way as to why parliamentarians should be permitted to be exempt from jury duty. All sorts of exemptions apply.

I realize I am at the end of my time limit. I am sure the member who advocates turning back the clock on this element of parliamentary privilege is well intentioned. However, this sort of privilege is something I do not feel is abused presently in this place. I am afraid it has been used in this context to revisit what was perhaps a personal vendetta that may have existed between him and a member from his own province, a member from the Senate. This is not an abuse that occurs.

Parliamentary PrivilegePrivate Members' Business

6:15 p.m.


Ted McWhinney Liberal Vancouver Quadra, BC

Madam Speaker, this has been a valuable debate. We are indebted to the hon. member for Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre for reminding us that when section 18 was inserted into the Constitution Act, 1867, it received in a legal sense British parliamentary privileges but it did not jell them once and for all in space and time.

These privileges are subject to creative reinterpretation according to new facts. In the spirit of what Lord Chancellor Sankey, the real person who gave us women in the Senate, the judge who decided the persons case, said that the Constitution was a living tree. This is true of parliamentary privileges.

In a sense we have had in the debate in the House two different possibilities presented. I was consulted several years ago by a member of the Senate in relation to whether the privilege extended to freedom from being served with legal processes in the House. It seems to me where a legal process serving is designed to humiliate or embarrass a member of parliament, or where it can certainly be served outside the House with convenience, that is an abuse of members' privileges. The member has power not merely to refuse it but the House has power to punish for contempt. I hope it would use that from time to time.

On the other hand, as we have noted today the judgment of judicial committee of the House of Lords has made a striking change in the law of immunities of heads of government. I have not been able to get the judgement as yet, the actual text, but it is saying basically that what one thought was unlimited in time is limited to the duration of the office.

Second, it may exclude certain types of acts that in an international law sense offend jus cogens. You could never get immunity, for example, for crimes against humanity. That is a rather astonishing breakthrough in international law, the more so because it was not perhaps generally anticipated as it should have been.

The British judges are now going in for progressive generic interpretation. In a similar way the immunities of diplomats, which have been considered absolute in the past, are usually by practice waived voluntarily by the ambassador or the head of the mission in the country concerned. That makes sense. It could be argued that either House has the ability collectively to waive a privilege if it felt that it was used abusively.

I think the constructive suggestion from this debate has been that the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs might examine the question of updating the privileges. That was the suggestion of the member for Peterborough, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Government House Leader.

I think it is a fruitful suggestion and it would be in the spirit of the proposal of the member for Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre to have that adopted. He is right in saying these privileges were not frozen in the 17th century. They reflect their particular space and time dimension. New facts demand a re-examination. Let us have the re-examination but have it in an all party sense.

I have great confidence in Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. I served on it in a sense; I cut my parliamentary teeth there. I think it would be a very fruitful suggestion which I hope the hon. member would accept.

Parliamentary PrivilegePrivate Members' Business

6:20 p.m.


John Solomon NDP Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre, SK

Madam Speaker, I thank the member for Vancouver—Quadra for his remarks. I think he raised some good points in his speech. I would like to start from the member for Vancouver Quadra and then work my way back, last to first, in terms of responding to my motion.

Getting to the Progressive Conservative House leader, we see an example of somebody who has given a speech full of information which has basically little relevance to the motion we just debated.

I was going to rise on a point of order to point out to him that I can see why the Conservative Party is where it is at. I can see why Mr. Mulroney's government was tossed out on its ear. They listened to three previous speakers and did not get what the motion was about, either did not listen or did not understand what the motion was about. That is an example of Mr. Mulroney's government that we had in the country for eight or nine years. He did and said things and his members did and said things without regard for any of the responses or concerns of ordinary Canadians.

I have no personal vendetta. The Conservative House leader thinks that I do. Everything he talked about in terms of freedom of speech and all the other freedoms, I support and embrace wholeheartedly. I remind the member that what we were debating, to which he did not make reference whatsoever, is the privilege that allows members of the House of Commons and senators to refuse to give evidence in a court of law. We are looking at abolishing that particular reference. It has nothing to do with other privileges which I believe are very important in conducting our business.

The Bloc whip, the Bloc member for Verchères—Les-Patriotes, talked about imperfect respect for parliament, lack of respect for parliament, and the rich parliamentary tradition. All of us embrace all these things we have talked about. I find this quite bewildering coming from a Bloc member, somebody who is paid by taxpayers, who comes to the House of Commons and wants to break up our country. He talks about the imperfect respect that I have for parliament. I think people in my constituency and in other parts of Canada will look at that comment and laugh because it is so unbelievable.

All Bloc members stand in the House time after time, person after person, being paid for by the taxpayers of Canada and talking about breaking up parliament and breaking up the country. I do not think that is perfect respect for parliament. I do not think we want the kind of respect for parliament that comes from that Bloc member. He has misinterpreted the motion and should perhaps review it one more time to see where he stands on it.

I come to the Reform House leader, the member for Langley—Abbotsford. He had some very good suggestions which I think many members of the House of Commons might even embrace. He talked about how we perhaps need to have the House decide, as opposed to individual members being given these freedoms, on the individual merits of each case when it comes to subpoenas of members or subpoenas issued on members to appear as witnesses. I kind of like that idea.

Then we had the parliamentary secretary to the House leader who suggested that we should perhaps raise the issue in the procedures and House affairs committee. I think that is a very good suggestion. I think it is something we should look at.

I guess members do not understand what I have been doing in the House the last four or five years. This is one example in about five or six. I have been attempting to implement some democratic reform and to modernize parliament. When I introduced a bill to change members of parliament's pensions from a defined benefit to a defined contribution, that was an attempt to modernize what was happening with MPs. When I introduced a bill to make the Board of Internal Economy more public like other jurisdictions in the world and in this country, that was an attempt to make some reform of our democratic system.

This motion is another attempt to modernize our parliament, to modernize the way we do business in this country so that Canadians who do not have a lot of respect for us as a collective group of members of parliament will perhaps have a little more respect because we are undertaking democratic reforms in a very broad based way.

I have raised a number of issues in the House. This is yet one more. I find that all members are coming around to the point where they are enjoying this type of debate. They are finding some of these ideas perhaps a little too progressive for them. Some of them really think they are progressive and that we should look closer at them.

I would seek unanimous consent, upon the recommendation of the parliamentary secretary to the House leader, to refer this matter to the procedures and House affairs committee.

Parliamentary PrivilegePrivate Members' Business

6:25 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Ms. Thibeault)

The hon. member is seeking unanimous consent to refer the motion to committee. Is there consent?

Parliamentary PrivilegePrivate Members' Business

6:25 p.m.

Some hon. members


Parliamentary PrivilegePrivate Members' Business

6:25 p.m.

Some hon. members


Parliamentary PrivilegePrivate Members' Business

6:25 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Ms. Thibeault)

The time provided for the consideration of Private Members' Business has now expired and the order is dropped from the order paper.

A motion to adjourn the House under Standing Order 38 deemed to have been moved.

Parliamentary PrivilegeAdjournment Proceedings

6:25 p.m.


Jim Pankiw Reform Saskatoon—Humboldt, SK

Madam Speaker, I rise with regard to a question I asked of the finance minister during question period on October 27.

At that time I brought to his attention the predicament of constituent Preston Tkatch who, along with millions of other Canadians, is being squeezed into poverty by the government's tax policies. As I pointed out to the minister, Mr. Tkatch's family is being squeezed so hard that he feels he would be better off on welfare. Indeed, with a monthly difference of approximately $200 between his take home pay and that of someone receiving welfare, he has a point. But all across the country there are millions of Canadians in the same boat.

I remind the government these are the same people on whose backs the government balanced the budget, some of whom find themselves on hospital waiting lists only to find that federal health cuts make the wait longer.

In any event, it was with this in mind that I asked the finance minister when could these families expect meaningful tax relief so that a wager earner like Mr. Tkatch would have an incentive to keep working instead of thinking about going on welfare.

The minister's response was nothing short of abysmal. I got nothing but a canned response which said in effect no tax relief, no employment insurance reduction. Basically just keep sending it and the finance minister will keep spending it.

Needless to say, Mr. Tkatch was not impressed either. I sent him a copy of the finance minister's answers and he took the time to share his thoughts with me: “It is very obvious that the Canadian government doesn't care about the average working class family”.

Mr. Tkatch is quite right in pointing out that the child tax benefit helps families in the lowest income bracket but it does nothing to help those in the low to middle income groups. He is the sole breadwinner in his family and his yearly income is $32,000. As a result of the sliding scale by which the child tax benefit is applied its effect on his situation is negligible.

I read more of what my constituent wrote to me: “Families of three or more dependants should not pay any taxes on income up to $30,000”. Think about that for a moment. The finance minister might think that is a lot to ask but I sure do not. That is the kind of tax relief I would like to see and there is no good reason why the finance minister cannot deliver this in the next budget. Unfortunately Canadians should not bother holding their breath waiting for it to happen.

I want to put the plight of this constituent into very personal terms for the parliamentary secretary. In his letter he states: “I get up at 6 a.m. every morning to leave for an 8 a.m. job and get home at 6 p.m, a 12 hour day for which the government takes over $8,000 per year in taxes. Maybe it is time I sleep in and hang around my yard waiting for a cheque”.

In view of this, my question now is the same as it was on October 27. What incentive is there for Mr. Tkatch to continue working instead of going on welfare or, to paraphrase him, why should he even bother to get out of bed?

Parliamentary PrivilegeAdjournment Proceedings

6:30 p.m.

Stoney Creek Ontario


Tony Valeri LiberalParliamentary Secretary to Minister of Finance

Madam Speaker, when the government first took office in 1993 it was faced with a $42 billion deficit and certainly the overwhelming Canadian priority was to balance the books.

But even in that climate all four of this government's previous budgets undertook targeted tax reductions to achieve social and economic objectives by providing assistance to education, children, charities and the disabled.

Now that the fiscal situation has improved we have begun a process of tax relief and our first priority has been to provide tax relief to those who can least afford to pay, low and middle income Canadians.

The hon. member cites the example of a $32,000 single wage earner family. In the 1998 budget we increased the basic exemption that essentially put more money in low income Canadians' hands, that is money they can receive on a tax free basis. We eliminated the general federal surtax for Canadians earning up to about $50,000. We have also taken important measures to assist low income families with children. In particular, we realize the challenge we face is certainly one that requires the assistance and the partnership of the provinces.

The hon. member does not feel that there is any benefit or any worth to the national child benefit program that was put in place. I tend to disagree and I am sure that there are thousands of Canadians who also disagree with that.

I think it is fair to say that the initial phase of our program was to balance the budget. The second phase is to continue to build on the 1998 budget which targeted tax relief to those Canadians who can least afford to pay and who have the least amount of earnings. We have begun the process. We are committed to continue that tax relief.

We have provided $7 billion in tax relief over three years in the last budget. The Prime Minister, the finance minister and this government are certainly committed to putting more money into those individuals' hands.

Parliamentary PrivilegeAdjournment Proceedings

6:35 p.m.


Bev Desjarlais NDP Churchill, MB

Madam Speaker, on October 9, I quoted a number of grade 11 history students from Hamnot Collegiate in Flin Flon, Manitoba. These students are constituents of mine who had faxed me that day with their views on whether the solicitor general should resign. The overwhelming majority of them said he should resign. Prior to question period that day I asked the class if I quote them in my question. They were ecstatic that their views were going to be heard. I was very disturbed by the Deputy Prime Minister's response. He called the students' comments unwarranted and unjustified and accused me of abusing the process of this House. I will address each of these allegations in turn.

Some of the students were very insulted that the Deputy Prime Minister dismissed their opinions as out of hand. In a democracy is the government not supposed to respect the views of its citizens? The Deputy Prime Minister had no right to call their opinions unwarranted and unjustified. His doing so goes right to the heart of what is wrong with this Liberal government. it is arrogant. The Deputy Prime Minister clearly does not care about the views of Canadians. No wonder the things the government says and does are increasingly out of touch with what Canadians want.

The same attitude can be seen in his accusation that I was abusing the process of this House by informing the students of my question so they could watch it on television and give their opinions. Does the Deputy Prime Minister actually think it is an abuse for Canadians to watch their own government on television? Would he prefer that the proceedings go on behind closed doors so they do not have to be accountable? It is not an abuse for Canadians to watch the proceedings of parliament. It is a democratic right. But this Liberal government does not seem to care much about democratic rights.

The previous speaker, my colleague from Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre, indicated his efforts to try to bring some modern changes and some democracy into the House. Once again there is no attempt by this government to see that change go through, not even to the point of taking that suggestion to committee where it could be discussed and heard and so we could finally see some kind of change to the type of democracy this government is bent on pursuing.

The right to protest is another crucial right in a democracy. This is part of freedom of speech. If Canada is to be a democracy, Canadians must be free to voice their opposition to what the government does. When the RCMP pepper sprayed those APEC protesters in Vancouver they were suppressing the fundamental democratic rights of those protesters. This is a very serious matter and Canadians deserve to get to the bottom of it.

Rather than openly answer these allegations, the government has been acting as if it has something to hide. First, as his comments on the plane to Fredericton showed, the former solicitor general prejudged the RCMP public complaints commission. The sworn affidavits confirm this to be so. He has now resigned for this indiscretion, proving the students I quoted were right all along, but the matter is far from closed.

The government continues to insist the RCMP commission will get to the bottom of the pepper spray incident which is absolute nonsense. The commission is only mandated to review the actions of the RCMP officers, not the political masters. Since the commission cannot look into the actions of the Prime Minister, it cannot determine whether he or his staff was involved in the suppression of democratic rights. The commission has been hopelessly tainted by the former solicitor general's comments and by the fact that the students have not received any legal funding while the government is represented by a team of high priced lawyers.

The only way Canadians can get an accurate picture of what truly happened during the APEC conference is to appoint a judicial inquiry to investigate. If the government truly has nothing to hide, it should appoint a judicial inquiry to exonerate itself.

Parliamentary PrivilegeAdjournment Proceedings

6:35 p.m.

Brossard—La Prairie Québec


Jacques Saada LiberalParliamentary Secretary to Solicitor General

Madam Speaker, it is almost funny to hear what the hon. member opposite has to say. Her remarks are so childish and so full of contradictions.

As I recall, she started off by saying something like Canadians deserve to go to the bottom of it.

We fully agree, but what is the approach of opposition members? It is preventing the commission set up for this purpose from doing its job. On the one hand, they say that the commission should be allowed to do its job and, on the other hand, that it should not.

Another contradiction is the allegation that “the process is tainted”. There again, the documents have been handed over to the commission, which will rule on this matter.

What right does my colleague opposite have to prejudge the commission's decision, claiming bias? What she says is full of contradictions.

Members might be familiar with what Alfred de Musset had to say about Molière. “This mighty humour, so sad and so profound that laughter leads to tears.” He is referring to jokes that make us cry.

Parliamentary PrivilegeAdjournment Proceedings

6:40 p.m.


Judy Wasylycia-Leis NDP Winnipeg North Centre, MB

Madam Speaker, I would like to pursue a question I raised in this House on October 22 pertaining to the particular issue of bovine growth hormone and more generally the state of affairs in the health protection branch.

We have repeatedly asked the Minister of Health and other members of the Liberal government for clarification about a number of serious allegations being raised about the way in which business is being conducted in the health protection branch.

We have raised the matter of the need for a public investigation into the health protection branch on numerous occasions. We continue to call for such an investigation based on the very long and growing list of concerns being raised about the way in which drugs, food and medical devices are being handled in this branch of government, a branch of government that is there purposely for the need to ensure the safety of all such products for Canadians.

With respect to the particular issue of bovine growth hormone, we know from public testimony before the Senate committee that scientists with the bureau of veterinary drugs have indicated that they have felt pressures on them to approve a drug. They have talked about gag orders. They have talked about files being stolen. They have talked about intimidation. They have talked about the inability to do their jobs as scientists.

The Senate has taken up this issue. I commend senators Spivak and Whelan for initiating this hearing, but I believe this issue needs to be dealt with by the House of Commons.

On April 2, 1998 I presented a motion before the health committee asking for such an investigation. Liberal members on that committee ensured that that motion was defeated. I subsequently wrote to the auditor general after that committee meeting asking for an audit based on these allegations. I am looking forward to a response from that office.

I wrote to the Minister of Health many months ago asking him to initiate an investigation into the allegations of the veterinarians and other scientists in the health protection branch. My concerns have been dismissed.

I have raised on numerous occasions since then the need for a full scale public inquiry into the health protection branch to address concerns that are far reaching and serious pertaining to the health and safety of products, goods, food and drugs that Canadians need and must have.

I am simply elaborating today on this issue and trying once more to get this government to acknowledge the serious allegations being made and to encourage an investigation into this matter. I look forward to a response from the parliamentary secretary who is fully aware, I am sure, of these issues and I hope will take these concerns very seriously.

This is not a matter that can be dismissed quickly and easily. It is a matter that impacts very much on serious issues before the Canadian public today. I hope the government will take this as a serious concern and a very constructive suggestion and pursue as quickly as possible an independent investigation into the health protection branch.

Parliamentary PrivilegeAdjournment Proceedings

6:40 p.m.

Thornhill Ontario


Elinor Caplan LiberalParliamentary Secretary to Minister of Health

Madam Speaker, first let me be very clear on the issue of rBST. It is being reviewed and evaluated internationally. Some countries have approved rBST and some have not.

Let me make it absolutely clear to all members of this House and anyone watching this debate, rBST has not been approved in Canada and it will not be approved unless the evidence proves it is safe. It is as clear and straightforward as that.

On October 29 the Senate committee on agriculture and forestry held hearings and the deputy minister of health stated that internally and externally good science must have an atmosphere of free discussion and free debate in order to survive. It does not matter whether it is in veterinary science, human science or economic science. What is critical is that we have freedom within Health Canada and across government agencies to engage in that debate and discussion.

Some scientists at Health Canada have expressed concerns and have taken their case to the Public Service Staff Relations Board which has held hearings and will rule on their case.

There have been no gag orders. This should be obvious from the very fact that scientists provided hours of testimony to the Senate committee and in fact were advised very clearly by the department and by the Minister of Health that it was their obligation to do so.

When issues were raised regarding the approval process of rBST and the concern about potential gaps in research, I want to be absolutely clear that it was a senior scientist at Health Canada who ordered a review called the gaps analysis because there were outstanding questions.

Parliamentary PrivilegeAdjournment Proceedings

6:40 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Ms. Thibeault)

The motion to adjourn the House is now deemed to have been adopted. Accordingly, this House stands adjourned until tomorrow at 10 a.m., pursuant to Standing Order 24(1).

(The House adjourned at 6.45 p.m.)