Mr. Speaker, it is always a pleasure to rise in this place.
I gave you notice of this matter of privilege, and each party House leader, with respect to a news release yesterday by the Minister of Public Works and Government Services. I have sent Mr. Speaker a copy of this but it is short enough that I would like to read it. It is dated December 2:
The Minister of Public Works and Government Services today announced the creation of the Parliamentary Buildings Advisory Council to provide advice on the Parliament Hill renovations.
“The Parliamentary Buildings Advisory Council will provide an important support mechanism to the renovation projects of Parliament Hill”, said [the minister]. “The Advisory Council will aim to make a valued contribution to improving the level of information, consultation and co-operation on preserving these important heritage assets”.
The Parliamentary Buildings Advisory Council will be comprised of membership from the private and public sectors, including: representatives of the Senate; House of Commons; the Library of Parliament; the National Capital Commission; Canada Heritage; as well as representatives of the private sector architectural and engineering professional associations.
The Advisory Council will be an independent advisory board that will advise the Minister of PWGSC, as the authority accountable for the Parliament Hill renovations.
These texts are also available in French.
I have been disturbed for some time by the cabinet's attitude toward parliament. Ministers seem to take great pride in avoiding interaction with this House. A dangerous culture grew in the last parliament in which cabinet ignored this House and its members. I can count on one hand the number of ministerial statements that have been made since this parliament reconvened. Those statements have been most often and appropriately prompted by expressions of public sympathy for disasters, yet they have not been announcements by government on policy or matters that should be brought to the attention of this House in the first instance. The House of Commons is the place where the government is most answerable to the people who elected the members of this Chamber.
A culture of spin doctoring and media manipulation appears to have grown. To date this House has been prepared to ignore it and to remain silent, while our right to be informed of government action and policy decisions has been superseded by default by government to the news releases. It appears there is no one in this place, nor in government who asks whether this is an announcement that should be made by the minister to parliament. It is time for the House to draw a line in this regard. I think that everyone in this place would agree.
Mr. Speaker, two days ago, in response to pleas from the opposition House leader, you admonished the fact that there were alleged leaks. You quite properly appealed to members at that time to respect this House. You said: “The best place for announcements is here in this House, where we are. This is where they should be made”.
This situation is very much akin to the situation you were dealing with at that time. It is very similar. This is a ministerial announcement. The place for this to have been made is here in this Chamber. I would suggest there is not a member here who would disagree with that. The minister of public works is dealing with a very important situation at this time.
Mr. Speaker, yesterday I attended two meetings at which you and other House officers were present. We met at the Board of Internal Economy. We met with respect to a situation that had arisen in the Chamber coming out of question period. I would wager that you as Speaker were not aware that this ministerial statement was taking place.
As members of this place we are entitled in the first instance to hear in this Chamber of such important matters. Are we not members of this place? Do we not deserve that respect? I am certain that if other members had been aware of this announcement there may have been reference to it. There may have been reference to it at the informal meeting we held in your office, yet there was none. Obviously the government was aware while opposition members were not aware.
The simple fact is that the minister of public works has attempted to avoid the House of Commons on this issue. There is good reason for that. It is becoming plainly obvious to everyone that there are serious problems with this project and the budget that has been attached to it.
The minister may try to play tough guy with the public servants, but we are watching him. This is an abrogation of ministerial responsibility. The minister obviously does not want to listen to the responses of the opposition parties and it is well known that he brooks no opposition. Just ask the public servants who were hung out to dry by the minister before the examination by the auditor general.
As members of parliament we have an obligation to discharge and the place to do that is here in the House. We cannot effectively do so if the ministry is systematically avoiding coming into this House to enter into parliamentary dialogue and exchange.
We have been patient with the government and we have tried to make this place work, although there have been times when it has stumbled.
The public works minister seems to think this place is a museum. He calls this place a heritage asset. But we are here as an asset ourselves to parliament. Although I am not one content to sit on the shelf while the minister of public works runs roughshod over the House of Commons, I suggest that this is an insult and that he owes it to this place to consult and he owes it to this House to make announcements in this place if it is to truly be respected.
The particular museum piece is through with passive acceptance of the norms of the last parliament. We are signalling that this is unacceptable and we invite other members to participate in this question of privilege and to join in this fight to assert that the authority of this House is to be respected, not only by the opposition but by government members as well. Ministers have a duty to this place and to those who use this building.
Canada is not alone in suffering the attack of the spin doctors. Your colleague in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, Speaker Betty Boothroyd, has repeatedly stated: “When there is a major change of policy, a statement should first be made in the House”.
Mr. Speaker, I am mindful of citation 352 of Beauchesne's and I am not arguing that there has been a breach of privilege per se, but I do argue that there is contempt of the House. I would ask you to reserve your decision on this point in order that you may consider the consequences of allowing this conduct to continue and to continue unchallenged by the Chair and by the opposition.
Have we reached the day when this House is so weak willed that we will allow this to occur? Surely that cannot be the case. The time has come for parliamentary assertion of respect, not only for the physical premises, not only for these buildings that the minister of public works seeks to remedy and to fix, but respect for the members and all of the rights and privileges that flow from this Chamber.
Mr. Speaker, there is a remedy that goes beyond a simple admonition from the Chair and I ask you to find that there is a prima facie circumstance to permit consideration by the House of a motion instructing the minister of public works to make a statement in the House, fully outlining the government's intention with respect to the restoration of the parliamentary precinct.
Mr. Speaker, this is a request that a statement be made in the House and that perhaps the Speaker also consider issuing an admonition and that the minister apologize. If you are prepared to permit this motion, I would move that that take place and that we refer the matter to a committee, if that is appropriate.
Mr. Speaker, the time has come and I believe, in respect to you, that you took a step in that direction yesterday by bringing the House leaders together and looking for solutions that will improve the way this Chamber works. I am appealing to you on this matter. This is not the first time this has happened. In fact it has become the norm in parliament that ministerial statements are made at the press gallery and not on the floor of the House of Commons.
I am a new member of this Chamber, but in the short time that I have been here I have seen this trend continue and I find it absolutely insulting, not only to members of the House but to the Canadian people. Mr. Speaker, I would appreciate your consideration of this point.