Mr. Speaker, I know very well that the committees are the masters of their rules, but this freedom in Parliament does not permit committees to circumvent the rules of the House and all precedents, all past forms of parliamentary usage.
This is what I wish to bring to your attention for a ruling from the Chair.
Today I attended the deliberations of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, which is examining the cases of members who spoke against the Chair before a ruling was made in the flag matter. The committee chair, without any sort of a motion, and in contravention of Standing Order 116 and Standing Order 1, decided to limit the appearances of witnesses to 20 minutes—5 minutes for a statement by the witness and 15 minutes for questions.
There was no motion before the committee at that time. That is the first thing that happened.
Second, the allotted time, unilaterally decreed by the Chair, picked up later by the government party in a motion, is 15 minutes. Before deciding to set a time for a mandate as exceptional and specific in nature as this, where the statements of persons who have, according to some “offended” or “pressured” the Chair, it seems to me that it would have to be the judgment of a good parliamentarian to establish a sufficiently long period of time for questions and discussion. All parties were accorded a total of 15 minutes for questions, which means that our party will have about 5 minutes to question the witness who will appear.
The only precedent we have from the previous Parliament is the Jacob case, where one of our MPs appeared before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to respond to accusations made by another MP. I have checked this out. In the Jacob case, the committee, quite by chance, in its great wisdom and with the support of the Bloc moreover, agreed that Mr. Jacob, the former member for Charlesbourg, would have five to six hours to answer questions from House members. We felt this would be sufficient to clarify his behaviour.
The committee worked on the case for three months. During that period, it questioned a large number of people regarding the issue, and our former Bloc Quebecois colleague spent five to six hours answering respectfully the questions asked by his fellow parliamentarians.
Today, how could we justify, based on any precedent, limiting the questioning to 15 minutes in the case of the Liberal and Reform Party members who are before the committee to be judged?
Mr. Speaker, I am asking you whether the committee chairman grossly overstepped his mandate by deciding on his own, without any motion, that these members would appear for 20 minutes. I am asking you whether the committee had the right, given what is at stake, to overlook in such cavalier fashion the existing precedent, and to go from an appearance of five hours in the case of a Bloc Quebecois member, to five minutes in the case of a Liberal or Reform Party member. I am asking you whether the committee, in acting like this, respects the spirit of the mandate it was given by us, which is to review the very serious matter of a member whose comments may have offended, threatened or pressured the Chair.
With five minutes for questioning, is our party—which condemned the situation and wants to get to the bottom of the matter—in a position to even begin the work that it was asked to do by the House? I call upon your judgment and your sense of fairness in comparing the treatment of a Bloc Quebecois member, who answered the questions of his peers for five to six hours, and the treatment of the Liberal and Reform Party members, who will spend five minutes answering questions from the Bloc Quebecois.
The issue is not any less serious. On the contrary, these are people who may have threatened the Chair. Had we accepted the decision made, which unquestionably defies any logic, it would have meant that, in the future, anyone in this House—including me—could have threatened the Chair and made statements such as “If the Speaker does not rule this way, the Bloc Quebecois will do this or that”.
The result of all this is that one would have five, six or perhaps ten minutes to answer questions from the other parties and yet be able to evade questions or to stall for time, knowing that the ordeal will be over after ten minutes.
This is not right. For the sake of justice and considering the mandate given by the House to the committee, for the sake of parliamentary intelligence and given the only existing precedent in the recent past, I am asking you, Mr. Speaker, to make a ruling, to review the issue and tell us whether Bloc Quebecois members are being unreasonable by demanding that these members spend more than five minutes before the committee.
Considering that the former member for Charlesbourg, Mr. Jacob, spent five or six hours, is it too much to ask that 30, 35 or even 60 minutes be provided for questioning the members involved in this matter?
Again, I call upon your good judgment. I am asking you, Mr. Speaker, to look at the issue with all the wisdom that parliamentary law gives you under such circumstances.