Mr. Speaker, I rise on a question of privilege concerning the systemic intimidation of an officer of the House of Commons. This is a very serious allegation, I admit, but in the past 24 hours our attention has been drawn to the government's use of its levers of power to intimidate the office of the access to information commissioner.
As you would know as an officer of this House, the decision on the definition of what constitutes contempt is reserved for the collective House of Commons, that is, the issue now before the Chair is whether there is sufficient evidence to give this matter to the House for examination and decision.
Yesterday the Speaker laid on the table the report of the access to information commissioner, who is similarly an officer of parliament, both of the House of Commons and of the other place. The commissioner has made very disturbing and troubling allegations. I refer to his report at pages 9 and 10. I quote:
For its part, the Privy Council Office (PCO) decided to resist and challenge almost all of the Commissioner's investigative powers. To this end, officials of PCO have ignored orders for the production of records; failed to fully comply with such orders (in one case non-compliance persisted until after two Federal Court judges had ordered PCO to comply);
It goes on in the next paragraph to say:
In this latter regard, PCO lawyers advised a senior PCO official, of Deputy Minister rank, to refuse to answer questions under oath put to him by the Commissioner, because there could be no punitive consequences. When the Information Commissioner cited the official for contempt and began the enforcement process, PCO also agreed to pay the legal costs associated with the constitutional challenge....
This is blatant contempt for the commissioner.
It goes on in the final paragraph on page 9 to say:
...with no prior notice or consultation, to rescind a protocol with the Commissioner's office which was adopted and followed since 1984. The protocol governed the process by which the Information Commissioner could obtain a certificate from the Clerk of the Privy Council officially attesting that records claimed to be Cabinet confidences are, indeed, confidences. PCO claims now that it may exclude confidences from access without any obligation to certify through the Commissioner (as it must for a court) that such records are, indeed, confidences.
Finally, on page 10 of the information commissioner's annual report for 1999-2000, it says:
As for Justice Canada, the “home” department of the access law, it decided not to defend the Access to Information Act against the above-mentioned constitutional challenge brought against it by the senior official of PCO and funded by the Crown. Indeed, in proceedings before the Information Commissioner, an agent for the Attorney General took the unprecedented position of impugning the constitutionality of the very legislation which the Attorney General has the duty to defend.
There is a blatant conflict of interest at work based on the words and in this report.
As part of my submission I refer to page 11 of the report which says:
The government's palpable animosity towards the “right” of access (it would prefer to dole out information by grace and favour in well-digested mouthfuls) is no more apparent than in the disconnect between talk and action in the matter of reform of the Access to Information Act. Every study of the Act (from Parliament's own review in 1986, to the Justice department's internal reviews, to the Information Commissioner's reviews, to independent, academic reviews and careful reviews conducted by private members) has concluded that the law needs to be modernized, strengthened and expanded.
These are very heady and very heavy words. I submit that this report to parliament, written by an officer of parliament, raises sufficient questions and alarms to constitute a prima facie case that should be put before the House for examination and disposition.
The commissioner states that the privy council office, at public expense, has systematically challenged its powers and that the treasury board has systematically denied the commissioner resources to go about his duties. These are grave allegations and grave findings which are deeply troubling and should be deeply troubling to every member of the House.
The House has a duty to give this report a priority over other business which the government seeks to place before the House in its rush to a premature election call. We cannot allow this damning report to be swept aside in a rush to the Prime Minister's vanity election.
It is the Prime Minister himself, the man responsible for the privy council office, who stands accused of impeding an officer of parliament in his duties. The Prime Minister is going to dismiss the House before we can take action using the normal processes of examination of this report.
I call upon the Chair to put the House of Commons first, to rule that the findings in this report raise sufficient questions that they merit action and that the debate in the House should take place immediately.
I am of course prepared to move the necessary motion to let the House proceed with this issue. I expect that other House leaders will have similar comments. Mr. Speaker, I urge you to take action on this matter.