Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of privilege. I am asking you to rule on whether MPs may have been wilfully deceived by the Department of Justice because of a document received on MPs' desks just prior to the June 6 vote on Bill C-206, which falsely attributed to the privacy commissioner the expressed concern that opening up 30 year old records would make vulnerable to disclosure personal information, including income tax returns, unemployment insurance records, charitable and political donations, and income investment information.
While this document emanated from government, the comments on the privacy commissioner's position can be traced to a justice department talking points document to cabinet of May 26, which reported that the privacy commissioner considered Bill C-206 to be a “serious threat to the privacy of Canadians” and cited as an example the release of “personal income tax returns which would include information on dependants, charitable and political donations, not to mention income investments and so on”.
The problem is the privacy commissioner was not in official communication with the Department of Justice on Bill C-206 until 10 days after the May 26 memo outlining his position and never described his concerns as a “serious threat” nor ever gave the example cited in the document above.
At issue here is whether it is a breach of privilege if the officials of a ministry are found to have given advice to MPs, both the government and MPs in their places in the House, that negatively characterizes legislation based on statements, expressed and implied, that were improperly attributed to an officer of parliament.
I have a number of documents which I wish to table for your examination. The first we will call exhibit A. It was found on every MPs desk at the commencement of the vote on Bill C-206 and comprises 14 pages in English and French consisting of three documents: a one page excerpt from the privacy commissioner's 1999-2000 report mentioning Bill C-264, the predecessor of Bill C-206; a letter dated June 5 from the privacy commissioner to the justice minister outlining his concerns with respect to Bill C-206; and a covering two page government note entitled “Summary of Bill C-206”.
You will note that the letter to the justice minister is dated June 5. The vote took place in the evening of June 6. Thus it could not have been received by the justice minister much earlier than 24 hours before. Also, and very importantly, the privacy commissioner assures me that this letter is the only official exchange of correspondence between him and the justice minister or between his office and the justice ministry pertaining to Bill C-206. We need look no further for the sum total of the privacy commissioner's position on Bill C-206.
I might also say the sponsor of Bill C-206, which was myself, put no document on MPs' desks, relying on his colleagues to know the bill through the debate that occurred in the House and by letters he had sent to their offices. That is a point you might also wish to contemplate.
The paragraph in the government covering letter that I wish to draw to your attention is that subtitled “Privacy Concerns” which then attributes to the privacy commissioner the concern that making 30 year old records accessible could result in the potential release of personal information. Privacy commissioner and personal records are boldfaced for emphasis.
Then it goes on to give examples of personal information that because of the 30 year provision would be “vulnerable”: income tax returns, unemployment insurance records, charitable and political donations, and income investment information.
These examples had a tremendously damaging impact on opinion of the bill. Two MPs, the member for Carleton—Gloucester and the member for Broadview—Greenwood, told me afterwards that the examples influenced them to vote against the bill. I am sure many other MPs likewise reacted and may have voted accordingly, but nowhere in any official communication from the privacy commissioner will you find reference to a concern linking the 30 year provision to tax returns, unemployment insurance records, political donations and income investment information. Moreover, the privacy commissioner has assured me that he has never personally used these examples, period. Indeed well he would not. The political donations of individuals are already readily available from the Elections Canada website.
It turns out, however, that the damaging examples in this document that was put on MPs' desks have a history. I refer now to exhibit B. This is a justice department's talking points memo to cabinet dated May 26 which says that, and I give you the entire sentence, “The privacy commissioner believes Bill C-206 is a serious threat to privacy”. That is the exact quotation.
The privacy commissioner assures me that although he takes all issues of privacy seriously, neither he nor his staff has ever said that Bill C-206 is a serious threat to privacy. Indeed, if you examine his letter of June 5 you will find that he says that his “greatest concerns can be met with by amendments” and that he is looking forward to “outlining his concerns to the appropriate committee”.
I should say that it is directly the privacy commissioner's mandate to consider all legislation that gets on the order of precedence for its Privacy Act implications. He expresses concerns on legislation all the time, and those concerns are supposed to be dealt with as the legislation makes its way through committee and report stage.
Further in these talking points to cabinet which were shared with some MPs, which is how I got this document, you will see the statement that the privacy commissioner believes “For example, the release of personal income tax returns would include information on dependants, charitable and political donations, not to mention income investments and so on”.
The privacy commissioner assures me he did not say that, and yet three days after the date of these talking points the sponsor of Bill C-206, that is myself, was summoned before the Deputy Prime Minister, the justice minister, the treasury board president and the government House leader and for the first time asked to account for the fact that the privacy commissioner says that Bill C-206 is going to open up personal income tax forms, personal investments and so on more than 30 years old.
Despite my thorough knowledge of the bill and despite my explanations, how could I make convincing argument against the supposed word of the privacy commissioner expressed in a document that was not then shared with me?
Two days later the government announced to the Liberal caucus that it was not supporting Bill C-206. Then, for the next four days before the vote, the whip and cabinet ministers directly approached backbench MPs and told them not to vote for Bill C-206 while citing the privacy commissioner's alleged beliefs reported in the justice department talking points of May 26.
However the privacy commissioner's actual, official, written position on Bill C-206 was only received by the justice department at most late in the afternoon the day before the vote and two days after the government began whipping the backbench to vote against it.
When I raised these issues with the privacy commissioner he recalled that there may have been informal talks between his staff and justice department staff. He later informed me that on inquiry he had learned that such talks had occurred in October 1999 and that issues related to income tax returns and other types of personal information had been discussed. The privacy commissioner was not at those talks, and they were of so informal a nature that no record of them was taken by privacy commission staff.
I asked the privacy commissioner if such talks by his staff, which occur from time to time on various items of legislation, could be or should be construed as being his opinion. The privacy commissioner replied, and I give the House his exact words, “If it is not under my signature and seal I did not say it”.
There you have it, Mr. Speaker. Documents from the justice department which falsely purported to reflect the privacy commissioner's stated position on Bill C-206 came before the government and MPs in the House and probably affected a vote that was before the House. I believe that this constitutes a prima facie case of privilege.