Mr. Speaker, I realize you have important guests so I will try to be brief on my question of privilege. Opinion is divided on whether or not this is a question of privilege. I am told by some that it is and some that it is not. It is however an important matter to bring to the attention of the House as it pertains to the right or opportunity of ordinary MPs to have access to government officials.
It is something that has arisen in exceptional circumstances. We will need your decision on whether it is a question of privilege, or even has the aura of a question of privilege, to decide whether or not it should be considered.
I will remind everyone that in the House we are a company of equals. When I stand or sit at my place I am exactly equal to the Prime Minister in his place. Every colleague is equal to every other colleague, be they ministers, parliamentary secretaries, members of the opposition or otherwise.That is why all our desks are exactly the same.
That is why, I might add, Mr. Speaker, you sit in an elevated chair, not because you lord it over us but because you are our servant. You are the one who makes sure that we do act as equals in the Chamber and indeed on Parliament Hill because as members of parliament we serve the public equally. We do many things by common consent. We decide who is the government. We set up rules in the House. Everything functions in the House by common consent.
I have an instance that appears to be outside the rules of parliament. No rules exist to cover the situation that occurred to me as an individual MP. I am referring to attempts last June by a group of members of parliament to set up a special committee to examine an issue of immense public interest.
The special circumstance was that it was summer and the House was not sitting. We thought we had a deadline. We wanted to present a report before a bureaucratic task force that existed on the Access to Information Act. We thought it was very important that we do this as soon as possible during the summer months.
Part of our plan was to receive briefings from government officials. We sought out those government officials and we had a work plan. We lined them up and many of them agreed to appear before our group.
We were going to hold meetings for the record in the open on Parliament Hill with all the attention to detail of a normal standing committee. However, and this is so important, we were not a standing committee. We were a group of MPs from all sides of the House who were not part of government and who were concerned about an important public issue.
To our surprise, the government suddenly ordered the officials we had lined up not to appear before our committee. The order extended not only to the government officials that we lined up but also to officials from crown corporations. It was every official in government. We had also hoped to talk to some very junior people with respect to access to information.
The issue is not the reason why the government decided to do this. We recognize that the government has certain powers that we by common consent give to it. One of those powers is the right to determine when public officials appear before members of parliament.
What is different in this particular case is that a situation occurred where backbench members of parliament were not carrying out ordinary business. They were carrying out exceptional business, in the sense that the law we were looking at was a law that was quasi-constitutional and affected all members of parliament. Ironically there is a direct analogy with Bill C-36, the anti-terrorism legislation that is before the House because this is a piece of legislation that affects civil liberties. Consequently it affects all members of parliament.
There are situations which occur in which backbench members of parliament or ordinary members of parliament, if you will, might find an absolute necessity to receive briefings from government officials. This is not trivial. It is not as though this was just a casual incident where a group of MPs wanted a briefing from government officials. I think we would all agree that the government would be correct in determining when and where it was appropriate to do this. This was an exceptional circumstance. The government said no and the officials were unable to come.
Mr. Speaker, the guidance I seek from you is that I think there are exceptional circumstances where members of parliament are acting in the most absolute interest of the public, in which the government needs some guidance from parliament, some guidance where it recognizes there are exceptional instances where there should be some sort of mechanism whereby the MPs who are seeking these briefings from officials, briefings in public I might add, can go to perhaps you, Mr. Speaker and say “Mr. Speaker, this is an exceptional circumstance. Will you advise the government on whether this is an appropriate request?”
Mr. Speaker, what I am asking is if you feel that I as an individual have had my work compromised as a result of this decision of the government.
I have before me the report of this committee of MPs who were studying the Access to Information Act which was presented to the public today. It is entitled “A Call for Openness”. It is an excellent effort on the part of backbench MPs to examine a very important issue. Mr. Speaker, I regret to tell you that although I think it is an excellent report, it is less than what it could have been because we were unable to receive briefings from public officials whom we had asked to appear and had no opportunity to question them.
It seems to me that this strikes to the very heart of the privileges of a member of parliament. Whether we are prime minister or backbench MP, when we set out to examine a policy issue that is in the deep public interest, we must have access to the officials whom we need to have access to. It cannot be left absolutely to the government to decide that issue. I am not saying that on a day to day rhythm of things that the government should not have this say, but there are exceptional instances and I believe this report “A Call for Openness” is an exceptional instance.
This report contains 11 recommendations. It is a clarion call for more transparency on the part of government. I have to say that it is a unanimous report by 12 backbench MPs covering most of the major parties. The contribution was entirely non-partisan. I want to particularly mention the Bloc MPs, the member for Saint-Jean and the member for Kamouraska--Rivière-du-Loup--Témiscouata--Les Basques, who made a particular contribution that we all applauded. So, Mr. Speaker, I do not want you to think that this was not an entirely joint effort.
I do not know what the answer is. I think the government acted the way it thought it should act. I think it was perhaps afraid that if backbench MPs can call government officials, that this might happen all the time. I can assure you, Mr. Speaker, it would happen only rarely. I think every one of us on the committee still believes in partisan politics. We were no less members of our parties because we were acting in a non-partisan way. It was a very fine example of the kind of co-operation that can occur in the House.
Consequently, Mr. Speaker, I would ask you to consider my remarks. What I would like to do is that if you feel that there is a prima facie case for a breach of privilege here, I would like to suggest that I would move a motion that the matter be referred to the appropriate committee of the House to give guidelines to the government on how to deal with these very exceptional instances where backbench MPs might feel they have to gather in a non-partisan manner, and I mean non-government MPs, to consider a major issue. Mr. Speaker, I do thank you.