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House of Commons Hansard #139 of the 37th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was national.

Topics

Questions in the House of CommonsPrivate Members' Business

6:55 p.m.

An hon. member

You were just a kid.

Questions in the House of CommonsPrivate Members' Business

6:55 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer NDP Sackville—Musquodoboit Valley—Eastern Shore, NS

Yes, when Pearson was in and the whole bit.

The fact is that it is has changed and I cannot believe the metamorphosis of the Prime Minister, who says “I'm standing here for the little guy. I'm the little guy from Shawinigan”. The fact is, I am five inches shorter than he is. The reality is that he is not standing here for the little guy. He is standing up for his corporate elite friends and those people do not want that information to come out. That is completely unacceptable.

I stand here on behalf of the federal New Democratic Party. We support the motion of the hon. member for New Brunswick Southwest. We will do everything we can to continue to harass or harangue or bug the government and we will take any steps we can in order to get information on behalf of our constituents.

Questions in the House of CommonsPrivate Members' Business

6:55 p.m.

Liberal

Jim Karygiannis Liberal Scarborough—Agincourt, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak on this motion which calls for the release of letters from the government House leader and the Clerk of the Privy Council to ministers and deputy ministers dealing with questions in the House of Commons.

This is particularly gratifying since it allows me to speak on an issue very much in the public eye these days in Canada and other democratic countries around the world. It addresses how we get a proper balance between the rights of citizens and their elected officials to be informed about the activities of government and the need for cabinet confidentiality to foster the smooth functioning of the machinery of government.

As members are aware, getting just the right balance between these important principles can be very difficult at the best of times. All of us in the House, whether we are on the government or opposition benches, agree that parliamentarians have a right to expect that the government would treat their requests for information seriously and respond to them as quickly and fully as possible.

I am sure all of us agree that Canadians, no matter where they live and what their circumstances, have a right to know what the government is doing and proposing to do on their behalf. However this right to know does not automatically trump all others.

Parliament has agreed that there are a number of other factors that must be taken into account, such as, protecting the privacy of individuals, respecting the solicitor-client privilege, and ensuring cabinet confidentiality. Indeed, cabinet confidentiality is so widely recognized as being important to the public good that virtually every democratic system in the world has some form of it in their parliamentary procedures and, in many instances, statutes. For this reason and others it is not so hard to understand.

It is clear that cabinet confidentiality improves the quality of policy formation and decision making by creating an environment where ministers can be frank in their discussions with cabinet colleagues and other senior government officials about important issues and initiatives. It is important that senior officials feel free to consider all possible options and alternatives without having to worry that their words might appear as the lead story in the next day's national newscast because these discussions often take place during the early stages of the policy process when the government may not as yet have decided on the course it will follow.

Recognizing the importance of encouraging frank and thorough policy discussion, parliamentarians from all parties have, over the years, wisely decided that some matters, such as the deliberations of cabinet ministers, should be protected and considered confidential for the good of the nation and our democratic system of government.

It is clear that the letters being requested fall into the category of privileged information and thus should not be released. The government House leader has informed the Speaker that the letters being requested represent a cabinet confidence and for this reason has asked that the member withdraw his motion.

While the government is opposed to the release of these particular letters, it nevertheless recognizes the importance of written questions to the work of the House. They promote transparency of government and help to ensure that ministers are accountable to the House. They enable ministers to become more knowledgeable about those matters for which their departments and agencies are responsible. Recognizing this, the government has taken steps to ensure that the practices in place designed to deal with such questions work as well as possible.

I had an opportunity to travel with a colleague from Britain. This colleague told me if opposition members or members of the government of the British parliament wanted to ask a question of the prime minister or any other ministers, they had to put it in writing at least six months in advance. Members put their questions after six months by which time the whole issue may be blown over.

We in the House have given the opposition, as well as the government backbenches, the right to ask questions the same day. We have given members the opportunity to grill ministers and to ask the Prime Minister to stand up and give answers.

While I cannot vote for the motion, since releasing this would not be in the interest of the House or the smooth functioning of the machinery of the government, I do share my colleague's desire to improve parliamentary procedure in this area. For all of us, democratic government is a work in progress.

I thank the hon. member for his commitment to ensuring the transparency of government. I urge him to work with the government in finding new and better ways of balancing the right to know with principles parliament has long accepted, such as cabinet confidentiality.

Only by working together can we, in this area of parliamentary procedure, do it right.

Questions in the House of CommonsPrivate Members' Business

7:05 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

Peter MacKay Progressive Conservative Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough, NS

Mr. Speaker, picking up on the theme of democracy being a work in progress, under this administration there is surely a lot of work to be done when it comes to democracy.

When it comes to cabinet confidentiality, the member is right. There are certain bodies of information that must be kept confidential and out of public knowledge and sphere. Military secrets are a prime example.

However there are other basic pieces of information pertaining to government behaviour and its accountability to the people of Canada who elect all members, not just government members but opposition members as well, which the public has a right to know about.

A perfect case in point was the recent decision by the President of the Treasury Board to conceal the accounts and the money spent by senior bureaucrats. This decision was justified quite wrongly in my reading of a recent supreme court case by the dissenting opinion of supreme court judges, not the majority opinion but the dissenting opinion.

A number of questions have been raised, even as recently as today, as to why the government would do this. A culture of secrecy, a culture of withholding information seems to be developing, particularly information that could be damaging.

I commend my colleague from New Brunswick Southwest and identify with his feeling of frustration. A very important role that the opposition plays is the role of truth seeker. As the member suggested in his opening remarks, the opposition's role is to probe the government. It is important for the opposition to ask important questions and receive information that the public is interested in and has a right to know.

However, time and time again over the last nine years, the little man from Shawinigan, who is now a big enchilada millionaire from Ottawa, is so far removed from that earlier reputation that it staggers the imagination. Under his guidance and direction, and under the guidance and direction of his staff in the PMO and Mr. Goldenberg, everything that is done to throw up barriers and boundaries as to information being revealed, not only to members of the House of Commons but by limiting access to information, is done just as a matter of course. That concentration of power that has been written about in recent years is occurring at an alarming rate and is being played out here on the floor of the House of Commons daily.

The government's reputation for transparency has been put to the lie. The government's openness was spoken about, prior to elections of course, and talked about in published fairy book documents called the red book. Promises were made to cancel the GST, for example, and promises were made to revisit and renegotiate free trade. We know what happened with those promises. They went out the window.

This government now wraps its arms around the policies that were introduced, at great spending of political capital, by the Progressive Conservative government, and it now calls them its own. It now calls them great ideas and fully endorses them. The Prime Minister was in Europe insinuating that his government brought in these policies. The reason the deficit is under control today is the GST, a much hated tax but a necessary tax. It is a consumption tax. It is a fair tax.

However we cannot revisit that. We cannot rewrite history. The spin doctors and the media massagers within the Liberal ranks did a wonderful hatchet job on ruining the reputation of a party that had the intellectual honesty and courage to put in place a tax that was fair.

The issue of openness in government has never been more threatened than under this administration. A basic motion to produce papers, a motion on the order paper by the hon. member from New Brunswick, was cast to one side. He was told no, that he would have to wait. This is a very serious issue that he has brought to the attention of the House and to all members. It concerns spare parts, which were bought and paid for by the Canadian taxpayer, sitting in a Florida warehouse that is under the control of a convicted felon.

Surely this matter would warrant government attention, let alone government action. Yet the government does not seem to want to talk about it.

He has been given the hand. He has been told to go away. To his credit he has persevered and brought the matter forward. Thankfully there are still procedures in the House that allow him to do so, but they should be given time. We have seen the rules change. We have seen attempts, as he said, to move the goalposts to prevent full disclosure on issues such as this one.

The entire issue of ethics and public confidence has been very much shaken under the government. My hon. colleague from Nova Scotia mentioned the helicopter procurement project. One of the biggest farces ever perpetrated by any government at any time in the history of the country was the cancellation of the helicopter program at a cost of $500 million, not even factoring in the benefits that would have come in terms of technology, component parts that would have been made, and jobs that would have been created in the province of British Columbia. It simply was cancelled.

I remember the Prime Minister's famous words: “I will take my pen and write zero and cancel the program”. Now we have men and women in the armed forces, on the east coast in particular but on the west coast as well, who patrol the coastal waters in unsafe equipment all because of ego and false pride on the part of the Prime Minister. It is a sad legacy.

The culture of clamping down, closure and secrecy is one over which the Prime Minister should hang his head in shame. That will be what historians write next to his name and not any great accomplishment. He drifted through the mandates and did what he could to shut down the House of Commons in terms of accountability and responsibility to the people.

Questions in the House of CommonsPrivate Members' Business

7:10 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

The time provided for the consideration of private members' business has now expired and the order is dropped to the bottom of the order of precedence on the order paper.

A motion to adjourn the House under Standing Order 38 deemed to have been moved.

Questions in the House of CommonsAdjournment Proceedings

7:10 p.m.

NDP

Svend Robinson NDP Burnaby—Douglas, BC

Mr. Speaker, I have the honour of rising this evening to follow up on a question I asked of the Minister of Foreign Affairs on his first day in the House as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Monday, January 28. That question dealt with some of the most basic issues of the Canadian government's respect for international law and for Canadian values.

I asked whether our government was prepared to honour the Geneva conventions in our treatment of those prisoners that might be apprehended by Canadian forces who are joining with American forces in the operations in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan.

I would like to make it very clear in the preface to my comments this evening that my colleagues and I in the New Democratic Party strongly opposed the deployment of Canadian troops as part of this military endeavour by the United States.

We felt that the September 11 attacks should have been dealt with as a crime against humanity and certainly we should not have been part of the United States led actions in Afghanistan. Having said that, we indicated that we were certainly supportive of Canadian troop involvement under United Nations auspices with the British operation in Kabul.

That was not to be. Instead we are now in the Kandahar region. More troops will be going in under American command and, most alarming, under the command ultimately of the commander in chief who has demonstrated total contempt for international law and for the Geneva conventions.

So far in this military operation over 4,000 innocent civilian lives have been lost. That is more than the number of lives that were lost on September 11 in the crimes against humanity attacks which took place that day. Cluster bombs remain on the ground in Afghanistan threatening the lives of children and others for generations to come. Landmines are being planted as well.

Tonight I once again appeal to our government to recognize that it should not be turning over any prisoners who may be captured by Canadian troops without ironclad assurance by the Americans that they are prepared to respect the Geneva conventions and international law.

That is not the case so far because one of the most essential elements of that international law and the Geneva conventions is that where the status of a prisoner is in question there must be an independent tribunal to determine that status. In fact the Minister of National Defence a week ago Monday, the same day I asked the question of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, when referring to the prisoners that had been captured said:

They have every right, though, for a tribunal to determine whether in fact they have status as a prisoner of war or have status as an unlawful combatant. Canada stands by that determination process in accordance with international law.

The government is breaking international law because we are turning over and are prepared to turn over prisoners to the United States without an assurance that they will be dealt with under the provisions of the Geneva conventions and with the tribunals that the Minister of National Defence has promised.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has insisted that these prisoners be treated as prisoners of war until their status has been determined to be otherwise.

It is a shameful day when the Canadian government is prepared to take its orders from George Bush and from the Pentagon and not to respect the most fundamental principles of international law.

Questions in the House of CommonsAdjournment Proceedings

7:15 p.m.

Barrie—Simcoe—Bradford Ontario

Liberal

Aileen Carroll LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs

Mr. Speaker, Canada is in an armed conflict against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. We are exercising our right to self-defence under article 51 of the UN charter and article 5 of the NATO treaty. Respect for international law remains a cornerstone of Canadian foreign policy and our actions will continue to be in keeping with this precept.

Following the tragic events of September 11 Canada joined its neighbour and other countries in forming a coalition in the campaign against terrorism. As part of our military contribution Canada has committed air and naval units as well as ground troops.

Canadian special forces have been present in Afghanistan for some time and members of the PPCLI, the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, have arrived in Kandahar.

Canadians can be very proud of the men and women of the Canadian armed forces who are serving in extremely dangerous and very difficult conditions to protect Canadians and to defend our values.

Canada fully respects international law including the law of armed conflict and our troops are well versed in its requirements. They are trained in how to capture and how to treat prisoners in accordance with international law and particularly in accordance with the Geneva conventions of 1949.

Regardless of a detainee's status international law provides minimum standards to ensure that he or she receives fair and humane treatment.

I assure the hon. member and the House that members of the Canadian armed forces will treat all persons in their custody to a standard that meets or exceeds that required under international law including the Geneva conventions.

The United States has indicated its willingness to abide by international law. It is based on this commitment that our troops were involved in the transfer of individuals captured in Afghanistan.

We are continuing to work with the United States and our other allies to ensure that international law is followed and that our prisoners are treated in a humane fashion.

In closing, let me assure the hon. member and all members of the House that Canadian actions will be in accordance with international law.

Questions in the House of CommonsAdjournment Proceedings

7:20 p.m.

NDP

Svend Robinson NDP Burnaby—Douglas, BC

Mr. Speaker, I have two brief points. First, the parliamentary secretary has completely ignored the fundamental issue. The fundamental issue is that Canadian forces are turning over prisoners to the United States without any assurance whatsoever that they will have an opportunity to come before a tribunal to have their status determined. The parliamentary secretary has completely ignored that.

Second, I have to ask her by way of a question whatever happened to Canada's longstanding opposition to capital punishment. We are now also prepared to turn over prisoners to the United States who will be tried in military tribunals and will be subject to the death penalty. Why is it that we are prepared to turn over those prisoners without any assurance whatsoever that they will not in fact be subjected to the death penalty?

What happened? Has our opposition to the death penalty become another casualty of the war in Afghanistan as well?

Questions in the House of CommonsAdjournment Proceedings

7:20 p.m.

Liberal

Aileen Carroll Liberal Barrie—Simcoe—Bradford, ON

Mr. Speaker, I will resist the polemics that could lead me down a road I do not think would be useful to this discussion. It is important to note and to mention clearly in our discussion tonight that Canada takes its obligations under the Geneva conventions very seriously.

We continue to work with the Americans and with the other allies to ensure that the provisions of the conventions are respected. We are satisfied that the U.S. is treating the detainees humanely and consistent with the Geneva conventions.

We have requested clarification and expressed our concerns with the U.S. in order to ensure that we are acting together in accordance with international law.

In the interim, for operational reasons Canadian forces orders remain unchanged. We will continue to transfer any detainees to the United States as we have done in the past.

Questions in the House of CommonsAdjournment Proceedings

7:20 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

Pursuant to Standing Order 38(5) the motion to adjourn the House is now deemed to have been adopted. Accordingly the House stands adjourned until tomorrow at 2 p.m. pursuant to Standing Order 24(1).

(The House adjourned at 7.22 p.m.)