I am now prepared to rule on the question of privilege raised by the hon. member for Yorkton--Melville on February 5, 2003, concerning the reports tabled by the hon. Minister of Justice on Monday, February 3.
I would like to thank the hon. member for Yorkton--Melville for raising the issue, as well as the hon. government House leader and the hon. members for Vancouver East, St. John's West and Provencher for their contributions.
In presenting his case, the hon. member for Yorkton--Melville claimed that when the Minister of Justice tabled reports related to the administration of the firearms registry the minister withheld a part of the report. According to the hon. member, the part he alleges was withheld contained information vital to his ability to carry out his duties as a member of Parliament.
Charging the minister with deception, the hon. member further alleged that, in withholding information he knew to be essential, the minister failed to keep the commitment he made to the House on December 12, 2002. The hon. member concluded that, in so doing, the minister had acted in a manner that constituted a contempt of the House.
In response, the hon. government House leader cited Standing Order 32 (2), which states:
A Minister of the Crown, or a Parliamentary Secretary acting on behalf of a Minister, may, in his or her place in the House, state that he or she proposes to lay upon the Table of the House, any report or other paper dealing with a matter coming within the administrative responsibilities of the government, and, thereupon, the same shall be deemed for all purposes to have been laid before the House.
He pointed out that the Minister of Justice had voluntarily tabled the two reports laid before the House on February 3, contending that the minister could not then be faulted for not making available different information or a different report.
On this point, the hon. government House leader is quite correct. The Journals of February 3, 2003, at page 359 indicate that the Minister of Justice did indeed table the documents related to the firearms registry pursuant to this standing order.
The hon. government House leader also claimed that the additional document referred to by the hon. member for Yorkton--Melville was not in fact part of the report but a background document. The same claim was also made by the hon. Minister of Justice at page 3179 of Debates , when he characterized the document as one that had been provided to help prepare the report actually tabled.
I would point out to hon. members that there are only two conditions which oblige ministers to table documents. First, there are a great many documents that are tabled pursuant to statute or an order of this House. Marleau and Montpetit explains that one of the chief means by which the House obtains information is through the presentation of reports and returns stating at page 371:
In addition to the administrative documents that may be tabled in the House by Ministers, certain returns, reports and other papers are required to be laid before the House each year or session by statute, by order of the House, or by Standing Order. A number of statutes set forth the specific circumstances for tabling: for example, some statutes require Ministers to table annual reports of the departments, agencies and commissions which fall under their administrative responsibilities.
The second condition requiring the tabling of a document occurs when a document has been cited by a minister—that is, when a minister goes beyond referring to a document and actually quotes from the text.
Again I quote from Marleau and Montpetit, page 518:
Any document quoted by a Minister in debate or in response to a question during Question Period must be tabled. Indeed, a Minister is not at liberty to read or quote from a dispatch (an official written message on government affairs) or other state paper without being prepared to table it if it can be done without injury to the public interest.
In reviewing the facts of the case before us, it is clear that neither of the two documents tabled by the hon. minister on Monday, February 3, 2003, falls in a category of documents that require tabling. They were not required by statute or by order of the House, nor were they documents the minister had quoted from. As for the information under dispute, it is contained in an entirely separate third document that provides technical background to the recommendations in one of the tabled reports.
The Minister of Justice was under no obligation to table any of these documents. However, following a commitment he made to the House on December 12, 2002, the minister chose to table the two reports and not the background document as, pursuant to Standing Order 32(2), he sought to provide further information to members on matters that lie within his administrative jurisdiction as Minister of Justice.
That being said however, the Chair is troubled by the miscommunication which seems to exist in this case. Several hon. members indicated they were unaware of the existence of the background document despite the fact that the hon. government House leader stated that the document was available to members through several avenues.
It had been pointed out that the press release issued by the Department of Justice provided a phone number where members might request additional technical documents related to those tabled in the House. That may well be true, but it nonetheless left us in the unhappy situation where the House received one set of documents while a more complete set of materials was available outside the House. The Chair notes that this situation was rectified on February 12 when the Minister of Justice tabled the background document in the House.
Clearly, a disagreement exists between hon. members as to both the nature of the documents originally laid before the House by the hon. Minister of Justice and the extent of the commitment made by him in December when he agreed to provide further information on the firearms program. That distribution inside and outside the House was at the outset inconsistent--and, that the House arguably originally received the less complete set of documents--only exacerbated the disagreement.
However, the fact remains that no procedural obligation existed for the minister to table these documents in the first place. So, while it is certainly regrettable that the original distribution of documents was inconsistent, this in itself is not sufficient for the Chair to find that a prima facie question of privilege exists in this case.
I thank the hon. member for Yorkton--Melville for having drawn this matter to the attention of the Chair.