I am now prepared to rule on the question of privilege raised on February 12, 2003, by the hon. member for Sarnia--Lambton concerning management of the Canadian firearms program.
I would like to thank the hon. member for Sarnia--Lambton for having raised this question as well as the hon. members for Yorkton--Melville, Vancouver East, and Pictou--Antigonish--Guysborough, as well as the hon. government House leader and the hon. House leader of the official opposition for their comments.
In raising this question of privilege, the hon. member for Sarnia--Lambton referred to a question posed by the hon. member for Huron--Bruce during the oral question period on February 11, 2003, concerning the funding of the firearms registration program. The hon. member for Sarnia--Lambton took exception to the reply of the hon. Minister of Justice that, he said, “...reveals [the minister's] failure to accept that the House reduced to zero his estimates on December 5...”
The minister's response, as recorded at page 3424 of Debates of February 11, 2003, is as follows:
Mr. Speaker, up until the approval of the supplementary estimates, we were moving with what we call cash management. We said that before Christmas. The program is running at minimum cost but we are able to fulfill our duty.
Of course it is a short term solution and we are sure that the House will support gun control and will support public safety when we vote on the supplementary estimates.
The hon. member for Sarnia--Lambton alleges that the minister's response indicates that the minister is ignoring an order made by the House on December 5, 2002, and, in so doing, is breaching the privileges of the House in regard to its control of the public purse.
The member further contends that the House both refused funding for the firearms registry and indicated that no more money was to be devoted to that program.
Several other members expressed considerable interest in how the program is currently being funded, given the decision of the House on December 5.The hon. government House leader, in his intervention, pointed out that the firearms registry continues to exist as a program established by statute and that no decision has been made by the House to alter that fact. He insisted that:
—the estimates were reduced at the request of the minister. It is at the request of the minister that the amounts were reduced—
and that this reduction:
—is the amount of an increase in a supplementary estimate and nothing else.
In short, the gist of the argument presented by the hon. government House leader, a point to which I will return shortly, is that the sum removed from supplementary estimates (A) represented only funds that would have been added to the initial funding provided in the main estimates for the Canadian firearms program for this fiscal year.
The hon. House leader of the official opposition noted that the decision to remove $72 million from the supplementary estimates had been taken by the House as a whole, by unanimous consent, rather than as a government initiative. He acknowledged that the hon. government House leader had undertaken negotiations to secure the unanimous consent of the House to the withdrawal of the $72 million estimate for the Canadian firearms program. The hon. government House leader of the official opposition added, and I quote:
--We agreed and the House agreed to drop the $72 million, so everybody assumed that we would see no new action [on the Program]...
Let us begin by examining the event where this dispute over the Canadian firearms program originates. The Journals of December 5, 2002 indicate the following. I quote:
By unanimous consent, it was ordered,--That the Supplementary Estimates (A) be amended by reducing Vote 1a under Justice by the amount of $62,872,916 and Vote 5a under Justice by $9,109,670, and that the supply motions and the bill to be based thereon be altered accordingly.
A quick look at the context of this matter may be useful so let me review briefly how a government program, such as the Canadian firearms program, is created and funded. First, such a program required authorizing legislation. Once the required statutory authority is in place, the government can submit its request for program funding to Parliament through the estimates. I refer hon. members to pages 697 to 698 of Marleau and Montpetit where the importance of this process is succinctly outlined. I quote again:
The direct control of national finance has been referred as the “great task of modern parliamentary government”. That control is exercised at two levels. First, Parliament must assent to all legislative measures which implement public policy and the House of Commons authorizes both the amounts and objects or destination of all public expenditures. Second, through its review of the annual departmental performance reports, the Public Accounts and the reports of the Auditor General, the House ascertains that no expenditure was made other than those it had authorized.
As members well know, the main estimates provide a breakdown, by department and agency, of planned government spending for the coming fiscal year. Each budgetary item or vote has two essential components: an amount of money and a destination; in other words, a description for what the money will be used. Should the amounts voted under the main estimates prove insufficient or should new funding or a reallocation of funding between votes or programs be required during a fiscal year, the government must ask Parliament to approve additional amounts by submitting supplementary estimates.
In the case of the Canadian Firearms Program, legislative authority was provided by Parliament in 1995. The full financial history of the program need not concern us here, since this particular dispute concerns the current funding of the program, that is, funding for the fiscal year 2002-2003.
In March 2002, the government laid upon the table the main estimates for the fiscal year 2002-03, including a planned spending estimate of $113.5 million for the Canadian firearms program. The main estimates were referred to appropriate standing committees for study and, in due course, were reported back to the House or deemed reported back and ultimately approved by the House on June 6, 2002. The government was thereby authorized to spend the $113.5 million on the Canadian firearms program as laid out in the main estimates for 2002-03.
Following the start of the new session last September, the government presented supplementary estimates (A) for review and approval by this House. These estimates were referred to standing committees for study and eventually came before the House for final approval.
The supplementary estimates (A) called for additional funding for the Canadian firearms program in the amounts of $62,872,916 under Vote 1a and $9,109,670 under Vote 5a of the Department of Justice. On December 5, the final day for consideration of the supplementary estimates by this House, these amounts were withdrawn from the estimates package.
Clearly there is a difference of opinion among hon. members on the motivation of different parties in granting their consent to this withdrawal and, perhaps more importantly, on the consequences of the motion that was adopted to effect that withdrawal.
Some hon. members seem to equate the withdrawal of those estimates by unanimous consent of the House to their being voted down. I cannot agree and I see more than a semantic difference in those scenarios.
Other hon. members invite the Chair to conclude that the firearms registry program must be halted because the negotiations among the parties and the circumstances leading to the House granting unanimous consent to withdraw the supplementary funding request for the program were predicated on that very assumption. Your Speaker cannot reach that conclusion even though I do not doubt for a moment the bona fides of hon. members making that claim. Hon. members may argue that they only granted their consent to withdraw these estimates because they believed they were thus cancelling the program but if that was their belief, they were mistaken and, if that was their objective, it has not yet been achieved.
As I have often stressed when delivering rulings on questions of privilege, and this is especially relevant when the House is seized with highly charged issues, the Chair can only ensure that a motion is properly before the House and that the rules, practices and procedures of the House are followed. Your Speaker can no more consider why members are supporting a motion than he can weigh the substantive merits of a motion before the House. This is especially true when the House proceeds by way of unanimous consent. In those circumstances, the House consciously chooses to set aside the usual procedural safeguards that the Chair can and must enforce. In other words, the House chooses to forgo its usual rules and practices so that it can proceed unhindered on a certain course of action; the Speaker has no role whatsoever in these circumstances except to ascertain whether or not unanimous consent exists.
Such was the case last December 5 when, by unanimous consent, the House adopted a motion to withdraw the supplementary estimates for the firearms program. Practically speaking, what occurred on December 5, 2002 was that the additional funding being requested for the Canadian firearms program was withdrawn from the package of supplementary estimates that was finally approved. This still left the Canadian firearms program with the original $113.5 million authorized by the House last June in the main estimates. That may not have been what some hon. members understood to be the case, but that is exactly what happened.
The hon. Minister of Justice indicated on February 11 that he will be requesting additional spending authority in Supplementary Estimates (B), which will be presented to the House in the coming weeks. Hon. members will have a further opportunity to pursue with the Minister of Justice all the issues related to the management and funding of the Canadian Firearms Program at that time.
Meanwhile, however, the Chair can find no procedural irregularities in anything that has been said by the hon. Minister of Justice in response to questions on the Canadian firearms program and I must conclude that no prima facie breach of privilege has occurred in this case.