Mr. Speaker, I rise on a question of privilege relating to information provided to Parliament by the President of the Treasury Board. The minister has deceived the House in an attempt to keep Parliament in the dark with respect to the funding of the firearms registry program.
As you are aware, the issue regarding the reporting of the funds for the firearms registry has quite a history. It is a history of deception. The latest deception involves the classification of the firearms registry as a major crown project. On February 25, 2003, in response to a question from the member for Yorkton—Melville, the President of the Treasury Board said, “...according to my information the program was not formally designed as a major crown project”.
The Auditor General, in a letter provided to members of the public accounts committee, provides evidence to counter the claim of the minister. The evidence is not at dispute between the Auditor General and the President of the Treasury Board. The dispute over whether or not the firearms program is a major crown project comes from the same source: the Treasury Board. It is similar to the case of the former minister of defence, who gave two versions of events to the House, and is also similar to a 1973 case involving information given to the House and conflicting information given to a royal commission. I will present the two cases later.
The Auditor General has sent a follow-up memo to the MPs on the public accounts committee and the senators on the Senate national finance committee. The memo provides several examples in which both Treasury Board and the justice department make use of the term “major crown project”.
The National Post obtained a letter from the Auditor General and published some of its contents on Wednesday, March 12, 2003. The article states:
“The Department of Justice now appears to be objecting to the chapter's description of the Canadian Firearms Program as a major Crown project, and it appears to consider this a significant matter,” writes Ms. Fraser. “Our review of government documents related to the Canadian Firearms Program clearly indicated that the Program was a major Crown project.”
In one example, Ms. Fraser wrote that draft versions of her report are sent to departments for review. Ms. Fraser states the Treasury Board did not dispute the term's use, and in fact corrected one paragraph, requesting that the phrase “major capital project” be changed to “major Crown project”.
Mr. Speaker, it was the Treasury Board that corrected the draft report to read “major Crown project” with respect to the firearms registry. We have the minister saying one thing and the department saying another.
The Ottawa Citizen and the Calgary Herald ran a similar story. They reported:
Fraser wrote to the committee, saying that in March 1998, the year the National Firearms Act took effect, the Justice Department defined the program as a major Crown project when it sought preliminary project approval from Treasury Board, a committee of cabinet.
“The Treasury Board approved the submission in April 1998,” says Fraser's submission.
In May of the same year, the department again stated the Treasury Board had directed the program be managed as a major Crown project.
In a November submission to the Treasury Board, the Justice Department “specifically noted that the project was a major Crown corporation,” wrote Fraser.
Fraser told the committee that even in response to her own findings about poor spending controls in the program last year, the Justice Department and Treasury Board did not challenge her statement, prior to the release of her report, that the firearms program was a major Crown project.
A spokesman for the Canadian Firearms Centre two weeks ago told CanWest News Service that the registry had never been designated a major Crown project, but the department “treated” it as a major Crown project.
The same spokesman on Tuesday, when informed about Fraser's testimony, said he had since checked again and learned that the department had in fact treated only the computer-system components as a major Crown project.
On February 1, 2002, the Speaker ruled on a question of privilege raised by the hon. member for Portage--Lisgar concerning statements made in the House by the former minister of national defence.
The hon. member for Portage--Lisgar alleged that the former minister of national defence deliberately misled the House as to when he knew that prisoners taken by Canadian JTF2 troops in Afghanistan had been handed over to the Americans. In support of that allegation, he cited the minister's responses in question period on two successive days and alluded to a number of statements made to the media by the minister.
The Speaker said:
The authorities are consistent about the need for clarity in our proceedings and about the need to ensure the integrity of the information provided by the government to the House.
Even though the former minister of defence claimed that he did not intend to mislead the House, the Speaker found that a prima facie question of privilege existed. The Speaker said:
I am prepared, as I must be, to accept the minister's assertion that he had no intention to mislead the House. Nevertheless this remains a very difficult situation. I refer hon. members to Marleau and Montpetit at page 67:
“There are...affronts against the dignity and authority of Parliament which may not fall within one of the specifically defined privileges...the House also claims the right to punish, as a contempt, any action which, though not a breach of a specific privilege, tends to obstruct or impede the House in the performance of its functions; [or that] obstructs or impedes any Member or Officer of the House in the discharge of their duties...”.
The Speaker concluded his remarks and said:
On the basis of the arguments presented by hon. members and in the view of the gravity of the matter, I have concluded that the situation before us where the House is left with two versions of events is one that merits further consideration by an appropriate committee, if only to clear the air.
The situation regarding the term “major Crown project” is similar. The minister advised the House that the firearms program was not a major crown project. It was reported to a committee of the House that the program was considered by the Treasury Board and the Department of Justice as a “major Crown project”. In addition, the Auditor General reported to the House that it was a “major Crown project”.
That term is significant with respect to how the government must report to Parliament on the funding for the firearms program. It is also significant that the firearms program is under intense scrutiny and the government believes that it would be advantageous to keep Parliament in the dark as much as possible. It is only advantageous, Mr. Speaker, if we let the government get away with it.
There was a case in 1973 when the member for Northumberland--Durham asked questions of the then solicitor general about the practice of the RCMP opening mail. Later remarks before a royal commission by the former commissioner of the RCMP disputed that claim.
The sum of this evidence permitted the Speaker in 1973 to find a prima facie case of contempt where the RCMP was alleged to have deliberately misled a minister of the Crown and the member for Northumberland--Durham, resulting in “an attempt to obstruct the House by offering misleading information”.
In the 1973 case, two versions of events were presented, one in the House and one at a royal commission. The sources for those two versions were the same: the RCMP. In 1973, the minister was not actually aware that he was misleading the House. He received his information from the RCMP.
In the case I present to the Speaker today, we have two versions of events as well: one statement from the minister to the House, and several statements to the contrary, from department officials, that were reported to a committee. As in 1973, the two versions came from the same source, with officials saying one thing and the minister saying another.
Adding to the allegation of deliberately misleading Parliament, we have an officer of Parliament, the Auditor General, confirming that Parliament has been and continues to be deliberately misled. The Auditor General's report to Parliament states:
Back in 1995, the Department of Justice told Parliament that the program would cost taxpayers about $2 million. The Department now says that by 2004-05 the cost of this program could amount to more than $1 billion.
And even though the department has many explanations for this ballooning of costs, it never shared any of them with Parliament...What's really inexcusable is that Parliament was in the dark. I question why the Department continued to watch the costs escalate without informing Parliament and without considering alternatives.
The Auditor General also pointed out that:
The information the Department provided states that by 2001-02 it has spent about $688 million on the Program and collected about $59 million in revenues after refunds. We believe that this information does not fairly present the cost of the Program to the government.
The Department also did not report to Parliament on the wider costs of the Program as required by the government's regulatory policy.
Furthermore, the entire Program was designated as a major Crown project. Treasury Board policies require departments, at a minimum, to annually report the following types of information to Parliament--
The government is playing fast and loose with the term “major Crown project” in order to keep Parliament in the dark. On the one hand, the firearms program is a major crown corporation, and on the other hand, it is not. The government claims on some occasions that the firearms registry is not a major crown project, yet on other occasions it claims that it is. The Auditor General reports that it is. The President of the Treasury Board reports that it is not. The House is told that it is. A committee of the House is told that it is not.
In the Speaker's ruling of February 1, he said:
--in deciding on alleged questions of privilege, it is relatively infrequent for the Chair to find prima facie privilege; it is much more likely that the Speaker will characterize the situation as “a dispute as to facts”. But in the case before us, there appears to be in my opinion no dispute as to the facts. I believe that both the minister and other hon. members recognize that two versions of events have been presented to the House.
Mr. Speaker, in this case, two versions have been presented to the House and to its committees.
The member for Yorkton--Melville has raised a question of privilege in the House on a similar matter. One of his concerns was the impression left with the public. He quoted a headline from the Globe and Mail , “Lies and contempt for Parliament at root of scandal in gun registry”; the Ottawa Citizen , “Government accused of hiding secret audit ”; the Winnipeg Sun , “Liberals lied”. Now we have more stories about scandal, contempt, lies and cover-up.
While certain committees of the House are investigating the scandal aspect of the gun registry, we also need to look into the contempt aspect of this tragedy. There is enough evidence to show, as the Globe and Mail put it, that there exists “Lies and contempt for Parliament”. Of all of the investigations, this one is crucial because in order for other committees to be successful they must be assured that they are not being deceived. Those who are deceiving must be punished and the contempt for Parliament by the government must stop.