I am now prepared to rule on the question of privilege raised on February 12, 2004 by the hon. member for New Westminster—Coquitlam—Burnaby concerning misleading statements contained in the 1999-2000 “Report on Plans and Priorities” of the Department of Public Works and Government Services.
I would like to thank the hon. member for having raised this important matter, as well as the hon. member for St. John's West, the hon. deputy House leader of the government and the hon. parliamentary secretary to the government House leader for their comments.
In drawing this issue to the attention of the House, the hon. member for New Westminster—Coquitlam—Burnaby cited three paragraphs from the Auditor General's 2003 annual report in which the Auditor General states that Parliament was misinformed by the 1999-2000 “Report on Plans and Priorities” of the Department of Public Works and Government Services. The “Report on Plans and Priorities” was tabled on March 25, 1999 as recorded in the Journals of that date at page 1673. The hon. member quoted paragraph 3.100 of the Auditor General's report which reads:
Not only was Parliament not informed about the real objectives of the Sponsorship Program, it was misinformed about how the program was being managed. The parliamentary process was bypassed to transfer funds to Crown corporations. Funds appropriated by Parliament to PWGSC were used to fund the operations of Crown corporations and of the RCMP.
In their remarks, both the deputy government House leader and the parliamentary secretary to the government House leader pointed out that the Auditor General’s report stands referred to the Standing Committee on Public Accounts. The public accounts committee is actively pursuing a study of the difficulties with the sponsorship program detailed in the Auditor General’s report.
The Chair views this question as one of utmost importance. Evidence of its seriousness is clear in the language used by the Auditor General. She speaks of Parliament being “misinformed” and “bypassed” with respect to its fundamental duty to oversee and approve government expenditures. Any attempt to subvert or obstruct the House in fulfilling its constitutional obligation is one which all members must view as an attack not only on the House but on Canada's system of responsible government.
There has not been any suggestion that the findings of the Auditor General are inaccurate. I share the concern of all hon. members regarding the present situation as this House cannot carry out its responsibilities unless it is presented with accurate and complete information by the government.
At the same time, there has been nothing presented to the Chair that indicates the source of the misleading information. In raising this issue, the hon. member for New Westminster—Coquitlam—Burnaby did not state that either the minister or the deputy minister knew that the “Report on Plans and Priorities” was misleading when they signed their names to it.
It is not, of course, absolutely necessary that the minister be aware that a document is misleading in order for a contempt to occur. In describing the 1978 case cited by the hon. member for New Westminster—Coquitlam—Burnaby, where contempt was found to have taken place despite the lack of any intent on a minister’s part, House of Commons Procedure and Practice , p. 87, states:
On December 6, 1978, in finding that a prima facie contempt of the House existed, Speaker Jerome ruled that a government official, by deliberately misleading a Minister, had impeded a Member in the performance of his duties and consequently obstructed the House itself.
In the case before us today, no evidence has been brought forth to show that, in preparing the report on plans and priorities, departmental officials deliberately intended to deceive their superiors and so obstruct hon. members in the performance of their duties.
I must conclude that the requirements for showing that a prima facie breach of privilege has occurred have not yet been met in the present case.
As I mentioned earlier, this matter is currently the subject of a study being carried out by the public accounts committee. The investigation of issues raised by the Auditor General in her reports forms a key part of the mandate of that committee as set out in Standing Order 108(3)(g).
A report from the public accounts committee may present the House with evidence that certain individuals provided information in a deliberate attempt to mislead the House. If that proves to be the case, it would certainly constitute grounds for the raising of a question of privilege at which point it would be possible for hon. members to deliberate in full possession of the committee's findings.
I remind the House that a determination that a breach of privilege is not prima facie at this time in no way interferes with the right of any hon. member to raise a new question of privilege following the tabling of a committee report or the disclosure of pertinent information from any other source.
While I recognize the importance of the issue raised by the hon. member for New Westminster—Coquitlam—Burnaby, I am not persuaded that a prima facie breach of privilege exists at present. As I have indicated, I remain fully open to considering the question should further evidence be brought to the attention of the House.