Mr. Speaker, the public accounts committee has been considering a motion to release the in camera proceedings of Chuck Guité. The advice of the Clerk has been sought, and he has concluded that it would be prudent for the committee to seek an order of the House. His conclusion is based on precedent.
I have two letters from the Clerk, one addressed to the member for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine. I will not read that whole letter, but I will quote from the last paragraph, and I will ensure that the whole letter is available to you. He says to the member:
In view of the actions of the House in 1978 and in the absence of other precedents suggesting other options, it would appear to be prudent for the Standing Committee on Public Accounts to seek a House Order should it wish to make public in camera evidence from a previous session.
The Clerk also wrote to the chair of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, and again I will just read the last paragraph that sums up his letter. He says:
--I have found nothing that would lead me to reconsider the advice contained in my letter of March 24.
The letter of March 24 was to the member for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine.
I am raising this matter before the committee votes on its motion to release the testimony because if I wait until it is adopted, it will be too late and the damage will be done.
I ask the Speaker to consider intervening because it can be argued that the committee is going beyond its authority. If precedent has been established that it is the House that has the authority to release in camera testimony, as the Clerk has pointed out, then the committee is in breach of the rules by deciding the matter on its own.
On June 20, 1994 and November 7, 1996, the Speaker ruled:
--while it is a tradition of this House that committees are masters of their own proceedings, they cannot establish procedures which go beyond the powers conferred upon them by the House.
Powers conferred upon committees take a number of forms: the Standing Orders and the practices of the House. While there is no standing order to guide us, there is a clear precedent. Therefore, that would form part of the rules of this House, and if it is a rule that confers or restricts a committee, then a committee, while being the master of its own proceedings, cannot establish a procedure, or in this case release in camera testimony because it goes beyond this restriction established by a precedent of this House.
This debate is going on in the committee in a vacuum. We have the Clerk's opinion but we need a ruling from the Speaker. It is the Speaker who must rule because, as I pointed out, we are talking about a practice of the House, not a committee. I am concerned that the rules of the House will be broken, and the matter is too important to wait until after they are breached. It is not hypothetical because the motion is before the committee; the issue of whether or not the matter can be dealt with at a committee has come up. The question is out there but there has been no formal request from the Speaker to rule.
Already Mr. Speaker we have one member of the committee who leaked information from the in camera testimony. He said he did so because he was confident that the committee was going to pass the motion to release the information.
The other casualty in this matter is the chairman. The Prime Minister has lambasted him during question period, accusing him of blocking the release of the information. The chairman, Mr. Speaker, was only doing his job. He has interpreted the rules based on advice from the Clerk of our House. He wants to be cautious in this matter and rightfully so as the chairman of a very important committee of this House.
Despite his efforts, I do not think this matter can be dealt with at the committee level because it is a matter for this House to consider. If this House claims its authority to release that information, then the authority must be sought from this House.
That question needs to be answered before the committee releases that information. That is what the chairman is trying to determine. He is not the obstacle. It is the Liberals who refuse to follow the normal course to seek a House order. By attempting to circumvent the rules, they may be hampering their efforts and the efforts of everyone who wants to see this information released.
That is why they are in trouble with the sponsorship program. They did not follow the rules. Liberals feel that because they are the government, they can do whatever they want, whenever they want, regardless of the rules and maybe above the law. This is particularly problematic at committee where the tyranny of the majority can overturn a ruling of the chair who is only trying to keep order and follow the procedures and practices of this House.
If you need time, Mr. Speaker, to deliberate on this matter, I ask that you request the committee put aside its motion until you have clarified this very important issue before this House.