Before moving to government orders, I am now prepared to rule on the question of privilege raised on April 1, 2004 by the hon. member for Roberval concerning the release by the hon. member for Toronto—Danforth of in camera testimony given before the Standing Committee on Public Accounts.
I would like to thank the hon. member for Roberval for having raised this issue. I would also like to thank the hon. Deputy Leader of the Government in the House and the hon. members for West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast, Provencher, Winnipeg North Centre and Scarborough—Rouge River and Toronto-Danforth for their contributions to the discussion.
In raising his question of privilege, the hon. member for Roberval charged that the hon. member for Toronto—Danforth had released to the media in camera testimony given before the public accounts committee during the 1st Session of the Thirty-Seventh Parliament. He also charged that the hon. member for Toronto—Danforth had done this deliberately, in full knowledge of the fact that the committee had not yet taken the decision to make this testimony public.
He claimed further that permitting this action to go unchallenged would represent a de facto recognition that committee rules, particularly with respect to in camera proceedings, apply only to opposition members.
His concerns in this regard were echoed by the hon. members for West Vancouver--Sunshine Coast and Winnipeg North Centre.
The hon. Deputy Leader of the Government pointed out that the committee had in fact decided to make the testimony public, so that the point raised by the hon. member for Roberval was of only theoretical interest.
The hon. member for Provencher drew to the attention of the House that a draft report had been prepared for the committee concerning the actions of the hon. member for Toronto—Danforth, but that the draft report had been rejected by a majority of the members of the public accounts committee.
The hon. member for Scarborough—Rouge River indicated that the question of the hon. member for Toronto—Danforth's actions had been raised in the committee, as was proper, and that the committee had disposed of the matter as it saw fit. He maintained that the rejection of the draft report by majority vote in the public accounts committee settled the matter.
In his presentation, the member for Toronto--Danforth stated that the committee had received written acknowledgement from Mr. Guité's counsel that the testimony could be made public. He also noted that the remarks in which he had revealed parts of the testimony had been made during a media scrum. He concluded his presentation by apologizing to the House and the committee for any breach of privilege which might have occurred.
Before dealing with the procedural aspects of this question, I feel that it is my duty to share with the House the extent to which I have found this matter troubling. As members will recall, I had given a ruling concerning another complaint about proceedings in the public accounts committee earlier on the same day that the hon. member for Roberval raised this issue. It is of deep concern to me that, in conducting this inquiry, committee members found it necessary to raise procedural matters on the floor of the House. As hon. members know, the procedure for dealing with possible breaches of privilege in committee is clear. House of Commons Procedure and Practice states, p. 128:
Since the House has not given its committees the power to punish any misconduct, breach of privilege, or contempt directly, committees cannot decide such matters; they can only report them to the House. Only the House can decide if an offence has been committed. Speakers have consistently ruled that, except in the most extreme situations, they will only hear questions of privilege arising from committee proceedings upon presentation of a report from the committee which directly deals with the matter and not as a question of privilege raised by an individual member.
In discussing consideration of a report related to a privilege matter in committee, House of Commons Procedure and Practice , p. 130 states:
If the committee decides that the matter should be reported to the House, it will adopt the report which will be presented to the House at the appropriate time during the Daily Routine of Business.
It is clear from this passage that a committee may choose to report a possible breach of privilege to the House or it may decide not to. In the case raised by the hon. member for Roberval, the public accounts committee has decided not to refer the conduct of the hon. member for Toronto—Danforth to the House. As Speaker, I can see no procedural grounds on which to overturn the committee's decision, or indeed, to interfere in its proceedings on this matter in any way.
While previous Speakers, and I myself in earlier rulings, have indicated that a Speaker might, in extreme circumstances, take action with respect to irregularities in a committee's proceedings, there has always been considerable reluctance to intervene in any matter which the committee itself ought to decide.
Speaker Fraser put the point at issue quite clearly, and I refer to the debates of April 2, 1990, page 1076:
It would place the Speaker in the untenable position of standing in appeal to any decision of standing, special and legislative committees, particularly in cases of high controversy and vigorous political debate, like this one. This is not foreseen in our rules nor does our practice anywhere provide such a role for the Speaker.
The hon. member for Roberval has raised the concern that, although the House has in place rules and practices which protect members from what is often referred to as “the tyranny of the majority”, no such safeguards exist in committee.
I would like to remind hon. members that, although committees are given considerable liberty to organize their work, they are not free to adopt whatever procedures they choose. Marleau and Montpetit , p. 804, states:
Committees, as creations of the House of Commons, only possess the authority, structure and mandates that have been delegated to them by the House. …The House has specified that, in relationship to standing, special or legislative committees, “the Standing Orders shall apply so far as may be applicable, except the Standing Orders as to the election of a Speaker, seconding of motions, limiting the number of times of speaking and the length of speeches.”
With these exceptions, committees are bound to follow the procedures set out in the Standing Orders as well as any specific sessional or special orders that the House has issued to them.
While the House accords great latitude to committees, it is very far from simply turning a blind eye to how they conduct their business. As I mentioned in my earlier ruling on April 1, 2004, concerning proceedings in the public accounts committee, the House may, if it has concerns about how the committee is conducting its work, issue an instruction. This can be done by way of a motion of instruction moved during Private Members’ Business or, if unanimous consent was sought and obtained, such motion could be moved without notice under the rubric “Motions” during Routine Proceedings.
The hon. member for Roberval, in his capacity as House Leader, has much experience in the negotiations of such proceedings.
Finally, another possibility is for the House to order the recommittal of a committee report if it finds it unsatisfactory in some respect.
It is to be expected that, very often, not every member will be in complete agreement with decisions taken in committee. All members understand that the confrontation of opposing views is a central feature of our parliamentary system of government. This is true in committee as it is in the House itself.
If, however, it is felt that the disagreements in the public accounts committee arise from some structural or systemic deficiency, that is something that might be raised before the procedure and House affairs committee, which has the mandate to review the procedures and practices in committee.
Just as committees remain bound by the rules established for them by the House, so too is the Speaker obliged to rule based on our rules and practices.The particular issue raised by the hon. member for Roberval has in the present instance been dealt with in the committee in a procedurally acceptable manner.
I remind the House that it is incumbent on all members to ensure that committees, in carrying out the work delegated to them, function within the rules and procedures that are set down for them.