I am now prepared to rule on the question of privilege raised on April 14 by the hon. member for Calgary Southeast concerning responses to questions given by the hon. Minister of Public Works and Government Services during question period last week. The hon. member for Calgary Southeast claimed that the hon. minister should be found to be in contempt of the House for deliberating misleading the House with his responses to certain questions regarding the Gomery inquiry.
I would like to thank the hon. member for Calgary Southeast for having raised this question as well as the hon. minister for his contribution on the issue. I would also like to thank the hon. member for Windsor—Tecumseh, the hon. member for Mississauga South and the hon. member for Fort McMurray—Athabasca for their interventions.
The hon. member for Calgary Southeast contended that in response to a question asked during oral question period on Monday, April 11, the hon. Minister of Public Works and Government Services stated that the Liberal Party had engaged auditors to conduct a full audit of its books. The hon. member went on to argue, however, that during question period on April 13, the hon. minister claimed that the Liberal Party had hired auditors to conduct financial reviews. The hon. member alleged that the hon. minister presented a different version of the facts to the House after PricewaterhouseCoopers and Deloitte & Touche had publicly confirmed that they had been engaged to conduct a forensic accounting review. This, he argued, showed a deliberate attempt on the part of the hon. minister to mislead the House.
Referring to the Deloitte & Touche document cited by the hon. member, the hon. minister claimed that it was proof that he had not concealed information from the House, that the Liberal Party had indeed engaged the two companies to conduct a forensic accounting review. He argued that the hon. member was trying to create the impression that the Liberal Party was not cooperating with the Gomery commission when in fact the party had engaged the two companies to conduct an investigation and review in order to assist with the inquiry. He went on to state that, in his view, it was the hon. member's statements which were unparliamentary and demeaning to the House of Commons.
The hon. members for Windsor—Tecumseh, for Mississauga South and for Fort McMurray--Athabasca also spoke on the matter, offering advice to the Chair on the differences between an audit and a forensic review.
As I stated to the House at that time, I did not fully grasp the difference between an audit and a forensic review and would need to look into the matter before rendering a decision on the question of privilege. I have now had the opportunity to do so.
To summarize the information that I gleaned from consulting a number of website financial lexicons, an audit, usually conducted annually, is an examination of the financial records and procedures of a business, government unit, or other reporting entity by a trained accountant for the purpose of verifying that the financial statements are accurate, complete and timely and present fairly the results for the period in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles. On the other hand, a forensic review is focused on addressing red flags, concerns and suspicions and is directed to the courts. It is investigative in nature and is undertaken by a forensic accountant to detect fraud or illegal acts. The forensic accountant looks at the big picture and therefore the investigation is not necessarily limited to a specific time period.
Having satisfied myself on the difference between an audit and a forensic accounting review, I would now like to address the issue of whether the minister deliberately misled the House last week with his responses to oral questions.
I refer hon. members to page 67 of Marleau and Montpetit:
There are, however, other affronts against the dignity and authority of Parliament which may not fall within one of the specifically defined privileges. Thus, 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—
It is rare for the Chair to find prima facie privilege when there appears to be a dispute as to facts. The hon. member for Calgary Southeast cited a ruling where I found a prima facie case of privilege with regard to the then minister of national defence.
The hon. minister had been charged by a member with contempt for deliberately misleading the House in his response to questions about when he knew that prisoners taken by Canadian JTF2 troops in Afghanistan had been handed over to United States authorities. In that case I stated that both the hon. minister and other hon. members recognized that two versions of events had been presented to the House and that the matter warranted further consideration by an appropriate committee, if only to clear the air.
In the present case, I must determine whether the minister's responses in any way impeded members in the performance of their parliamentary duties and whether the remarks were intentionally misleading. I suspect that members can easily appreciate that the financial terminology used in the questions and answers could cause some confusion. Indeed, it may be that only accountants and other financial experts can fully grasp the subtleties with respect to audits, financial reviews and forensic accounting reviews.
However, it appears to the Chair that it may be that the minister erred in the terminology he used to describe the accounting exercise in question. However, I can find no evidence of a desire to mislead the House or other hon. members. Indeed, on April 18, 2005, in response to a request from the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre, the minister rose to inform the House as follows:
I understand the hon. member asked that the PricewaterhouseCoopers and Deloitte reviews be tabled. In fact, they are posted on the Liberal Party website, as they have been for several months, in both official languages. They have been provided to Justice Gomery for his commission's work, as our auditors in fact are working with Justice Gomery's auditors on this.
As Mr. Speaker Fraser noted in a ruling given on June 30, 1987, at page 7867 of the Debates :
--it is possible to be misled without being deliberately misled. As Hon. Members know, if there were any suggestion of dishonest motivation...the only course would be to give notice of a substantive motion setting out the accusation in precise terms. The fact is that we are faced with a political issue on which views are deeply divided. This is not an unusual situation in this House and, unless any action were taken to infringe our right of free debate and free expression, we are not dealing with a matter involving privilege.
Given the circumstances I have described, the Chair cannot regard this issue as anything other than a dispute as to facts. I am therefore unable to find grounds for the charge of a prima facie breach of privilege.
The Chair has notice that the hon. Minister of Citizenship and Immigration wishes to address the Chair on another matter that was raised the other day. He has further submissions for the benefit of the Chair and the House.