I am now prepared to rule on the question of privilege raised on October 3, 2006, by the hon. member for Windsor—Tecumseh concerning funding cuts to the Law Commission of Canada.
I wish to thank the hon. member for raising this issue. I also wish to thank the hon. member for London West, the hon. government House leader and the hon. member for Vancouver East for their interventions.
In his question of privilege, the hon. member for Windsor—Tecumseh expressed concern about the government's announcement on September 25 that it would be eliminating funding to the Law Commission of Canada, thus effectively dissolving the organization. He questioned the authority of the government to do so without parliamentary approval, contending that the House of Commons first had to pass legislation to repeal the Law Commission of Canada Act. In support of this argument, he referred to a 1993 precedent when Bill C-63, an act to Dissolve or Terminate Certain Corporations, was passed. In conclusion, he asserted that the actions of the government breached the collective privileges of the House.
The hon. member for London West contributed arguments in support of the question of privilege. She gave a brief summary of the history and mandate of the Law Commission of Canada, citing several sections from the Law Commission of Canada Act. The hon. member for Vancouver East also spoke in support of the question of privilege.
For his part, the hon. government House leader contended that this was not a question of privilege. He stated:
...the President of the Treasury Board and the Government of Canada are not obligated to continue to spend money in areas which the government has decided it does not want to spend....
The matter raised by the hon. member for Windsor—Tecumseh is complex. The question on which I have been asked to rule is twofold. First, is the government's actions in conformity with existing legislative provisions respecting the Law Commission of Canada? Second, do the government's actions in eliminating the funding for the Law Commission breach the privileges of the House?
With respect to the first point, as my predecessors and I have pointed out in many rulings, where legal interpretation is an issue, it is not within the Speaker's authority to rule or decide points of law. Mr. Speaker Lamoureux's ruling, found at page 7740 of the Debates for September 13, 1971, deals with this question as follows:
Whether the government has an obligation under the terms of the existing law to make certain payments is not a question for the Chair to decide...This is a matter of judicial interpretation and is far beyond the jurisdiction and certainly far beyond the competence of the Chair.
Accordingly, if there is a legal problem, then the solution is to be found in the courts.
Now let me address the procedural issues that do lie within the Speaker's purview. The hon. member for Windsor—Tecumseh argues that the collective privileges of the House have been breached.
Generally speaking, the collective privileges of the House are categorized as the power to discipline; the regulation of its own internal affairs; the authority to maintain the attendance and service of its members; the right to institute inquiries, call witnesses and demand papers; the right to administer oaths to witnesses; and the right to publish papers containing defamatory material. In this particular instance, it is evident that none of these collective rights have been breached.
That being said, House of Commons Procedure and Practice states, at page 52:
Any conduct which offends the authority or dignity of the House, even though no breach of a specific privilege may have been committed, is referred to as a contempt of the House. Contempt may be an act or an omission; it does not have to actually obstruct or impede the House or a Member, it merely has to have the tendency to produce such results.
In short, the Chair is being asked to judge whether this action by the government has challenged the perceived authority and dignity of Parliament. Let me review briefly the parameters of that authority as they relate to this case.
Through the estimates and ways and means processes, Parliament authorizes the amounts and destinations of all public expenditures. Once Parliament has allocated the moneys, it is the prerogative of the government to manage these funds. On page 697 of the House of Commons Procedure and Practice it states:
As the Executive power, the Crown is responsible for managing all the revenue of the state, including all payments for the public service.
Although responsibility for financial management belongs to the government, the House retains an important oversight role. Members, through the standing committee system, have an opportunity to examine how the government has managed these funds through their review of the estimates, the annual departmental performance reports, the Public Accounts of Canada and the reports of the Auditor General.
At this time ministers may be invited to appear before standing committees to defend these expenditures and the committees may report back to the House. In addition, as part of its responsibility for oversight of government activities, a committee may invite a minister to appear at any time to discuss administrative decisions.
Following such inquiries, committees are empowered to report to the House concerning any comments or recommendations they may wish to make. The House then has the authority to take up the matter and deal with it as it sees fit.
Thus, the duty of oversight goes to the very reason for the existence of Parliament and this range of activities represents the normal operations of this place. In this way, members who disagree with the course taken by the government on any particular issue can pursue such questions in a variety of ways. Since the avenues remain open to the hon. member, the Chair cannot conclude that the government's action on the Law Commission is flouting the authority of the House.
While members may have deep concerns about the decision to no longer fund the Law Commission of Canada, this decision does not constitute a breach of privilege. While the hon. member for Windsor—Tecumseh may feel he has a grievance, I cannot find a prima facie case of privilege in this case.
I thank the hon. member, however, for bringing this important matter to the attention of the Chair.