I am now prepared to rule on the question of privilege raised on Wednesday, October 25, 2006 by the hon. member for Wascana concerning comments allegedly made by the hon. Minister of Foreign Affairs last Thursday, October 19, 2006.
I would like to thank the hon. member for raising this matter as well as the hon. Government House Leader for his response for it gives me the opportunity to clarify the very limited role that the Speaker can play in situations of this sort.
First, let us review the events to date. On October 19, the hon. member for Bourassa rose on a point of order to object to remarks he alleged were made by the hon. Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was supported by the hon. member for Ajax—Pickering. Since I had not heard the remarks complained of, I undertook, as I would usually do in such cases, to review the record and return to the House if necessary.
On October 20, the hon. member for Newmarket—Aurora rose on a point of order and, quoting Standing Order 18, sought an apology for offensive and disrespectful remarks allegedly made by the Minister of Foreign Affaire the previous day. The Chair responded as follows:
--the news of these statements is something that is new to me because I did not hear the comments or see any of the gestures that are alleged to have taken place.
My staff have carefully reviewed the audio tapes of question period and the written transcript of Hansard, which I myself have seen, and of course there is no reference to these words in either. So I am unable to confirm any of the suggestions that have been made. I know several members say that they heard these remarks.
However, in the circumstances, there is nothing further I can do at this time.
Now the House leader of the official opposition has risen on a question of privilege on this same matter and has provided the Chair with affidavits signed by several hon. members stating that they heard the offending remarks.
In the meantime, of course, as the House knows, audio clips of the October 19 proceedings have been aired in the media. Indeed, a transcript of one such report has been sent to me by the hon. member for Newmarket—Aurora.
However, last Wednesday, when asked by the hon. House leader of the official opposition to apologize, the hon. Minister of Foreign Affairs replied:
I made no such gesture. I made no derogatory or discriminatory remarks toward any member of the House.
The hon. member for Mississauga South argues that the Chair might refer this matter to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs so that the Committee can get at the truth in these competing claims. Even if I were so inclined, it is not for the Chair to refer matters to a committee but for the House to take that decision.
Historically, when a member has made a remark considered unparliamentary or inappropriate, the Speaker has asked the member to withdraw or rephrase the comment. Standing Order 18 prohibits disrespectful or offensive language against a member of the House and, as Marleau and Montpetit states at page 522:
A member will be requested to withdraw offensive remarks...directed toward another member.
But such action by the Chair—that is, requesting an apology or a withdrawal—is predicated on a common agreement about what actually took place, either because the exchange appears in the official record or because both parties acknowledge that the exchange took place.
In this case, the official record is not helpful and the Speaker is faced with a dispute, indeed a contradiction, about what actually happened. Some hon. members insist that they heard the offensive remarks; the hon. minister denies making them.
In examining the precedents, I find guidance in a ruling delivered on December 12, 1991 by Mr. Speaker Fraser. At pages 6218 and 6219 of the Debates, he stated:
The Chair is faced with a dispute and is unable to resolve it. When the official records are not supportive of the allegations, I am convinced that it is not the duty of the Chair to try and resolve it. As far as I am concerned from a procedural point of view and in keeping with our conventions the matter is closed.
In the circumstances, I have listened very carefully to the arguments presented, notably by the hon. member for Wascana who contended:
The privileges of members of this House are thus being infringed: first, by the lingering untruth; and, second, by the inability of the minister, apparently, to be believed.
While I may agree with the hon. member that the circumstances surrounding this situation are most regrettable, it is not clear to me how they prevent hon. members from accomplishing their work. Since I fail to see how the privileges of the House have been breached by this unfortunate situation, I cannot conclude that a prima facie breach of privilege has occurred.
This conclusion is consistent with Speakers Lamoureux and Jerome who, in rulings delivered on June 8, 1970, Journals page 966, and on June 4, 1975, Journals page 600 respectively, both quote citation 113 of Beauchesne's fourth edition, which states that:
--a dispute arising between two members, as to allegations of facts, does not fulfill the conditions of parliamentary privilege.
Mr. Speaker Jerome, again on June 4, 1975, Journals page 601, further concluded that serious dispute and disagreement about facts and their implications or significance are “ingredients for debate and not ingredients for a question of privilege”.
In the case before the House now, the remarks may or may not have been said. However, it is not for the Speaker to decide where the truth lies.
I regret that the Chair can offer no remedy to the House, particularly as it seems apparent that the situation does nothing to enhance the reputation of the House of Commons and its members. Members on all sides of the House have commented on the erosion of mutual respect in the House. As was stated by the chief government whip on October 20, it is incumbent upon all of us to work harder toward maintaining decorum in this chamber.
I believe we would do well to recall the words of Mr. Speaker Fraser on December 11, 1991 when he said:
Few things can more embitter the mood of the House than a series of personal attacks, for in their wake they leave a residue of animosity and unease.
I appeal, therefore, to all hon. members to be judicious in their language and avoid personal attacks on other members, so that they do not bring themselves and this House into disrepute.
As for this particular case, in keeping with the rulings of my predecessors, Messrs. Lamoureux, Jerome and Fraser, I must now consider the matter closed.