I am now prepared to rule on the question of privilege raised on Thursday, April 27, by the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre, alleging that the privileges of the House as a collectivity had been breached by the government's refusal to lower the flags within the parliamentary precincts to half-mast to mark the deaths of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan.
I would like to thank the hon. member for raising this matter, as well as the hon. government House leader and the hon. opposition House leader for their interventions.
To recapitulate briefly the arguments presented, the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre contends that it is the Speaker of the House of Commons, on behalf of the Parliament of Canada, who has the authority to determine when the flag on the Peace Tower is lowered and not the Department of Canadian Heritage or the Department of Public Works and Government Services Canada.
The hon. member cited a passage from page 170 of the second edition of Joseph Maingot's Parliamentary Privilege in Canada, which states:
Each House of Parliament is entitled to the administration of affairs within its own precincts free from interference....Control of the accommodation and services within the Parliament Buildings is therefore vested in the Speakers on behalf of their respective Houses.
The hon. member then argued that control of the accommodations and services of the parliamentary buildings, including the flagpole, is vested in the Speakers of the Senate and the House of Commons. He concluded that the government had overstepped its authority by dictating whether or not the flag on the Peace Tower should be lowered, thus usurping the privileges of the House.
The hon. government House leader argued that the lowering of the flag is the prerogative of the Crown and that it is up to the Government of Canada to exercise that prerogative. For his part, the hon. opposition House leader requested that the Speaker seek a legal interpretation of the authority of government departments vis-à-vis Parliament.
Let me clarify at the outset that it is not the role of the Speaker to give a legal opinion. Furthermore, I need hardly remind members that ours is a bicameral Parliament so that, were I to find that as Speaker of the House of Commons I have some role in this matter, it would follow that the other place would also need to be consulted on any decision concerning the flag that flies on a building shared by both Houses.
For the moment, though, this matter has been raised as a question of privilege in this House and my only role is to determine whether the privileges of members have been breached.
I believe it would be useful to all members if I summarized quickly the status of the Parliament buildings from an administrative perspective.
As I noted when the matter arose, the House of Commons and the Senate are tenants of the Department of Public Works and Government Services. Title to the buildings and land is in the name of Her Majesty in Right of Canada. By virtue of section 10 of the Department of Public Works and Government Services Act, the administration of federal property falls under the jurisdiction of the minister of that department.
That being said, because the Senate and the House of Commons are not government departments but constituent elements of Parliament with the right to administer their own affairs free from interference, the Speakers of the Senate and of the House of Commons have control over the accommodation and services within those areas of the parliamentary precinct occupied and used by senators and members.
These areas are defined in the second edition of Maingot's Parliamentary Privilege in Canada, at page 163, as, and I quote:
—the premises that the House of Commons and the Senate occupy from time to time for their corporate purposes. It includes those premises where each House, through its Speaker, exercises physical control to enable the members to perform their parliamentary work without obstruction or interference.
The hon. member for Winnipeg Centre argued that the House's collective rights were breached because the government assumed direction and control over the parliamentary precinct. The House of Commons has a number of rights which it claims and which have been accorded to it by statute. The right to regulate its internal affairs is the collective right that is pertinent in this matter.
The essential question is whether the half-masting of the flag on the Peace Tower is an internal affair falling within the privileges of the House, or an external matter under the jurisdiction of the owner of the building.
It appears clear to me that this is a matter falling within the jurisdiction of the Government of Canada since the Department of Public Works and Government Services has administrative responsibility for the building. Just as that department, as our landlord, carries out the upkeep of the parliamentary buildings, so too an official from Public Works and Government Services Canada is responsible for raising and lowering the flag each day on the Peace Tower.
The protocol for the flying of the Canadian flag falls under the Department of Canadian Heritage, which is generally responsible for Canadian symbols. Members can find on the heritage website the rules concerning half-masting of the flag on federal buildings, including the Parliament buildings. These rules and their application are a matter for the executive; they are not matters over which the Speaker has any control.
While it is my role as Speaker to protect the House's control over its premises and to protect the access of members to these premises, I cannot find that the government's control of the flag on the Peace Tower infringes on the privileges of the House. Specifically, this is not a matter that relates to the internal affairs of the House in that it does not prevent the House from carrying out its work or prevent members from carrying out their parliamentary duties.
Accordingly I cannot find a prima facie case of privilege. I thank the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre for bringing this matter to the attention of the house.