I am now prepared to rule on the question of privilege raised by the hon. member for Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington on March 29, concerning the issue of confidential files in the possession of the Liberal Party of Canada. The hon. member commented further on the matter on April 17 and April 27. In reviewing this important question, the Chair also considered carefully the documentation forwarded by the hon. member on May 1.
I would like to thank the hon. member for having raised this matter, as well as the hon. member for Ajax-Pickering for his comments.
In his remarks, the hon. member for Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington referred to statements made to the media by the hon. member for Ajax—Pickering and Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, in which they indicated that they had in their possession several boxes of documents which they claimed to have found in drawers and filing cabinets in the offices customarily occupied by the staff of the leader of the opposition.
The hon. member for Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington confirmed that the documents in question were the property of the Conservative Party of Canada, that they were confidential in nature and that they included the personnel files of approximately 30 past and present employees of the party, himself among them. He stated that the hon. members for Ajax—Pickering and Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine had admitted inspecting the documents in question and that the hon. member for Ajax—Pickering had made specific reference to “five years worth of performance appraisals of Conservative staffers” before going on to allege “gross ineptitude” on the part of the Conservative Party.
In response to the claim that the documents had been found in drawers and filing cabinets, the hon. member for Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington disputed this assertion. He noted the presence, on the boxes containing them, of address labels that he said had been placed there by Conservative staff, clearly indicating the intended destination.
The hon. member for Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington also reported that while the majority of the documents had been returned to the Conservative Party, the hon. member for Ajax—Pickering had told the press that, and here he said he was quoting the hon. member for Ajax—Pickering, “the Liberal caucus is retaining possession of some of the documents to determine whether or not they contain other issues that are in the public interest”.
The hon. member for Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington expressed concerns that documents of the Conservative caucus were still in the possession of the Liberal caucus and were being retained with a view to making them public at such time as this might be politically damaging to the government.
In reply, on April 17, 2007, the hon. member for Ajax—Pickering stated that all of the remaining documents had been returned to the custody of the Sergeant-at-Arms on April 10, 2007. He declared that the documents had not been copied or mishandled and that only one Liberal staff member had been involved in their examination. He denied that all the documents had been boxed and the boxes labelled, stating that “the only labelled box contained videotapes of the 2004 Conservative election ads and all other materials were found in desk drawers and cabinets”.
The hon. member for Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington then made a further submission on his point of order, commenting on the manner in which confidential documents had been displayed at a news conference on March 26, 2007 and on the detailed description offered to the media by the hon. member for Ajax—Pickering of their contents. He identified discrepancies among a number of statements to the media by the member for Ajax—Pickering and others in his caucus, and he emphasized the diligence with which Conservative staff ordinarily manage the relocation of confidential documents.
The hon. member for Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington charged that the Leader of the Opposition was “guilty of facilitating actions that are an ongoing contempt of Parliament” if some of the documents had not been returned. He demanded that the identities of those involved in inspecting them be disclosed, that he be told whether any of the documents had been scanned or otherwise reproduced, and that the Leader of the Opposition explain why some of them had been displayed on his website.
In seeking recognition from the Chair that a prima facie breach of privilege had occurred, the hon. member for Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington maintained that his ability to discharge his duties as a member of Parliament had been impeded. He cited Maingot's Parliamentary Privilege in Canada, page 229, to the effect that interference with the functioning of a member of Parliament “may be treated as a contempt even though there is no precedent of the offence”, and he adduced a precedent from 1996 in which an inappropriate press release by a member of Parliament had been deemed to constitute a prima facie case of privilege.
I have looked into this question with care, as I indicated was my intention when the issue was brought before the House. House of Commons Procedure and Practice states at p. 50:
“Parliamentary privilege” refers … to the rights and immunities that are deemed necessary for the House of Commons, as an institution, and its Members, as representatives of the electorate, to fulfill their functions. It also refers to the powers possessed by the House to protect itself, its Members, and its procedures from undue interference, so that it can effectively carry out its principal functions which are to inquire, to debate, and to legislate.
Members are aware that parliamentary privilege is strictly limited in its application. With respect to individual members, privilege provides them with a guarantee of freedom of speech, freedom from arrest in civil actions, exemption from jury duty and from appearing as a witness, and freedom from obstruction, interference, intimidation and molestation.
As I indicated in my remarks on April 17, 2007, the hon. member for Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington may have a grievance. However, as Speaker, I am limited to a determination of whether or not the treatment of the documents in question has interfered with the member's ability to carry out his responsibilities as a member of Parliament. It does not seem to me that this is the case.
All members, I am sure, appreciate the seriousness of this incident. Issues of personal privacy are of importance not only to those of us in this place but to all Canadians. At the same time, I can see no grounds at present to justify a finding that the use made of the documents in question constitutes a breach of the privileges of this House or of the individual member in this case, the hon. member for Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington.
The hon. member for Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington continues to participate in debate fully and freely, and to attend to his other responsibilities as a member. While he may have concerns about what has occurred with respect to these documents, the Chair cannot see, on a prima facie basis, that the member's privileges have been violated.
Perhaps the hon. member should bring his concerns on this matter to the attention of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs in respect of the proper handling of found documents pertaining to matters of parliamentary business and belonging to another member or to the caucus of another recognized party.
In respect of his concern regarding the privacy rights of individual members or employees of members and caucus staff, perhaps the hon. member might ask the Board of Internal Economy to review the matter of how found documents are to be handled, as an administrative matter, where the documents relate to individuals in their personal or private capacity. However, I do not think this is a case requiring the intervention of the Chair, since it fails to meet the standard required of a question of privilege.
Once again, I thank the hon. member for Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington for having brought this matter to the attention of the Chair.