Mr. Speaker, I rise today on a question of privilege, specifically to claim that a contempt of the House may have occurred in the form of a document being crafted by the government that tells committee chairs to tamper with witnesses coming before committees.
I will now put some of the background on the record. On the day of the existence of this document becoming known, on our last sitting day in the House, I asked the leader of the government in the House to table the document so that all members could understand what exactly was given to chairs of committees. In fact, I laid out in my letter to you earlier today the exchange that took place in question period on the last sitting day around this issue.
The minister failed to table the document and even went so far as to suggest that the document was somehow produced by the opposition.
I am raising the question today as my attempt to have the document tabled on our last sitting day, which would have allowed outstanding questions raised by Mr. Martin's article to be transparently examined by all members, failed. This is my earliest opportunity to raise this as a question of privilege.
The article to which I am referring was written by Don Martin with the National Post. It appeared on the front page of the National Post on Friday, May 18 and was entitled “Tories have the book on political wrangling”. In this article, Mr. Martin claims to have come into possession of a manual prepared by the government for Conservative chairs of House of Commons committees.
Mr. Martin describes the contents of the manual as follows:
Running some 200 pages including background material, the document--given only to Conservative chairmen--tells them how to favour government agendas, select party-friendly witnesses, coach favourable testimony, set in motion debate-obstructing delays and, if necessary, storm out of meetings to grind parliamentary business to a halt.
Toward the end of the article it states:
The manual offers up speeches for a chairman under attack and suggests committee leaders have been whipped into partisan instruments of policy control and agents of the Prime Minister's Office. Among the more heavy-handed recommendations in the document:
That the Conservative party helps pick committee witnesses. The chairman “should ensure that witnesses suggested by the Conservative Party of Canada are favourable to the government and ministry,” the document warns.
The chairmen should also seek to “include witnesses from Conservative ridings across Canada” and make sure their local MPs take the place of a member at the committee when a constituent appears, to show they listen and care.
The article goes on to say:
The chairmen should “meet with witnesses so as to review testimony and assist in question preparation.
Those revelations call into question the possibility that the government has been deliberately telling committee chairs to tamper with witnesses appearing before committees of the House and I believe that constitutes a contempt of this Parliament.
On page 50 of House of Commons Procedure and Practice by Marleau and Montpetit it quotes “Erskine May's Treatise on the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament” as providing the classic definition of:
“Parliamentary privilege” refers more appropriately 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 fulfil their functions.
Further, at page 51, Marleau and Montpetit lists the individual and collective privileges of the House, including the specific collective privileges of the right to institute inquiries and to call witnesses and demand papers and the right to administer oaths to witnesses.
However, throughout the whole chapter in this much quoted authority, privilege is actually seen as an ancient and specific right that we receive through section 18 of the British North America Act or within sections 4 and 5 of the Parliament of Canada Act from our British parliamentary roots. In fact, there is no doubt that these privileges come down to us from 400 years of parliamentary experience from the Parliament of Westminster in the United Kingdom.
In looking up the origin of privilege of witness in the 21st edition of Erskine May, I wanted to see what privileges exist in England and how they compare to ours in this situation. Under the “Contempt of Parliament” sections on page 131 of Erskine May, which deals with the contempt of obstructing witnesses, it states:
On 8 March 1866 the Commons resolved, 'That it is the undoubted right of this House that all witnesses summoned to attend this House, or any committee appointed by it, have the privilege in this House in coming, staying and returning'.
I mentioned that because it was the common ancestor to our practice which still offers our witnesses before committees the protection of our privileges, most notably, the right of freedom of speech. Since those rights are offered to witnesses in both parliaments, I also looked to see what further protection was offered under British privilege to witnesses before committees.
On page 131 of Erskine May's 21st edition it further states:
Any conduct calculated to deter prospective witnesses from giving evidence before either House or a committee is a contempt
While this refers mostly to protection from physical molestation and intimidation, page 132 of Erskine May's 21st edition, under the heading of “Tampering with witnesses”, states:
A resolution setting out that to tamper with a witness in regard to the evidence to be given before either House or any committee of either House or to endeavour, directly or indirectly, to deter or hinder any person from appearing or giving evidence is a breach of privilege has been agreed by the Commons at the beginning of every session since 1900, and there have been numerous instances of punishment for offences of this kind.
Corruption or intimidation, though a usual, is not an essential ingredient in this offence. It is equally a breach of privilege to attempt by persuasion or solicitations of any kind to induce a witness not to attend, or to withhold evidence or to give false evidence.
This matter was considered in 1935 by a committee of the Commons which reported that, in its opinion, it was a breach of privilege to give any advice to a witness which took the form of pressure or of interference with his freedom to form and express his own opinions honestly in the light of all the facts known to him; and the House resolved that it agreed with the committee in its report.
I wish to submit that the British parliament has clearly seen the need for impartiality of witnesses and has actually made it a breach of privilege to interfere with witnesses in any way that would affect or coach their testimony. The question that arises is whether those rules apply here. I believe they do and that they should.
In the sixth edition of Beauchesne's Parliamentary Rules and Forms, citation 32 on pages 13 and 14, it explains that the privileges of the United Kingdom parliament were effectively transferred to this House:
The right of the Canadian Parliament to establish its privileges is guaranteed by the Constitution Act and the privileges thus claimed may, at present, not exceed those of the United Kingdom House of Commons.
(2) Parliament, in 1868, laid claim to all of the privileges of the United Kingdom House of Commons without specifying their exact extent.
Citation 32(4) states:
As Parliament has never delimited the extent of privilege, considerable confusion surrounds the area. Recourse must therefore be taken, not only to the practice of the Canadian House, but also to the vast tradition of the United Kingdom House of Commons.
Therefore, witnesses before committees share the same privilege of freedom of speech as members in the U.K. and here. Committee privileges are covered in basically the same way in Ottawa in our House of Commons and in Westminster in terms of the powers of committees to decide questions of privilege and in the ways that members' privileges apply as well. Even the procedure for reporting a breach of privilege is almost identical here in Canada to what it is in Westminster.
Mr. Speaker, you may question whether the applicability of the British rules against molestation, intimidation or tampering with witnesses applies here but I would contend that they do apply, as laid out in Erskine May.
Since it is alleged that the government has published a committee manual that instructs committee chairs to behave in a way that would alter the testimony of a witness before a committee, I submit that a breach of privilege and a contempt of Parliament may have taken place and, therefore, we must look into this matter immediately.
Mr. Speaker, I look favourably on your submission and I am prepared to move the appropriate motion, submitted to you earlier today in writing, should you find a favourable ruling to this question of privilege.