Mr. Speaker, I rise today, like some other days when I come to speak, with some particular interest in this subject, which may be, quite frankly, of primary interest or exclusive interest to those members who are elected and sit in the House both currently and those who might sit in the future.
We are here today debating a motion from the Liberal Party on its opposition day that involves a fundamental issue for parliamentarians in Canada. It grows out of a series of events that involves the member for West Nova and really started as a result of certain comments he made on public television with regard to Mr. Mulroney. Those comments elicited a lawsuit from Mr. Mulroney against him for defamation.
Subsequently, the same member, who sits on the standing committee on ethics in this Parliament, had the opportunity to examine Mr. Mulroney when he appeared before that committee.
Subsequent to that, a complaint came from a member of the Conservative Party to the Ethics Commissioner that the conduct of the member for West Nova, in questioning Mr. Mulroney in front of the committee, broke the ethical rules that we are all bound by in the House as members of Parliament.
On May 7 of this year, the Ethics Commissioner presented her findings and recommendations. The report put forth a number of findings.
Perhaps I will just digress for a moment. The motion by the member of the Liberal Party, the member for Scarborough—Rouge River has, as one of its components, an acknowledgement that, in spite of the fact that he is obviously concerned about the ruling by the commissioner, the motion today, if it passes, will acknowledge that the finding she made and the determination and analysis she brought to bear is one that we are not criticizing. It is appropriate for that be part of the motion and I applaud my colleague for having included it. I think the last thing this Parliament needs is further criticisms of public servants and individuals who report to Parliament as parliamentary officers.
I have to say that there are points that could be argued as to whether her analysis was accurate, but at the end of the day it was a reasonable interpretation of the ethical code that we are bound by in the House. I believe we must recognize that and recognize the role she played, the integrity and sincerity in the analysis that she did and the results that she came to, in spite of the consequences that it has. The rest of the motion is an attempt by the member for Scarborough—Rouge River to correct those consequences by making amendments to the code and to, in effect, clarify what the proper role would be for a member of the House, who continues to sit in the House, having been made a party to a lawsuit.
We are all assuming that this would always be the type of lawsuit that would involve libel, slander or defamation, but it could be any number of other issues in terms of a relationship between the plaintiff suing a member of Parliament. I think we need to be cognizant of that fact.
In her determination, the Ethics Commissioner did take into account the concerns raised by the member for West Nova if it was found that he had breached the code by questioning Mr. Mulroney in the types of questions he asked. He raised a number of concerns, but fundamentally the concern he raised was the difficulty for members to perform their duties if in fact members of Parliament were compelled to recuse themselves in all situations where a lawsuit crossed over.
One of the concerns I have in terms of the burden it puts on us is the wording the commissioner used, that the work one is doing as a member of Parliament has to be closely related in terms of the interest that is at stake in the lawsuit. It is no more definitive than that. I think her ruling is in keeping with the code but it leaves a very serious consequence in terms of a potential abuse by someone taking a civil suit against a member of Parliament.
The concern is that in this Parliament in particular, and I am being very careful to not be partisan here, I believe there have been lawsuits of a greater number that have occurred in the last two and a half years than in any previous Parliament historically in Canada. The concern is that if this ruling stands and the interpretation that has been applied by the Ethics Commissioner is enforced on an ongoing basis, are we left with the potential abuse that a number of members of Parliament would be restricted from doing what had been their duties at that point?
The very basis of the conflict we are confronted with by the ruling from the Ethics Commissioner and by the motion that we have before the House today is to try to find the proper balance between the privileges we have as members of Parliament to freely speak on all issues at all times, perhaps very forcefully and aggressively at times, in order to properly do our jobs as members of Parliament. That is the one side. The other side is the potential abuse of performing those functions where it overlaps and contradicts the nature of the lawsuit that is going on. Trying to find that proper balance is really what today's motion is about, but it clearly sets out that conflict.
We have had comments on both sides from some of the other members who have spoken today, perhaps in some degrees to an extreme, but let me address those extremes on both sides.
The reality is that we do have some restrictions as members of Parliament in the way we conduct ourselves. I am going to use as an example the lawsuit that carried on, I think all the way to the Supreme Court, but it certainly went to the Federal Court of Appeal, on whether the human rights legislation applied to members of Parliament here on the Hill. Ultimately it was determined that in fact it did in that like all Canadians involved at the federal level in issues, in that case it was an employment issue, the human rights legislation applied to us and in some respects curtailed our conduct. We have accepted that.
It is generally accepted that we are bound as members of Parliament by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as all Canadians are. We hear from some, and I think again there are some members who have spoken today who have pushed it too far, that generally we have those restrictions but other than those, we have and should have absolute free rein.
Again, I would say, going back in history for hundreds of years, that in terms of our responsibility regarding our ability to do our jobs, we try to make any restrictions as absolutely minimal as possible so that we can represent our constituents as freely and, on a number of occasions, as aggressively as we possibly can. That is the idea, that restrictions are minimal, allowing us to do our jobs as broadly as possible.
On the other side of this balance, I can point to practices that have grown up, rules that have been put into place that give us as part of the privilege of being members of Parliament, permission to conduct ourselves in ways that we do not give to any other citizen in the country. We know that we can stand in this House and libel, slander and defame someone with absolute immunity. Civil courts cannot touch us. Criminal courts cannot touch us, or could not, when we had criminal libel. That is the epitome of the freedom that we have here.
There are other more minor ones. As an example, if we are involved either as a party or as a witness in a civil suit, we cannot be compelled as members of Parliament to testify or to pursue those lawsuits, either as a claimant or as a defendant, while the House is in session. There is a very broad interpretation about what it means for the House to be in session. We saw this as recently as a few years ago, in 2004. There were several lawsuits that involved one of the deputy prime ministers at that time where attempts were made to compel him to come and testify. In fact, there was an initial ruling by one of the courts that did say he had to and then, when it was pointed out what the history was, what the real rules were, it was struck down and he was permitted not to have to testify until he actually retired from office. We have those kinds of protections.
We have a number of privileges, some of them simple ones. We have access to this building; we can walk in freely, without going through security. Other citizens of Canada, other people attending this building, cannot do that. There are a lot of those simple privileges. We have very minimal restrictions. We have very broad freedoms in this House.
Fundamentally, the issue we are faced with today is the freedom of speech, the ability to speak out on an issue, including in this case, to question a witness in front of a committee, even when that questioning is going to overlap the very issues that are involved in the civil lawsuit that has been brought against the member for West Nova.
The determination we have to make in the vote later today is whether we are going to say that under those circumstances, the member is going to be allowed to continue to do his or her job, is going to be allowed to continue, again in some cases aggressively, to speak out on the very issue that is the essence of the lawsuit.
I think that every member of this House and every Canadian would like to think, and maybe it is a fond hope, that every member of Parliament would always conduct himself or herself in a responsible fashion, that we would not deliberately defame or libel anyone, that we would not take advantage of our freedom of speech here, our extended freedom of speech beyond what any other Canadian has even at other levels of government, that we would not treat that lightly, and that we would always treat it in a responsible way. That is obviously ideal. That is not going to happen. The reality is that on occasion there are going to be members of Parliament who are going to abuse it. I think we would all be extremely naive to think otherwise. That is one of the realities.
On the other side of the coin is the other reality, that if we do not accept that at times there will be that kind of abuse, hopefully extremely rarely, that there will be the other abuse where an individual, sometimes even another member of Parliament, will sue a member of Parliament as a means of shutting the member up. Someone will bring an action either with merit or without merit against the individual member of Parliament in order to ensure that the member is no longer engaged in the debate that is going on around the particular issue, that the member has to recuse himself or herself from all debate and involvement in that regard.
It is my personal position as a member of Parliament that that abuse is the greater risk than members of Parliament being abusive and irresponsible in their use of the very special privileges we have as members of Parliament.
As a lawyer, I can think of some of my comrades here who will say that if the lawsuit is without merit, one can move fairly rapidly in court to have it dismissed because it is vexatious or frivolous. Those are the kinds of terms that are in our rules of practice, actually and are pretty common across the country. Having been involved in some of those lawsuits, I can say that in trying to get lawsuits dismissed at an early stage, the reality is that our courts bend over backward--and I am not being critical of them; I think the approach they have taken historically is the proper one--but the courts are very unwilling to find at an early stage of a lawsuit that it is vexatious or frivolous and should be dismissed. It just does not happen very often. In fact, it is close to being in the rare category.
Even though we are not a particularly litigious society, we still have a lot of lawsuits. Very, very few of those get dismissed at an early stage because they are without merit. The case usually goes on, sometimes to the eve of the trial and sometimes through the trial, before the case is dismissed, even though in retrospect it may have had little or no merit.
We cannot rely on the courts to protect members of Parliament in that regard. If it appears on the surface that the case has any particular merit, it is going to be allowed to continue.
Then what we are faced with is the member of Parliament being shut out from the debate and from involvement in the debate sometimes for several years. It is not unusual for civil lawsuits in my province of Ontario to take that long.
At the end of the day, there are two potential abuses here that we are trying to deal with. This motion by the member for Scarborough—Rouge River addresses the more serious potential abuse, maybe even the reality since we are faced with it right now in one case. Therefore, members of the NDP are supportive of the motion. We will be voting in favour of it. Hopefully, that abuse that inevitably will come from certain irresponsible members of Parliament either in this Parliament or in the future will be an extreme rarity and we will never have to deal with it.