Mr. Speaker, I want to address an issue that was raised by the House leader of the Bloc Québécois. This is with regard to whether Bill C-53 was improperly prematurely disclosed in advance by me. I want to speak to that.
The rule in the case that we are talking about is not one that one will find referenced in Marleau and Montpetit. One will not find any reference to it in Erskine May or in Beauchesne's. In fact, Mr. Speaker, the rule essentially comes entirely in one single finding of contempt that you yourself made in 2001 with regard to an action of my predecessor, the first public safety minister, who was the Minister of Justice at that time.
What your ruling clearly indicated and what those circumstances produced is an indication that the rule about disclosing or discussing a bill in advance is a very circumscribed rule. The restrictions are fairly simple. First, the time period in question is limited only to the time between a bill being put on notice and its actual introduction. That is the period in question. Of course, the principle is that the first availability of the text of a bill should be to members of Parliament.
The approach that I adopted in the particular circumstance was not to disclose the contents of the bill. Rather, it was simply to discuss a policy problem that existed and discuss the intention of the government to fix it. It was not a specific explanation of what those fixes were nor an indication of what the text of the bill was going to be. None of those things occurred.
Second, in the case in 2001, the justice minister's actions must be looked at. What occurred specifically was that the justice minister held a briefing with the media. This was after a bill was put on notice and before it was introduced in the House. The justice minister circulated an actual copy of the text of that bill to the media and provided comment on it. Mr. Speaker, that was the basis on which you made a ruling. Your ruling was that was a prima facie contempt of the House.
The test that arises from that case is that one cannot disclose the text of a bill to a select group ahead of parliamentarians seeing it. In your words, Mr. Speaker, “with respect to material to be placed before Parliament”, that is, the bill itself, “the House must take precedence”.
In the arguments before you, the opposition is looking to significantly expand this rule, both in the case of the issues they raised with my colleague the Minister of Justice on Bill C-52 and me and the Minister of Public Works on Bill C-53. They would wish to ask you to expand that rule to effectively prohibit the government from ever discussing any policy that might in the future be the subject matter of a bill before the House.
Obviously, that is not the purpose of the rule. The purpose of the rule is not to stifle discussion or debate, or an exploration of policy issues. That would offend the privileges of members of the House. That would offend our freedom of expression. In fact, if that were to be the rule, it would effectively stifle any public debate of policy, including what we do in question period, what we do in debates on allotted days, what we do in committees all the time and what we do in election campaigns.
That is clearly not the intent of the rule. Clearly, the intent of the rule is restricted to the actual disclosure of the text of a bill. Mr. Speaker, as I said, it is a rule that has emanated entirely from a ruling made by you in 2001.
To address specifically the approach that I adopted with regard to any discussion of the introduction of Bill C-53 in advance of it, I took great care. As a former House leader, I was sensitive and cognizant of the issues that existed there. I was well encouraged by our current House leader to exercise due care.
The best way of examining whether any such contempt occurred is simply to look at the words of my availability to the media and what was discussed. I will read them.
Currently, many criminals get out of jail early through a process called accelerated parole review. First-time criminals who have committed non-violent offences can access day parole at one-sixth of their sentence and are granted almost automatically full parole at one-third of their sentence.
“Currently, many criminals get out of jail early through a process called accelerated parole review. It is the law now. First-time criminals who have committed non-violent offences can access day parole at one-sixth of their sentence and are granted almost automatically full parole at one-third of their sentence”. That is simply a description of the law as it exists today. There is nothing inappropriate with that kind of discussion.
Unless the National Parole Board has reasonable grounds to believe that offenders will commit a violent offence once released, it must automatically grant their release into the community.
“Canadians are surprised to learn that unless the National Parole Board has reasonable grounds to believe these offenders will commit a violent offence, not another offence, but a violent offence once released, they must automatically release those prisoners into the community”.
This means, believe it or not, that in some cases, a fraudster, a thief or a drug dealer, for example, could be back on the streets early. Such a criminal could be sentenced to 12 years but would actually be released into the community on day parole in just 2 years, and, notwithstanding having a 12 year sentence, could be fully paroled in 4 years, and the Parole Board would have no choice but to make that order.
Again, it is a description of the existing law. Nothing inappropriate there.
It goes on to state that ”the status quo gives the Parole Board no discretion in dealing with these cases. The test is simple, whether or not the offenders is likely to commit a violent offence. Well as you can imagine, with someone who has never committed a violent offence in the past, the ability to pass that test to be held there longer is a pretty tough one. As a result, even if the Parole Board believes the offender is likely to go out and commit another fraud, another theft or another drug offence, the Parole Board has no choice. They must, under the present law, release that offender into the community. We think that is a problem”.
Again, that is a statement of the law that, in my view as Minister of Public Safety, is a problem. There is nothing inappropriate about doing that. It is a wholly legitimate discussion of policy.
In a number of cases, criminals who received a sentence that seemed appropriate can leave prison and be back on our streets shortly after their crime makes the headlines. This situation upsets Canadians' sense of justice and undermines their trust in the justice system and the correctional system.
It goes on to read, ”This offends Canadians' sense of justice, it undermines their faith in our justice system and our correctional system. Canadians want change and that is what our government intends to deliver”.
Again, that is a very simple, very broad statement of disapproval of the current law and a desire to change it. There is no disclosure of the contents of any bill.
I continue, “This morning, I'm pleased to announce our commitment to reforming the parole system in this country. Our government is committed to fixing the problem of early parole for criminals”.
The commitment I am announcing today is another step toward a system of earned parole where early release is a privilege granted to offenders who have proven that they have truly made an effort in their rehabilitation, rather than a right available to all criminals.
I go on to say, “The commitment I'm announcing today will move us one step closer to a system of earned parole in which early release is a privilege granted only to those who have shown they are committed to rehabilitation rather than a right granted to every criminal. Earlier this year, I introduced legislation that would make the protection of society paramount in all decisions in the correction process. It includes reforms that would hold criminals more accountable for their actions and rehabilitation more effective. Today's commitment will build on these proposed reforms”.
Again, I have not in any place tendered on the table a draft of the bill, as happened in the case of the justice minister in that situation in 2001 where the Speaker found contempt. I did not even discuss the contents of what a solution would be. I simply said, “Here we have a policy problem. We as a government intend to fix that problem. We are going to take action to fix it”.
We could do that in any number of ways. We could do that by changing the one-sixth day parole eligibility to perhaps one-fifth or one-third or one-quarter. I did not in any way disclose at that point in time what that solution would be. We could have changed the full eligibility parole from one-third to one-half to one-quarter. I have not disclosed that.
We could simply change the test from an automatic one to one where we shift the burden to a prisoner to prove why he or she should be released or to one that would create a presumption that could be dissuaded perhaps by victims. We did not discuss what particular solution there would be, We also could simply do away with the whole system of accelerated parole, which is what we did ultimately, but nowhere in this announcement did I ever state which of those many myriad of solutions could have been the ones approached.
Certainly it falls far short of the test that is established in the 2001 decision of yourself, Mr. Speaker, which relates to the actual disclosure of the text of a bill in advance, to a limited audience of not parliamentarians. That is the real test. It is over here. I am in fact fa away from that, simply dealing in a policy discussion, indicating that we have a problem in our society that we need to fix.
For the opposition members, who have been complaining a lot about the fact that we go out and talk about what we are doing, what we think needs to be done and what we want to fix, and who do not like to have us communicating with Canadians, I can understand why they want that rule expanded to stifle any discussion of policy or of problems that we intend to fix in this country, including in the justice area.
However, that is not what the rule stands for in the decision that was taken in March 2001 that established this principle that it would be a contempt on Parliament to circulate and disclose in advance the text of a bill. In fact, in my case we do not even come anywhere close to that: none of the provisions, none of the potential mechanisms, none of the solutions, let alone the specific text, which is what the principle stands for.
Mr. Speaker, I submit to you that you should dispense with the request from the leader of the Bloc Québécois in the House of Commons, supported by the other parties in this matter, because it simply falls far short of the test that would constitute any contempt of Parliament.
I have been very careful in this matter, as was my colleague, the public works minister, in the exact same availability to the media, in addressing these issues in a cautious fashion that respected, to the utmost, the principles of respecting the supremacy of Parliament, that the content of a bill should be, once put on notice, submitted to this Parliament first before it is submitted to any other group, and that is exactly what was done in this case.
Therefore, to expand that rule significantly to stifle any discussion of policy would be a highly inappropriate approach.