Yes I do, Mr. Speaker. I appreciate the opportunity to respond to the questions of privilege raised by hon. members for Scarborough—Rouge River, St. John's East and Saint-Jean. You are quite correct in stating that most of what has been heard this morning on these questions of privilege are quite common to a central issue.
I would like to make a few general comments with respect to some of the comments made by the member for Scarborough—Rouge River in his intervention. Initially, I should also say the questions of privilege are fundamentally and historically raised at the first opportunity. This has generally been an accepted requirement of the House. I would first argue that these questions of privilege have not been raised at the first and the earliest opportunity, since they are referring to an order of the House of December 10 and now we are well into the month of March. However, Mr. Speaker, I would trust your judgment on giving that some consideration.
With respect to one of the first points raised by the member for Scarborough—Rouge River, he seemed to take some issue with comments and statements made by the Minister of National Defence. I would point out that words of a minister are really matters of debate and, quite frankly, differences of opinion are matters of debate in the House, not a question of privilege.
The second point raised by the member for Scarborough—Rouge River was also raised by the member for St. John's East and the hon. member for Saint-Jean, and that is the crux of the arguments on production of documents surrounding the Afghan detainee issues and whether Parliament has the right to ask for those documents to be produced.
I would like to make an initial response to all these questions of privilege and raise some points that I think should be taken under very careful consideration, and I trust you will, Mr. Speaker.
The immediate question for decision is whether there is a prima facie evidence of a breach that would justify setting aside all other business, consider such a motion as might be allowed by the Speaker and considered by the House. It is by respectful submission that, at this time, such a finding is not justified.
The most critical point for your consideration, Mr. Speaker, and is the crux of this issue, is the order of the House, passed on December 10, listed a considerable catalogue of categories of documents and ordered that, “accordingly the House hereby orders that these documents be produced in their original and uncensored form forthwith”.
However, and this is the critical point, the order of the House made on December 10 made no provision to protect the security of these documents as outlined in the December 10 order of the House. No protection of the security of these documents was made in that order. Were these documents to be produced right now under this order, these documents would be immediately and fully in the public domain, with no consideration for the sensitivity or the security concerns contained in those documents.
I would also like to ask a question of all three of my hon. colleagues who raised these questions of privilege, and that is simply this. Could they ever give an example where the House has compelled the government of the day to produce documents that endangered national security or the security of our military? The answer is quite clearly, no. They are asking for that now, with no provisions in place to protect the security of such documents.
In fact, I would point out in his intervention the member for St. John's East talked about the Afghanistan committee putting in place security provisions to protect security of these documents. Why has that not been done now? There is much more work to be done on this issue, yet although the member for St. John's East seems to indicate the security provisions must be made and must be provided, nothing has been done to date. Yet he is asking for documents to be produced without provisions to protect the security of these documents and to protect the security of our military and of our country.
Every member of the House knows and fully understands that the issues of military and diplomatic security are at issue concerning the release of these documents. I do not think there is any question of that.
Let me just quote some comments made by the Attorney General on March 5 of this year. He said:
The government acknowledges that it is appropriate that decisions on the disclosure of information in these circumstances be reviewed independently from government. This will ensure that parliamentarians will have as full and complete access to government information as is necessary to perform the function of holding the government to account, but no one wants to cause injury to Canada's national defence, international relations or national security.
The security of the nation and the conduct of international relations are fundamental to the constitutional duties of the Government of Canada.
Members will understand that there are matters which governments must keep confidential in order to protect the public interest, even in the freest and most open of societies.
Nonetheless, as I have stated, the government acknowledges that it is appropriate that decisions made by officials on the disclosure of information in these circumstances be reviewed independently from government.
I am pleased to inform the House that the government has engaged an eminent jurist and legal expert to undertake an independent, comprehensive and proper review of the documents at issue, including the information that was proposed to be withheld from release.
A review of statements by the member for Vancouver South, who put forward the December 10 motion, shows that he is now in favour of a public inquiry, not the unrestricted publication of the documents in question. There is obviously an ongoing process under way to find a resolution to the conflicting need of the House for information and the requirement to preserve military and diplomatic security.
As recently as June 8, 2006, Mr. Speaker, you ruled that national security, when asserted by a minister, was sufficient to set aside a requirement to table documents cited in debate. That was supported by an earlier ruling found at pages 28627 to 28631 of the Debates for November 2, 1983. I would point out that you went on to say that the Speaker had no role in reviewing documents in this circumstance.
As you know, Mr. Speaker, there is an ongoing process to prepare documents for the House. Officials of the Department of Justice and Justice Iacobucci are engaged in preparing documents. The House has always accepted that national security justifies withholding papers from the House. In fact, once again, the member for St. John's East indicates that they are not asking for everything to be produced and to be made public. Our government has put in place a process to protect the security. Let that process work.
In this instance, our government is taking unprecedented measures to disclose what can be disclosed. We have put in place a review process by a person of expertise, experience and repute. I submit that these measures indicate that the government is making every possible effort to comply with the order of the House of December 10, consistent with the competing requirement to protect the security of our forces and our international obligations. The Minister of Justice has kept the House well informed of all of our efforts in this regard.
The government will want to respond in greater detail to these points raised by my three hon. colleagues. I would ask for that opportunity at a later date.