Mr. Speaker, I am very disappointed that I must rise in the House this morning to speak to a ministerial statement, which is yet another example of the Conservative government's profound contempt for Parliament, its institutions and democracy itself.
It is unacceptable, though not surprising, that the Leader of the Government refused to provide a copy of his ministerial statement in advance, as parliamentary traditions dictate. In his statement, one of the government's supposed reasons for implementing a new directive prohibiting staff members of ministers or of the Prime Minister from being called before committees to testify is the tyranny of the opposition.
I think that the public knows full well which side—the opposition or the government—triggered the election in September 2008 to avoid being held accountable in Parliament, even though the Canada Elections Act sets fixed dates for elections.
In December 2008, who requested that Parliament be prorogued to avoid being defeated by the opposition? The Conservative government. In December 2009, who requested that Parliament be prorogued yet again, to avoid having to hand over the documents that the House called for in a December 10 motion? It is very clear that the only tyranny here is from the Conservatives, and not the opposition, which is just trying to do its job.
During one of my most recent speeches in the House, I commented on the agreement reached on May 14 following your April 27 ruling about documents concerning allegations of torture in Afghanistan. At the time, I said that I would like to see a better balance between the executive and legislative branches. Many experts and opposition members, including Bloc Québécois members, believe that, under the Conservative government, this imbalance has increased even more, with the executive assuming far too much power relative to the legislative branch. This morning's statement makes that abundantly clear.
Despite your historic April 27 ruling, the government still has not grasped Parliament's role in our parliamentary system. You made things very clear in your ruling: Parliament's role is to hold the government to account. That is what the opposition—the Bloc Québécois in particular—plans to do.
Parliament has been given significant powers to carry out that task. In your ruling, you quoted the following passage from page 136 of the second edition of the House of Commons Procedure and Practice:
By virtue of the Preamble and section 18 of the Constitution Act, 1867, Parliament has the ability to institute its own inquiries, to require the attendance of witnesses and to order the production of documents, rights which are fundamental to its proper functioning. These rights are as old as Parliament itself.
It is clear that parliamentary committees have the power to call witnesses.
On page 975 of O'Brien-Bosc, we see that this power is not restricted: “The Standing Orders place no...limitation on this power. In theory, it applies to any person on Canadian soil.”
In practice, however, we all know that this power is limited to a certain extent.
A committee cannot require the attendance of a person who is not in Canada, nor can it call parliamentarians from other legislative houses protected by parliamentary privilege. It cannot call a member of the House of Commons, a senator, the Governor General or a lieutenant governor.
Upon hearing that the government leader was planning to read his ministerial statement this morning, I searched everywhere but found no mention of an exception that would apply to political staff in general or to the Conservative government's political staff in particular.
In addition to accusing the opposition of tyranny, the government has invoked the principle of ministerial accountability to justify its decision.
This principle is also defined in O'Brien-Bosc on page 32:
...its Ministers must be accountable or responsible to Parliament...The principle of individual ministerial responsibility holds that Ministers are accountable not only for their own actions as department heads, but also for the actions of their subordinates.
This principle means that, ultimately, ministers are responsible for the actions and errors of their subordinates. But the government is trying to distort the meaning of this principle. According to this principle, a minister's subordinates include both political staff and the entire staff of their department.
This principle of ministerial responsibility has never meant and will never mean that the subordinates in question cannot testify in committee. Things would become downright ridiculous if we followed the government's logic. Would civil servants no longer be able to appear before a parliamentary committee in order to explain a government bill, program or expenditure?
Keeping political staff from testifying means that Parliament would no longer have access to those people who are closest to the everyday use of power, and these people would no longer be accountable to Parliament.
The Conservative logic is completely contradictory: the closer you are to power, the less accountable you are. That is exactly what this statement is getting at and it is the Conservative government's latest ploy to avoid accountability. Once again, it shows incredible contempt for Parliament's needs and powers as well as the powers of democracy.
Yesterday the Minister of Natural Resources told the media that it is not up to political staff to testify; it is up to the ministers.
Does this mean the Prime Minister will appear before the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics at 11:00 a.m., instead of Dimitri Soudas? Is that what the statement means and what the last sentence in the ministerial statement is suggesting?
Will the Prime Minister appear before the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics at 11:00 a.m.?
Really, what the government has just done is invent a new strategy to prevent Parliament from doing its work. The truth is that the parliamentary committee cannot force a minister to testify. The truth is that when the subject matter is too difficult, Conservative ministers refuse to appear before committees to testify.
The truth is that only a few weeks ago, the Minister of Natural Resources—who made the statement yesterday that it was up to ministers to testify before committees as part of their ministerial responsibilities—refused to testify regarding the Jaffer affair.
The truth is that the government shows profound contempt for Parliament, its institutions and democracy, and is doing everything it can to try to create another parliamentary crisis so it does not have to answer for its actions. The Bloc Québécois, and all opposition parties I hope, will not allow the government to do that, especially since it is a matter of confidence in the government.