Mr. Speaker, it is my obligation today, on behalf of the official opposition, to respond to the remarks of the government House leader. I thank him for sending me a copy of those remarks but, sadly, they only arrived as he was speaking.
In respect of his last comments about due process, fair play and proper behaviour in this place and in the committees of the House, I would note for his benefit that it has always been the rule and tradition, except for a couple of recent examples on the part of the government, that ministerial statements are provided in a decent interval of time in advance so that the opposition has the opportunity to respond appropriately. I will come back to this point about due process and fair play but I would simply note for the minister that it applies both ways.
In responding to the statement by the government House leader today, one cannot miss the irony or perhaps the ignominy of the minister re-announcing in the House what an aide to the Prime Minister has already announced as government policy on television a couple of days ago. It is another Conservative government policy about secrecy, preventing accountability, stifling transparency, muzzling all of the assistants who work for the Prime Minister and for various ministers in the cabinet and prohibit their attendance at parliamentary committees to give evidence or answer questions. The arrogance and hypocrisy of this position are breathtaking.
The Prime Minister's communications director, Mr. Dimitris Soudas, went on television to announce that he and his Conservative assistant colleagues are important enough and senior enough to speak for the Prime Minister and the government about all manner of government activities, indeed to undertake all manner of government activities, but they can never again be asked a question by a parliamentary committee to account for those activities.
Those people are not juveniles who need to be shielded from scrutiny. They earn something in excess of $100,000 every year and they handle the government's most important business. If they are qualified to hold the jobs they hold and to be paid the amounts they are paid at public expense, then they should be required to respond to House of Commons committee requests for information and answers to questions. Indeed, they are so required.
The position on this matter that is being devised by the Prime Minister and the government is based upon a fiction, a fallacy. The Prime Minister purports to set the rules for parliamentary committees. He claims that he holds the power to dictate who can and who cannot be called as a witness to testify at committee hearings. With the greatest of respect, he is wrong.
The Prime Minister and his government are responsible to Parliament, not the other way around, and the Prime Minister and his government must comply with what Parliament, not the government, determines to be the rules. This was clearly defined and reinforced in the recent case involving the production of uncensored documents about the risk of torture in Afghanistan. Various members of Parliament asked repeatedly to see the uncensored documents, noting that the government could not possibly set itself up as prosecutor, judge, jury and Supreme Court all at the same time, but the government declined. It stonewalled the answers to the questions.
Then, last December the House passed a motion ordering the government to produce the uncensored documents. It was Parliament's equivalent of a subpoena, but again the government stonewalled. It even shut down Parliament altogether through an illegitimate request for prorogation hoping to change the channel. Parliament was put out of business from December to March. However, it did not work. Parliament would not take no for an answer.
The Speaker's landmark ruling in April confirmed, and every legal, constitutional and parliamentary expert agreed, that the House has the absolute right to demand the documents and the government has the absolute obligation to comply. The government does not have the legal right to withhold information that parliamentarians believe they need to hold the government to account.
The situation with witnesses to be called before parliamentary committees is exactly the same. Parliament has the unfettered right to call any and all witnesses who parliamentarians believe have relevant information that is needed to hold the government to account. It is Parliament's decision, not the Prime Minister's decision.
The government's attempt to stymie the work of parliamentary committees, reminiscent of the manual that the government produced a couple of years ago about how to subvert the work of committees, raises the basic question of what the government has to hide.
The Conservative staffers, who have been called to testify recently, have been asked to shed light on two important and legitimate inquiries. One is the effort to track the apparent lobbying activities of former Conservative member of Parliament, Rahim Jaffer, and his business partners who were operating, apparently, through a network of old buddies involving, apparently, a great many ministerial assistants. They were the ones holding the meetings, receiving the representations and passing along the requests for departmental intervention. This is potentially contrary to law and it does demand investigation.
A former minister, connected to those issues, has been thrown out of cabinet, expelled from the Conservative caucus and subjected to a police investigation, all at the behest of the Prime Minister. Obviously the Prime Minister must think these issues are serious. It is ludicrous for the government to maintain the fiction that potential accomplices, wittingly or unwittingly, cannot be asked to tell Parliament what they knew, what they did and why.
The second area of inquiry by Parliament is requiring the evidence of staffers to get the facts about multiple ministers apparently violating Canada's access to information laws by improperly blocking the publication of information. Again, the Prime Minister has commented on this matter saying that it is important to follow the access to information rules but he is now purporting to prevent Parliament from getting to the bottom of the government's behaviour with respect to access to information.
In these matters, it is just not appropriate for the government to take the position that ministerial staffers who are directly involved in these matters may well know more about the facts of what happened and when it happened than the minister would know. It is just ludicrous to suggest that those staffers cannot be called before a parliamentary committee to explain to Parliament how this lobbying activity was going on or how the interference in the access to information process was going on.
Members of Parliament have the right to know what the assistant to the Minister of State for Science and Technology was doing with respect to representations received, or what an assistant to the Minister of the Environment was doing, meeting apparently with Mr. Jaffer in the office of the former minister of state for the status of women. They have the right to know which member of the staff of the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities apparently wrote a note on a government document saying, “From Rahim, get to the department for an answer”. Members of Parliament have a right to know what the staffer to the former minister of public works, now the Minister of Natural Resources, was doing participating in the evaluation of one of Mr. Jaffer's projects.
The questions that are being asked may well be uncomfortable and may raise issues that the government would rather not have raised but the fact is that they are serious issues that need serious attention by the government and they should not be stonewalled by the government.
The government House leader today proclaimed the principle of ministerial responsibility and ministerial accountability. It comes perhaps four and a half years late but at least the government has wrapped itself in those principles.
The question that remains from the minister's statement today is will the government put those principles into effect? Will it stop hiding behind the behaviour of its assistants and conveniently throwing those ministerial assistants under the bus, blaming them for things that go wrong rather than assuming responsibility for the behaviour of those assistants?
I think, for example, of the letter-writing incident involving an assistant by the name of Jessica Craven, who was apparently writing letters of support on behalf of her minister, trying to leave the impression that this was somehow a public groundswell of support on behalf of the minister. The minister denied all responsibility and blamed the assistant.
Then there was the case of Mr. Ryan Sparrow, who apparently ordered officials in the Department of HRSDC to provide misleading information about particular advertising the department had engaged in with respect to the Olympics. I presume that the minister is now going to assume direct personal responsibility for that misbehaviour on the part of the assistant.
Then there is the case of Mr. Togneri, who intervened in the access to information process and ordered the department to unrelease certain information the department had already released in accordance with the access to information rules. I wonder if the minister is now going to claim personal responsibility for that misbehaviour on the part of Mr. Togneri, under this principle just announced today.
Then there is the case of Mr. Owen Lippert, a speech writer for the Prime Minister, who plagiarized a speech given by the former prime minister of Australia and passed it off as a speech by the current Prime Minister of Canada. I presume now that the Prime Minister is going to assume direct responsibility for that misbehaviour on behalf of that assistant.
There are the multiple cases arising from Mr. Soudas, but I will mention just one. He offered advice to the Prime Minister about something that was allegedly said by the Leader of the Opposition about the G8. It turned out to be patently false and completely wrong. The Prime Minister, nonetheless, launched a vicious attack against the Leader of the Opposition. I presume that the Prime Minister is now going to assume direct personal responsibility for the misbehaviour of Mr. Soudas in that particular case, and in other cases.
The point here is that with the announcement the government has made today, will it stop hiding behind its various ministerial assistants and will it, according to the principle of ministerial responsibility and ministerial accountability, now make all ministers, including the Prime Minister, available to parliamentary committees on all topics and in a timely way on request by those committees so that those committees can get the answers they need? If ministerial assistants are going to be barred from speaking to the committees, then surely the ministers must be there—and not just any old time, but they must there to answer questions when the committee wants those questions asked and answered.
The minister speaks about due process and fair play. It applies both ways and the government bears the ultimate responsibility for providing that accountability and responsibility. It cannot blame the opposition for simply asking the questions the government seems afraid to answer.