Mr. Speaker, as indicated in the letter I sent to you earlier today, I stand in this House to raise a question of privilege both for myself, as an individual member of Parliament, and for all other members of Parliament as well.
My question of privilege arises from the estimates tabled today in the House by the Treasury Board President. In an article by reporter, David Akin, who is part of the parliamentary bureau and the QMI Agency, that appeared on a web site earlier than the time the estimates were tabled in this House, it is clear that Mr. Akin had specific knowledge of what was in those estimates.
I would draw your attention specifically to the fact that in both the written article and in what was up on Mr. Akin's blog on his site as of 9 o'clock this morning, the estimates not being tabled in this House until after 10 o'clock this morning, Mr. Akin says:
The government's spending plan, to be tabled today, shows that the [Prime Minister] plans to write cheques for at least $250.8 billion in 2011-2012.
On page 7 of the main estimates that were tabled today, in the table titled “Comparison of Main Estimates”, it says that the total net expenditures of the Government of Canada for 2011-12 is estimated to be $250.8 billion, which is exactly the same figure that Mr. Akin had in his article before the estimates were tabled here.
Mr. Akin has a number of postings on Twitter, a social media network, and one was posted about an hour before 10 o'clock this morning, before the House was sitting and before the estimates were tabled. The posting reads, “Govt will table spending plan for FY 2010 today: Total $250 billion, about $10 billion less than this year”.
With the facts I have provided in two different formats, there is no doubt that the journalist had knowledge of what was in the estimates before they were tabled in this House.
Mr. Speaker, on the issue of our privileges as members of Parliament, you have ruled on a number of occasions that, both individually and collectively, we have an absolute right to expect the government of the day to provide information, whether it be on a bill or, as in this case, the estimates, to this House before they are provided any place else.
Just to headline this, Mr. Speaker, I will quote you on a couple of occasions when you have said this more explicitly. The basic concept is that if we are to do our jobs and we are to perform our responsibilities as members of Parliament, we need to be able to respond to inquiries based on the knowledge that is tabled in this House, whether those come from the media, from particular sectors of the economy, society or individual constituents. We need to be in a position to present responses but we cannot do that if material is getting out into the public, in this case in the form of a journalist, without us seeing that in advance. We have no ability to respond and in fact we cannot do our jobs.
Mr. Speaker, I want to draw your attention to at least two decisions that you made in the past on this topic. A question of privilege was raised on October 27, 2009 by the Bloc member for Joliette concerning the Minister of Public Safety giving out material in the form of a bill. It was clear that the information, once tabled in the House so that the rest of us could see it as members of Parliament, had gotten out to members of the media in advance by at least 24 hours and perhaps as much as 48 hours in that case. That involved the bill to amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act.
After hearing arguments from a number of members of Parliament, other than on the government side, claiming that their privileges had been breached, you said this, Mr. Speaker, as you were drawing your conclusion and rendering your recommendation. You were talking about where the convention came from and why we have this privilege as members of Parliament and you said this near the end of your decision:
The purpose of the convention is also to ensure that members are not impeded in their work by being denied information that others have been given.
You were very clear and explicit, Mr. Speaker. The minister had argued that very little time had elapsed in terms of the bill being put on notice and tabled in the House and you said you recognized that, but went on to say that was not the issue. The issue was the ability of members of Parliament having that information so that we could do our job. By not doing that and giving it out in advance to the media in that case, you were clearly making the determination that a prima facie case had been made for privilege.
Mr. Speaker, in that case your decision in that regard and the recommendation from the member who had moved the motion was to send it to the proper committee and you in fact ordered that. You went on to say:
To deny to members information concerning business that is about to come before the House--
Which is the same that we have with the estimates:
—while at the same time providing such information to media that will likely be questioning members about that business, is a situation that the Chair cannot condone.
When the committee reported, it said this:
The Committee believes that the protocol of the Department of Justice whereby no briefings or briefing materials should be provided with respect to a bill on notice until its introduction in the House of Commons should be adopted as a standard policy by all government departments. We believe that such a policy is respectful of the House of Commons and its members. It recognizes the legislative role of Parliament, and is consistent with parliamentary privilege and the conventions of Parliament.
That decision was in the spring of 2001.
One of the arguments will be, I will anticipate, that was about a bill and whether the convention also applies to the estimates. I want to draw to the House's attention in that regard and argue by analogy that it is the same as what we have here. This was a decision by Speaker Jerome on July 25, 1975, on page 7940 of Hansard.
The factual situation in that case was that a newspaper had printed an article alleging that there had been a leak of the budget, that a member of Parliament had given that information to a business person, presumably the concept being that the business person benefited financially. The issue that came before the House on a motion of privilege was that the member of Parliament first denied he had done that, claimed privilege on the basis that the article had, in effect, slandered him and asked that the matter be sent to committee so it could be investigated, in effect his mechanism for clearing his name.
Speaker Jerome in that case said yes, the leak in itself, which is what we have here with information being given, is in the form of a leak to Mr. Akin. The very fact of that is what creates the privilege.
Speaker Jerome said this, noting that the member stood in his place and denied the accuracy of the article:
Therefore, what is at issue is an alleged use of a national newspaper to accuse, falsely, a member of a misuse of his privileges as a member of this House.
He went on to say:
Certainly there has been a disposition on all sides of the House to say that, if there is a suggestion that such a thing has taken place, it is a fundamental interference with the rights of every member of the House of Commons to operate freely and perform his functions freely. If that question exists in general terms--and in the circumstances which are before me I can scarcely decide otherwise--I cannot see in any way that the Chair ought to interpose itself, from a procedural point of view, and prevent the House having an opportunity to take a decision in respect of the matter. I do stress, that it is, in the final analysis, a decision of this House--
As it would be here.
--which will say whether or not the matter goes to the committee on privileges and elections where the matters that have been discussed and raised by almost all members who have participated can be dealt with.
I believe, by analogy, that is the situation we are faced with here. We have had a leak. We have had information, whether intentionally or unintentionally, given to a member of the media. That interferes with our ability to do our job, and in order to be able to respond in an intelligent, meaningful way to any enquiries about the estimates.
So, similar to what Speaker Jerome found, that there was a breach of privilege there, it did go on, as I am sure you may be aware, Mr. Speaker, to the committee for review and decision. I have not been able to find the outcome of that. The point being, in that situation which I argue is very analogous to the situation we have before us today, there was a finding of prima facie breach of privilege.
If you do so find in this case, Mr. Speaker, I would be prepared to move the appropriate motion to have this matter referred to the appropriate committee.