Mr. Speaker, today I rise on a question of privilege related to question Q-410, which I submitted on December 14, 2011. You will recall that I already raised this question in a point of order on March 14, out of concern that the government would not provide a response to my question within the deadline of 45 sitting days, as per Standing Order 39(5). The deadline was Friday, March 16. Having received no indication from the government that it would provide an answer to my question, I am rising today to speak to this troubling matter.
Mr. Speaker, I ask that you look at the following three pieces of evidence when you review my request. First, I ask that you look at the question that I submitted to the government. Second, I ask that you look at the answer the government provided to my question. Third, I ask that you also look at the procedural aspects of this question, what procedural experts have said about the matter, and the troubling precedents being set with regard to written questions.
The question I asked concerned the office of religious freedom that the government had announced it was creating. In order to simplify the question for the government, the question was divided into 21 sub-questions, as is the norm for written questions. I will not read the entire question to the House, since you can find it in previous order papers. However, I will give you some examples of the level of specificity of the sub-questions.
For example, I asked, “when did the government decide to establish an Office of Religious Freedom and at whose request”. I asked, “who was consulted regarding the creation of the office”. I asked for the names, positions, and religious affiliations of the guests who attended consultations on the new office of religious freedom in October 2011. I asked what discussions were held at DFAIT about inviting Amnesty International and why this organization was not invited.
As you can see, Mr. Speaker, I asked specific questions to which there are certainly specific answers. The list of people who attended a meeting held months ago should be available. Nonetheless, on March 12, the government provided the following answer, which is worth reading aloud, especially since it is not very long. In fact, it is shorter than the question. The answer I was given is the following:
The promotion and protection of human rights is fundamental to Canada's foreign policy, and the Government of Canada believes strongly in the ability of all people to be free to practise their religion of choice. Canadians enjoy the rights and privileges that come with living in a free and democratic society in which human rights are respected. The government is also keenly aware of the struggles that religious minorities face around the world. During the Speech from the Throne on June 3, 2011, and again at the United Nations General Assembly, the Government of Canada committed to creating an office of religious freedom.
At this time, no formal announcement has been made and work is ongoing. It is expected that the office will focus on areas such as advocacy, analysis, policy development and programming related to protecting and advocating on behalf of religious minorities under threat; opposing religious hatred; and promoting Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance abroad. The budget for the office will be $5 million per annum for the next 4 years. The government expects to have more to say about this important initiative shortly.
These are fine words, but they do not answer my questions. I would remind members that I had specific questions, such as who attended the October 11, 2011, meeting.
The government has made absolutely no effort to even attempt to answer the 21 sub-questions I submitted.
The government claims that it answered some of my sub-questions and that my dissatisfaction is merely a matter of opinion. I am not asking you to judge the quality or lack thereof of these minor elements. What I am asking you to do today, Mr. Speaker, is rule that the government's refusal to answer most of the sub-questions in my written question constitutes a violation of my rights as a member of Parliament.
According to House of Commons Procedure and Practice, second edition, page 517, the purpose of written questions is described as follows:
...written questions are placed after notice on the Order Paper with the intent of seeking from the Ministry detailed, lengthy or technical information relating to “public affairs”.
In Chapter 7 of her November 2004 report, entitled “Process for Responding to Parliamentary Order Paper Questions”, the Auditor General wrote:
The right to seek information from the Ministry of the day and the right to hold that Ministry accountable are recognized as two of the fundamental principles of parliamentary government.
Written questions are one of the tools that Canadians, via their elected representatives, can use to force the government to be accountable.
Mr. Speaker, I hope that you will consider this matter seriously and recognize that it involves a prima facie breach of my privileges as a member of Parliament. None of the information that I requested in my question is to be found in the government's response. A comparison of the question and the answer in the March 12 House of Commons Debates shows that the answer is, in fact, shorter than the question.
On March 14, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons told the House:
What the government has done is respond to the member's question within the 45-day time limit. I think the answer is self-explanatory, which is that there will be further information coming in a short period of time. We expect that should satisfy the member's concerns.
Yet he went on to say that:
Further information will be forthcoming and it should be done soon in an appropriate period of time.
I have no doubt that, in the coming weeks, months and years, the government will come up with other talking points on the office of religious freedom, but I would argue that it has not responded, nor is it ready to respond, to the specific questions I asked in Q-410, questions that it could have responded to, since it had the information. I believe this constitutes a breach of my privileges and an insult to all members.
I would like to refer to a Speaker's ruling from December 16, 1980, found on page 5797 of the House of Commons Debates. The Speaker stated:
...it would be bold to suggest that no circumstances could ever exist for a prima facie question of privilege to be made where there was a deliberate attempt to deny answers to an hon. member.
I would also refer to the twenty-first edition of Erskine May, which describes contempt as follows:
...any act or omission which obstructs or impedes either House of Parliament in the performance of its functions, or which obstructs or impedes any member or officer of such House in the discharge of his duty, or which has a tendency, directly or indirectly, to produce such results may be treated as contempt even though there is no precedent of the offence.
I would like to emphasize the word “omission”.
The government can try to muddy the waters on this by repeating that it has already answered my question, but in fact it has not.
Mr. Speaker, I am simply asking you to examine my question, look at the minister's response and reach a decision. If you do find a prima facie case that my parliamentary privileges have been breached, I will move the appropriate motion in due course.