Mr. Speaker, I wanted to rise to supplement my initial submission in response to the question of privilege that was raised by the hon. member for Toronto Centre on April 5.
The essence of the interim Liberal leader's argument is twofold. He suggested that because ministers have taken a posture different from that originally taken by bureaucrats, in respect of chapter 2 of the 2012 Spring Report of the Auditor General of Canada, Parliament is being misled. Alternatively, because the government has agreed with the conclusions of the Auditor General, he alleges that ministers are agreeing that Parliament has been misled. Neither is the case here. Indeed, I will argue that there is neither substance nor procedural grounds to find a prima facie case of privilege in the circumstances.
On the first point, I offered some immediate comments in the House before the Easter adjournment on the position taken, and articulated in the House, by ministers of the crown and how that is distinct from earlier views of officials in the departments concerned.
I invite the Chair to take a comprehensive and complete reading of chapter 2 of the Auditor General's report. From that, one will see that it contemplates a distinction between the departments and their officials on the one hand, being National Defence and Public Works and Government Services, and the government or ministers on the other.
For example, if you look at exhibit 2.3 of the chapter, which spans pages 12 and 13, you will see entries such as, “National Defence sought government's decision...”, and “Officials in National Defence and Public Works and Government Services Canada signed decision documents for government consideration.” One can find similar concepts and wording throughout the chapter, such as in paragraphs 2.32, 2.33, 2.34, 2.35, 2.39, 2.43, 2.45, 2.51, 2.54, 2.55 and 2.72. It sounds like I am my parliamentary secretary answering questions.
To assure you that it is not simply a matter of semantics, I have found a fact sheet published by the Auditor General which might be useful in this case. The following quotation comes from a document entitled Bringing Performance Audit Results to Parliament and Canadians, published on the website of the Office of the Auditor General. It is found halfway down the first page. It reads as follows:
During the audit, the Office deals only with public service officials, giving them an opportunity to check facts, provide additional information, and respond to recommendations. Once the report is final, and shortly before it is tabled, the Auditor General offers to brief ministers whose organizations are included in the report.
Before moving on to addressing the second branch of the hon. member's argument, I would be remiss if I did not highlight the fact that the interim leader argued just one day earlier, on April 4, about the exact same issue.
Mr. Speaker, you ruled, at page 6903 of the Debates:
If the member for Toronto Centre feels that statements need to be re-addressed, he can bring it up at a future question period, but question period is now over, and I have not heard anything that leads me to believe that it is a question of privilege.
Now I want to turn to the spurious idea that the hon. member has advanced. He stated:
If...it is true that the government accepts the conclusions of the Auditor General's report, the Government of Canada is admitting that for a period of 21 months it misled the Parliament of Canada.
I challenge the hon. member to quote to you a part of that 35 page report which says that ministers intentionally misled Parliament.
Let me quote from the operative part of the Auditor General's report at paragraph 2.76, which states:
We also have significant concerns about the completeness of cost information provided to parliamentarians.
Nowhere there does it say that the House was intentionally misled.
Mr. Ferguson's report then goes on to mention specifically the public response of National Defence to the March 2011 report of the Parliamentary Budget Officer. Immediately following that paragraph, the Auditor General then offers up his sole recommendation in chapter 2, which respects the refining, updating and publishing of life cycle costs for the F-35. This was a recommendation with which the government, ministers and officials agreed.
I want to read the department's response as printed in the Auditor General's report. It states:
Agreed. National Defence will continue to refine its full life-cycle cost estimates for the F-35 capability and commits to making the estimates and actual costs of the F-35 available to the public.
On the question of whether Parliament was intentionally misled, the hon. member for Toronto Centre is seeking to put conclusions into the mouth of the Auditor General. I am afraid that is what he is seeking to do.
The Auditor General appeared as a witness at the Standing Committee on Public Accounts on April 5, less than 48 hours following his report being tabled here. Let us take a brief moment to look at what was said there.
I first want to make the point that in response to a question about whether the audit revealed that any money was misspent, the Auditor General replied unconditionally, “No, we didn't.”
According to page 5 of the evidence of the meeting, the hon. member for Chambly—Borduas asked, “Do you agree that the minister did not fulfill his responsibility in informing parliamentarians of the cost of the project?” to which Mr. Ferguson replied:
We identified that after the Parliamentary Budget Office presented its estimate of costs, that was the opportunity National Defence should have taken to bring forward the full costing information to Parliament....The way to respond to what the Parliamentary Budget Office came out with was their full estimate of the cost over the full life cycle of those replacement jets.
In short, the Auditor General did not say that Parliament was intentionally misled. He did, however, point to shortcomings to the approach used in responding to the Parliamentary Budget Officer in 2011.
The different accounting approaches can be gleaned from exhibit 2.6 of the Auditor General's report. The suggested shortcomings turn on whether at least 20 years' costs for operating expenses and Royal Canadian Air Force personnel, as well as contingency reserves, should have been built into the government's purchasing cost estimates.
I want to use an analogy to demonstrate my point. Being the father of a young family, I dare say, Mr. Speaker, you might own a minivan and could relate to this example. When it comes time to replace your minivan, are you itemizing and calculating the cost of gas, oil changes, insurance, car washes, new tires and wiper fluid over the lifespan of the vehicle when you are looking at the sticker price in the car lot? Probably not, since those are routine expenses you have already budgeted for. They are being incurred for your current minivan and you would continue to face them regardless of which vehicle you purchased.
To apply this approach to the situation now before us, a pilot's salary, a gallon of jet fuel and tarmac patching are all expenses which are being incurred today for our current fleet of CF-18s and would continue to happen for any successor aircraft, such as the F-35s.
As we can see, this issue boils down not to whether Parliament was deliberately misled about the costs of the F-35, as the leader of the third party might like us to believe, but to the best way to account for the costs of purchasing replacement equipment. The Auditor General has offered his recommendation on calculating life cycle costs. We agree with it, and we are doing more than just its bare implementation. The Government of Canada has announced a seven point action plan in response to the Auditor General's report, including providing annual reports to Parliament and offering technical briefings as needed.
I want to interject here that the Auditor General advised the public accounts committee that in respect of these things, “At first glance, some of the items that you have mentioned appear to be steps in the right direction....”
The arguments advanced by the hon. member for Toronto Centre do not rise to the threshold of rhetoric fitting good political theatre, let alone a finding of a prima facie case of privilege. Nonetheless, I would like to take a moment to look at a procedural aspect prior to concluding.
Mr. Speaker, the hon. member in making his submissions quoted two rulings from your predecessors which suggested that, in cases of “doubt” or “to clear the air”, discrepancies as to facts should be referred to a committee to examine. However, there are no discrepancies as to the facts here, as I outlined earlier, so the precedents are not really at all on point.
There is a different ruling which I believe the Chair should consider, that given by Speaker Milliken on February 25, 2004, at page 1047 of the Debates. In that case, Mr. Speaker, your immediate predecessor was asked to find a prima facie case of privilege in relation to a report of the previous auditor general wherein she offered damning remarks related to, among other things, a department's report on plans and priorities, including pointed conclusions about Parliament having been misled and bypassed.
Although the current issue we are dealing with does not venture into that territory, the approach taken by Speaker Milliken would, I submit, be applicable here, in the alternative. In his ruling he said:
I must conclude that the requirements for showing that a prima facie breach of privilege has occurred have not yet been met in the present case.
As I mentioned earlier, this matter is currently the subject of a study being carried out by the public accounts committee. The investigation of issues raised by the Auditor General in her reports forms a key part of the mandate of that committee as set out in Standing Order 108(3)(g).
A report from the public accounts committee may present the House with evidence that certain individuals provided information in a deliberate attempt to mislead the House. If that proves to be the case, it would certainly constitute grounds for the raising of a question of privilege at which point it would be possible for hon. members to deliberate in full possession of the committee's findings.
That is the end of that very lengthy quote from the Speaker's ruling.
Just as in that earlier case, the Auditor General's report, which was tabled on April 2, was automatically referred to the Standing Committee on Public Accounts by virtue of that same Standing Order 108(3)(g). All reports of the Auditor General are referred in that same fashion automatically.
As I mentioned earlier, the Auditor General appeared before the committee less than 48 hours after his report was tabled to discuss his findings. The committee adopted a motion at a meeting last week to pursue a study and to start planning it at its meeting tomorrow. We should let the public accounts committee do its important work.
I am not surprised at all that the interim leader of the Liberal Party did not offer up this 2004 precedent. After all, it pertains to the sponsorship scandal, one of the most egregious abuses of taxpayers' dollars that we know, which happened under the Liberal Party's watch and guidance.
In closing, Mr. Speaker, there is neither substance nor procedural grounds in this particular case to justify a prima facie finding of breach of privilege which the hon. member for Toronto Centre has invited you to find.
I would like to reserve the right to respond, if appropriate, to the submissions which will be forthcoming from the official opposition containing rebuttal which the hon. member for Toronto Centre might offer.