I am now prepared to rule on the question of privilege raised on January 28, 2015, by the hon. member for St. John's East about alleged misleading statements made by the Prime Minister during oral questions with respect to Canadian military engagement in Iraq.
I would like to thank the hon. member for St. John's East for having raised this matter, as well as the hon. Leader of the Government in the House of Commons, the House Leader of the Official Opposition, and the member for Winnipeg North for their comments.
In presenting his case, the member for St. John's East explained that, during question period on September 30, 2014, in the week leading up to the vote on October 7 with respect to Canada's role in the mission in Iraq to combat ISIL, the Prime Minister had answered that, “It is to advise and to assist. It is not to accompany” and “Canadian soldiers are not accompanying the Iraqi forces into combat”. However, the member for St. John's East contended that recent reports that Canadian ground troops have accompanied Iraqi forces and exchanged fire with ISIL forces were proof that the Prime Minister misled the House and Canadians in a deliberate attempt to downplay Canada's level of engagement.
Arguing that there is no possible way to interpret the current contradiction as a difference of opinion, the member for St. John's East went on to explain how the three criteria had been met for determining that a prima facie of privilege exists; that is, that the statement was misleading, the member knew the statement was incorrect when it was made, and the member intended to mislead the House by making the statement.
The Leader of the Government in the House of Commons responded that the mission is, in fact, to advise and assist and that Canadian Forces should have the right to defend themselves in doing this dangerous work. In support of this, he cited General Tom Lawson's recent testimony in committee regarding the nature of the intervention in Iraq. More specifically, he noted that General Lawson specified that their mandate is a non-combat operation to advise and assist, and involves the use of weaponry only for the purposes of self-defence. With no evidence to suggest that Canadian Forces have undertaken any offensive combat measures, the government House leader argued that, at its core, this matter amounts to nothing more than a question of debate and not a question of the House having been misled.
The integrity of parliamentary proceedings rests very much on the ability of members to give and receive accurate and truthful information. This explains, in part, why members look to the Chair for guidance and judgement when they feel that this integrity is being challenged or cast aside. This is not done lightly given that, as members know, the House is a forum that gives voice to different viewpoints and opinions. Speaker Milliken recognized this when he stated on December 6, 2004, at page 2319 of Debates: “Disagreements about facts and how the facts should be interpreted form the basis of debate in this place.”
As a result, such grievances are rarely found to be breaches of privilege. The member for St. John's East stated as much when he cited page 510 of House of Commons Procedure and Practice, second edition, which states:
In most instances, when a point of order or a question of privilege has been raised in regard to a response to an oral question, the Speaker has ruled that the matter is a disagreement among Members over the facts surrounding the issue. As such, these matters are more a question of debate and do not constitute a breach of the rules or of privilege.
Members are well aware of the Speaker's clearly defined yet limited role in regulating such matters. As Speaker Milliken reminded the House in a ruling on January 31, 2008, at pages 2434 and 2435 of Debates:
...any dispute regarding the accuracy or appropriateness of a minister’s response to an oral question is a matter of debate; it is not a matter for the Speaker to judge. The same holds true with respect to the breadth of a minister’s answer to a question in the House: this is not for the Speaker to determine.
Yet while it is not for the Chair to interpret the meaning of members’ interventions, it has a solemn responsibility to ensure that certain conditions are met in disputes of the nature brought forward by the member for St. John's East. As Speaker, I must assess whether there exist the three conditions that would establish unequivocally that the House has been misled.
The conditions are admittedly and deliberately not easily met. This is because, as Speaker, I must take all members at their word. This underscores the way we function every day in our proceedings; all members rely on this and draw advantage from it.
This places an onerous burden on all members to ensure that their words are selected for their clarity as well as for their accuracy, so as to leave no room or cause for misinterpretation.
In order to find that the three conditions have been met, the Chair must be presented with undeniable evidence that there was a deliberate intent to mislead. Accordingly, having carefully examined the evidence presented, the Chair is unable to conclude that the House is confronted with a prima facie case of privilege in this case.
I thank hon. members for their attention.