Mr. Speaker, I rise on a question of privilege concerning the issue of contradictory information given to members regarding the number of cabinet ministers who are currently using a conflict of interest loophole to avoid divesting personal investments or putting them in a blind trust. This contradictory information has been provided by an officer of Parliament, the Ethics Commissioner, and by the Prime Minister.
The Ethics Commissioner has said that a number of Liberal cabinet ministers hold controlled assets indirectly, but the Prime Minister contends that only the finance minister does and that he is now in the process of selling shares in Morneau Shepell and setting up a blind trust in the meantime. When pressed to clarify if the Prime Minister was correct in his assertion that the Minister of Finance is the lone minister exploiting a loophole, Ms. Dawson's office confirmed via an email from her spokesperson, Jocelyne Brisebois, which states:
The Office still maintains that there are fewer than five ministers who have controlled assets and no we were not wrong about the information provided in our statement to you. We can say fewer than five ministers, including [the finance minister].
That is, she says the commissioner's office was not wrong.
On page 111 of the 22nd edition of Erskine May, it states that, “The Commons may treat the making of a deliberately misleading statement as a contempt.”
On February 1, 2002, the Speaker then ruled on a matter in regard to the former minister of national defence:
The hon. member for Portage—Lisgar alleged that the Minister of National Defence deliberately misled the House as to when he knew that prisoners taken by Canadian JTF2 troops in Afghanistan had been handed over to the Americans. In support of that allegation, he cited the minister's responses in question period on two successive days...
The Speaker considered the matter and found there was a prima facie question of privilege. He said:
The authorities are consistent about the need for clarity in our proceedings and about the need to ensure the integrity of the information provided by the government to the House.
The authorities to which Speaker Milliken was referring include but are not limited to the following. House of Commons Procedure and Practice, second edition, states on page 115, “Misleading a Minister or a Member has also been considered a form of obstruction and thus a prima facie breach of privilege.”
When the Speaker, in 2002, accepted the minister's assertion that he had no intention to mislead the House, he stated that “Nevertheless this remains a very difficult situation.” The Speaker then referred to the first edition of House of Commons Procedure and Practice, page 67:
There are...affronts against the dignity and authority of Parliament which may not fall within one of the specifically defined privileges...the House also claims the right to punish, as a contempt, any action which, though not a breach of a specific privilege, tends to obstruct or impede the House in the performance of its functions; [or that] obstructs or impedes any Member or Officer of the House in the discharge of their duties...
The Speaker went on to say:
On the basis of the arguments presented by hon. members and in view of the gravity of the matter, I have concluded that the situation before us where the House is left with two versions of events is one that merits further consideration by an appropriate committee, if only to clear the air. I therefore invite the hon. member for Portage—Lisgar to move his motion.
On February 17, 2011, the member for Scarborough—Guildwood and other members argued that a minister had made statements in committee that were different from those made in the House or provided to the House in written form. These members argued that the material available showed that contradictory information had been provided. As a result, they argued that this demonstrated that the minister deliberately misled the House and that as such a prima facie case of privilege existed.
In a ruling of March 9, 2011, the Speaker then pointed out:
...when asked who inserted the word “not” in the assessment of the KAIROS funding application, in testimony [before the committee] the minister twice replied that she did not know. In a February 14 statement to the House, while she did not indicate that she knew who inserted the word “not”, the minister addressed this matter by stating that the “not” was inserted at her direction. At the very least, it can be said that this has caused confusion. The minister has acknowledged this, and has characterized her own handling of the matter as “unfortunate”. Yet as is evident from hearing the various interventions that have been made since then, the confusion persists. As the member for Scarborough—Rouge River told the House, this “has confused me. It has confused Parliament. It has confused us in our exercise of holding the government to account, whether it is the Privy Council, whether it is the minister, whether it is public officials; we cannot do our job when there is that type of confusion”.
In the case raised on February 17, 2011, the contradictory information involved information provided to a committee and information provided to the House. In this case, we have information provided to the House that is contradictory to information provided by an officer of Parliament.
On page 222 of Beauchesne's Parliamentary Rules & Forms, sixth edition, it states that “Committees are regarded as creatures of the House.”
The House of Commons publication Committees Practical Guide states that committees are central to the operations of the House of Commons and allow for detailed examination of complex matters, which offers an opportunity for members to hear from Canadians and experts on topics of national concern and to have these representations placed on the public record. They provide a means for members to probe into the details of policies and programs, thereby further developing an expertise in certain areas.
The Privy Council Office, and some governmental documents, refers to the officers of Parliament as “Agents of Parliament,” thereby emphasizing that they carry out work for Parliament and are responsible to Parliament, and as a means of distinguishing them from other officers and officials of Parliament. It also emphasizes their independence from the government of the day. These officers of Parliament carry out duties assigned by statute, and report to one or both of the Senate and House of Commons. The individuals appointed to these offices perform work on behalf of Parliament, and report to the chambers, usually through the Speakers.
I argue that information flowing from an officer of Parliament holds as much weight as information flowing from a standing committee, and when this information is contradictory and confuses Parliament, as it has, there is a need to direct the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to look at this in the guise of a breach of privilege.
The Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner issued a statement today that said:
The Globe and Mail reported this morning that the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner is at odds with the Prime Minister over how many cabinet ministers currently hold controlled assets indirectly. This is, in fact, not the case.
The Office did not wish to give an exact number when asked how many cabinet ministers indirectly hold controlled assets. The Office indicated fewer than five, giving a general sense of an upper limit to the number, meaning it could be one, two, three or four.
This does not clarify anything, and it certainly confuses the issues further. I ask that you find a prima facie question of privilege here. I am prepared to move the proper motion to allow the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to get to the bottom of this matter.
If you have any doubts, Mr. Speaker, I refer you to a ruling given on March 21, 1978, at page 3,975 of Debates, which is also referred to in Maingot's Parliamentary Privilege in Canada, second edition, at page 227, where Speaker Jerome quoted a British procedure committee report of 1967, which states in part:
...the Speaker should ask himself [I am sure he meant to say himself or herself], when he has to decide whether to grant precedence over other public business to a motion which a Member who has complained of some act or conduct as constituting a breach of privilege desires to move, should be not—do I consider that, assuming that the facts are as stated, the act or conduct constitutes a breach of privilege, but could it reasonably be held to be a breach of privilege, or to put it shortly, has the Member an arguable point? If the Speaker feels any doubt on the question, he should, in my view, leave it to the House.
Mr. Speaker, I submit this matter to your wise judgment.