Mr. Speaker, I rise today to raise a question of privilege pursuant to Standing Order 48. This relates to misleading statements made in the House by the Minister of Justice and his parliamentary secretary regarding the scandal involving interference by the Prime Minister's Office in the work of the former attorney general.
Before I address the core of the issue, I wish to remind the House of a few principles. Oral question period exists so that opposition members can hold the government to account. To ensure that we retain the confidence of Canadians, questions must be rigorous and based on facts, and not simply an attack on the government. We have no problem acknowledging that.
Of course, this also means that the government's answers must be factual, credible and transparent, so that the information that comes out of question period is reliable and accurate. That is a fundamental principle of our democracy.
This brings me to my main argument and the question of privilege I would like to raise. We believe that the answers given by the Minister of Justice and his parliamentary secretary during oral question period on February 7 and 8 of this year breached the privilege of the House.
This is an extremely serious matter. Misleading statements are not only a breach of the privileges that MPs must rely on in the commissioning of their duties as parliamentarians, but they are also a breach of the trust of Canadians who elected this Parliament to govern responsibly. Therefore, I will ask that you, Mr. Speaker, find a prima facie case of privilege exists, so the matter can be further investigated in committee.
I want to point out that this is the first opportunity I have had to raise this issue since it became clear to all of us on March 7 that the Minister of Justice and his parliamentary secretary made misleading statements. In the past, as you know, Mr. Speaker, Speakers have often ruled in such cases, quoting from House of Commons Procedure and Practice second edition, at page 510, which states the following:
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 of 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.
I would contend that there is no possible way to interpret the current contradiction from responses of February 7 and 8 as a difference of opinion. I will now get to that.
Here is the Minister of Justice's response on February 7:
Mr. Speaker, as the Prime Minister said earlier today, neither he nor his office exerted any pressure or issued any directives in this matter.
As Attorney General for Canada, I am the government's chief legal officer. I take my responsibilities very seriously.
Again, I quote from later in that same question period:
Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister dealt with this matter very clearly earlier today. He stated that neither he nor anyone in his office pressured my predecessor or myself to come to any particular decision in this matter.
As the Prime Minister stated earlier today, the allegations contained in The Globe and Mail article are false.
Today, we know that those answers misled the House. Here is what the parliamentary secretary said the next day, February 8:
Mr. Speaker, as I have said several times in this chamber today, at no point whatsoever were the current Minister of Justice or the former minister of justice pressured or directed by the Prime Minister or anyone in the Prime Minister's Office to make a decision on this or any other matter.
Again, I quote:
Mr. Speaker, at no point, N-O point, has the current Minister of Justice or the former minister of justice been pressured or directed by the Prime Minister or members of his cabinet.
I take issue with the member opposite. The member opposite has construed this as not being about pressure or direction. That is exactly what is at issue here. That is exactly what I am saying on the record. There was no pressure and no direction given by the Prime Minister or members of his cabinet on this or any other matter.
Once again, we can only conclude that these answers deliberately misled the House.
The former attorney general was very clear in her testimony before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights about the pressure that was put on her. In his testimony, Gerald Butts never denied meeting with the former attorney general and speaking to her.
However, the ultimate proof came from the Prime Minister's own lips at his March 7 press conference. La Presse quoted him as saying the following:
In the months that followed that meeting, I asked my staff to follow up regarding [the member for Vancouver Granville's] final decision. I realize now that in addition, I should have done so personally, given the importance of this issue and the jobs that were on the line. In recent days I have reviewed the testimony from the justice committee, including that given by [the member for Vancouver Granville], Gerald Butts, the Clerk of the Privy Council and the deputy minister of justice and deputy attorney general, recalling various interactions.
Each of these interactions was a conversation among colleagues about how to tackle a challenging issue. Each came at a time when my staff and I believed that the former minister of justice and attorney general was open to considering other aspects of the public interest. However, I now understand that she saw it differently.
According to the Toronto Star's article on his non-apology statement of semi-contrition, the Prime Minister went on to say, “I’m sure there were a broad range of issues discussed in these conversations...but...There was no inappropriate pressure.” Also, “Even though I heard that she had made a decision, she indicated to me that she had made a decision — I asked her if she could revisit that decision, if she was open to considering to looking at it once again....”
The Prime Minister clearly acknowledges that there was indeed pressure placed on the former attorney general by him and his most senior advisers. His defence against the very serious accusations of political interference morphed from the February 7 and 8 line that “at no point, N-O point”, was there pressure placed on her to the assertion on March 7, during our constituency week, that the pressure on her was simply of the run-of-the-mill variety, in his view, and certainly not illegal.
His statement on March 7 corroborates, in many ways what is relevant to my argument today, the testimony of the former attorney general, who told the justice committee:
Within these conversations, there were express statements regarding the necessity of interference in the SNC-Lavalin matter, the potential for consequences and veiled threats if a DPA was not made available to SNC.
She also told the committee:
I experienced a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in my role as the Attorney General of Canada in an inappropriate effort to secure a deferred prosecution agreement with SNC-Lavalin.
Whether this pressure was or was not appropriate or illegal has nothing to do with the question of privilege I am raising today. All parties involved, specifically the former attorney general, the current Attorney General, the Prime Minister's former principal secretary and, especially, the Prime Minister himself admit that there was pressure placed on the hon. member for Vancouver Granville in her former role.
Whether this pressure crossed any legal lines is not what matters to the House today. What is abundantly clear, and that is what I am getting at, is that the minister and the parliamentary secretary misled the House in their statements.
Clear and easily avoidable false statements have been made to this House by the minister and the parliamentary secretary, which not only is breach of the privileges of all members of the House, but also of all Canadians who have put their trust and faith in Parliament.
Here is a three-point summary of what I have just stated.
First, the Minister of Justice and his parliamentary secretary made misleading statements; we see that when we compare their statements in the House with their subsequent testimonies. Second, they did this knowingly in order to put an end to this scandal they are embroiled in; both the Prime Minister and his former principal secretary could have told the minister and the parliamentary secretary that they were making false statements in the House. Third, they did this to wilfully mislead the House, again to make this scandal go away as quickly as possible.
It is entirely possible that the Minister of Justice and his parliamentary secretary were simply being briefed by the Prime Minister's Office ahead of question period on February 7 and 8 to give black-and-white clear answers in an effort to throw a wet blanket on the explosive story that broke on February 7, or they might have listened to the Prime Minister's statement on February 7, which was carefully crafted and legally vetted, and drew an unwarranted conclusion that the allegations were completely false. It could also be the case that the Prime Minister's Office told them the truth about what happened and they decided on their own that it would be better to deliberately mislead the House than to risk pouring more gas on what was becoming a dumpster fire.
Any of those things could be the reason that the two honourable members in question came into the House and blatantly misled members of Parliament about what really happened. They were clear and unapologetic. On February 8, the member for Parkdale—High Park said, “That is exactly what I am saying on the record. There was no pressure...given by the Prime Minister...”. That is blatantly false, and contemptuous of the authority and dignity of this chamber.
It should be said that the government was in full possession of the truth on this matter, and instead of sharing that truth with the House, they gave us politically expedient deceit instead. This is the very reason why the matter should be sent to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs for further study: to determine why Canadians were all so badly misled by the government.
This situation is a stark reminder of a similar case from 2002, when former speaker Peter Milliken ruled that then minister of defence, Art Eggleton, had misled the House. Even though Speaker Milliken said that he accepted the minister's assertion that he was not intentionally misleading the House, he ruled that a prima facie case of privilege existed there. In Speaker Milliken's ruling, he stated:
in the case before us, there appears to be in my opinion no dispute as to the facts. I believe that both the Minister and other hon. Members recognize that two versions of events have been presented....
I am prepared, as I must be, to accept the Minister’s assertion that he had no intention to mislead the House. Nevertheless this remains a very difficult situation. I refer hon. Members to Marleau and Montpetit at 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…
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.
Therefore, there is a very clear precedent. Even when a minister of the Crown sincerely believes—if we accept his or her allegations—that his or her statements in the House are true, there can be a breach of parliamentary privilege when these statements prove to be false. In the case that concerns us today, it is very clear that several versions of the events were presented to the House, and that only one can be true. The minister and his parliamentary secretary presented a version to the House that is contradicted in its entirety by the testimony of the former attorney general and Gerald Butts at the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, and also by the statements of the Prime Minister himself to the press.
To fully assert how the minister and the parliamentary secretary find themselves in contempt of the House, regardless of their intention to mislead the House, let me quote from a procedure and house affairs committee report that dealt with Art Eggleton's case:
Joseph Maingot, a witness to the committee on February 26 and a well-known expert on Parliamentary Procedure, defined the question of contempt. He stated that in the Speaker’s ruling:
'(The Speaker’s) concern was that there were conflicting statements, but they were conflicting statements on a very serious matter of government policy.
It's correct because it is incumbent upon the members to decide what is in their view contempt. By all of what you've heard contempt can be [that] you felt a person intentionally misled or the conflicting statements were such that [it] really reflected on the integrity of the House, the dignity of the House.'
Given the striking similarities between the 2002 case and this case, I believe that we must inevitably conclude that the Minister of Justice and his parliamentary secretary have breached the privilege of the House.
I want to leave the final word to Peter MacKay, former minister of justice and former attorney general, who in 2002 said the following:
I would suggest in the strongest possible terms that members of the House of Commons must be able to rely on the information they receive in response to questions placed to ministers. This goes to the very cut and thrust of the responsibilities of members of the House of Commons. A high standard has to be met....
Integrity, honesty and truthfulness in this Chamber should not ebb and flow like the tides. This should be something that is as solid as the ground we walk on and as solid as the foundation of this very building in these hallowed halls. Every time we come into this Chamber, we should be reminded of that.
Given the importance of this scandal of interference by the Prime Minister's Office, I believe that you could find this to be a clear case of breach of privilege that needs to be addressed.
Should you come to the same conclusion, Mr. Speaker, I am ready to move the appropriate motion for this issue to be referred to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.