I am ready to rule on a question of privilege raised on February 18, 2020, by the member for Timmins—James Bay concerning the government's response to written Question No. 163.
In his intervention, the member alleged that the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada deliberately misled the House in a response to a written question about the costs incurred in legal proceedings related to Canadian Human Rights Tribunal cases. In short, the member argued that there is a discrepancy between the costs specified in the government's response and the amounts provided to members of the public who obtained the information through access to information requests. In his opinion, the government is in contempt of the House for having deliberately misled it by providing incomplete or inaccurate information in its answer to written Question No. 163.
In response, the parliamentary secretary to the government House leader asserted that the government uses a consistent formula for calculating litigation costs when responding to written questions, while the methodology used for the compilation of the amounts obtained by other people is unknown. He added that this discrepancy in the information by no means suggests that the calculations by the government were done in bad faith or to deliberately mislead the House, and that this matter should not be considered a legitimate question of privilege since it consisted more in a debate as to the facts. In other words, his view is that members disagree on how the final number was arrived at, but that such disagreements are not unusual in debating an issue from different perspectives.
I thank the members for their interventions. Essentially, the member for Timmins—James Bay contends that the response was deliberately misleading because, as he mentioned in his remarks, it does not align with the information obtained by an academic and a journalist through other means, while the parliamentary secretary suggests that the methodologies employed by other sources may have differed from the one employed by the government.
Ultimately, this seems to be a dispute as to facts which, as Speaker, it is not my role to assess. Our precedents on this subject are clear and, as stated in House of Commons Procedure and Practice, third edition, at page 529:
There are no provisions in the rules for the Speaker to review government responses to questions.
Furthermore, in the case before us, contrary to the precedents cited by the member for Timmins—James Bay, we do not have a situation where the same individual has presented two different sets of facts to the House, nor is there any evidence to suggest that there was an attempt to deliberately mislead the House. For these reasons, the Chair cannot find that there is a prima facie question of privilege in this case.
It may be that the member for Timmins—James Bay is not satisfied with the response he received. There is however an array of options available for him to pursue this issue, whether it be resubmitting a written question worded differently or by asking questions to the minister directly during Oral Questions or a committee meeting.
The parliamentary secretary, in his intervention on February 25, 2020, also suggested that members could approach a minister or a parliamentary secretary directly to seek clarification when they feel that the information is incomplete or appears to be inconsistent with other sources of information. He contended that, more often than not, these inconsistencies may simply be a mistake, an omission or a misunderstanding instead of a deliberate attempt to mislead the House.
The Chair must admit that perhaps better communication between members, who seek the information, and the government, who provides that information, could be a solution to improve how the information is shared in this process, without escalating any dissatisfaction to a question of privilege. However, the Chair wants to reassure the House that whenever members feel that their privileges have been breached, it is their right to bring the matter to the attention of the Speaker in this way.
In conclusion, as Speakers before me have expressed several times, I would like to reiterate the importance of the accuracy of information from the government on which the members rely to perform their parliamentary duties.
I thank all members for their attention.