Mr. Speaker, it is a lasting tribute to my predecessor, the late Gord Brown, that our riding reflects all of the beautiful attributes of my constituency.
I am rising today on a question of privilege regarding a deliberately misleading statement presented to the House by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Services and Procurement. This was by way of the government's response to Order Paper Question No. 443, tabled during the previous session of Parliament.
On May 11, 2020, I asked the government, through that written question, about the construction and renovations at Harrington Lake, projects which came to light this spring. Specifically, I asked for the estimated costs of, first, each new building or other structure constructed or in the process of being constructed, and second, all renovations.
In the parliamentary secretary's response, tabled on July 20, 2020, the House was informed that estimated costs of construction work at the Prime Minister's summer home would cost taxpayers some $8.63 million.
Subsequently, on August 4, 2020, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation published an online article entitled “Prime minister’s cottage renos cost more than disclosed to Parliament”, which informs readers that an access to information request revealed that annual expenditures totalled more than $10 million.
For its part, the National Capital Commission claims the difference between the two amounts comes down to operational or maintenance budgets, but some of the invoices cited by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation include the removal of the caretaker's house foundation and installation of security infrastructure. Those do not sound like operational or maintenance items. Those are capital items.
The Chair is often inclined to view such disputes as contests over facts. That is not the case here. Instead, what we have is wilful muddying of language. While we have no procedural definition of “renovation”, the Merriam-Webster dictionary offers, “to restore to a former better state (as by cleaning, repairing, or rebuilding)”, and defines “maintenance” as “the upkeep of property or equipment”. There is no way to construe one word in the context of the repairs to a residence that would not include everything deemed relevant to the other.
It is my view that the government, by the very act of attempting to portray these two requests as different, has shown an attempt to deliberately mislead the House with its written response and is therefore in contempt of the House.
Speakers have, when faced with allegations of the House's being deliberately misled, applied a three-part test, which is articulated at footnote 129 on page 85 of House of Commons Procedure and Practice, third edition:
...one, it must be proven that the statement was misleading; two, it must be established that the Member making the statement knew at the time that the statement was incorrect; and three, that in making the statement, the Member intended to mislead the House.
I believe these three elements can be made out in the present case.
First, the statement in the response to Question No. 443 is simply misleading. The numbers in the response and those disclosed under the Access to Information Act do not reconcile. Erskine May is worth noting here at paragraph 22.23 under “Answers and Corrections”, where it states:
When factual mistakes are discovered in an answer to a question, Ministers may submit written ministerial corrections for publication in the [House papers and online]. Such corrections are required to be free-standing and should not be used to provide new information, however closely related to the original proceeding. Nor should they be used to rehearse the arguments which may have given rise to the original erroneous answer.
This point from Erskine May is crucial because it establishes that when it comes to questions, ministerial responsibility is firm. Ministers are responsible, solely, for the information provided by their department. Contradictory information provided to the House by the minister's department in response to questions is treated the same as though the information was provided personally by the minister.
Second, the parliamentary secretary, or the person preparing the response on his behalf, had to have known the response to be misleading. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation access to information response is based on real, tangible documents. These documents, the actual bills, were certainly available at the time of preparing the response to my written question. In fact, many departments have their access to information and privacy officials prepare Order Paper question responses because they overlap in the skills and procedures involved.
Third, it is my view that the lower numbers provided in the response to the written question are for the purpose of misleading the House. We are not talking here about blowing a construction estimate several years down the road, a pattern pretty common in government. These are two sets of figures most likely being prepared simultaneously and quite likely by the same official.
In fact, I am informed that the documents provided to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation are date stamped April 22 of this year, a full three months before the answer to my question was tabled in the House. This means that the government cannot even plausibly argue that the costs changed between the time that the answer was provided to me and when the same response was provided to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. The government would have known that the costs provided to me omitted items that were part of the completed costing document, which was later provided to the federation.
What is more, Mr. Speaker, you may recall how the whole matter of the Harrington Lake renovations came to be on the public radar. My colleague, the hon. member for Carleton, first raised questions about whether there had been construction going on at the Prime Minister's luxury cottage. He was mocked. He was ridiculed as if he was peddling some delusional conspiracy theory. The parliamentary secretary for housing even tweeted a reply featuring a Star Wars spaceship photo shopped onto the grounds of Harrington Lake.
It is clear that the government has taken a communication strategy to avoid well-deserved scrutiny for these extraordinary expenditures at a time when so many Canadians are struggling. As my colleague eloquently said when the truth came out proving that he had been right all along, “It sounds like they have effectively built the Prime Minister a new waterfront mansion while his old mansion is renovated. And they are trying to cover it up with complicated stories about how they have just moved the caretaker's derelict cottage up the road. What they should have just said is the Prime Minister needs a lakeside mansion while his existing one is renovated.” It is no surprise that yet again, efforts to minimize and deflect scrutiny are on display again. The problem with that is it is not just spin; it is misleading.
A number of Speaker's rulings have established prima facie cases of privilege when it has been established that misleading information had been provided by the government.
For example, on December 6, 1978, Mr. Speaker Jerome found a prima facie case of privilege where evidence at a royal commission had demonstrated that an MP had been purposely misled by a solicitor general some five years earlier.
Again, on February 1, 2002, Mr. Speaker Milliken found a prima facie case when conflicting information was provided by a minister despite the fact that the minister stated he had no intention of misleading the House. Nonetheless, contradictory statements were made leaving the House with two different version of events.
Now, just as then, we have before the House two contradictory statements made on behalf of the same minister on the same matter of the government's administrative responsibilities.
Later, on March 9, 2011, Mr. Speaker Milliken found a prima facie case involving a minister's statement in committee and the House. He said that the minister's statements had, at the very least, caused confusion.
More recently, on March 3, 2014, another of your predecessors, Mr. Speaker, the hon. member for Regina—Qu'Appelle, found that a member had offered contradictory statements which merited further consideration by an appropriate committee. It is normally a cliché that the Chair cannot judge the quality of the government's response, whether oral or written, but those responses are not beyond the Chair's jurisdiction on contempt.
As Madam Speaker Sauvé said on December 16, 1980, at page 5797 of the Debates, “While it is correct to say that the government is not required by our rules to answer written or oral questions, it would be bold to suggest that no circumstances could ever exist for a prima facie question of privilege to be made where there was a deliberate attempt to deny answers to an hon. member.”
Before wrapping up, I should offer a comment about the timing of my intervention. The procedural authorities state that a question of privilege must be raised at the earliest opportunity. I had planned to raise this matter at the sitting scheduled for August 26, but the Prime Minister's decision to shut down Parliament with prorogation robbed me of that opportunity.
Despite prorogation, the Chair is perfectly capable of entertaining a question of privilege arising during the previous session. As Bosc and Gagnon point out at page 81, “Instances of contempt in one Parliament may even be punished during another Parliament.” Of course, in the present situation, we are talking about different sessions of the same Parliament.
Should you agree with me, Mr. Speaker, that there is a prima facie case of privilege here, I will be prepared to move the appropriate motion.