Mr. Speaker, I am rising on a question of privilege concerning last night's crash of the hybrid Parliament system. I was working in my Confederation Building office here in the precinct for the House of Commons, but could not log into the Zoom portion of the House's proceedings last night. We were discussing Bill C-21, the government's cynical approach to gun control, which was to be followed by Bill C-28, a response to the Supreme Court's decision that relieved extremely intoxicated criminals of taking responsibility for their crimes. These are both issues that many of my constituents are very passionate about, and I wanted to be present for the debates.
Several colleagues also tried to access the video conference for the sitting, but were unsuccessful, I was told. I also understand that a meeting of the very important Special Joint Committee on the Declaration of Emergency, the committee looking into the government's choice to declare a national emergency over this winter's truck protest in Ottawa, had to be abandoned because of these technical failures.
Beyond the obvious inconvenience and embarrassment of the hybrid system, which incredibly the government House leader will be asking later today to be renewed for another year, this incident represents broadly, I believe, a breach of the privilege to be able to represent my constituents. Under the House order of November 25, 2021, which reinstituted hybrid arrangements after last year's election, “members may participate in proceedings of the House either in person or by video conference”. It states “may participate”. There is no caveat or qualification to that. There is nothing that says it is only applicable when all the technology lines are up.
As much as I may think the hybrid Parliament should be scrapped, the House has agreed to those arrangements until at least tomorrow, so I sought to exercise my right to participate remotely from my parliamentary office, yet I simply could not.
While I acknowledge that the House suspended last evening shortly after the connectivity problems were flagged, which was appropriate, the way the House adjourned was not, however. According to the records of the House, the sitting resumed at 8:54 last evening when the parliamentary secretary to the government House leader then sought unanimous consent for the House to adjourn. The chair then canvassed the House in the usual manner and found there was agreement for the motion. Since I was trying to attend remotely, but with a technical range that prevented me from doing so, I was unable to present for that vote. That too is a breach of my privileges.
I have since come to understand that there had been a consensus of party representatives to reconvene the House for the purpose of adjourning when it became obvious that technical issues could not be resolved prior to midnight. That said, I understand that my House leader's office had been assured by the government House leader's office that a minister of the Crown would be proposing the adjournment of the House. That is a critical point in these circumstances. Last night's sitting was an extended sitting under the House order of May 2, better known as Motion No. 11, which permits a cabinet minister to move an adjournment motion on a point of order, which is deemed adopted upon being moved. There would have been no vote and no opportunity to object. The NDP-Liberal agreement on Motion No. 11 already stripped me of those rights.
Had any of the 39 ministers of the Crown been here to manage the Business of the House, the House could have properly adjourned early under the Liberals' ruthless Motion No. 11, but they did not even manage that correctly. Instead, there was a vote and I was not able to be present for it. Your predecessors, Mr. Speaker, have found several prima facie cases of privilege concerning the inability of a member to reach the House, especially when there is a vote.
Mr. Speaker Regan put it well on April 6, 2017, at page 10,246 of the Debates:
The importance of the matter of members' access to the precinct, particularly when there are votes for members to attend, cannot be overstated. It bears repeating that even a temporary denial of access, whether there is a vote or not, cannot be tolerated.
He cited favourably the 21st report of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs in 2004, in relation to security arrangements on Parliament Hill for the visit of an American president:
The denial of access to Members of the House—even if temporary—is unacceptable, and constitutes a contempt of the House. Members must not be impeded or interfered with while on their way to the Chamber, or when going about their parliamentary business. To permit this would interfere with the operation of the House of Commons, and undermine the pre-eminent right of the House to the service of its Members.
Those cases concerned physical obstruction.
Page 111 of House of Commons Procedure and Practice, third edition, reminds us, “A Member may also be obstructed or interfered with in the performance of his or her parliamentary functions by non-physical means.” This new hybrid world obviously presents entirely new considerations that had not even been contemplated when those previous cases arose or when our procedural authorities were written. Bosc and Gagnon, at page 112, continues, “It is impossible to codify all incidents which might be interpreted as matters of obstruction [or] interference”.
That said, Mr. Speaker, I know that you, yourself, have been seized with considering just how privilege intersects with the virtual component of our proceedings from the very beginning. When the procedure and House affairs committee first began studying these issues in the earliest weeks of the pandemic, you testified on April 21, 2020, saying, at page five of the evidence, “By not having the connectivity or by having any issues, that could be an issue down the road.”
Later you added, at page 10, with particular relevance to my situation last night, “Allowing individuals to vote is the heart of our system, and it's the base of parliamentary privilege.” You reinforced this point in your July 6, 2020, appearance before the same committee by commenting, at page six of the evidence, “It is a member's privilege to vote, and we don't want the member to lose that privilege or not be able to access it.”
The issue goes much deeper than just attending votes. I could not attend any of the virtual sitting. A predecessor of yours, Peter Milliken, bluntly made the point about connection failures to the procedure and House affairs committee on April 23, 2020, at page 19 of the evidence. He said, “It would be a matter of privilege if they couldn't get into it.”
Taking the evidence the committee heard in the spring and summer of 2020, it presented two reports which helped form the structure of the hybrid system which has evolved here. Its views on these issues are equally clear.
In its fifth report presented in May 2020, the committee wrote at page 31, “It is essential that any modifications to the procedures and practices of the House made in response to the COVID-19 outbreak fully respect the rights possessed by members under parliamentary privilege.” It continues, “Further, in the exercise of the rights accorded by parliamentary privilege, members have the right to full and equal participation in parliamentary proceedings.” Last night, I did not have full and equal participation in parliamentary proceedings.
In its seventh report, which was presented in July 2020, at page 55, the committee recommended:
That the virtual or hybrid parliament replicate the rules and customs of the House as closely as possible...in order to fully ensure the democratic role of Parliament (deliberation, accountability and decision-making), as well as the parliamentary rights and privileges of members.
Further in the report, at page 60, the committee recommended, “That members participating virtually in any proceedings of the House of Commons enjoy and exercise the same parliamentary privileges that apply to members physically present.” I was incapable of exercising the same rights and privileges as my colleagues inside the chamber last evening when the Chair canvassed the House on the parliamentary secretary's unanimous consent motion.
As for the causes of the outage last night, I would submit that identifying the origins and motivations, if any, if either can even be identified, is immaterial to this question of privilege.
First, and most important, House business was conducted in defiance of the order adopted on November 25, 2021, denying me the opportunity to participate and vote, which is in breach of parliamentary privilege.
Second, that is a matter that a committee of the House, with a privilege reference, can determine. I will quote Mr. Speaker Milliken from October 15, 2001, at page 6085 of the debates, who said:
There is a body that is well equipped to commit acts of inquisition, and that is the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, which has a fearsome chairman, quite able to extract information from witnesses who appear before the committee, with the aid of the capable members who form that committee of the House.
Third, even if the source of last night's technical difficulties can be readily pinpointed, I would refer you to the ruling of your predecessor, the hon. member for Regina—Qu'Appelle, on March 6, 2012, at page 5,834 of the debates, where he found a prima facie case of privilege in connection with the online hacker collective Anonymous.
I have long thought that we need to get back to traditional in-person sittings of the House. Yesterday's situation is just the latest example of why it is so important.
Though I recognize I am straying into debate on Motion No. 19, which is on today's schedule, the point remains that something serious happened last night. It was something that rose to the level of a breach of privilege, and a committee needs to get to the bottom of it. Should you agree, Mr. Speaker, I am prepared to move the appropriate motion.