Mr. Speaker, I bring before you today a matter of privilege that could more properly be characterized as an issue of contempt of this House. I accept that the complaint that I will present does not fall strictly within one of the specifically defined privileges or confines of a proceeding in the House of Commons, but it does constitute contempt of this House and its members by the Minister of Environment and Climate Change and her staff.
At page 81 of the third edition of House of Commons Procedure and Practice, it states:
There are...other affronts against the dignity and authority of Parliament which may not fall within one of the specifically defined privileges. Thus, 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; obstructs or impedes any Member or officer of the House in the discharge of their duties; or is an offence against the authority or dignity of the House...its Members, or its officers.
On Thursday, February 8 of this year, the Liberal government tabled in the House Bill C-69, an act to enact the impact assessment act and the Canadian energy regulator act, to amend the Navigation Protection Act and to make consequential amendments to other acts. In short, these were the government's long-awaited amendments to Canada's environmental impact review process and took the form of an omnibus bill running some 370 pages long.
The Minister of Environment chose to table the bill at 10 o'clock on the morning of February 8, and 45 minutes later, proceeded to hold a formal briefing by her officials, to which only the media and select stakeholders were invited. It was only at 4 p.m., some five-plus hours later, that officials held a briefing for members of this House.
When I became aware of those proposed timelines and circumstances, my office immediately contacted the office of the minister to express my concerns and demand that I be provided access to the first briefing, which was supposed to take place at 10:45 in the morning, to which only the media and select stakeholders had been invited. My staff was told by the environment minister's office that the first briefing was for invited guests only and that neither I nor any of my staff had made the cut. We were not on that approved list.
I did attend the second briefing at four o'clock that afternoon, when I was given a brief opportunity to ask some questions of the departmental staff regarding Bill C-69. Of course, during the intervening period, between 10:45 a.m. and 4 p.m., members of the media were already filing their stories and sympathetic stakeholders were spinning theirs. Opposition MPs were left scrambling to play catch-up to understand the import and consequences of a 370-page bill. Mr. Speaker, you will have no difficulty understanding how challenging it would be for the opposition members of this House to opine intelligently and engage with the media on a bill of that length, especially in the absence of a timely briefing from the minister and/or her officials. The result was that members of Parliament could not adequately respond to inquiries from the media and the broader stakeholder community because we were kept in the dark by the minister and her officials.
There is no doubt in my mind that the briefing of media stakeholders hours before members of this House received one was done with forethought and mischief in mind, if not by the minister, then certainly by her officials. What other explanation can there be for a denial of my specific request to attend the earlier briefing? There is no other conclusion. In so doing, the minister impeded every single member of this House.
The conduct of the minister and her staff is exactly why the tone and tenor of debate in this House has declined. Someone tried to be clever and tried to withhold information from the House, even if temporarily. Someone obstructed our access to public servants who had important information to share, but granted preferential access to the media and sympathetic stakeholders as part of a plan to place a positive spin on legislation that is critically important to Canada's resource economy. Such shabby treatment of the members of this House is unworthy of the government.
Speaker Milliken explained it this way in his ruling on March 19, 2001:
To deny to members information concerning business that is about to come before the House, while at the same time providing such information to media that will likely be questioning members about that business, is a situation that the Chair cannot condone.
In the case Speaker Milliken is referring to, the government briefed the media before the bill was even introduced. In the case before us, the minister at least waited to introduce the bill, but the principle is the same.
I would argue that with a 367-page omnibus bill such as Bill C-69, the minister's responsibility to this House does not end with dumping the bill in the laps of members and running off to brief the media ahead of members. Providing the media with access to information about legislation before members of this House receive it is, as Speaker Milliken ruled, a situation that the Chair should not condone. The minister deliberately withheld information from members, while providing information to the media. As Speaker Milliken also pointed out, that same media will likely be questioning members of this House about the bill. That is exactly what happened to me, and I expect other members of this House.
On page 213 of Joseph Maingot's Parliamentary Privilege in Canada, he states:
There are actions which, while not directly...obstructing the House of Commons or the member, nevertheless obstruct the House in the performance of its functions by diminishing the respect due it. As in the case of a court of law, the House of Commons is entitled to the utmost respect....
I could not agree more. We in opposition and the members of the Liberal backbench deserve more respect from the minister. We, not the media, are the ones tasked with reviewing and shepherding this bill through Parliament. It is not the media that does that.
The documents we are releasing today provide guidance on how we must go about our responsibilities as Ministers, and I encourage Canadians to read them and to hold us accountable for delivering these commitments.
Clear ministerial accountability to Parliament is fundamental to responsible government, and requires that Ministers provide Parliament with the information it needs to fulfill its roles of legislating, approving the appropriation of funds and holding the government to account.
Did the Minister of Environment forget to read the Prime Minister's direction? Her actions clearly demonstrate that she believes that journalists take priority over members of this House. Someone should point out to her that journalists, although they play an important role in our democracy, are not the ones who will review and process her bill through Parliament. Effectively, she has failed to respect and support parliamentary process.
The Prime Minister also issued a mandate letter to the environment minister, which is public. In it he states:
We have also committed to set a higher bar for openness and transparency in government. It is time to shine more light on government to ensure it remains focused on the people it serves.... It is important that we acknowledge mistakes when we make them.
Just over a week ago, when the minister was in the House, opening debate on Bill C-69, I had the chance to bring this breach of privilege to the minister's attention. I reminded her that she and her officials had scheduled a briefing for the media well before MPs received theirs. I asked her in the House to acknowledge that her actions were wrong and to apologize to the House for those actions. The minister refused to do so, and in fact bridged into a completely unrelated answer, compounding the disrespect she had already shown toward the House.
She clearly has not taken seriously her mandate letter which says, “It is important that we acknowledge mistakes when we make them.” She certainly made one.
The mandate letter goes on to say:
As Minister, you will be held accountable for our commitment to bring a different style of leadership to government. This will include: close collaboration with your colleagues; meaningful engagement with Opposition Members of Parliament....and identifying ways to find solutions and avoid escalating conflicts unnecessarily.
Again, the minister and her government clearly have shown no intention of upholding the purported higher standards that the Prime Minister claimed he would uphold. Sadly, quite to the contrary, he and the Minister of the Environment have regularly flouted the higher standards that the Prime Minister had set for himself and his cabinet.
Each day it becomes more and more obvious that the Minister of the Environment has very little regard for Parliament and its members. Providing the media and select stakeholders with confidential briefings that have priority over those given to members of the House is a profound act of disrespect for this institution, in fact obstructs and impedes the work of the House, and has in fact obstructed and impeded the members of the House in the discharge of their duties, especially as it relates to Bill C-69.
To that end, I believe, Mr. Speaker, you will find the minister's actions to have been within the meaning of contempt as defined as defined on page 81 of the third edition of House of Commons Procedure and Practice.
Mr. Speaker, I am sure you will agree with Joseph Maingot that this institution, Parliament, the House of Commons “is entitled to the utmost respect.”
As I mentioned earlier, this matter could have been disposed of with a simple, heartfelt apology from the Minister of Environment and Climate Change and a commitment to treat her colleagues with greater respect. Clearly, she did not see fit to do so.
Therefore, Mr. Speaker, should you find that there is a prima facie case of contempt or privilege, I am prepared to move the necessary motion to refer the matter to committee.