Question of Privilege – Bill C-38


Nathan Cullen: Mr. Speaker, arising from a question of privilege that we raised just recently, it is incumbent upon us to respond to the government’s intervention on this point.

As you will remember, Mr. Speaker, the question of privilege had directly to do with the access to information that all members of Parliament require for the vote that is coming quite shortly with respect to Bill C-38.

The question of privilege that was raised is a significant one because it talks about the central role of members of Parliament from all sides and, in particular, the role of the opposition to hold the government to account. We listened very carefully to the House leader’s response from the government, and perhaps he was ill-prepared or ill-informed, but his points beared no merit to the case that we presented. We wanted to ensure, Mr. Speaker, that you understood the case as put forward by Canada’s official opposition. In particular, the government House leader raised the issue of timing.

As you know, Mr. Speaker, questions of privilege must be raised at the earliest possible moment. The fact is that since the budget was introduced, we have sought, through every available means that we have at our disposal, such as questions on the order paper, during question period, at committee and through the Parliamentary Budget Officer, to find out what the implications are of this particular piece of legislation, in particular, the cuts to services and the cuts to employment that Canadians will be facing.

As you know, Mr. Speaker, from our deposition of yesterday, that information exists. The government has refused to offer that information for what we believe borders on bogus terms that came from the Privy Council Office directly, which works, obviously, hand-in-hand with the Prime Minister.

It is unlawful for the Privy Council Office to keep this information from parliamentarians and from the Parliamentary Budget Office. The timeliness of this was required as we waited for the government to provide the information that it was legally obligated to do. It was only after its final refusal in letters dated April 12 and then confirmed on May 9 that we knew that we had a question of privilege in front of us.

We have demanded and continue to demand that the government release this information so that we do not have members of Parliament voting blind on a piece of legislation. Again, it is incumbent upon all members of Parliament to be informed before they vote. The fact that the Conservatives seem to have no problem voting blind is a concern to me but not our problem. Our concern in the opposition is that we have everything available to us before we vote.

The third point, which is an important one, is that, in the intervention from the Privy Council Office, the Prime Minister’s chief bureaucrat, it is illegal to break section 79.3(1) of the Parliament Canada Act, which is to hold known information from parliamentarians,in this case, holding it directly from members of Parliament and also through an officer of Parliament in the Parliamentary Budget Officer. We have been demanding this information for quite some time.

The last point is that the government house leader made some response that we needed to cite any particular section or provision of the bill but he knows better than this. As we know, a question of privilege is the intervention on the rights of all members of Parliament to perform our duties. The particular example here with Bill C-38, the Trojan Horse bill, is one more example that privilege applies in the individual or the collective when members of Parliament are unable to perform our functions on behalf of Canadians while the government knowingly withholds information that is pertinent to the vote that we are about to take.

As you know, Mr. Speaker, and as Speaker Milliken knew in one of his last rulings before leaving this place, this is significant. In the case of Speaker Milliken’s ruling, it had to do with the Afghan detainees. In this case, it has to do with the budget. However, the consistency of withholding information is the same. This is problematic, not just for the government in place now but for the function of Parliament and for the sanctimony with which we hold this place.

In order to do our jobs for those we represent every day, we must have the information that exists. The information exists and it has existed for some weeks. The government has refused, at all stages and at every opportunity we have given it, to respond in an honest and forthright way.

The second act the Conservatives moved once in government was the accountability act. This breaks their own act but, more important, it breaks the right and respect that we have for this place and the privilege that members of Parliament have to seek the truth and to understand the information available to us so we can vote with a clear conscience. That is a principle of Parliament and one that we will consistently hold.

Mr. Speaker, as you will make your ruling in some hours to come, I ask that you find this to be a breach of privilege in the individual and the collective case.

The Speaker: I thank the hon. member for his further contributions on this point.

The hon. member for Saanich—Gulf Islands.

Elizabeth May: Mr. Speaker, I do not wish to belabour the point but I do support the question of privilege just made by the hon. House leader of the official opposition.

I think we should all be quite shocked, as I was, that our Parliamentary Budget Officer, whose job it is to advise parliamentarians so we can do our work reviewing how the public purse is being dispensed and the impacts of the decisions we make in this place on the full functioning of the apparatus and the architecture of our government, has been unable to obtain information that should be readily available to his office, as it should be to all of us, represents a breach of privilege and, indeed, a further contempt.

Hon. Peter Van Loan: Mr. Speaker, in further response to this question of privilege, which, as I said, seems a little out of place, the reason I challenged the NDP House leader to cite which provisions of the bill or which sections were impugned by the lack of information he was looking for, which normally comes through appropriations, is because he is saying that we cannot go forward with the bill because he does not have the information related to it.

I do not see any of the information that he is seeking being related specifically to any provision of the bill. As I said, the disclosure of government spending on programs like this is normally done through appropriations bills, which are provided to Parliament, not through legislative structures in a budget implementation bill. I am sure the NDP House leader, as he becomes familiar with this process, will come to appreciate that.

The other element I want to address very briefly is the notion of the contrast with the other situations he raises. He raised the situation where there had been a resolution of a parliamentary committee or of Parliament’s sending for papers. This budget bill went to the committee and the committee did its evaluation. The committee did not send a request to the government for papers, for information or for any of the things that he here is today seeking. I do not see that those situations are at all analogous.

The core issue is that what he is talking about is not part of a budget bill. The core issue is that what he is talking about is part of an appropriations bill. It is the information that gets disclosed to Parliament through the appropriations process. Therefore, there is really no merit to the question of privilege that has been raised here.

Hon. Wayne Easter: Mr. Speaker, in the last Parliament, the government ended up being charged with contempt for not providing proper information, which, basically, is the bottom line. This is very similar to that. The government has a record of not providing information to committees, to the Parliamentary Budget Officer and to this House. I think that is a very serious issue.

When we are asked to vote on a bill that covers some 70 pieces of legislation in one omnibus bill and Parliament, which is representative of Canadians, is not provided with proper information, that is, indeed, a very serious issue.

Elizabeth May: Mr. Speaker, I have not had time to fully answer the government House leader’s point but I would refer him to section 578 of Bill C-38, for which we have not had any effort to assess the impacts but which will be severe on Canada’s economy and environment.

Mr. Speaker, I again refer you to clause 578 within Bill C-38.

The Speaker: I thank the hon. members for their further contributions and I will get back to the House in due course.