Mr. Speaker, today I rise on a question of privilege pursuant to Standing Order 48 of the Standing Orders of the House of Commons. This is a question of grave importance. It concerns misleading information the provided to the House regarding the expansion and extension of the Canadian military engagement in Iraq and now Syria, information meant to form the basis on which members of Parliament would decide, and decided, how to vote on one of the most important questions parliamentarians face: whether to put Canadian military personnel in harm's way.
This is an extremely serious matter. As I have said before, misleading and false statements are not only a breach of the privileges MPs must rely on in the performance of their duties as parliamentarians but are a breach of the trust of Canadians who elected this Parliament to govern responsibly. Therefore, I will ask that you find that a prima facie case of privilege exists so that the matter can be further investigated at committee.
The House has spent much of the last two weeks debating the expansion of the government's war efforts in Iraq and Syria. Of course, the was briefed extensively on the mission and Canada's role therein. Those who briefed the minister are the very capable men and women of our armed forces as well as those from the departments of National Defence and Foreign Affairs.
As we must, the House and its members had been relying on the and the , as well as the , to provide the facts on which members of Parliament made their decision to support the extension and expansion of the mission. That motion passed earlier this week.
Sadly, the information provided by the government on this mission over the past six months has far too often been proven false. Just two short months ago, I asked the to be held to account for his misleading statements on the initial six-month deployment of our troops in Iraq. We remember that he told the House last year, in direct contradiction of the truth, that Canadian Armed Forces personnel would not be accompanying Iraqi forces to the front line. Of course, we now know that not only are Canadian military personnel accompanying local forces to the front line, they are also painting targets and taking fire on the front lines in direct combat with the ISIL forces, also contrary to the assertions of the Prime Minister.
Today we are faced with yet another example of the government playing fast and loose with the truth and the facts on the issues surrounding Canadian involvement in the war. On Monday of this week, the very day members of Parliament were asked to perform our most sacred duty of authorizing the deployment of Canadian Armed Forces into combat, the minister said the following in response to direct questioning from the NDP:
...the hon. member is wrong because the United States and Canada will be the only allied countries using precision guided munitions to strike targets dynamically. That is a very important asset.
That is one of the reasons why the United States encouraged Canada to broaden the scope of its military mission against the genocidal terrorist organization known as the Islamic State, namely so that we can hit these dynamic targets using our precision guided munitions, which are among the best in the world.
He also said, in response to a question from me, in my capacity as defence critic for the official opposition:
Mr. Speaker, unfortunately the member for St. John's East is incorrect. The statement of the Chief of the Defence Staff confirmed what I said, which was based on the advice I received from the military indicating that currently only the United States is using precision-guided munitions of this nature against ISIL targets.
As we all know now, it was not me who was incorrect, it was the minister. What is so disturbing about these misleading statements is that the was using this cold fact as a key piece of evidence in the case for Canada's bombardment of Syria. On March 25, he told the Canadian public:
There are only five coalition partners doing air strikes against ISIL terror targets in eastern Syria. The United States is the only one of those five that has precision-guided munitions. That is a capability the Royal Canadian Air Force has, so one of the reasons our allies have requested we expand our air sorties into eastern Syria is because with those precision-guided munitions our CF-18s carry, we can be more impactful in the strikes we make against ISIL.
The truth is that each and every state that is currently engaged in air strikes in Syria is using precision-guided munitions—every single one.
In response to this assertion from the minister, it was reported yesterday:
But according to a spokesperson for the CJTF, which is leading the coalition bombing in Syria and Iraq, that's not even close to the case.
It is not even close to the case. How could the minister possibly have got that key piece of information so wrong?
The CJTF spokesperson went on to say:
All coalition partner states doing air strikes in Syria and Iraq are using precision guided munitions and nothing else.
The spokesperson went on to say that in Syria, that includes four nations other than the U.S., and that in Iraq it includes eight nations other than the U.S., namely Australia, Belgium, Denmark, France, Jordan, the Netherlands, and the U.K., in addition to Canada.
All Canadians, including the loved ones of our soldiers and the parliamentarians who are being asked to send them into harm's way, had a right to know the truth. The minister withheld that from them, instead providing information that even he now admits was 100% false.
It is difficult to imagine what could possibly have happened to lead us to the point where the minister was making such patently false assertions about the state of play in the theatres of engagement into which he was recommending we send our forces.
The minister has a duty to provide parliamentarians with accurate information on the mission. In your ruling, Mr. Speaker, against the member for on March 3, 2014, it was stated that there exists a “primordial importance of accuracy and truthfulness in our deliberations.” Never could this be more so than when facing a question of whether or not to send the Canadian Forces off to war. In this case, the minister has a sacred duty to ensure that the statements he is making are true.
Now that it is clear to the House that there has been such a terrific breach of trust between his department and the Canadian people, including his colleagues here in the House of Commons, we too have a duty to find out what happened and why. I am asking you today, Mr. Speaker, to defend these rights and our democratic institution by finding that there is a prima facie case of privilege and contempt of Parliament.
For the sake of clarity, let me remind everyone here of the rights afforded to members of Parliament to carry out their duties on behalf of Canadians. On page 75 of the 23rd edition of Erskine May's Treatise on The Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament, parliamentary privilege is defined as:
...the sum of the peculiar rights enjoyed by each House collectively...and by Members of each House individually, without which they could not discharge their functions....
Parliamentary privileges are of the utmost importance not only for parliamentarians but also for Canadians, who have put their trust and faith in Parliament to legislate on their behalf and to hold their government to account. It is actually the essence of the democracy that we hold so dear. Canadians trust that we can perform our tasks unimpeded and unobstructed, and they trust that their government will provide truthful answers in the House. These are basic principles of paramount importance for Canadians to continue to believe in and engage in our democratic process.
Breaches of privileges can take many forms, but the one we are dealing with today—misleading the House—is one of the most serious. Page 111 of Erskine May states:
The Commons may treat the making of a deliberately misleading statement as a contempt.
The second edition of House of Commons Procedure and Practice, by O'Brien and Bosc, also tells us on page 111 that the provision of deliberately misleading information constitutes a prima facie case of privilege.
If, as you have indicated in the past, we must take an hon. member at his or her word, we must believe that the minister was, in fact, misled by his staff. While there is room to be personally skeptical about that fact, accepting it does not diminish the Speaker's ability to find that members' privileges have been breached.
As you will know, Mr. Speaker, on December 6, 1978, in finding that a prima facie case of contempt of the House existed, Speaker Jerome ruled that a government official, by deliberately misleading a minister, had impeded the member in the performance of his duties and consequently obstructed the House itself. As you will also know, this is not the first time Conservative MPs have been caught trying to validate their policies in the House with falsified information.
When the member for testified that he had personally witnessed electoral malfeasance in very specific ways, only to stand a few days later to say that he had made the whole thing up, the Speaker found that the privileges of the House were violated.
Yesterday, we witnessed the same routine from the , standing in his place to say what he had asserted just two days earlier was in fact false. The minister told us on Monday that our allies called to say that they needed Canada, that they needed our uniquely precise munitions because they simply did not have any of their own, and that Canada's moral duty was to step in and fill in this gap in the war effort: 100% false.
The most difficult element we face here today is that the House has already voted on the salient issue to which the minister's misleading comments apply. That bell cannot be unrung. The minister did take a moment yesterday to, figuratively, throw the Chief of the Defence Staff under the bus, but the minister still has not apologized for anything, including his role in advancing this monumental breakdown in intelligence.
He said yesterday that it was all someone else's fault, that he, as the minister, simply regretted that the information was placed in the public domain. I regret it, too. In fact, I am appalled, and all MPs should be. We listened to the minister heap scorn on those who dared question the veracity of his claims and then were required to rely on his false evidence to make our individual decisions as members of Parliament to either approve or oppose dramatic the expansion of this war effort. Surely we can all agree that this is a huge and serious problem.
Perhaps, if it were a one-off occurrence, or even a two-off, Canadians could be persuaded to believe that it was an honest mistake. Frankly, the government and the minister, in particular, have a well-established track record of playing fast and loose with the truth. Having done so once again in a debate over whether to send Canadian troops into battle, the time for reckoning is now upon us.
Mr. Speaker, in your rulings on the various ways that the government has misled the House over the years, you have often emphasized the importance of the time-honoured tradition of accepting a member's word in the House, but that, I submit, is the very tradition that we are at risk of losing under the watch of the Conservative government.
Obviously, when faced with tough questions from opposition or media, ministers have often found very creative ways to avoid inconvenient truths. Obfuscation, omission of facts, bluster, bravado and simply refusal to answer questions are all time-honoured traditions of this legislature and others. They are tactics that have been mastered by previous Liberal and Conservative governments for generations. However, providing what is patently false information is quite a different matter. It is not only unethical, but against the rules of this place.
The minister came into this place armed with faulty information and used that information as a key plank in his case for why Canada had to join in the war effort in Syria. Members of Parliament used that faulty information to make their decision on whether to send Canadian troops into lethal combat. That cannot stand.
The minister says that the fiasco is the result of him being given a bad briefing or bad information. The Chief of the Defence Staff has issued multiple and contradictory public statements to try to explain away this catastrophic failure of the minister in the information being provided to the public and the House.
Surely this warrants a study by the appropriate committee of this House to hear from the minister, the Chief of the Defence Staff and others to determine exactly how members of Parliament could have been left in such a compromised position ahead of a vote to send Canada's brave men and women into battle in our names. They deserve no less.
Those are my comments in support of my request to have you, Mr. Speaker, determine that there has been a prima facie breach of the privileges of this House, and that it be studied by an appropriate committee of this House. I would be prepared to move the appropriate motion if you so find, Mr. Speaker.
Mr. Speaker, I respectfully submit in response to my hon. friend from St. John's that there is nothing approaching a prima facie case of privilege in the submissions that he just made to the Chair. I would be happy, Mr. Speaker, for the record and for your consideration, to offer a brief summary of the relevant facts in response to claims made by the member opposite.
As Minister of National Defence, in preparing to make recommendations to the Governor-in-Council with respect to a prospective expansion or extension of our military operation against ISIL, known as Operation Impact, I was briefed that the Royal Canadian Air Force was furnished with precision-guided munitions that would be particularly useful in striking ISIL targets in Syria and that currently only the United States military was using similar munitions in Syria. It is true that I repeated the information that I received and I have to take responsibility for that.
The Governor-in-Council, the cabinet, considered advice that I provided and made a decision on expansion and enlargement of the mission based overwhelmingly on the government's view that we ought not to allow the so-called Islamic State to have a safe haven to operate in eastern Syria in an area where it has de facto sovereignty, an area from which it has launched an invasion of Iraq and terror attacks against Iraq and indeed where the capital of ISIS is found. That was the basis upon which the government made its decision to expand and enlarge the mission, as reflected in the motion tabled in this place, which was adopted recently, expressing majority support for the government's decision.
It is true that in debate questions and comments in this place and in some media interviews, I reiterated the information that I received from our military with respect to unique capabilities of RCAF munitions. Last week, military officials contacted my office to indicate that they had received new information indicating, with greater nuance, that the precision-guided munitions of the RCAF were more specifically useful against dynamic as opposed to static targets. Consequently, the Chief of the Defence Staff issued a letter, I believe initially to the Ottawa Citizen, to convey the new information that had come to the military's attention.
Again, I accepted the veracity of the information with which I was provided. While I am responsible for all information conveyed either by me or by my department, obviously the minister is in a position to accept the information briefed by military commanders.
This week, military officials again contacted my office to indicate that the letter issued by the Chief of the Defence Staff was not accurate and that indeed we are aware of at least two other countries in addition to the United States that have used precision-guided munitions against ISIL targets in Syria. Consequently, the Chief of the Defence Staff sent the following correction to the Ottawa Citizen on March 27, saying that:
Since the publication of the letter below, in which I stated that the United States was the only nation that used advanced precision-guided munitions in Syria, new information has come to light. A coalition ally has in fact used advanced precision-guided munitions in Syria on at least one occasion. The information contained in the letter, and which was provided by the Canadian Armed Forces to the Minister of National Defence, was based on the best information available at the time it was written. This error is sincerely regretted.
At the earliest opportunity I stood in the House, yesterday afternoon, to table the letter I just cited and to take responsibility as Minister of National Defence. Again, even if I receive inaccurate information, according to the principle of ministerial accountability, I am responsible for that. I conveyed it and I regret it. I do take responsibility.
Yesterday I said:
As the Minister of National Defence, I am ultimately responsible for all of the information provided by my department. Therefore, I regret this inaccurate information having been put in the public domain and would like to table this to correct the record.
There are two points I want to emphasize. First, at no time was information withheld. To the contrary, my approach has been to be transparent. It has been to share information. Typically the opposition criticizes the government for being insufficiently transparent and not sharing enough information. Nothing was withheld and, as soon as the military saw that new information had come to light, steps were taken to correct the record. As soon as I became aware of that, I stood in this place and did the same, so no information was withheld.
I can absolutely assure the hon. member that neither I nor the military, I believe, at any point purposefully or deliberately misled this place or the media. I have absolutely no doubt that the military believed the veracity of the information I was given, and I accepted the source credibility of those briefing me in conveying that to this place and to the public.
Again, it is regrettable that inaccurate information was provided, but that was not done with any mala fides, with any deliberation, or with any intent to falsify information, as the hon. member alleges.
Second, I do not believe that the member's privileges were in any way infringed. He implies that this one piece of inaccurate contextual information may have caused him to vote in a certain way on this motion. I know that is not the case because the New Democratic Party, including the member, made it patently clear months ago that it opposed any element of the military operation in which Canada is engaged against ISIL. It made it patently clear that it would vote against this matter in any event. Moreover, as I have said, the government's decision, the decision of Conservative members in this place, to support the extension of the mission was based on our belief that we must deny ISIL a safe haven.
Yes, this information was inaccurate, but it was offered as contextual information not critical to the motion adopted by this place to support the government's decision.
I would further remind the hon. member that the Standing Committee on National Defence has scheduled to hear from the Chief of the Defence Staff, I understand, as soon as this place reconvenes after the Easter constituency week. As the member knows, I am always happy to appear before committee. Therefore, if the member would like to question me, the Chief of the Defence Staff, or other officials on this matter, we would be happy to make ourselves available, as is the normal practice.
In sum, I submit that there is no prima facie case of privilege here. I stood in this place and accepted responsibility for the errant information, which was not relevant to the government's or the House's decision in the vote earlier this week. I will certainly, in accepting that responsibility, work with my military advisors to be doubly sure of the veracity of any information we put into the public domain.
Mr. Speaker, I am somewhat surprised by the response from the . I would have much preferred if he was a little more transparent in what actually has taken place.
There is reason to believe there is a prima facie case here, and there is a very strong argument that this matter should go to committee and that the House should in fact take it very seriously.
The issue of the extension and expansion of the mission into Syria and potentially beyond is one of a very serious nature. The Conservatives would argue that when we ask our men and women of the Canadian Forces to engage, it is one of the most important, if not the most important, decisions we have to make as a collective House. Therefore, the information that is provided is of critical importance. Even if we already know how a particular party or individual member will vote on the resolution in question, it is still just as important that the provide accurate information.
The went out of his way to clearly indicate that one of the reasons we were being brought into this extension was because of the need for precision-guided munitions that only Canada and the U.S. had the capability to provide, at least that was the context, and I will expand a little more on that. However, either the minister did not understand the briefing that would have been provided to him by his department or he intentionally attempted to mislead the House. I believe the minister was in fact told the full details,
I will give an example of the confusion.
Members will recall, whether it was the Leader of the Liberal Party or other members of the caucus, the issue being raised that the government needed to be more transparent, honest and forthright with Canadians on this mission. In fact, the leader of the Liberal Party raised this in the form of a question, and the answered that our mission on the ground in Iraq “It is to advise and to assist. It is not to accompany”.
What did the say? How did he respond?
Well, the justified that front-line combat by saying, “I am not sure we could train troops without accompanying them”. However, on September 30, the explicitly ruled out combat on the ground when he said in question period that “It is to advise and to assist. It is not to accompany”. This is not the first time this has happened with regard to the .
We now have very serious media reports, and it seems as if the wants to throw departmental officials and members of the Canadian Forces under the collective Conservative bus as opposed to taking responsibility for his mistake.
I will cite a story, which is very important. This story was published on March 30.
Last week, [the Minister of Defence] claimed that Canada was needed in the Syrian bombing campaign because it and the U.S. are the only members of the coalition who have precision guided munitions.
The minister explained to CTV that, “There are only five coalition partners doing air strikes against ISIL terror targets in eastern Syria”.
He further stated in the media:
The United States is the only one of those five that has precision guided munitions. That is a capability the Royal Canadian Air Force has so one of the reasons our allies have requested we expand our air sorties into eastern Syria is because with those precision-guided munitions our CF-18s carry we can be more impactful in the strikes we make against ISIL.
That statement was not true. Whether it was made inside the chamber or outside the chamber, the was wrong. Either he intentionally misled Canadians and misled this House, or now he is trying to say in a roundabout way that his department did not provide him with the appropriate briefing, the briefing that would have better informed the minister. I challenge the minister on that. Maybe he had selective hearing. I believe that the military provided him with the right briefing.
We need to go further down in the story. We always have to take care a little bit when it is anonymous, but there is a lot of truth when individuals who know the truth can only talk in a very limited way because of the position they might be in. I found this to be an interesting statement that was in the same story:
When [the minister] made his false claims on TV, there were some inside National Defence headquarters who couldn’t figure out why he was saying what he was saying. After all, [the minister] had been thoroughly briefed about the Syrian mission, so he either didn’t understand the basic information he had been told or he was just ignoring what he had been told, sources pointed out to Defence Watch.
I am more inclined to believe that than to believe the minister's comments that he just finished putting on the record. If we take a look at the history of the confusion, the mass confusion in this very important issue, I believe that Canadians would agree with what I and others are saying. Is there any doubt why more and more Canadians are getting a better appreciation of what is being pointed out about the government and its approach to this mission?
As the leader of the Liberal Party has consistently said, the government has failed to be honest with Canadians in regard to this very important issue at hand, and it has not been able to demonstrate its case.
The minister has to understand that he has an obligation—whether we are voting in favour or against the expansion into Syria—and a responsibility to be straightforward and honest not only to members of this chamber, because by speaking to this chamber he is speaking to all Canadians from coast to coast to coast, and he has not lived up to that responsibility.
That is why Liberals believe that there is merit, that there is in fact a prima facie case to be made that this matter be referred to a standing committee where we could possibly entertain looking at hearing some of those individuals who were involved in this matter.
I believe it is of a great, serious nature. Ultimately, Mr. Speaker, we will await your decision, and at some point in the future I suspect there might be a need to add further comment as we get a better understanding of just how the government is trying to twist its way through some form of justification that it has not been able to clearly demonstrate to Canadians by its behaviour in regard to this whole matter.
Mr. Speaker, I will be very brief. I think the very lengthy and very detailed submission of the member for speaks for itself. We know that over the next two weeks, you will have due time to properly consider the points that have been raised by the member for St. John's East, which, of course, are fundamental points, extremely important points. You will also have the ability to check the blues.
Over the next two weeks, you will have the ability to respond. It is really not for any other member of the House to stand and try to push you one way or the other in terms of the important decision to be provided to this House.
The member for has provided a very fulsome and very detailed submission. I would suggest that comments from the have not been helpful at all. They were political. They certainly did not respond to the facts of the matter and certainly did not respond to the two key points I wanted to reiterate, because those are the two key points you will be considering over the next two weeks before bringing back to the House a decision on this matter.
Over the next two weeks, I am sure many Canadians will be very interested in knowing what will be brought back to the House at that time.
On page 111 of Erskine May, as my colleague from mentioned, it states: “The Commons may treat the making of a deliberately misleading statement as contempt”.
Mr. Speaker, that is a key part of the deliberations to be made over the next two weeks.
Also, House of Commons Procedure and Practice, second edition, O’Brien and Bosc, our procedural bible, the rules under which we are guided, tells us on page 111 that the provision of deliberately misleading information constitutes a prima facie case of privilege.
Mr. Speaker, I think the case has been laid out by the member for . We respect the time you will take over the next two weeks to properly consider the evidence put forward by the member for St. John's East. We look forward to your ruling in due time, in two or two and a half weeks, when we reconvene after the Easter break.
Mr. Speaker, the question of privilege you are being asked to rule on is one that has been well tilled, as you might imagine, and there is a very clear set of rules. There is a three-part test to determine if there has been a breach of privileges.
I know it was clearly established and cited in O'Brien and Bosc at page 86, and this might be an outdated version from 2009 that I am looking at, but in any event, in 2002, in the decision when Art Eggleton as defence minister was accused of providing misleading information, the Speaker in this Parliament has of course continued that test forward, restating it definitively back on May 7, 2012, at page 7469 of Debates.
That three-part test is this. First, it must be proven that the statement was misleading; second, it must be established that the member making the statement knew at the time that the statement was incorrect; and third, in making the statement, the member intended to mislead the House.
These are not separate tests, they are three that have to be met together. I think there is no dispute that the first of those three tests was an incorrect statement; this is obviously the case. The member so much as acknowledged that himself and in fact conducted himself very appropriately in doing what all members should do when they become aware that they made an incorrect statement. He came back to the House and tabled on the record documents correcting this and setting out what the actual facts were, all of which was done before any question of privilege was raised.
The member had conducted himself appropriately. In so doing, by its very nature, we see that there is no evidence whatsoever that the member knew at the time that his statement was incorrect. In fact, he said in the House that at the time he made it, he believed it to be correct. As soon as he had information to the contrary, he corrected that to the House.
The rule is that we take a member at their word. There is no reason why we should not here. In fact, the sequence of events suggest veracity in his statement of the facts and recovering of the facts. As such, the question of privilege that has been raised obviously fails on that second test, that being that it has to be established that the member making the statement knew at the time that the statement was incorrect. I think all the evidence points in exactly the opposite direction, that at the time he made that statement to the House, he believed it to be correct.
As such, on the second point, there is a failure of the three-part test. The third part is that in making the statement the member intended to mislead the House. Obviously if what he believed genuinely, and I think we all accept that that was true, that what he was saying was correct, there is no way that he could have been making the statement with the intent to mislead. Again, the evidence and the course of evidence and the fact that he did come to the House and provide documents and correct the record as soon as that came to his attention, I think establishes beyond any doubt whatsoever that he had no intention of misleading the House and conducted himself according to his obligations appropriately.
I put it to you, Mr. Speaker, that two of the three tests that have to be met in order to establish a prima facie case of privilege are not met in this circumstance. There is no question of the member's privileges having been offended.
I do want to take on the further question. The member for seems to have tried to establish a new fourth test. I do not know if it stands on its own independently or it is an additional test, but that being one of reliance, that in some way, somehow, the House or he himself since he is claiming that his privileges have been offended, that his privileges were offended because he relied on that information. There might be merit in an argument like that, however novel, but there is no evidence of any such a rule in our rules and in previous decisions of the House that I have seen. I do not think that such a rule exists.
If he is making the case that the Speaker should create a new rule of reliance, because we are now past the vote and it is too late to correct the record because members voted on this, that might have some merit if there were a member standing and saying he or she voted in favour of what the minister wanted on the reliance of what he said, but now that they have new facts, they would have voted differently.
That is not the case for the member claiming that his privileges have been offended here. He in fact has been clear from before the minister made any such statements how he would vote. He was consistent throughout and his arguments in the House in debate and so on, how he would vote. He voted exactly that way and he continues to stand by that position, the exact same position, even now that he has been provided with the proper facts.
Therefore, there is no argument of reliance for the member that his privileges have been offended. It would be a novel one, but even if one were to accept that, he is not in a position to make that argument here, because the fact is that he simply did not rely upon that.
I put it to you, Mr. Speaker, that it is not a good test and it should not be established, but if he is putting to you that it should be a test, he is not in a position to rely on this new and novel test. It is a fairly simple, open and shut case. There is no question of the privileges of the House or any member having been offended here and, therefore, I think you could rule on it quite quickly and dismiss the matter.