I am ready to rule on the questions of privilege raised on February 25 by the member for Fundy Royal and on February 27 by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons concerning the premature disclosure of two bills.
Allow me first to recapitulate the arguments presented by the two members.
On February 25, 2020, the member for Fundy Royal raised a question of privilege regarding a Canadian Press article published online on February 24 that detailed specific information contained in Bill C-7, an act to amend the Criminal Code with regard to medical assistance in dying, even before it was introduced in the House by the Minister of Justice. The member quoted from the article in question, which mentioned that anonymous sources allegedly discussed the contents of the bill with the journalist while knowing full well that doing so contravened the practices of the House. The member for Fundy Royal feels that this premature disclosure of the bill constitutes a breach of his privileges and contempt of the House.
On February 27, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons raised a question of privilege also concerning the premature disclosure of a bill.
During this intervention, the parliamentary secretary said that a bill entitled “an act to amend the Criminal Code (unlawfully imported firearms)”, put on notice on February 21 by the member for Markham—Unionville, was also the subject of an article published on February 24 in iPolitics before it was introduced in the House. On February 25, the member put another bill on notice, one with a slightly different title, “an act to amend the Criminal Code (possession of unlawfully imported firearms)”. The bill became Bill C-238 after it was introduced on February 27.
The parliamentary secretary feels that the provisions of Bill C-238 correspond to what was described in the iPolitics article, and he presumed, therefore, that the two bills are in large measure the same. The parliamentary secretary suggested that this disclosure contravenes the principle that members are the first to know the contents of a bill. Since a breach of privilege was apparently committed, he suggested referring the matter to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.
On February 28, the member for Markham—Unionville apologized and admitted that he had indeed discussed the contents of the first bill with fellow members and journalists. He said that he had acted in ignorance of the rule prohibiting discussion of bills on notice before they are introduced in the House. He also explained the reasons for the change in title between the two bills.
The same day, the parliamentary secretary to the leader of the government in the House presented his most sincere apologies for the premature disclosure of Bill C-7, saying in passing that no one within the government had been authorized to discuss the bill before its introduction in the House.
I believe that the whole matter can be summarized as follows.
First, based on a reading of the Canadian Press article on Bill C-7 on medical assistance in dying, and in the absence of any explanation to the contrary, I must conclude that the anonymous sources mentioned were well aware of our customs and practices and chose to ignore them. It seems clear to me that the content of the bill was disclosed prematurely while it was on notice and before it was introduced in the House.
Second, in his apology, the member for Markham—Unionville made it clear that his two bills on firearms were substantially the same, apart from the slightly different titles. It seems clear to the Chair, therefore, that the member also discussed a bill before its introduction. It matters little that the bill in question was subsequently withdrawn and never introduced in the House.
The rule on the confidentiality of bills on notice exists to ensure that members, in their role as legislators, are the first to know their content when they are introduced. Although it is completely legitimate to carry out consultations when developing a bill or to announce one’s intention to introduce a bill by referring to its public title available on the Notice Paper and Order Paper, it is forbidden to reveal specific measures contained in a bill at the time it is put on notice.
In this case, it is clear that the content of the bills, both the private member's bill and the government bill, were revealed to the media before their introduction and first reading. The question now is to determine whether the disclosure of these bills was a breach of the House’s privilege and whether mitigating circumstances should be considered.
In this instance, I am prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to the member for Markham—Unionville when he says that he was unaware of the rules regarding the confidentiality of bills on notice. I believe that his remarks were sincere and that he believed he was advancing his cause in a legitimate fashion.
My analysis is different for the question of privilege raised by the member for Fundy Royal concerning government Bill C-7. Permit me to quote a part of the article at the heart of this matter:
The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to reveal details of the bill prior to its tabling in the House of Commons this afternoon.
Everything indicates that the act was deliberate. It is difficult to posit a misunderstanding or ignorance of the rules in this case.
On April 19, 2016, my predecessor, faced with a similar situation regarding the premature disclosure of Bill C-14 on medical assistance in dying, found a prima facie case of privilege in a decision that can be located on pages 2442 and 2443 of the Debates.
In light of the information provided by the member for Fundy Royal, the precedents and the current practice in this matter, the Chair notes the existence of sufficient grounds to conclude that there was a prima facie breach of the privilege of the House and the members and their right to be the first to know the contents of Bill C-7.
Consequently, I now invite the member for Fundy Royal to move the appropriate motion.