Mr. Speaker, I am rising today on a question of privilege concerning the Liberal government's disrespect of an order of the Standing Committee on Finance requiring the production of records related to the Prime Minister's half-billion-dollar WE scandal.
At its July 7 meeting, the finance committee adopted the following motion:
That, pursuant to Standing Order 108(1)(a), the Committee order that any contracts concluded with We Charity and Me to We, all briefing notes, memos and emails, including the contribution agreement between the government and the organization, from senior officials prepared for or sent to any Minister regarding the design and creation of the Canada Student Service Grant, as well as any written correspondence and records of other correspondence with We Charity and Me to We from March 2020 be provided to the Committee no later than August 8, 2020; that matters of Cabinet confidence and national security be excluded from the request; and that any redactions necessary, including to protect the privacy of Canadian citizens and permanent residents whose names and personal information may be included in the documents, as well as public servants who have been providing assistance on this matter, be made by the Office of the Law Clerk and Parliamentary Counsel of the House of Commons.
On or about August 8, the government provided the finance committee's clerk with about 5,600 pages of materials. These documents were subsequently released to committee members on August 18, mere minutes before the prorogation of Parliament. It is important to understand that these pages often included several copies of the same emails and, worse, many of the pages featured blacked-out, redacted, obscured and hidden content. It is those redactions that trouble me, and they should trouble every member of Parliament.
I will quote Speaker Milliken's highly publicized Afghan detainee documents ruling from April 27, 2010. This is on page 2042 of the debates. He said:
Before us are issues that question the very foundations upon which our parliamentary system is built. In a system of responsible government, the fundamental right of the House of Commons to hold the government to account for its actions is an indisputable privilege and in fact an obligation.
The finance committee exercised its privilege and obligation to get to the bottom of this extraordinarily troubling WE scandal wherein the Prime Minister handed his friends $543.33 million in a contribution agreement to run a paid volunteer scheme, instead of trusting Canada's hard-working public servants to administer the CSSG.
The order I quoted, which passed, allowed for cabinet confidences and national security content to be excluded. All other vetting was to be done by the Office of the Law Clerk and Parliamentary Counsel. Of course, a contract to a children's charity for a youth volunteering program would not involve national security, but it is simply a standard form for motions generally used at committees lately.
The government, however, contravened the committee's order, as is explained in the law clerk's own August 18 letter to the finance committee:
The letters accompanying the documents for each department stated that redactions had been made to protect Cabinet confidences in accordance with the motion adopted by FINA. In addition, the letters and documents indicate that the departments had also made redactions to protect personal information in accordance with the Privacy Act, to protect third party information and information on the vulnerability of their computer or communication systems, or methods employed to protect their systems. These latter grounds for exemption from disclosure are contained in the Access to Information Act.
Upon reception of the documents on August 9, 2020, you provided them to my Office so that we could make the necessary redactions to protect the privacy of Canadian citizens and permanent residents, as well as public services as contemplated by the production order. However, as mentioned above, the documents had already been redacted by the departments to protect personal information and on other grounds.
Here comes the kicker:
As my Office has not been given the opportunity to see the unredacted documents, we are not able to confirm whether those redactions are consistent with the order of Committee.
Further down the page, Mr. Dufresne adds the following:
As mentioned above, the department made certain redactions to the documents on grounds that were not contemplated in the order of the Committee.
A moment ago, I referred to the finance committee using a familiar form of motion. I should pause here to note that the entire pattern of document redactions is also familiar. On February 26, the health committee adopted a document production order seeking records concerning the Liberal government's preparations for the current pandemic. In response, the government provided significantly censored documents, covering up key details about the Liberals' failures to prepare Canada adequately against COVID-19. That episode required Mr. Dufresne to write a similar letter to the clerk of the health committee noting the government's open defiance of a parliamentary committee exercising its constitutional rights.
For a government that preaches transparency and openness by default, its track record of blocking out inconvenient facts speaks louder. However, one significant evolution since the health committee's experience is that here the government tried to deflect responsibility elsewhere for the redactions.
According to an article on August 27 on CBC News entitled, “Commons law clerk says government went too far in redacting WE Charity documents”:
Last week, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister's Office told CBC News that the redactions were done by the parliamentary law clerk, who was following the committee's direction to remove documents covered by cabinet confidentiality and personal information about Canadian citizens.
The Prime Minister's Office was trying to deny its complicity in the cover-up concerning these documents. In fact, this seems to have been a talking point circulated among Liberals.
On the evening of August 19, I was part of a panel discussion on CBC's Power & Politics along with the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice. He repeated the Prime Minister's Office's alternative facts and told viewers that night, “The motion included a proviso that redactions should be done as necessary to protect certain interests, including privacy interests, etc., and those should be done by House administration, including the Office of the Law Clerk. That is exactly what happened in this case. The motion was followed to the letter. Redactions were done not by the government and not by political staff but by House of Commons objective officials.”
The denials of the Prime Minister's Office have been exposed as bald-faced lies in the law clerk's letter. Those denials were also given voice by the parliamentary secretary, who had likely been unwittingly briefed and scripted by the PMO to believe that they were true.
It is my respectful submission, Mr. Speaker, that two separate grounds for a prima facie contempt of Parliament are made out in these facts.
First, as the law clerk and parliamentary counsel informed the committee's clerk on August 18, the government disrespected a lawful order of a committee of the House of Commons to produce documents. This is, for reasons I will argue, an appropriate case to come directly before the House.
Second, the Prime Minister's Office and the parliamentary secretary, in attempting to deflect criticism from the government's redaction of those documents in disobedience of a committee's order, made misrepresentations about the work of a table office of this House and risked damaging his reputation in the process.
Allow me to offer you, Mr. Speaker, some of the applicable precedents and procedural background to these issues.
As to the first ground, the breach of a committee order, the law clerk's own letter helpfully offers a succinct explanation of the situation. This is what it says:
We note that the House's and its committees' power to order the production of records is absolute and unfettered as it constitutes a constitutional parliamentary privilege that supersedes statutory obligations, such as the exemptions found in the Access to Information Act. The House and its committees are the appropriate authority to determine whether any reason for withholding the documents should be accepted or not. One such measure is the Committee's decision to have my Office make the necessary redactions to protect personal information and the public servants providing assistance in this matter.
Page 137 of the House of Commons Procedure and Practice, third edition, explains the source of this authority:
By virtue of the preamble and section 18 of the Constitution Act, 1867, Parliament has the ability to institute its own inquiries, to require the attendance of witnesses and to order the production of documents, rights which are fundamental to its proper functioning. These rights are as old as Parliament itself.
Bosc and Gagnon add, further down on that same page, that:
For the purposes of an inquiry, the committee may send for any papers that are relevant to its order of reference.
This right to order the production of documents is unlimited. At pages 984 to 986, Bosc and Gagnon elaborate that:
Public servants and Ministers may sometimes invoke their obligations under certain legislation to justify their position. Companies may be reluctant to release papers which could jeopardize their industrial security or infringe upon their legal obligations, particularly with regard to the protection of personal information. Others have cited solicitor-client privilege in refusing to allow access to legal papers or notices.
These types of situations have absolutely no bearing on the power of committees to order the production of papers and records. No statute or practice diminishes the fullness of that power rooted in House privileges unless there is an explicit legal provision to that effect, or unless the House adopts a specific resolution limiting the power. The House has never set a limit on its power to order the production of papers and records.
Tension between government and Parliament on the interaction between the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act on the one hand, with the document production orders on the other, is as old as the laws themselves.
Some books were not available from the Library of Parliament due to COVID limitations, so I am drawing from digital text.
For example, the first report of the former Standing Committee on Privileges and Elections from the third session of the 34th Parliament states, at page 9 of the Journals for May 29, 1991:
After careful consideration and consultation, the committee has concluded there is nothing in the Privacy Act to prevent the House of Commons from issuing an order for the production of unexpurgated versions of the two reports.... The House, in our opinion, has the the absolute power to issue an order requiring the solicitor General to provide the two reports in their entirety.
Disregarding a committee order is a very serious matter. Page 239 of Parliamentary Privilege in Canada, second edition, explains this:
Disobedience to rules or orders represents an affront to the dignity of the House, and accordingly the House could take action, not simply for satisfaction but to ensure that the House of Commons is held in the respect necessary for its authority to be vindicated. Without proper respect, the House of Commons could not function. Thus, disobedience may well be considered contempt.
In substituting its own judgment for the finance committee's or the law clerk's, the government has overstepped its authority and flouted the will of the finance committee.
Sir John Bourinot in his first edition of Parliamentary Procedure and Practice in the Dominion of Canada, wrote at page 281:
But it must be remembered that under all circumstances it is for the House to consider whether the reasons given for refusing the information are sufficient. The right of Parliament to obtain every possible information on public questions is undoubted, and the circumstances must be exceptional, and the reasons very cogent, when it cannot be at once laid before the Houses.
In the Afghan documents ruling, the chair articulated at page 2,044 an approach to raising those “reasons very cogent”, namely to make the case through the persuasion of debate and the offering of amendments to the motion under debate.
In the end the government does not have the final say for, as Speaker Milliken put it:
The House debated the matter and voted to adopt an Order for the production of documents despite the request of the Government.
In usurping the role assigned to the law clerk, the Liberal government's evasion of accountability represents a grave affront to the dignity and authority of the House of Commons.
Page 138 of Bosc and Gagnon speaks to the present situation stating, “If such an order is ignored, the committee has no means to enforce the order on its own. It may report the matter to the House and recommend that appropriate action be taken. It is then a decision of the House whether or not to issue an order for the production of papers.”
Obviously, the committee was unable to report its situation directly to the House because the Prime Minister shut down Parliament through prorogation quite literally within minutes of the documents becoming available. In fact, it has become perfectly plain for all to see the motivation for prorogation was to shut down committee investigations getting too close to the Prime Minister for his own comfort.
If the Speech from the Throne was about presenting a refreshing agenda reflecting the COVID pandemic, the Prime Minister simply could have prorogued Parliament the night before last, or yesterday morning for that matter. He did not need to shut down Parliament on August 18. The only thing that accomplished was killing committee investigations cold in their tracks.
This brings me to page 152 and 153 of Bosc and Gagnon, which I want to address directly. They state, “Speakers have consistently ruled that, except in the most extreme situations, they will hear questions of privilege arising from committee proceedings only upon presentation of a report from the committee which deals directly with the matter”.
I would respectfully submit the present situation is one of those extreme cases where the Speaker's direct intervention is warranted. This is not a matter in which we can just pick up tomorrow where we left off.
Page 977 of Bosc and Gagnon explains, “Certain specific conditions must be met to continue with a study begun during a previous session or Parliament.... Finally, committees must be constituted; that is, they must be assigned members and a Chair must be chosen.”
The finance committee has no members and it has no chair. In fact, if the Liberals were being particularly cynical, they could exploit Parliamentary tactics to keep our committees from considering substantive business until November.
On December 4, 1992, the House considered a question of privilege concerning the intimidation of a subcommittee witness. In making his argument, then Liberal deputy House leader Don Boudria said at page 14,630 of the Debates:
I wish to bring to your attention in the unlikely event that you would be tempted to rule that this matter should be dealt with at committee, that in fact the committees are in the process of winding down for the Christmas period.
This evidence was brought before a sub-committee which has terminated its proceedings for the next few months. Therefore, the evidence on this could only be heard before committee in a number of months from now at the earliest, if at all, in the event of a prorogation of Parliament later.
For his part, Mr. Speaker Fraser argued at page 14,631, ruling, “Some mention has been made that this matter arose in a committee and hon. members will have heard me say many times that usually matters should be put back to committee. My own feeling is that under the circumstances which have been explained to me that is not the convenient or appropriate thing to do at this time.”
Mr. Speaker, your most recent privilege ruling concerned a complaint about something that has previously arisen in committee of the whole and Bosc and Gagnon explain on page 919 its relevance to the present case, stating, “Once that committee has completed its business, it ceases to exist.”
In your ruling on July 22, 2020, at page 2,701 of the Debates you said, “I accept that the particular circumstances of this situation, notably the challenge surrounding the committee of the whole format, do make it appropriate to bring the matter to the Speaker.”
We are, I would argue, in substantively the same position today with standing committees such as the finance committee. Committees were terminated with prorogation and have not yet been reconstituted, and may not be for some time.
I respectfully submit that you ought to extend by analogy your July ruling, not to mention Fraser's 1992 ruling, to the present circumstances of unconstituted standing committees. Prorogation denied the committee the opportunity to meet and to report this abuse by the government to this House. The time necessary to reconstitute committees and the delays that could be attempted compound this problem. The House must have a means to address behaviour contemptuous of committees.
Having made out the grounds for finding a prima facie contempt, I want to speak briefly on the remedy. When members rise on questions of privilege, the Chair always hears that they are prepared to move an appropriate motion. I, too, am prepared to do so. However, I quote Speaker Milliken, who asked rhetorically in the 2010 ruling I cited, at page 2,044:
The authorities I have cited are unanimous in the view of the House's privilege to ask for the production of papers and many go on to explain that accommodations are made between those seeking information and those in possession of it to ensure that arrangements are made in the best interests of the public they both serve.
...Is it possible to put in place a mechanism by which these documents could be made available to the House without compromising the security and confidentiality of the information they contain? In other words, is it possible for the two sides, working together in the best interests of the Canadians they serve, to devise a means where both their concerns are met? Surely that is not too much to hope for.
This notion of a prima facie ruling forcing an opportunity to reach a negotiated settlement before addressing the matter before a motion and vote was echoed by Speaker Levac of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario on September 13, 2012, at page 5 of the Votes and Proceedings. It is a ruling that should ring bells for some Liberals across the way, specifically for staffers in the Prime Minister's Office. It concerned the Dalton McGuinty government's defiance of a document production order related to the gas plant scandal.
Many of the folks at the heart of the Ontario Liberal operation later picked up and headed down the 401 to Ottawa, some with outrageously high expense claims I should add, and they brought their political playbooks to the nation's capital. One of them who did not make it to Ottawa though was Dalton McGuinty's chief of staff. He was instead sentenced to imprisonment for his role in destroying gas plant scandal records, so it should go without saying that opposition members of Parliament are anxious to lay hands on the full records of the sweetheart deal between the Prime Minister's friends at WE and the Canadian taxpayers.
The Conservatives are prepared to be constructive and reasonable if it means getting expeditious access to the documents in question. Perhaps in the time you are deliberating on these issues we may be able to reach an adequate compromise. To throw out an idea, I note that among the ranks of the official opposition are several privy councillors. One or more of them, on the strengths of their Privy Council oaths, could view the documents to be able to provide assurances to other MPs that the government's grounds for redactions are legitimately claimed.
I recognize that solution may not work well for members of the other two opposition parties. Perhaps an alternative would be for the government to simply allow the House law clerk and his team of lawyers a chance to view the original documents so they can provide MPs with these assurances. I note in passing that the law clerk's own special adviser and counsel previously served as chief of staff to the Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Rural Economic Development, so I could not imagine the Liberals having a serious objection to this course of action. Nonetheless, my point is that there are solutions staring us right in the face, if only the Liberal government would engage us on them.
However, if discussions cannot reach an expeditious compromise, I am fully prepared to put a solution forward by way of a motion for the House to decide.
Next, I would like to turn to the second ground for a prima facie contempt finding: the Prime Minister's Office's lies about the law clerk redacting the documents.
Bosc and Gagnon explain this contempt at page 81, which states:
There are, however, 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, such as disobedience of its legitimate commands or libels upon itself, its Members, or its officers.
It is worth noting here that the corresponding entry in Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand, fourth edition, at page 763, clarifies that the reference to libels extends to slanders. However, in any event, Bosc and Gagnon, at page 81, elaborates upon the scope of contempt of Parliament as follows:
The House of Commons enjoys very wide latitude in maintaining its dignity and authority through the exercise of its contempt power. In other words, the House may consider any misconduct to be contempt and may deal with it accordingly....
Throughout the Commonwealth most procedural authorities hold that contempts, as opposed to privileges, cannot be enumerated or categorized.
To be clear, Mr. Dufresne is, of course, a table officer of the House. Citation 219 of Beauchesne's Parliamentary Rules and Forms, sixth edition, reminds us, “The Officers in the service of the House of Commons are the Clerk of the House, the Sergeant-at-Arms, the Law Clerk and Parliamentary Counsel, the Deputy Clerk, and the Clerks Assistant.”
The Prime Minister's Office, in its effort to spin its way out of a scandal, which has enveloped the whole of government and claimed the career of a finance minister, lied about the work of Mr. Dufresne, attempting to lay blame at his feet. What is more is that the Prime Minister's staff enlisted a member of the House, the member for Parkdale—High Park, to go on television to spread their spin about the law clerk. Maingot, at page 250, writes, “As in the case of a court of law, the House of Commons is entitled to the utmost respect; thus, when someone publishes libellous reflections on the House, they will be treated as contempt of the House.”
Indeed, in a case concerning the defamation of a table officer, Mr. Speaker Tusa of the Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan, on June 24, 1987, at page 79 of the Journals, found a prima facie case of privilege about remarks which “may have harmed the credibility of the Legislative Counsel and Law Clerk”. In that case, the legislative assembly subsequently adopted the following motion:
That this House accepts the apology of the Minister of Justice with respect to his public remarks attacking the credibility of the Legislative Counsel and Law Clerk, and confirms that those remarks constituted a breach of the privileges of this Assembly.
Madam Speaker Sauvé articulated a view on October 29, 1980, at page 4213 of the Debates, on an appropriate threshold when falsehoods were deployed. She stated:
Members will appreciate that the expression “false” is subject to but one interpretation in the House of Commons Debates, that is, pejorative, and it is considered unparliamentary when referring to another hon. member. While the word has less sinister meanings in the context of contempt, it seems to me that to amount to contempt, representations or statements about our proceedings or of the participation of members should not only be erroneous or incorrect, but, rather, should be purposely untrue and improper and import a ring of deceit. To be false in the context of contempt, and interpretation of our proceedings must be an obviously, purposely distorted one....My role, therefore, is to interpret the extracts of the document in question, not in terms of their substance, but to find whether, on their face, they represent such a distorted interpretation of the events or remarks in our proceedings that they obviously attract the characterization of “false”.
The Prime Minister's Office quite clearly knew who was responsible for redacting the documents provided by the government to the finance committee when it was spinning journalists and putting out the justice minister's parliamentary secretary on TV panels.
We are not talking about the woman or man on the street in North Bay who might be following our proceedings from afar through the news. Instead, we are talking about a central player in the scandal implicating an esteemed officer, a table officer of the House, in a distorted interpretation of events, purposely untrue and bearing a heavy ring of deceit.
As Saskatchewan's Mr. Speaker Tusa said on May 23, 1989, at page 94 of the Journals, “it is the duty of the House to protect its officers.” That goes to the essence of my question of privilege.
Members of Parliament have many things said about us in the course of our work. However, we also have many platforms, including the most awesome of them all, the floor of the House of Commons, to respond and defend ourselves. Our table officers, who provide us with such solid support and service, on the other hand, have no such outlet and, if they tried, could risk compromising their neutrality. That is why it is incumbent on us, incumbent on the House, to protect our clerks at the table.
That is why I am asking you, Mr. Speaker, to find a prima facie contempt in respect of the Prime Minister's Office and the parliamentary secretary's defamation about the role played by the law clerk in blocking government transparency and breaching a committee's order. We must protect the hard-working staff of the House from being exploited, in this case exploited for political gain, when there is a lie at the heart of such exploitation.
If you find a prima facie contempt, Mr. Speaker, I am prepared to move an appropriate motion.