Do we respect the primacy of Parliament or don’t we?

Should the economic update have been presented to Parliament?

Adrian Wyld/CP

Adrian Wyld/CP

NDP Finance Critic Nathan Cullen made a bid yesterday to have it found by the Speaker that Finance Minister Joe Oliver violated the privileges of MPs when the fall economic update was, once again, presented to a private audience instead of parliamentarians.

I don’t expect the Speaker will find in Cullen’s favour. But that doesn’t mean Cullen doesn’t have a point.

I’m not aware of any rule or ruling that has established any requirement of ministers to make announcements or statements of government policy to the House of Commons. Each day does, theoretically, include time set aside for “statements by ministers,” but the time is rarely ever utilized by a minister to make a statement—and really, why, if given the option, would a minister ever choose to participate in a democratic exercise that permits opposition MPs a right of reply, when he or she can speak in a safe environment where she or he can, if desired, deliver his or her statement without having to worry about direct criticism or questions?

In Britain, there is at least some vague expectation that the House of Commons should be the first to hear about important matters of state.

Here‘s John Bercow, the current Speaker in Britain, when he asked the House to support his election in June 2009:

. . . once and for all, ministers must be obliged to make key policy statements here.

Here he is two days later, after becoming Speaker:

. . . as I said on Monday, when ministers have key policy statements to make, the House must be the first to hear them, and they should not be released beforehand.

Here he is a year after that, responding to a point of order that objected to the leaking of the Queen’s Speech:

The House will share the Hon. gentleman’s disappointment that it and he did not hear for the first time the details of the government’s legislative programme while listening to the Queen’s Speech this morning. This gives me the opportunity to say, at the start of this new Parliament, that I shall continue to expect, as I said two days after first being elected Speaker last June, that, “Ministers ought to make key statements to the House before they are made elsewhere.” If they do otherwise, I—and, I am sure, the House—will expect to hear explanations and apologies as necessary.


In 2011, Bercow punished the chancellor of the exchequer for leaking elements of the autumn economic statement—a statement that is expected to be made in the House.

Bercow has also revived a practice of the U.K. Parliament—the urgent question—that can be used to compel ministers to attend to the House to speak about relevant matters.

In responding to Cullen’s point yesterday, Government House leader Peter Van Loan conveyed the Canadian history of the fall economic statement as follows:

In fact, going back to the very start, it has very often not been something that has necessarily been tabled in the House. Sometimes it has occurred before a finance committee, sometimes it has been done by news release, and sometimes it has been done out across Canada in order to bring the message to Canadians in their various communities, in places as diverse as Mississauga, Calgary, Fredericton, Edmonton and Victoria. This has been a long-standing practice.

Here is my history of the economic update, as created by Paul Martin in 1994. In the case of Martin and his Liberal successors, John Manley and Ralph Goodale, the update was always presented to members of the finance committee. Even when the update was presented outside Ottawa—in 1997, 1999 and 2002, in Vancouver, London and Halifax, respectively—the finance committee travelled to the location to convene a meeting.

In 2006, Jim Flaherty made a presentation to the finance committee. In 2007, he attempted to address the House, but was blocked. In 2008, he successfully addressed the House (and then the Conservative government nearly fell).

From then on, Flaherty went about avoiding the House and its MPs, opting instead for audiences in Victoria, Mississauga, Calgary, Fredericton and Edmonton. Last week, Joe Oliver went to Toronto.

It’s cute of Van Loan to say that the update “has been done out across Canada in order to bring the message to Canadians in their various communities.” Presumably, Flaherty and Oliver could have managed the same kind of outreach while still, as Martin and Manley did, making their presentation to a committee of MPs.

For that matter, it’s entirely unclear why, as a Canadian, you should feel any more respected by the finance minister speaking to individuals who paid $80 per person to hear the update in Toronto than you would be if the finance minister addressed some gathering of duly elected representatives of the public. (Indeed, if the finance minister is, as Van Loan suggests, quite willing to take questions from MPs, then he might demonstrate as much by appearing before MPs to present the update, rather than presenting the update when the House is on a break.)

Quite unlike the Canadian Club of Toronto, the Parliament of Canada (including its associated proceedings) actually belongs to us. Citizens needn’t pay $80 to attend its proceedings, and its proceedings are open to the interventions of those we have elected to represent us.

The fall economic statement is hardly the only announcement that should be presented first to Parliament; it’s just one of the few that, until 2008, was still being made to Parliament.

Nonetheless, if the New Democrats or Liberals want it presented to Parliament, they can promise now to do so if they ever form government. If they really believe in the primacy of Parliament, they can also vow to make all important announcements in the House. Or they could, at the very least, promise to amend the standing orders to establish the urgent question in our Parliament.

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