Irwin Cotler’s perfect ending

Liberal MP Irwin Cotler uses his second last day in the House of Commons to uphold ‘the vitality of our democracy’

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

As the House of Commons proceeded on Thursday with the taking of the last recorded division of the session, departing members were each cheered as they cast their last vote. When it came around to Irwin Cotler, MPs from all parties stood to applaud.

With the votes over, MPs conveyed best wishes to each, and the House mostly emptied. Cotler had not yet finished, though.

“Mr. Speaker, I rise on a question of privilege out of respect for the integrity of Parliament, as you yourself have put it,” he said. “I am rising, I must say, somewhat hesitantly, because of the lateness of the period, but I am doing so in the hope, as even the House leader mentioned, of the enhancement of the democratic process.”

This was not quite Cotler’s last intervention in the House of Commons. On Friday, he would make a statement about Iran, table a bill to create a commissioner for children and young people (quoting his daughter in the process), and ask for the House’s unanimous consent to designate November as Jewish Heritage Month (he did not receive it). But, with all due respect to those interventions, this was the perfect ending.

Earlier in the spring, Cotler, the reigning parliamentarian of the year, had filed another of his copious, multi-part order-paper questions—the written enquiries that MPs can submit through the House to the government. In this particular case, the Liberal MP used 819 words to ask various questions about the government’s funding for Circles of Support and Accountability, a program meant to help reintegrate back into society individuals imprisoned for sexual offences. Last year, the federal government decided to end most of its support for the CoSA programs in Canada.

Filed with the House on June 15, the government’s response to Cotler’s question amounted to four sentences, only one of which was obviously applicable to the queries posed.

In general, the government’s responses to order-paper questions have been something of a going concern, but the Speaker has ruled that the quality of responses is beyond his purview. But, standing in the House last Thursday, Cotler argued a fine point—not that the response was insufficiently detailed or not applicable, but that it included a phrase that specifically violated the standing order that governs order-paper questions.

According to standing order 39(1), “in putting any such question, or in replying to the same, no argument or opinion is to be offered.” And here is where Cotler, the lawyer and former law professor, found grounds for a complaint.

“The government’s response, which, as I say, hardly deals with the question at all, begins, ‘Mr. Speaker, the government believes.’ This construction necessarily leads to a statement of opinion, and the very inclusion of the government’s beliefs in response to a written question contravenes the Standing Order. Therefore, the Standing Orders have been violated five words into the response.”

This was, at the very least, a novel gambit.

Responding for the government a while later, House leader Peter Van Loan argued that, because Cotler had sought information on outcomes and objectives, the government’s belief was less an opinion than a relevant statement of fact. This, too, was novel. The outcomes and objectives Cotler sought were related to the funding of CoSAs, evaluations of the program and meetings about the program. How, one might ask, would the government’s statement of belief cover any (or all?) of those questions? How, for instance, does the government’s belief “that dangerous sex offenders belong behind bars” respond to the question of: “What objectives was the government seeking to achieve by providing funding for CoSA through CSC prior to March 31, 2015?” Or, “How will the objectives be achieved following the cut to CSC funding for CoSA effective March 31, 2015?”

It might have been fun to hear the government try to argue that case, but the House adjourned for the summer without further arguments or a ruling from the Speaker. With Parliament sure to be dissolved before the House reconvenes again, Cotler’s plea will go unanswered. (Regardless, reform of order-paper questions and responses might be something to include in a new deal for Parliament.)

In saying his official goodbyes to the House two weeks ago, Cotler had enumerated the numerous roles and responsibilities of an MP, from the constituency to the legislature and beyond. “As an opposition MP, as we have all done, I have sought to make use of the parliamentary instruments at our disposal, such as private member’s bills, motions, petitions, order-paper questions and the like, to help advance the public good,” he said. “The MP as overseer reflects our responsibility as representatives of the public trust and overseers of the public purse to help secure the public good.”

To review and demand explanations for the government’s decisions on the spending of public funds is something like the primary reason for having a Parliament, the principle around which this system of responsible government has developed over the last 800 years. So, while Cotler’s question of privilege might be a footnote on the 41st Parliament, it is also the essential thing. His order-paper question likely will not factor significantly into the cacophony of this fall’s election, but it is precisely why we elect representatives to the House.

“I know, and with this I close, that, at this late date in the parliamentary calendar, there may not be time for a prima facie finding of contempt to be referred to committee and for such a referral to proceed according to usual practice. However, I raise this matter . . . out of concern for the health of our parliamentary process, out of respect for the Standing Orders of this House, and out of concern for, as you yourself have put it, ‘the integrity of the written-question process,’ which is an essential tool for us as parliamentarians,” Cotler explained.

“I ask that you protect the integrity of this process by finding that the government’s response to Question No. 1229 is in breach of Standing Order 39(1), and I hope that when the House returns in the fall, honourable members from all parties will work together to strengthen parliamentary processes, such as the written-question system, which underpin the vitality of our democracy.”

All MPs should hope to go out on a note of such principles.

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