It depends how you define truth, honesty and accountability

After John McKay, Paul Dewar and Pierre Paquette rose on points of privilege yesterday, several more points were made after QP today, including the government’s response via Tom Lukiwski, the parliamentary secretary to the Government House leader.

As in the Foreign Affairs committee’s report, the government’s claim is that Ms. Oda was unaware of precisely who added the “not” and as she was asked “who” (and not, say, “how”), she did not mislead the House.

After the jump, some of today’s discussion.

Lukiwski: Mr. Speaker, I want to reply to the alleged privilege matters that were raised yesterday by the members for Scarborough—Guildwood, Ottawa Centre and Joliette and today’s intervention by the member for Vancouver East. They related to the content of the sixth report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs that was also tabled yesterday.

The sixth report contains a series of quotations taken from evidence gathered earlier by the committee while it was examining a decision by the government relating to a funding application by KAIROS. Those quotations are clear and easily understood.

There are no accusations or other suggestions in the sixth report that the rights or dignity of the House have been compromised. Questions are put and answers are given. There are no indications that the minister or officials refused to answer the questions put to them. There is no suggestion or evidence in the record that the committee has been misled either unintentionally or deliberately.

The committee then concludes: In light of other information before the House, your Committee wishes to draw attention to what appears to be a possible breach of privilege and recommends that the House consider all relevant documents and ministerial and other statements that take such measures as deemed necessary.

No direct accusation of any sort is contained in the body of the report, no contravention or any aspect of the law of privilege is enunciated, no person is accused of anything. There are no contradictions of fact, there are no incongruities in testimony and no indication of what the “other information before the House” might be. There is nothing.

What is the matter of privilege that should be examined? What is the prima facie case? Who is accused of what? I do not know, the members of the House do not know, you do not know, Mr. Speaker, the media does not know and Canadians do not know. Why do we not know? Because the committee has said nothing by way of accusation. What charge is there to be answered? None of us know. There is no accusation.

… The member for Scarborough—Guildwood used this report as the basis of a complaint asking that the Speaker find a prima facie case of privilege, but since the committee transmitted no grievance, the member’s accusations are apparently based on something for which there is no reference or evidence in the committee report. I respectfully suggest that it is not open for a committee to report that an undescribed and undefined breach of privilege may have occurred, opening the door for any member of the House to make a new accusation without the support of the committee.

What does the member say is the breach of privilege? Yesterday, the member accused the Minister of International Cooperation of contempt for the House in that she “deliberately attempted to mislead the House by way of a statement that she knew or ought to have known that the statements to the House were either false or an attempt to mislead”. That is the accusation by the member, not the committee. Let me repeat that. It was by the member, not the committee.

What is the evidence put forward by the member? He cites testimony from the December 9 meeting and a reasonable reading of this exchange cannot substantiate this charge. The minister is precise in her answers and they are clear in meaning. There is no double meaning or other deception.

In particular, there was an exchange in an answer to a simple question about whether the minister knew who had written in the word “not” to signify the minister’s decision. There was nothing before the committee and nothing now in its report before the House to suggest that the answer was inaccurate. Once again, there was nothing before the committee and nothing now in the report before the House to suggest that the answer was inaccurate.

In light of other direct and clear answers given by the minister at the same meeting to the effect that the decision at issue was taken by her, there was no omission in the answers that had the intent to mislead. Perhaps the member should have asked different questions or more questions or have been more diligent in his inquiry, but his unhappiness with the answer is not a breach of privilege.

The member for Scarborough—Guildwood then goes to the answer to a written question, which I assume is Question No. 106, put by the member for London North Centre. This was answered on April 23 last year. The date is last April. At that time there was no discussion of the minister’s decision.

It is therefore not surprising that the response to the question followed the structure of the question. The question referenced CIDA priorities and CIDA criteria and CIDA examination. The minister’s response referenced an activity within CIDA which was the subject of the inquiry. She was not asked about the decision process insofar as the minister and officials were concerned. Again, a straightforward and, on all the evidence, an accurate answer to the question put.

Were the member to read the answer given to his own written question, Question No. 31, he will find these words: The Official Development Assistance Accountability Act stipulates that official development assistance may be provided only if the competent minister is of the opinion that (a) it contributes to poverty reduction; (b) takes into account the perspectives of the poor; and (c) is consistent with the international human rights standards.

The answer further states that “CIDA receives more proposals than it has budget to fund”, so that even some of the proposals that meet the broad framework of the act must be turned down because of budget restrictions.

This answer was given in March. The April answer is of a similar construct in that “CIDA encompasses both officials and the minister responsible for CIDA”.

Turning now to the focal point of much of the discussion and debate in the House over the last few days and that is the minister’s answers as to the identity of the person who inserted the word “not” in the document. The minister told the committee she did not know who did it. She told the House the word was inserted on her instructions. These are not contradictory statements. On all the evidence before the House it must be concluded that both statements are true. Once again, the member asking the question failed to pursue the inquiry. Precise answers to questions do not constitute contempt.

The member’s fourth accusation does not relate to anything said or done by the minister. The member for Ottawa Centre and the member for Joliette echoed the points offered by the member for Scarborough—Guildwood. There is no evidence that members have been obstructed.

Some may say that the departmental document carrying the inserted word “not” is an issue. I respectfully disagree. Few of us in this place ever see these internal documents. They are not parliamentary documents and they are intended to convey information within the executive government.

What is clear is that the senior departmental officials knew the wishes of the minister, knew that she had full authority to differ with officials and to refuse the application. No member of the House has suggested that this was improper, and no one ever suggested that a bureaucratic and ministerial paper flow had to be a work of art.

The means chosen to communicate the minister’s decision back to officials may not have been what others would or should do but it was intended solely to communicate to officials the minister’s decision, nothing more, nothing less, not in the knowledge that it might one day be made public and with no intention whatsoever to deceive or mislead anyone about the officials’ recommendation.

The committee makes no specific charge or accusation. The member for Scarborough—Guildwood, who is a member of foreign affairs committee and therefore an author of this report, cannot use an empty committee report to concoct his own accusations and grievances and then suggest that they carry the authority of the committee. And a committee report whispering the words privilege and other unspecified information is not a sufficient authority on which to find a prima facie case of privilege.

While the committee report does not make a charge or offer evidence of anyone making deliberately misleading statements, these charges are being made against the minister in the media and by the opposition in this place. The facts do not support these charges.

Dewar: Mr. Speaker, I rise on the same point of order. There are a couple of points that I think are important to underline, in light of the government’s intervention and response to the question of privilege.

Mr. Speaker, I should point out that in the report that was submitted by the committee, at the bottom of the report, just before the chair signed off, there is a copy of the relevant minutes of proceedings. I want to underline that because it does give us a full overview of the debate within committee on this issue. I think that is important because it is in context that we are debating this point of privilege.

One of those points is not only the minister herself saying that, on the one hand, she was not aware of who put the “not” in the documents, she was not able to divulge that, then she conveyed in testimony that she was very well attuned to what was in the proposal. That is important because when I asked her questions at committee, I asked her if she had read the proposal and she had assured us that she had. That is important because of the dates because she had the sign-off from senior officials on this to approve the proposal. And when we get to the point of trying to find out from her how this process worked, she was not able to tell us.

This is where I believe our privileges were comprised and whey there is a prima facie case of contempt. As I mentioned in my intervention yesterday, the 1978 decision by Speaker Jerome was notwithstanding that the information that was provided to an honourable member back in 1973, and this was with regard to the opening of mail by the RCMP, there was no knowledge of it at the time. It was later found out that there was, in fact, knowledge and that there was withholding of information from honourable members.

I need to underline one thing here. There is a certain standard of conduct that all honourable members should all ascribe to; that is, telling our colleagues exactly what has happened, in a truthful manner.

Cabinet ministers are held to a higher standard, for obvious reasons. They have to absolutely assure all members that they are divulging all information because of the nature of their position.

I say that because when we asked for information about how this decision was made, to be polite, the minister was evasive. She would not tell us who intervened to change this document–and I will speak to that in a moment–and she led us to believe that she was not involved. That is clear, when we look at the sign-off of her deputy minister and others, the fact that she had this on her desk for the period of time she did, the fact that she said that she had studied this proposal for the time that she and, at the end of the day, she could not disclose to hon. members who actually had made the intervention to kill the proposal.

This is the higher standard I am speaking of. It is not good enough to shrug and say, “Well, I’m sorry. I should have told you I directed someone to do it, but I didn’t.” I think that is something that needs to be ascertained and Mr. Speaker, if you connect it to the 1973 intervention of an hon. member which led to the 1978 decision of prima facie from Speaker Jerome, you will see that there is an argument.

Finally, the document. I respectfully disagree with my colleague from the Conservative Party when he says that “Normally, people would not see this document. Maybe it was sloppy. Maybe it could have been done differently. But it’s not something we should concern ourselves with because, at the end of the day, the minister had said it was her decision.”.

The problem with that is it is the whole focus right now because it is important. It is a legal testament to whether or not this proposal was going to be approved.

…    If I have to go back in time, the nature of bureaucracy and why we have documents is so that we have accountability. My friend says that it is not important because normally we would not see these documents, and that this is just the way things happen, that it was sloppy but we should not worry about it.

The only way to hold government, and private sector as well, to account is to look at documents and contracts. This was essentially a contract, a proposal put forward to government, approved by upper levels of the bureaucracy and given to the minister to sign off.

That is the way this works, so how else can we have accountability unless we look at documents to ascertain how decisions were made in this place. I know the government does not like that. It would prefer none of us see anything. We have seen that before with the Afghan documents.

At the end of the day, Mr. Speaker, I encourage you to focus on the document, the impression that was given by the minister, what was divulged by her, and at what point hon. members were actually given access to how that decision was made. I think prima facie will be found.

As I said to you, Mr. Speaker, before, I think the citation of Speaker Jerome will help in that instance.

Lukiwski: Mr. Speaker, let me just respond very briefly to both further interventions by my honourable colleagues from Scarborough—Guildwood and Ottawa Centre. I have a couple points on each.

The member for Scarborough—Guildwood seems to suggest that there were answers given at committee that were misleading. I suggest they were not. As I mentioned in my earlier intervention, precise answers, clear answers and accurate answers were given to precise questions. Just because the member may not like the answers does not make that a matter of privilege. In particular I would point out the one question about the word “not.” The question was to the minister: “Do you know who inserted the word ‘not’?” She quite accurately and honestly answered: “No.”

Had the member asked yet another question, such as “Did you instruct someone to insert the word ‘not’”, I am sure the answer would have been in the affirmative. He did not ask the question. The minister should not be held in contempt because the member opposite did not ask the correct questions.

With respect to my honourable colleague, the member for Ottawa Centre, when he states that he feels, in his opinion, that he was perhaps deceived, that is a totally subjective interpretation. The questions were objective in nature. The answers were clear, precise, accurate and honest in the response. Just because the member feels that he deserved more information, but did not provide questions to elicit that information, does not make this a matter of contempt or a breach of privilege.

I think the facts speak for themselves. I made the government’s presentation. Obviously you, Mr. Speaker, will be taking this and other interventions into account. I think we all, in this House, look forward to your speedy response to resolve this matter.