Pat Martin vs. The Justice Minister

The NDP MP alleges a breach of privilege
NDP MP Pat Martin speaks during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday October 18, 2011. Martin is chair of the all-party government operations committee. A new report by the committee says arcane rules are keeping MPs in the dark about the billions in government spending they should be scrutinizing. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Ed Schmidt, a lawyer with the Department of Justice, is currently challenging the department in Federal Court—see here and here—over the department’s obligation to inform Parliament if a piece of legislation violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The NDP’s Pat Martin has now taken this issue to the House, raising it as a matter of privilege.

Mr. Schmidt alleges the Department of Justice counsel have adopted a policy of interpreting the constitutional duty as meaning “no advice is given to the minister that he or she…has a duty to report to the House” so long as “some argument can reasonable be made in favour of its consistency with the charter, even if all the arguments in favour of consistency have a combined likelihood of success of 5% or less”. If these allegations are in fact true, my privilege as a member of Parliament, indeed the privileges of each member of Parliament, have been breached.

Supposedly, when a bill is placed before the House as government bill, every member can be reassured by law that the bill is not in violation of either the Bill of Rights or the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by the fact that the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada has examined the bill and finds it to be compliant with these fundamental Canadian laws. If the allegations of Edgar Schmidt are true, we members cannot rely on the performance of these statutory and constitutional duties to know that a bill is consistent with the Bill of Rights and charter in deciding our vote as the bill proceeds through the committees and the House. Based on these allegations, the Department of Justice is approving proposed legislation that has only a mere remote possibility of being consistent with the charter or the Bill of Rights. In contrast, Schmidt argues that the statutory examination provisions require the Department of Justice to determine whether the proposed legislation is actually consistent with the charter or the Bill of Rights, not on the possibility of whether or not the legislation could be consistent.

This hinders us as members of Parliament in the performance of our parliamentary duties. It constitutes an interference in the performance of our duties to exercise due diligence of the bills before us. I believe every member of the House would agree that if these allegations are proven to be true, they show contempt for the authority and dignity of Parliament.

Liberal MP Irwin Cotler is due to add his concerns and there will no doubt be a response from Justice Minister Rob Nicholson before the Speaker makes a ruling.