I am now ready to rule on the questions of privilege raised on October 5 and October 16, 2023, by the member for Calgary Nose Hill concerning the government's responses to Order Paper questions and the Speaker's decision to recuse himself from this matter. While there were two different matters raised, I intend to address both of them in the ruling.
As members know, to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest, the Speaker recused himself from this affair. The Deputy Speaker is vested with the powers granted to the Speaker when he is not in a position to exercise them. I would therefore like to inform the House that neither the Speaker nor his office have had any involvement in the preparation, discussion, and decision-making for this ruling. The findings are entirely my own, based on my own assessment of the arguments and facts, as well as the precedents that have been brought forward.
I will begin by summarizing the arguments raised chronologically. Then I will address the recusal matter before turning to the first question of privilege.
In her interventions on October 5 and October 6, the member for Calgary Nose Hill argued that the government misled the House by withholding information in its responses to Order Paper Questions Nos. 1417 and 1582. Citing a media story, the member asserted that the financial costs for the Prime Minister's personal travel were in fact greater than what was indicated in the responses. The member emphasized that information appeared to have been hidden on purpose. According to the member, the incomplete nature of the information provided in the responses was misleading and therefore made it impossible for her to discharge her duties in holding the government to account.
She indicated that because the now Speaker was one of the members who signed off on the government response to Question No. 1417 in his previous capacity as a parliamentary secretary, this amounted to a conflict of interest. As a result, she suggested that the Speaker recuse himself from this matter, that she be allowed to move a motion based on her question of privilege and that the House be allowed to determine the outcome. The member for Regina—Qu'Appelle also intervened to indicate his support for the assertions put forward as well as for the proposed manner of proceeding.
On October 16, 2023, the member for Calgary Nose Hill raised another question of privilege, this time regarding the way the Speaker communicated his recusal from this matter to the House. The member asserted that, under the usual convention, such a decision should have been formally communicated to the House first, not disclosed by email or through the media. She concluded that these actions were an affront to the dignity and authority of Parliament and that, in the circumstances, the Chair should once again refer the matter to the House for a decision.
The member for New Westminster—Burnaby agreed that the Speaker should recuse himself from any involvement in this question of privilege. However, he did take issue with how the recusal was made public.
When addressing the first question of privilege, the parliamentary secretary to the government House leader argued that the government had no intention to mislead the House in providing the responses to Order Paper Questions Nos. 1417 and 1582. He maintained that the government answered the questions in a straightforward and truthful manner based on its own understanding of the information sought. He argued that this amounted to a dispute as to the facts and, as such, is not a question of privilege.
On October 17, comparing the two aforementioned questions to a previous one, the member for Mégantic—L'Érable indicated that the government had included different categories of information in response to nearly identical written questions and that the parliamentary secretary had therefore misled the House.
I will first address the matter of the Speaker’s recusal from the question of privilege and the manner in which he made known his intention to recuse himself.
The member for Calgary Nose Hill argued that, in a circumstance in which the Speaker was unable to rule on a question of privilege due to a conflict of interest, he should instead let the House come to a decision on the matter. The Chair has some difficulty with the contention that the matter should be treated as if it were a prima facie question of privilege, regardless of its merits, only because of this conflict of interest.
In fact, the House has provided, in its rules and in law, for someone else to act on the Speaker’s behalf when he or she is unable to do so. The Deputy Speaker is elected by the House to fulfill this role and may exercise all powers of the Speaker, including, I would posit, delivering rulings on questions of privilege. In this case, as the Speaker has decided to recuse himself, it falls to me to examine the matter.
As the member for Calgary Nose Hill pointed out, the premature disclosure of information can give rise to prima facie questions of privilege. In this regard, the premature release of a committee report or bill has previously been judged sufficiently serious to take precedence over all House business. However, in other cases, the Chair has ruled that sharing certain information about a bill before it is introduced, without revealing confidential details, does not constitute a prima facie question of privilege. Additionally, the Chair has found that some House practices are not matters of parliamentary privilege but are instead political conventions. Furthermore, decisions must be rendered in the House, as I am doing right now.
The recusal of a Speaker from a matter and the announcement of that decision to the House are rare, if not unprecedented, events. At this time, no formal process seems to exist. Yes, the Speaker’s recusal was initially disclosed outside the House, and it would certainly have been preferable for all members to have been advised first. If this situation arises again, I believe it would be appropriate for an announcement to be made in the House first, if it is sitting. If a recusal is necessary during a period of adjournment, the Chair should formally and promptly notify the Clerk in writing, who would then share this information with members.
No details about the potential findings of the decision on the substance of the matter were shared with the media or with the member herself. What was communicated outside of the House was the process for rendering the decision. Therefore, I am not of the view that announcing a recusal impeded members in carrying out their duties. Nor can I find that this action disregarded or attacked the rights, powers and immunities of the House and its members. Accordingly, I cannot find in this case that a breach of parliamentary privilege occurred.
I will now address the complaint relating to the government's responses to the written questions.
I have carefully examined the arguments raised by members. I have also been guided by precedents from past Speakers who faced concerns or complaints as to the completeness of responses to Order Paper questions.
In a ruling on an analogous matter, Speaker Milliken stated on February 8, 2005, on pages 3233 and 3234 of Debates the following: “Any dispute regarding the accuracy or appropriateness of this response is a matter of debate. It is not something upon which the Speaker is permitted to pass judgment.”
Furthermore, to reinforce this principle, House of Commons Procedure and Practice, third edition, at pages 529 and 530 state: “There are no provisions in the rules for the Speaker to review government responses to questions. Nonetheless, on several occasions, Members have raised questions of privilege in the House regarding the accuracy of information contained in responses to written questions; in none of these cases was the matter found to be a prima facie breach of privilege. The Speaker has ruled that it is not the role of the Chair to determine whether or not the contents of documents tabled in the House are accurate, nor to ‘assess the likelihood of an Hon. Member knowing whether the facts contained in a document are correct'.”
On the contention that the government was attempting to mislead the House by withholding information, I would refer to a ruling from February 27, 2020, found at page 1649 of the Debates:
...in the case before us...we do not have a situation where the same individual has presented two different sets of facts to the House, nor is there any evidence to suggest that there was an attempt to deliberately mislead the House. For these reasons, the Chair cannot find that there is a prima facie question of privilege in this case.
In keeping with this well-established practice, the current complaint does not lead me to believe that I have a basis to depart from past Speakers' decisions. Judging the accuracy of a response is not something that previous Speakers have attempted to do, nor is it something I will do today.
Accordingly, I cannot make a finding of a prima facie question of privilege.
With that said, it is not the first time the member for Calgary Nose Hill and others have recently complained to the Chair that the government's responses to Order Paper questions were incomplete or inaccurate, or at the very least unsatisfactory.
I believe solutions to better serve members' needs for information should and can be found. For example, it might be valuable for the government to indicate in its responses what is or is not included when tabulating information in order to avoid these sorts of misunderstandings. A standardized method of addressing and answering similar questions would also be useful.
That being said, the Chair's powers to address members' grievances in relation to the content of responses to Order Paper questions are limited. I therefore encourage a constructive dialogue between the government and members to find a way to seek and provide useful information through Order Paper questions. If members wish to change this process or to give further powers to the Chair on these matters, I would invite them to bring forward their proposals, perhaps to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.
I thank members for their attention on this matter.