I am now ready to rule on the question of privilege raised by the hon. member for Fraser Valley on October 29, 1997 concerning a government news release announcing the membership of the nominating committee for the proposed Canada pension plan investment board.
I thank the hon. member for Fraser Valley for raising the matter and for providing the Chair with a copy of the document in question, and I thank the Leader of the Government in the House for his comments on the matter.
The hon. member for Fraser Valley referred to a news release dated October 23 in which the Department of Finance announced the membership of a committee that will nominate candidates for the proposed Canada pension plan investment board. He pointed out that clause 10(2) of Bill C-2, the Canada pension plan investment board act specifically provides for this nominating committee and he reminded the House that this bill had only been taken up by the Standing Committee on Finance on October 28. Thus, the hon. member argued, the Minister of Finance had established this nominating committee under the provisions of a bill not yet adopted by the House and not yet even considered by the standing committee.
The hon. member drew a parallel between this and two other cases raised in the House concerning government advertising on the GST. In the cases cited, Speaker Fraser had not found a breach of privilege because the departmental information alluded to “proposals”, thus it recognized that the legislation had not yet been adopted.
According to the hon. member, the case he put before the House is much more serious. He argued that, in designating a committee defined in clause 10 of Bill C-2, the Minister of Finance had acted as if the bill is sure to be passed in its present form. In the opinion of the hon. member, to allow the government to proceed to act as if a bill has been approved by the House would set a dangerous precedent. He stated this “undercuts the authority of Parliament and derogates from the rights and privileges of every member to have input into legislation prior to its enactment”.
In response to the arguments raised, the Leader of the Government in the House made the claim that the press release did not in any way seek to influence the House in its decision to adopt or reject the bill. He added that the government's action was merely a prudent step so as to have sufficient lead time to prepare definitive appointments to the investment board if the bill were adopted.
I have carefully examined the submissions from the hon. member for Fraser Valley and from the government House leader. I think it may be useful to review the sequence of events on this matter.
As I understand it, on October 8, 1997, the House adopted Bill C-2 at second reading and referred it to the Standing Committee on Finance. On October 23, the Department of Finance issued its press release and the next day, on October 24 during question period the hon. member for Calgary—Nose Hill asked a question on the establishment of this nominating committee and its effect on legislation before the House. The hon. government House leader replied that the government was simply acting responsibly in putting in place the arrangements necessary to proceed if the bill were adopted.
One of the first tasks of the Speaker, when dealing with a question of privilege, is to determine whether the matter has been raised at the earliest possible opportunity. As I have just indicated, the hon. member for Calgary—Nose Hill brought this matter to the attention of the House during question period on the day following the issue of the news release. Clearly there was ample opportunity to raise the matter as a question of privilege at that time, yet three sitting days elapsed before the hon. member for Fraser Valley raised this question in the House.
Now, if I may, I shall move on to the question of privilege per se, in order to determine whether any parliamentary privilege has been breached.
In the present case, the Chair cannot conclude that freedom of speech has been adversely affected since members will have the opportunity to debate Bill C-2 and propose amendments to it, either in the finance committee or in the House during report stage.
One might further ask whether this action has unduly prejudiced debate in committee or in the House. Like Speaker Fraser in his October 10, 1989 ruling on GST advertising, I would say that this House has never had any difficulty in expressing its opinions when dealing with controversial situations. The House is a forum for debate and the consideration of different points of view. Members do not work in a vacuum. They are constantly aware of pressures and factors outside the House itself. While an action like this one may offend some hon. members, it would be hard to make a case that it prejudiced debate.
Similarly, in examining the privilege of immunity from obstruction and intimidation, I cannot conclude that any hon. member has been obstructed in the performance of his or her parliamentary duties by the minister's action.
In deciding a question of privilege, the Speaker must find whether, prima facie, there is sufficient cause to set aside the business of the House so that the House can consider a breach of one of its privileges or, more generally, a contempt of its authority. In this case, I find that no specific privilege has been breached. The authority given to this House to debate freely has not been compromised, nor has there been any obstruction or intimidation of members.
Nonetheless, the Chair acknowledges that this is a matter of potential importance since it touches the role of members as legislators, a role which should not be trivialized. It is from this perspective that the actions of the Department of Finance are of some concern. The vocabulary of the news release is subject to varying interpretations. But even if one argues that the subject of the news release is properly the creation of the nominating committee and not the progress of Bill C-2, the fact remains that the reference to the legislative process is cursory at best.
This dismissive view of the legislative process, repeated often enough, makes a mockery of our parliamentary conventions and practices. That it is the Department of Finance that is complained of once again has not gone unnoticed.
I trust that today's decision at this early stage of the 36th Parliament will not be forgotten by the minister and his officials and that the departments and agencies will be guided by it.
After very carefully reflecting on this matter, and for the specific reasons explained, I have concluded that the matter submitted by the hon. member for Fraser Valley does not constitute, prima facie, a breach of privilege.
I thank hon. members for their contributions to this discussion.