June 14, 1972 (28th Parliament, 4th Session)


Robert Carman Coates

Progressive Conservative

Mr. Robert C. Coates (Cumberland-Colchester North):

Mr. Speaker, I listened with interest to the remarks of the Parliamentary secretary who has a great deal of responsibility for the answering of questions placed on the order paper, questions that are not political but that seek information from the government. I have used that facility a great deal for many years in an effort to secure information that is useful in making a determination of how the government operates, and in making a determination of how it spends the taxpayers' dollars.
It was wonderful to listen to the parliamentary secretary. It is amazing that he did not need medical attention before he sat down, because I am sure I heard his arm break as he was patting himself so strongly on the back. I cannot agree with him on the effectiveness of the government in answering questions. There is a lot of evidence available to indicate that when the parliamentary secretary talks about three outstanding questions not being answered he, in effect, is admitting that any question that has any detrimental overtones for the government is delayed, delayed and delayed before being answered. No better example comes to my mind than when I endeavoured to determine how much the Prime Minister was using aircraft for which the taxpayers of Canada were paying. I waited through two sessions of Parliament, some 18 months, before I could secure the answer. Then, instead of getting the type of information that had been requested, I was given very minimal information so that is was impossible, without asking another series of questions, to determine exactly what use was being made of the aircraft by the Prime Minister, whether on government business, political business, or monkey business.
I had to wait 18 months for an answer, yet all that was necessary was to take the logs of the aircraft and provide the information from them. But on top of that, I never did receive information on the persons who were flying in those aircraft with the Prime Minister. I was given the number but nothing else. Apparently nobody has a right to know why or how the Prime Minister selects his company when he is flying around this country or other countries, and what are their purposes in being on the aircraft. That is none of our business. We pay the bills, but who the Prime Minister decides to carry around is none of our business.
Another example which I used in debating in this chamber on Tuesday relates to Information Canada and the number of public relations employees in the various government departments. I asked for this information. It should not be difficult to answer that question. First of all, the estimates of Information Canada could quickly supply the number of personnel in it on the date I placed the question on the order paper, February 18. And it should not have been difficult to get the number of public relations people associated with the various departments of government. It took four months to provide that information, Mr. Speaker. If you call that speed and efficiency, then I would not want to see the government start to slow down. Right now there are dozens and dozens of questions on the order paper unanswered. The hon. member for Saint John-Lancaster (Mr. Bell) gave some examples. I

June 14, 1972
Information on Government Business will repeat them just in case the parliamentary secretary did not hear the hon. member. Some 42 questions have been on the order paper since February; 53 since March; 35 since April, and 63 since May. This is certainly not an example of efficiency in the answering of questions.
These questions seek information and nothing more. The Speaker of the House will not allow questions to go on the order paper that do anything more than seek information. In many instances the questions asked could be answered within a week, if the government wanted to put its mind to it, and information could be provided in a really effective way. But all too often the government does not want Members of Parliament to get information, because just as soon as they get it they are able to point out how the government is wasting the taxpayers' money. That is why we do not get the answers when we should get them.
I would like to turn from that to talk about the roster system. This is another one of the effective ways in which the government has made Parliament more efficient. On September 25, 1968 when the Prime Minister (Mr. Trudeau) announced the roster system for ministerial attendance during the question period, he recognized the importance of members being able to question ministers of the Crown and promised that the roster would be varied only in very exceptional circumstances.
Let us look at the figures for three weeks beginning May 1, May 8 and May 15. During the week of May 1 there were 18 ministerial absences, that is if absences are measured against the roster sheet. During the week of May 8, there were 25 such absences; on one day only 11 ministers were present and nine were absent. During the week of May 15, there were 19 absences, making a total for the three weeks of 62. The exceptional circumstances mentioned by the Prime Minister may have been the assumed approach of an election. Whatever they were, there was scant opportunity for members to question ministers.
The mover of this motion, when the Prime Minister announced the roster system, made the following statement which appears at page 801 of Hansard, on October 4, 1968. He said:
I believe that the statement and the plan constitute a calculated contempt and an infringement of the privileges of this House, of all members of this House, including all the members of the opposition and government backbenchers, in so far as both tradition and the Standing Orders of the House are concerned.
The hon. member for Peace River said a great deal more, but that pretty well sums up what happened. The roster system has done one thing very effectively; it has prevented members of the opposition from getting the facts.
There have been many areas that the government could look at to see what happens when a government endeavours to stop the public from having information. It could be done by the roster system or by not answering questions but when it is, other people step in. This government knows better than any government in Canadian history just how effectively other people can step in and what happens when they do. Government leaks happen. At one point in this Parliament the leaks became a flood
[Mr. Coates.l
because people in the public service who felt that the public should know about certain things and who knew that Members of Parliament could not secure the information from the government, provided the information themselves.
Let me give a list of the leaks that have occurred since 1969: 1969, a research study prepared for the B & B commission was leaked to La Presse; sections of the study of the Housing Task Force were leaked to Time magazine; June, 1970, excerpts from the recommendations of the Le Dain commission were leaked to Time magazine; 1971, four staff members of the Special Committee on Poverty left the staff, published a conflicting report using, in part, information gathered during their official tenure; 1971, draft portions of the Gray report on foreign ownership; 1971, record of cabinet decision in reference to the Gray report; December 23, 1971, details of two 1970 cabinet documents relating to law and order and possible use of the War Measures Act, suggesting the use of the act was contemplated before the October crisis 1970, to the Globe and Mail; December 30, 1971, excerpts from two 1971 cabinet documents relating to the government's northern development policy for the next ten years, to the Globe and Mail; February 2, 1972, cabinet document on foreign ownership; 1972, official documents, not cabinet, but all classified including a document on low income housing; the Anton Sobokha file, an abortive espionage case; report on collective bargaining in the Public Service and a confidential evaluation of summer works programs, 1971, that was the Francophone university program.
These are all examples of information that was leaked. When the opposition endeavoured to get the information, they could not get it from the government and people involved in high places felt that the information should be made available to the public. The Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet, Mr. Gordon Robertson made a speech recently in St. John's, Newfoundland regarding government leaks. He justified his attack on the basis of the government's need to keep much information confidential and he said:
In short, the collective executive that is the heart of our parliamentary system must have secrecy: it cannot work without it.
Mr. Speaker, if things are secret and should be secret, I have no argument with what Mr. Robertson says. But all too often our government considers things secret because it is politically expedient to do so and there is no justification for them being so classified. That is the problem we face in this Parliament and the thing we complain about so publicly and so often. It is the reason for this motion before us today.
Kildare Dobbs, a well-known Canadian writer, who spent a short time working for the Secretary of State (Mr. Pelletier) summed up the stupidity of confidentiality procedures in the federal government in an article which appeared in the Maclean's magazine in September, 1971, when he said:
I could never quite understand by what alchemy the words rattling loose inside my head became Confidential the moment I wrote them down. But that was what happened. A few strokes of the borrowed ballpoint and presto! I was spinning state secrets out of my own innards.
June 14, 1972

And later:
With superfluous caution, they put up a smoke screen of security, mindlessly stamping everything on their desks Top Secret, Eyes Only, Secret, Confidential. As if anybody cared. Not only were these documents unreadable: many of them, on close inspection, proved meaningless.
Those are the facts surrounding the great secrecy about so much of what is happening in government today, most of which should be out in the open where it could be examined by the public. If we could get that kind of information we would not be so concerned that we would move the motion before us. However, we have moved it because we believe that this government feels it in their interests to prevent us from getting information.

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