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Irwin Cotler, MP

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Question of Privilege: Order Paper Question 1229

Posted on June 18, 2015

Hon. Irwin Cotler (Mount Royal, Lib.):

Mr. Speaker, I rise on a question of privilege out of respect for the integrity of Parliament, as you yourself have put it, and I want to join in the commendation to you, your staff, and the clerks for all that has been done. I join in the referencing of that by my predecessor speakers.

I am rising, I must say, somewhat hesitantly because of the lateness of the period, but I am doing so in the hope, as even the House leader mentioned, of the enhancement of the democratic process. In particular, I rise today on a question of privilege related to the government’s response to a question on the order paper, Question No. 1229, which became accessible online only on Tuesday. I gave notice to the chair yesterday, and thus I am raising this matter at the earliest opportunity and regret that it is close to the end of our proceedings.

Mr. Speaker, I know that you and your predecessors have often made clear that the Chair is not empowered to adjudicate the quality or accuracy of responses to written questions. Indeed, that is not the issue I am raising, despite the fact that the government’s response to Question No. 1229 all but ignored the question it purported to answer.

Indeed, the issue I raise is the violation of a Standing Order of the House, namely, Standing Order 39(1), which clearly states the following in reference to questions on the order paper:

…in putting any such question or in replying to the same no argument or opinion is to be offered, nor any facts stated, except so far as may be necessary to explain the same; and in answering any such question the matter to which the same refers shall not be debated.

This is a Standing Order to which you, Mr. Speaker, have yourself referred on previous occasions, such as on January 29, 2013, when you said, “as Speaker, I have a duty to remind the House that our written question process is intended to be free of argument and debate”, and it is in that context that I rise on this question of privilege.

This point, indeed, is emphasized in the House of Commons Procedure and Practice, second edition, which states, on page 522:

    The guidelines that apply to the form and content of written questions are also applicable to the answers provided by the government. As such, no argument or opinion is to be given and only the information needed to respond to the question is to be provided in an effort to maintain the process of written questions as an exchange of information rather than an opportunity for debate.

Indeed, the only particular constraint placed by the Standing Orders on the content of responses to order paper questions is that they may not contain opinion or debate, yet the answer I received this week to Question No. 1229 was comprised almost exclusively of opinion and debate.

Hon. members rely on the written question system, and I have been pleased to be able to use it, to obtain the information we need to represent our constituents, to hold the government to account, and to engage subsequently in informed study of legislation and policy. Thus, the violation by the government of Standing Order 39(1), which has become a regrettable pattern, undermines the written question system and impedes the ability of hon. members to do our jobs.

On page 84 of O’Brien and Bosc, a list of instances found by the United Kingdom Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege to constitute contempt specifically includes, “acting in breach of any orders of the House”. Thus, I am asking to regard the government’s response to Question No. 1229 as constitutive of contempt of Parliament.

With Question No. 1229, I sought detailed information regarding the funding of programs that facilitate the reintegration of offenders into society after they have served their sentences. The government’s response, which, as I say, hardly deals with the question at all, begins, “Mr. Speaker, the government believes”. This construction necessarily leads to a statement of opinion, and the very inclusion of the government’s beliefs in response to a written question contravenes the Standing Order. Therefore, the Standing Orders have been violated five words into the response.

The response goes on to make claims about the importance and efficiency of government measures, but regardless of the accuracy of those claims, they constitute debate and are thus not permitted in the context of an order paper question response.

As private members, if we include a statement of belief in the text of a written question, or if we engage in debate, we are quickly contacted by the private members’ business office and instructed to amend the text and limit our inquiry to a request for factual information, which is, of course, the express purpose of the written question system.

(1600)

In fact, as O’Brien and Bosc note on page 520 of House of Commons Procedure and Practice, not only are members barred from including expressions of opinion in our questions, we are prohibited from requesting the government’s opinion, and the Clerk of the House “has full authority” to ensure our compliance.

It is the Speaker, however, who is vested with the authority to ensure that the government complies with the Standing Orders when responding to questions, and in fact, if the government includes its opinion in its answer, it is providing material that members are specifically prohibited from seeking, again in violation of Standing Order 39(1).

Briefly, it is important to note that this use or misuse of the written question system is not so much a personal breach on the part, in this instance, of the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, who provided the response to Question No. 1229 and for whom I have a great deal of respect, as it is a regrettable pattern on the part of the government in general.

For example, the government’s recent response to Question No. 1093 includes the phrase, “The Government of Canada rejects the argument”, and if one is rejecting an argument, one is, by definition, engaging in debate. The response to Question No. 773 again featured the construction, “The government believes”, and the response to Question No. 721 references the government’s lack of “desire” to reinstate a particular program.

While the government’s desires and beliefs are undoubtedly a matter of interest to Canadians and to hon. members, they do not belong in responses to order paper questions, just as the desires and beliefs of us as private members do not belong in the written questions we pose.

As you noted in your ruling on January 29, 2013, Mr. Speaker:

it is expected under our practice that the integrity of the written question process be maintained by avoiding questions or answers that stray from the underlying principle of information exchange.

I know, and with this I close, that at this late date in the parliamentary calendar, there may not be time for a prima facie finding of contempt to be referred to committee and for such a referral to proceed according to usual practice.

However, I raise this matter, and admittedly regrettably so at this late date in Parliament, but without an option otherwise, because we only received the answers recently, out of concern for the health of our parliamentary process, out of respect for the Standing Orders of this House, and out of concern for, as you yourself have put it, “the integrity of the written question process”, which is an essential tool for us as parliamentarians.

I ask that you protect the integrity of this process by finding that the government’s response to Question No. 1229 is in breach of Standing Order 39(1), and I hope that when the House returns in the fall, hon. members from all parties will work together to strengthen parliamentary processes, such as the written question system, which underpin the vitality of our democracy.

Hon. John Duncan (Minister of State and Chief Government Whip, CPC):

Mr. Speaker, we would like to reserve the right to respond for a very short time. As you know, right now we are torn between the royal assent procedure and process, so we will be responding today very shortly.

The Speaker:

I thank the hon. member for Mount Royal for raising this issue, and of course, we all look forward to the response from the government side.

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