Mr. Jack Harris (St. John's East, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I rise today on a most serious question of privilege pursuant to Standing Order 48 of the House of Commons. This is a question of grave importance because it concerns misleading information that the Prime Minister has provided to this House regarding the Canadian military engagement in Iraq.
This is an extremely serious matter. Misleading statements are not only a breach of the privileges that MPs must rely on in the carrying out of their duties as parliamentarians but they are also a breach of the trust of Canadians who elected this Parliament to govern responsibly.
Therefore, I will be asking that you find that a prima facie case of privilege exists, so that the matter can be further investigated in committee.
I want to point out that this is the first opportunity that I have had to raise this issue since it became clear that the Prime Minister had indeed misled the House last fall.
New facts have been uncovered every day this week to illustrate how Canadians were deceived, but only yesterday, under questioning by the Leader of the Opposition, myself and the member of Parliament for Portneuf—Jacques-Cartier, did it become clear that the Prime Minister and his defence minister have no explanation as to why he misled the House ahead of last year's vote to send our troops into battle.
Let me take a moment to remind the House of the facts surrounding the engagement of Canadian ground forces against ISIL, as well as the clear contradictions of those facts against the Prime Minister's statements last year.
We have to remember that the mission to Iraq consists of two elements, the actual air combat mission involving Canadian Forces CF-18s as well as the other air assets, and the ground forces of the special operations forces in northern Iraq who are engaged in what was called an advise and assist training mission. We are talking here about the action of the ground forces.
This week, Canadian military officials and indeed the defence minister confirmed that Canadian Forces ground personnel have been supporting Iraqi forces in the following ways: regularly accompanying them to the front line; calling in air strikes; painting targets, which is accepted by the military community as a combat role; and engaging in return of fire with ISIL fighters.
On September 30, in the days before members of Parliament were asked to authorize sending Canadian Forces personnel into Iraq, the Prime Minister faced direct, detailed and intense questioning from the Leader of the Opposition.
The NDP leader asked:
|| Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister said that the rules of engagement are to advise and assist the Iraqis, but the question is, assist them how? For instance, are Canadian soldiers currently going on patrols with Iraqis or Kurds?
The Prime Minister responded very clearly, even switching from French to English in order to say precisely what he intended.
|| Mr. Speaker, I said advise and assist the Iraqis. If I could just use the terminology in English, it is quite precise. It is to advise and to assist. It is not to accompany.
Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister informed the House in the days before the vote on the most sacred duty that MPs have, which is a decision to send our brave men and women in uniform into harm's way in the name of our country.
When the NDP leader asked this simple six-word question, “Are they going into combat zones?”, the Prime Minister again responded very clearly, “Mr. Speaker, I just said that Canadian soldiers are not accompanying the Iraqi forces into combat.”
We must remember the vote was on October 7 and this is questioning on September 30 and beyond.
There can be no doubt whatsoever that during these days of intense questioning in the House and by the media, the Prime Minister was in possession of the best and most accurate information on Canada's proposed military deployment. Perhaps he was even setting the terms of the deployment himself. There can be no doubt that the Prime Minister knew exactly what parameters were set out for our armed forces being sent into a theatre of war.
Today we know that the Canadian military ground troops have been involved in multiple firefights with ISIL forces and are the only coalition partner reported to have been involved in any at all. We know that they have regularly accompanied Iraqi forces to the front lines, not under extraordinary circumstances but as a matter of routine duty. We know that they are conducting duties that the international military community routinely defines as combat roles, including painting targets.
The Canadian Armed Forces ground forces are engaged in activities that our Prime Minister explicitly ruled out when this Chamber was making its decision on whether or not to authorize the mission. He misled the House and Canadians in a deliberate attempt to downplay Canada's level of engagement as well as the risk involved to our brave men and women in uniform.
Canadians, including the loved ones of our soldiers, had a right a know the truth and the Prime Minister withheld that from them and instead provided information that we now know was false.
Parliamentarians had a right to know the truth too as each and every MP in this place made our individual decision to support or oppose the mission according to our consciences and influenced heavily by the answers and assurances of the Prime Minister.
I ask you today, Mr. Speaker, to defend these rights and our democratic institution of Parliament by finding that there is a prima facie case of privilege and contempt of Parliament.
For the sake of clarity, let me remind everyone here of the rights afforded to members of Parliament to carry out their duties on behalf of Canadians. These are the rights afforded to members of Parliament. They are spelled out on page 75 of the 23rd edition of Erskine May's A Practical Treatise on the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament. Parliamentary privilege is defined as:
|| ...the sum of the peculiar rights enjoyed by each House collectively...and by members of each House individually, without which they could not discharge their functions.
Parliamentary privileges are of utmost importance not only for our parliamentarians but also for Canadians who have put their trust and faith in Parliament to legislate on their behalf and to hold their government to account. In other words, it is a fundamental aspect of our democratic society.
Canadians trust that we can perform these tasks unimpeded and unobstructed. They trust that their government will provide truthful answers in the House. These are basic principles of paramount importance for Canadians to continue to believe and engage in our democratic process.
Breaches of these privileges can take many forms, but the one we are dealing with today, misleading the House, is one of the most serious and citing the Prime Minister for this action is the most serious of all.
On page 111 of Erskine May it states that “The Commons may treat the making of a deliberately misleading statement as a contempt”.
The second edition of House of Commons Procedure and Practice by O'Brien and Bosc also tells us on page 111 that the provision of deliberately misleading information constitutes a prima facie case of privilege.
I will quote further from page 63 of Erskine May which states:
|| It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.
It is important to note here that no explanation has been given either by the Prime Minister or the Minister of National Defence as to why the information given to Canadians by the government on the mission was so blatantly false.
Mr. Speaker, you gave a ruling on a previous incidence of the Prime Minister blatantly providing misleading information to the House, and I am referring to the information he provided about who in his office knew that his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, was paying a sitting parliamentarian $90,000 to help to promote the Prime Minister's Office's version of events on the Senate spending scandal.
When the NDP brought that matter up in the House as a question of privilege, as I am today, Mr. Speaker, you ruled that while the Prime Minister had obviously given the House information that was not true, his own assertion that he simply did not know what all his staff was up to was enough to get him off the hook. I hate to use the vernacular, but that is essentially what the ruling was.
However, in that ruling you cited Speaker Fraser's December 4, 1986 assertion, found on page 1792 of Debates, October 30, 2013, that:
|| Differences of opinion with respect to fact and details are not infrequent in the House and do not necessarily constitute a breach of privilege.
You also cited House of Commons Procedure and Practice, second edition, at page 510:
|| In most instances, when a point of order or a question of privilege has been raised in regard to a response to an oral question, the Speaker has ruled that the matter is a disagreement among Members over the facts surrounding the issue. As such, these matters are more a question of debate and do not constitute a breach of the rules or of privilege.
However, I would contend here that there is no possible way to interpret the current contradiction as a difference of opinion. Canadian ground troops are accompanying Iraqi forces to the front line and the Prime Minister said they were not.
You also made it very clear in that ruling, Mr. Speaker, that the Chair has an important role to play, however limited, when allegations are made that the House has been misled. You stated in a separate ruling that three elements were to be met before the Chair could rule that a prima facie case had been made. Your ruling said that:
|| One, it must be proven that the statement was misleading; two, it must be established that the member making the statement knew at the time that the statement was incorrect; and three, that in making the statement, the member intended to mislead the House.
On element number one, there is no doubt that the Prime Minister told the House things that have now clearly been shown to be false with respect to the nature of the Canadian Forces mission in Iraq.
On element number two, did the Prime Minister know that the statement was incorrect? I think that is an important matter. The Prime Minister is the head of the government and is required to know the details of military engagement.
Indeed, we have heard today in this House and yesterday from the Prime Minister and the Minister of National Defence that the military in Iraq have been acting on the mandate given to them by this House. If that was the understanding of the mandate by the Prime Minister at the time the debate and vote took place, that is the time he was saying in this House that ground troops would not be involved at the front line, they would not be involved in the combat zone, and they would not be painting targets.
On element number three, that the member intended to mislead the House, we believe, and there can be little doubt, that the Prime Minister misled this House and Canadians in order to minimize the risk that public opinion or the consciences of parliamentarians would turn against him ahead of the vote to authorize the mission. I think we all remember in this House, and Canadians remember, the discussion about no boots on the ground engaged in combat. We would not have that.
Therefore, it was clearly intended to make members of this House believe and understand that our troops, the people who were being sent to Iraq in the training mission to advise and assist, would not in fact be engaged in combat because the government knew, the Prime Minister knew, and the House knew that Canadians would not favour such a position.
Mr. Speaker, in your ruling on the Prime Minister's false statements on the Mike Duffy affair, you also emphasized the importance of the time-honoured tradition of accepting a member's word in the House. That is what members on this side of the House, and indeed members on all sides of the House, would have accepted when the Prime Minister made those statements in the House on September 30 and at other times during the debate leading up to the vote on October 7.
This, I submit, is the very tradition of accepting the word of an hon. member, in particular the word of the Prime Minister, that we are at risk of losing under the watch of this Prime Minister. Obfuscation, omission of facts, bluster, bravado, and simple refusal to answer questions are all time-honoured traditions of this House as well, and they are tactics that have been mastered by previous Conservative and Liberal governments for decades. However, and this is very important, providing false information is quite a different matter. Not only is it unethical, it is clearly against the rules of this place.
What we do know is that clear and easily avoidable false statements have been made to this House by the Prime Minister, which not only is a prima facie breach of the privileges of all members but also of all Canadians who have put their trust and faith in Parliament. These Canadians include the husbands and wives, the mothers and fathers, and the sons and daughters of Canada's courageous soldiers, who were clearly and repeatedly told that their loved ones would not be engaged in ground combat in the Iraq theatre. Now the Canadian people and the families of those soldiers have no reason to trust the current Prime Minister when he proclaims that their loved ones are not meant for combat duty against ISIL.
Mr. Speaker, as has been done in the past, as you will likely note, I want to leave the final word to the current Minister of Justice and former Minister of National Defence. He made a remarkable statement, which I think is worthy of repeating. In 2002, he said the following:
|| I would suggest in the strongest possible terms that members of the House of Commons must be able to rely on the information they receive in response to questions placed to ministers. This goes to the very cut and thrust of the responsibilities of members of the House of Commons. A high standard has to be met....
He later said:
|| Integrity, honesty and truthfulness in this Chamber should not ebb and flow like the tides. This should be something that is as solid as the ground we walk on and as solid as the foundation of this very building in these hallowed halls. Every time we come into this Chamber, we should be reminded of that.
For whom is this rule more important to follow than the Prime Minister himself?
That is my submission, Mr. Speaker, and I ask that you find that there is a prima facie case of contempt of Parliament and a question of privilege that should be therefore referred to committee. If you so find, I would be prepared to move the appropriate motion.
Hon. Peter Van Loan (Leader of the Government in the House of Commons, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, the point raised by the opposition, I think at the outset or at least partway through, was an effort to identify the three-part test you must apply. In this matter, not even the first step in that test is satisfied. Simply put, there is not a question of the House being misled. There is a question of a debate, a debate with an opposition that thinks that self-defence is combat.
We respectfully disagree. We think self-defence is not combat. We think it is common sense. We think it is what anyone would expect their troops in the field to be able to undertake. The mission is a mission to advise and assist. There is nothing in that mission to prevent our soldiers from defending themselves if they should come under fire.
The opposition, keeps using some funny terms that seem very odd to me. One is “front lines”. Another is “combat zone”. The opposition seems to think that the advise and assist mission means that our forces will never be on the front lines of the combat zone. “Front lines” is an archaic image. This is what we had in World War I, when soldiers were in trenches. There is nothing like that right now. Right now, in a place like Iraq, where our special forces are on the ground, everything is the front line. Everything is the combat zone.
In fact, today in the war on terrorism in which we are engaged, in this struggle we are engaged in, the combat zone is not just in Iraq. The front lines are not just in Iraq. The combat zone, the front lines, are in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, where a Canadian soldier was killed. They are at the National War Memorial. Those are the front lines now. It is a terminology I frankly do not understand from the opposition.
I heard the hon. member say that he expects that Canadian soldiers will be “behind the wire”. They are in Iraq. There are no Canadian bases in Iraq. There is no wire to be behind. It shows a remarkable lack of understanding of what our forces are doing there.
The fact is that they are in a dangerous place, and in that dangerous place, doing the dangerous work of advising and assisting, they have, and should have, every right to defend themselves. No one has ever told this House of Commons or suggested, not this government at least, that our soldiers should go there with their hands tied behind their backs, restricted from doing that. That is the fundamental difference in this debate, and that is what it is. It is a debate.
Let me tell you, Mr. Speaker, what misleading the House would look like. It would look like a situation where perhaps a member of the government knew that these occasions of shooting in self-defence had occurred, and then once asked about them, denied to the House that they had taken place.
Nothing like that has happened here. In fact, on the contrary, this government has been most forthright. In fact, after every successful bombing mission, the minister of defence has stood in this House and reported it to the House. The government has been forthcoming. It is the government and the Canadian Forces that in fact made public the occasions of self-defence by our special forces on the ground. There has been no evidence at all or any suggestion that our Canadian Forces have undertaken any combat offensive measures, only that they have defended themselves when they came under fire.
There is some suggestion from my hon. friend that the government has downplayed the risk to our forces. I think that is actually absurd. On the contrary, our government has gone out of its way to identify how dangerous the situation is in this part of the world, how dangerous the mission is against Islamic State and why it is so important that we undertake it.
We are not there in that part of the world because it is a picnic. We are there because it is a very dangerous terrorist threat, one that has sought to be exported to our shores, that needs to be taken on. It is precisely because it is dangerous that we are there. There has been no effort to downplay that.
We quite respect the skill and ability of our special forces, all our armed forces, but particularly our special forces. That is why they are there.
The reason we want to be there, despite those dangers, is so we do not again see those dangers come to our shores, so that we do not allow what happened in Afghanistan to occur and allow a terrorist group that has stated its desire to bring terrorism to our shores to establish a geographic state, a base of operations from which it can engage in that export. That is the reason for that mission.
The real issue we face, and we see it through the lens from which the opposition look at these matters, is that their problem is not that our soldiers might have defended themselves or not, but that they are there at all, that we are engaged in this mission against ISIL. They voted against it in the House of Commons, and now they are doing everything they can to oppose and bring an end to that mission.
That is a perfectly legitimate position to take. We in the government respectfully disagree with it, but it is their right as an opposition to take that position. That does not extend to the fact that our disagreement with it and with their perspective on what should be done constitutes in some way a breach of the privileges of the House. It is not. It is anything but that.
That disagreement should not now lead to an effort to do what they are doing. It should not lead to a reason to abandon this effort to combat the terrorist fight, even though that is what they would like us to do. At its core, it is a disagreement, a debate, and we do not believe there is any evidence whatsoever that anyone in the House has ever suggested that our troops should not be able to defend themselves in this field, certainly not the government. The opposition may not wish to see them do that. We certainly believe they should be able to do it, and over that there may be a debate. It may be a legitimate debate, but I am quite confident that our side of the debate is supported by the public.
Mr. Speaker, I would like the opportunity, if possible, to review in more detail the comments made by my friend. However, I think you should be able to dispense with this matter in fairly short order as falling short of even the first test of the three-part test you must apply.