Nathan Cullen speaks on if Minister of National Defence committed breach of privilege

Mr. Nathan Cullen (Skeena—Bulkley Valley, NDP):

    Mr. Speaker, it is a privilege to rise in this place on such an important question. I am sure that not only members of Parliament but those we seek to represent well in this place will be very interested in the conclusion you bring with respect to the breech of privilege that has been suggested by the member for Toronto Centre. We should begin with the conditions under which you will be deciding whether our privileges have actually been breeched in this place by the Minister of National Defence in this particular case.

    I will quote from the House of Commons Procedure and Practice just to remind us all of the context about which we are talking. Privilege has been broken if “Misleading a Minister or a Member has also been considered a form of obstruction and thus a prima facie breach of privilege.

    In Erskine May's Parliamentary Practice on page 111 it reads:

     The Commons may treat the making of a deliberately misleading statement as a contempt.

    Finally, Speaker Jerome's ruling from March of 1978 reads:

...has the Member an arguable point? If the Speaker feels any doubt on the question, he should, in my view, leave it to the House.

    That is the question that has been put before us with respect to the statements by the Minister of National Defence in response to questions put by the opposition when we sought to understand in this particular case the full life costs of the F-35 purchase. Those are the particulars of the matter.

    What we seek to rectify at this moment is whether members of Parliament were allowed and able to do our job, because, particularly in this case, our job is to put questions to the government to understand the true costs of the fighter jets to the taxpayers of Canada.

    The context is very important because we are also in a budget year in which significant cuts have been made to services upon which Canadians rely. We have been raising those issues day to day in this place. We have talked about pensions. We have talked about protections to the environment. We have talked about health care cuts. In the context of the government choosing to not allocate funds to one thing and yet to another, it is important to understand what those costs are.

    While there are particular details with respect to this purchase that frame the context of the question, I know, Mr. Speaker, you will be most interested in whether the minister committed a breech of privilege to this place. I would offer for members on the government benches that this is also critical for them to do their jobs and be accountable to their constituents.

    In listening to the comments from my colleague across the way yesterday and previously, there seems to be two types of federal employees who work for the Government of Canada. When the government gives them credit or it feels they are doing a job the government agrees with they are called good civil servants. We could run through the list of quotations by parliamentary ministers and members of the Conservative Party about what great civil servants we have. When they are not doing so well, when they are presenting facts that the government disagrees with, even if those facts are blatantly true, they become bureaucrats and the bureaucrats get blamed.

    There is an accountability link that is very important in this question of privilege. I will quote the government's own statements and documents to ensure everyone understands that this is its own agenda, its own set of guidelines that we are talking about in this context, not anything put forward by us as New Democrats.

    We understand that when the government breaks the pact between itself and the Canadian people and the minister stands in his place and continues to repeat a misrepresentation of the facts, privilege has in fact been breeched.

    Who is accountable? This was the question recently put to the Auditor General in his testimony both before committees and in the press conference in first releasing his report on the F-35. I will use the government's own conditions. This quotation is called “Accountable Government” and it was produced in 2011 by the Prime Minister's office. I want all members of Parliament to understand the context of our seeking accountability from the minister and his accountability to the House of Commons to not breech privilege. It reads:

     Clear ministerial accountability to Parliament is fundamental to responsible government, and requires that Ministers provide Parliament with the information it needs to fulfill its roles of legislating, approving the appropriation of funds and holding the government to account. ... Under responsible government, Ministers exercise executive authority on the basis that they have the confidence of Parliament...which requires that they, and through them the officials under their management and direction, be accountable to Parliament for their actions.

    That is on page 9 of a document written by the Prime Minister's Office entitled “Accountable Government: A Guide for Ministers and Ministers of State”.

    The government's accountability between the civil servants who provide the estimations—in this case for the multi-billion dollar fighter jet, which is one of the most significant purchases in Canadian history—and the executive accountability of the Minister of National Defence to us as parliamentarians is a clear link that the government itself understands to be true. Therefore, if we establish that link is true, then the accountability of the Minister of National Defence and all ministers of cabinet to this place is to represent the facts as they find them and provide Parliament with the information it needs to fulfill its role in legislating, approving the appropriation of funds and holding the government to account. This is a very basic, simple, yet critical component of the work we do as parliamentarians. For the people we represent, it is their dollars that we should cherish and hold with some esteem.

    The Parliamentary Budget Officer, the Auditor General and other officers of Parliament attempted to do their jobs and help to ensure that the government was being properly scrutinized. The Parliamentary Budget Officer was appointed by the government. It is a role that the government created with support from New Democrats, and members will recall the Accountability Act and other acts. However, for almost two years, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, in trying to do his job, was consistently discredited here in this place and outside in press conferences for the numbers he was providing to Canadians on what the true cost might be for these jets. The government almost made it personal.

     That is a separate matter and not a breach of privilege, but it is important in this context. The ability of members to do their job, which is to understand how the government is spending taxpayer money, is encumbered when we hear one report from the Parliamentary Budget Officer clearly laying out what the cost of the jets would be, but then time and again we hear from the Minister of National Defence, the Prime Minister and other ministers of cabinet that he is wrong and simply making up the numbers. Until we had the Auditor General's report in hand, it was a “he said, he said” scenario, I suppose. Who to believe?

    Well, the Department of National Defence actually had the documents. If you remember, Mr. Speaker, there was some controversy as to the Parliamentary Budget Officer gaining the documents from the Department of National Defence. It was difficult, and he made some public expression of how difficult it was.

    That is not now the case. We now have the Auditor General's report, and he had access to all of those documents and all of those estimations that the minister was also using. Here is where we get to the point of privilege:

     Misleading a Minister or a Member has also been considered a form of obstruction and thus a prima facie breach of privilege.

    As well:

     The Commons may treat the making of a deliberately misleading statement as a contempt.

    The question for you, Mr. Speaker, is this: did the minister have the facts at his disposal to confirm some of the things that members of the opposition were requesting of him when it came to the full cost of these jets? We have shown through the Auditor General's report that in fact that was the case for a number of months, going back years.

    In terms of accountability—and this is important for this breach of privilege—I will quote the Auditor General, who said that National Defence should start estimating full life-cycle costs in the options analysis phase of its project management process and present these costs to decision-makers at subsequent steps in the process. The basis of cost estimation should be included in approval of documents.

    In response, the Minister of National Defence said that the AG “...has given us some recommendations, all of which I can assure the hon. member and the House have been accepted. These recommendations will be acted upon.”

    We are not talking about the F-35s in this case; we are talking about the Sea King purchase, which goes back two years. We are talking about the question before you, Mr. Speaker, in terms of what the minister knew as to his accountability and his responsibility in presenting the full costs. We have seen this movie before.

    When the helicopters were being purchased, and purchased for a price that the government declared much lower than the actual purchase price, the Auditor General showed that to be a problem because the full cost was not accounted for. The Minister of National Defence, after reading the Auditor General's report of 2010, agreed. He said the government would do better, would make changes so that the full cost was there and would present that to Parliament in the future.

    The very next significant purchase after the Sea Kings is the process the government is engaged in right now around the F-35s. It is the very next opportunity for the government to show truth in accounting.

    We cannot do our jobs effectively as members of Parliament if, after repeated omissions, after repeated and known errors in the way numbers are presented, the government continues to choose a path that is not truthful in the case of the actual cost. It is impossible for members of the opposition. It is also true for members of the government, who cannot knowingly go back to their constituents and say what the costs are for any project—never mind the jets or helicopters, but anything—if we cannot confirm that the budget estimates we are getting are truthful. It is impossible for us to do our jobs. One of the central roles of this place is to hold the government to account. That is not just the responsibility of the opposition; it is also the responsibility of members of the government.

    The accounting discrepancy argument is not a sincere argument. This is not a divergence of opinions as to what things cost. The question was around full life-cycle costs. That was what we were asking for and that is what the Minister of National Defence was telling us he was giving us. The Auditor General has now told us that was not true. The break that the government is trying to make now is saying that it agrees with the Auditor General's full report while yet allowing the department to disagree with the fundamental aspects of the report.

    Mr. Speaker, you cannot allow this argument, simply because it breaks the basic chain of accountability that I talked about before, the basic chain of accountability that the Prime Minister says is important and over which, under responsible government, ministers exercise executive authority on the basis that they have the confidence of Parliament, which requires that they, and through them the officials under their management and direction, be accountable to Parliament for their actions. That is the government's own directive.

    In this case, the government is attempting to break that directive by saying that the department can disagree and say that the cost is $10 billion less, while the government will present those numbers and have the privilege of agreeing with the Auditor General.

    That simply does not pass muster. It does not let the government off the hook with respect to the privilege of members of Parliament being breached. That is the case in front of us now. We are seeking accountability; I would hope that members of the government also seek accountability.

    We are talking about a very significant purchase. The government often talks about the need to support our troops, but we simply cannot do that if the government is fudging the numbers on purchases as significant as this one. It cannot be done, because other choices flow from that. If $10 billion extra is going toward one thing and we as parliamentarians do not know about that, it will affect considerations down the line, not just for the military but for every other government purchase and spending decision that is made.

    It is incumbent upon the government to tell the House the truth. Mr. Speaker, it is your role as Speaker to ensure that the government at all times keeps that link of accountability that the government itself has committed to. That is your job, Mr. Speaker. It is a difficult job at times, because we live in a political world and sometimes the facts can be politically inconvenient for a government when the suggestion of a $20 billion fighter jet purchase just before an election may cause political consequence.

    However, that is not the point here. The point is that this place remains a place in which we seek, as best we can, truth in accounting, truth from government, so that we can be accountable ourselves as members of Parliament to those who elected us to this place, to those we work for—not the Prime Minister's office, not the party hierarchy, but the people who put us here.

    I have a final quote and then I will surmise on the breach of privilege. This is from the Auditor General:

     National Defence did not exercise due diligence in managing the process to replace the CF-18 jets.

    His report goes on to say:

     Full life-cycle costs were understated in the estimates provided to support the government's 2010 decision to buy the F-35s. Some costs were not fully provided to parliamentarians. There was a lack of timely and complete documentation to support the procurement strategy decision.

    He is saying that to this place. That is to you and to me as a member of Parliament. The Auditor General says that you and I and the members of this place did not get the full life-cycle costs of the Sea King helicopters, which in this case the government had committed to doing evermore. We had the next opportunity, and the government again chose not to do that. You, Mr. Speaker, and members of the House were unable to make an informed decision.

    That raises the question of whether the Minister of National Defence also knew what the defence department knew. The government's own code of accountability requires that he know and that he be accountable for his actions, but the repetition of the false figures continued, thereby conducting a breach of privilege for members of Parliament who were trying to understand the decision before us, which is whether to go with this purchase or another.

    Allow me to finish. As a previous Speaker put it, “Has the member an arguable point? If the Speaker feels any doubt on the question, he should, in my view, leave it to the House”.

    As well:

     The Commons may treat the making of a deliberately misleading statement as a contempt.

    We, as the official opposition, feel that the government and the minister in this particular case had the facts before him, first from the Parliamentary Budget Officer and later from the AG's report, which the minister received many months before members did. He saw the numbers, yet continued to misrepresent those facts and figures that are fundamental to this question. Misrepresenting facts and figures knowingly is a breach of privilege according to the rules of this place and the direction and directives of the government's own orders from the Prime Minister's Office and the Prime Minister.

    If this is not a breach of privilege, if this is not a break in accountability, then the lesson that the government will learn from this is that it can continue to do it. The lesson that Canadians will take away from this is that whatever figures are presented cannot be trusted. That would be a further erosion of the work that we have to do, of the trust we have between ourselves and our constituents and for future generations. Many of these decisions will last not just the life of this election cycle or our terms as members of Parliament; many of these decisions extend to those who will have to pick up the pieces.

    We are talking about billions of dollars. We are talking about our troops. We are talking about decisions that the defence minister made again and again. This is not one occasion: again and again, he knowingly had one set of much higher figures in his hands, at his disposal, and when questioned about them, he instead chose forms of character assassination on members of the opposition. He chose to attack the credibility and veracity of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, thereby eroding his own merit within the eyes of Canadians.

    These are very selfish choices. These are choices made by a government looking to do something other than be accountable.

    You have a difficult choice in front of you, Mr. Speaker. There is no more serious matter that Parliament could consider than when a minister of the crown knowingly breaches privilege of members of the House and knowingly misrepresents the facts, but that is the question before you.

    I wish you well with your deliberations. We feel the facts have become increasingly clear and increasingly worrisome. We believe that the role of the opposition has been dramatically hindered and that our privilege has been dramatically breached, as it has for all members of the House. If all members of the House disagree on much, let us agree that our ability to hold the government of the day accountable to the Canadian people we seek to represent requires us to know that ministers will be held to account.

    If the Prime Minister chooses not to do that in this case with his Minister of National Defence, that is his choice. The Speaker's choice is otherwise, which extends beyond any political cycle or any partisan considerations. This is the job that you have taken on, Mr. Speaker, and that we have elected you to take on, and it is a difficult one. I wish you well.