Premature disclosure of government
policy, Speaker Hugh Edighoffer, June 10, 1986, Legislative Assembly of Ontario
Background: On June 5, the member for Brantford, Phil Gillies, rose
on a question of privilege with respect to details of legislation being
published in the press before disclosure in the House. He stated further that
an assistant to the Minister of the Environment and an assistant to the
Minister of Housing had violated their oaths of secrecy and had demonstrated
contempt for the House by discussing with the press details of actual
legislation and amendments before the House. When a question of privilege is
raised, the duty of the Speaker is to decide whether the allegation could
reasonably be held to constitute a breach of privilege and therefore take
precedence over other business of the House. It is not the Speaker's duty to
decide whether in fact a breach of privilege has been committed. This is a
question that can only be decided by the House.
Ruling (Speaker Hugh Edighoffer): It may be useful for me to review the nature of
parliamentary privilege once again. Parliamentary privilege relates to the
rights and immunities that belong to Parliament, its members and others, which
are essential for the operation of Parliament. These rights and immunities
allow the Legislature to meet and carry out its proper constitutional role,
members to discharge their responsibilities to their constituents and others
properly involved in the parliamentary process to carry out their duties and
responsibilities without obstruction or fear of prosecution.
The principal privileges of the House and of
its members include the right of free speech in Parliament, immunity of members
from arrest, detention or molestation for civil causes during defined periods,
immunity of members from the obligation to serve on juries, the power to
regulate its own proceedings by establishing its own rules or standing orders,
the power to order the attendance at the Bar of the House of persons whose
conduct has been brought before the House on a matter of privilege, and the
power to order the arrest and imprisonment of persons guilty of contempt or
breach of privilege.
It is only in very rare circumstances that a
legitimate matter of privilege can come before the House on the basis of the
real, accepted and traditional definition of parliamentary privilege.
I understand the distinction the honourable
member has attempted to draw between announcing outside the House policy
statements on matters which are not before the House and statements with
respect to specific amendments and legislation before the House. However, it is
clear from the precedents in this House and in other jurisdictions that
parliamentary privilege does not extend and never has extended to requiring
policy statements or announcements to be made in the House, regardless of the
importance of the subject.
Further, in examining the authorities, no
case can be found which indicates it is a breach of privilege for
representatives of the government to publicly announce its intentions with
respect to amendments and legislation before the House. Indeed, this practice
has been a common occurrence for many years. As my predecessors and I have
stated, such statements made outside the House may constitute a legitimate
grievance and certainly involve a question of courtesy to or respect for the
House and its members. However, they do not constitute a question of privilege.
Whether or not assistants to the ministers
of the Environment and Housing have violated their oaths of secrecy is a
question of law and a question upon which the authorities indicate the Speaker
shall not give a decision. Such a matter could, if justified, give rise to an
action in the courts.
In finding that no prima facie case of
privilege exists, further consideration by, the House is not prevented. The
effect is to refuse precedence to this matter as a question of privilege, but
it does not prevent the presentation of this matter in different circumstances,
for example, by setting it down as a private member's notice of motion.