The Conservative government has chastised the New Democrats for asking Speaker Andrew Scheer to shut down a Commons committee probe into the CBC’s fight to keep internal documents out of the hands of a competitor.
Quoting from a ruling by former speaker John Fraser, Government House Leader Peter Van Loan reminded Mr. Scheer on Tuesday that “endless points of privilege on what goes on in committee, when they fall short of that extreme situation where a Speaker might have to intervene, take up a great deal of time in the House.”
In this case, Mr. Van Loan said, it would be premature for Mr. Scheer to get involved in the proceedings of the Commons ethics committee, which is debating the public broadcaster’s response to access-to-information requests.
The CBC reluctantly complied Monday with a request from Tory MP Dean Del Mastro and handed over documents to the committee which it previously refused to give Quebecor. But some of the documents were sealed and the CBC pleaded with MPs to keep them that way.
Pierre Karl Péladeau, the president of Quebecor, has made no secret of the disdain he holds for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and the $1.1-billion in funds it receives every year from the federal government. And many Conservatives share the belief that the Crown corporation has an unfair advantage over the private networks.
NDP House Leader Joe Comartin asked Mr. Sheer on Monday to shut down the committee inquiry into the CBC citing a legal opinion by Rob Walsh, the parliamentary law clerk, who warned that Conservative MPs could be violating the Constitution by forcing the Crown corporation to turn over the documents.
The law clerk said the committee’s efforts conflict with a case before the Federal Court of Appeal between the CBC and the Information Commissioner.
But Mr. Van Loan said it is well established that committees are masters of their own proceedings and that the Speaker does not ordinarily make such interventions. He pointed out that Mr. Wash said his concerns would be allayed if the documents were considered by the committee at closed-door meetings.
Mr. Comartin expressed concern that the information contained in the documents would be leaked even if it was discussed in camera. But Mr. Van Loan said: “I would like to give all honourable members of all parties on the ethics committee more credit than that.”
It will be up to the committee, he said, to determine whether the documents provided by the CBC are satisfactory. And if the committee members decide they are not, he said, they could send a report to the House asking that the matter be escalated.
But there has been no such report, Mr. Van Loan said. So he urged Mr. Scheer to wait until there is a report presented to him from the committee asking for his intervention.
Jean Crowder, the NDP MP who chairs the committee, has refused to hold meetings until Mr. Sheer gives his ruling.
The debate over the CBC is one that has been sharply divided along party lines with the opposition defending the public broadcaster’s attempts to keep its competitive information private and the Conservatives urging its release.
The Tories, on the other hand, have been repeatedly denounced by the Information Commissioner for their government’s own reluctance to comply with access-to-information requests.