The Conservatives have voted down a motion to have a parliamentary committee consider whether a government backbencher deliberately misled the House of Commons – a rare departure from a ruling by the Speaker.
In a vote Tuesday evening, an NDP motion to send the issue surrounding Ontario Conservative MP Brad Butt to committee was voted down 153 to 110. Speaker Andrew Scheer – a Conservative MP who holds a nonpartisan role – had ruled there was a prima facie, or apparent, question of parliamentary privilege at stake, as to whether Mr. Butt misled the House, saying the committee could help “clear the air.”
It was, nonetheless, up to MPs, and the government instead voted down the motion altogether after earlier saying the facts of the case were already clear and there was little point in further study.
The controversy stems from a pair of claims Mr. Butt made Feb. 6, saying he personally witnessed people scooping up voter ID cards to be used fraudulently. On Feb. 24, he said he did not actually witness that. He has not since detailed why, exactly, he made the comments in the first place.
Parliamentary records show Tuesday evening’s vote is just the eighth time since 1960 that the House has voted against a Speaker’s ruling, the previous time coming in 2005.
The Conservatives had said there was little to gain from sending the matter to committee, because Mr. Butt had already admitted his initial statements were not true.
“The question you have to ask is if that is actually going to serve any utility. There’s really no dispute,” Conservative Government House Leader Peter Van Loan said earlier on Tuesday. “… Certainly, one cannot picture anything that will come of great utility from further discussion of the matter.”
The case is nonetheless unusual.
In his ruling, Mr. Scheer referenced a similar case, a 2002 privilege ruling by then-Speaker Peter Milliken, which the House did agree to send to a committee.
Mr. Milliken, since retired from politics, said in an interview Tuesday voting against the Speaker’s ruling was “very unusual” in the House.
“Usually, the Speaker’s rulings are agreed to in the House, in my experience. That’s generally what I’d say,” he said, adding it’s unusual that the privilege issue was aimed at a member of the government caucus. “You know, there generally wouldn’t be many questions of privilege raised in which a government member is alleged to have breached the privileges of the House be the opposition.”
The vote Tuesday evening split along party lines – the Conservatives, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself, voted unanimously against the NDP motion, while all but one other MP in the House voted for it. Green Party MP Bruce Hyer voted with the government.
During hours of debate Tuesday, the government had argued that the opposition were politicizing the issue.
“It feels to me like a whipping post to be able to make a different point. And to do it at the expense of another member? How low does that go? It’s just not right,” Conservative MP Ed Holder said in the House Tuesday evening as debate wrapped up. “… I know the [opposition’s] thought was, ‘why don’t we take this to committee and see how much more we can get from it?’ ” he added.
The NDP pushed back strongly against Mr. Butt in part because the original statements, which Mr. Butt now says were simply untrue, were made in support of the government’s proposed Fair Elections Act, which includes several overhauls to electoral law, changes opposed by the NDP. The Conservatives responded by tabling a motion for closure, limiting the debate Tuesday.
“This is reprehensible to us and in the midst of this debate we now find that the Conservatives are shutting down that debate,” NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen said on Tuesday, saying Mr. Butt’s statement was not merely him misspeaking, it was entirely false.
To then shut down debate “shows such audacity, such contempt for Parliament not just from this one Conservative backbencher but of their House Leader and their government,” Mr. Cullen said after heated debate in the House. “This is how they feel about the place. Democracy is such an inconvenience for Mr. Harper and his gang.”
During debate on Tuesday, Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux directly asked Mr. Van Loan if Mr. Butt’s sudden admission was prompted by an Elections Canada investigation. Mr. Van Loan would not say. The comments had triggered a complaint against Mr. Butt to Elections Canada, but the agency would not comment on whether or not it began an investigation.
The 2002 case the Speaker relied on was raised after statements made by then defence minister Art Eggleton. “The government is prepared to support the reference of this matter to the appropriate committee to bring clarity as expeditiously as possible,” Liberal MP Ralph Goodale, who was serving as House Leader at the time, said during debate.
That wasn’t enough, though, for some MPs who have since gone on to serve in the Conservative cabinet. Both Chuck Strahl and Peter MacKay spoke in favour of sending the matter to committee and said Mr. Eggleton should step aside as minister in the meantime. “Integrity, honesty and truthfulness in this Chamber should not ebb and flow like the tides,” Mr. MacKay said at the time.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said all opposition MPs in the House voted in favour of the motion. One, Green Party MP Bruce Hyer, voted against.