Cotler and what's "reprehensible"
Irwin Cotler was not all that happy with the Speaker's ruling today, even if it does yield an end to the calls that Andrew Scheer described as "reprehensible."
Scrums with Mr. Cotler are always somewhat educational, so let's have a look at what he said to reporters today. By the way, I found this unusual. I've been around here a while and I'm not sure it's okay to disagree this vehemently with a Speaker's ruling. Which would be a bit ironic, actually, if Cotler was found to be in violation of Parliament's rules, but the phone-call campaign was not.
Anyway, here's the scrum. Skip to the end if you want to see whether Mr. Cotler still believes in politics and the job of an MP.
Cotler: I was naturally disappointed with the Speaker’s ruling. We presented the Speaker with compelling evidence which clearly, in terms of the Speaker’s authority, represented a prima facie breach of privilege. We cited an abundant set of principles and precedents from Bosc and O’Brien, former Speaker Fraser and the like, and I might add we didn’t hear one principle or precedent quote from the Conservatives in this regard. And I found it surprising both on matters of fact and on matters relating to breaches of privilege with all the precedents we cited that the, the Speaker ruled the way he did.
I might add that there were some arguments that I deduced that he did not deal with or deal with effectively. He seemed to base his entire ruling on whether it had impeded me in the performance of my duties, saying that I seem to be very active, therefore it could not have impeded me in the performance of my duties. To me, this is a, a straight issue, not as to whether I continue to be active, but I am active in spite of the fact that it sought to impede me in the performance of my duties and it misrepresented and ignored the importance of Speaker Fraser’s ruling did the matter did false and misleading information? He did not relate to that.
Do you think the calls will stop now?
Cotler: I hope they, there’s an important point here and that is did the matter, the false and misleading calls sow confusion in the minds of my electors. They clearly did. We gave abundant evidence. He really did not deal with this matter. I also dealt with the matter that this caused damage to the reputation of Parliament as an institution. He did not deal with that at all. There’s a whole serious issue here about the integrity of these practices and the integrity of the institution not dealt with.
Question: Does this have anything to do with the fact that he’s a Conservative, do you think?
Cotler: I don’t want to impute and I never do, you know... bad faith. I think that the judgment, his judgment today, his ruling was mistaken, both in relation to the facts, in relation to the principles, in relation to the precedents, in relation to the law on breaches of privilege. So I think it was a mistaken judgment taking all those things into account.
Question: The fact that, the fact that he did say, even though technically he could not do anything about it, he said it was reprehensible. He is a Conservative himself, the fact that he is saying that, is that a small victory of sorts?
Cotler: The fact that he said it was reprehensible, that has been, from what I can see... in the court of public opinion, everybody has been saying that it’s reprehensible. I’m surprised that given the consensus that it’s reprehensible, that even he concurred and somehow he was at the end of the day, not able to find that there was a prima facie breach of privilege. He doesn’t have to find a full breach of privilege, just whether on its face, on first impression, there was a breach of privilege. That he could not find that, I’m, I’m disappointed more in the manner in which I think it does not fall within the principles and precedents before him.
Question:Why is it important to you that he issue this ruling in your favour?
Cotler: Well, as I say, it was not, what I wanted and what I thought was important for the House was number one, that the Conservatives should have acknowledged the wrong and not bring up bizarre issues like this is freedom of speech. Number two, that as you put it before, that they would cease and desist from this practice. I think given that the Speaker said it was reprehensible that they would at least cease and desist from this practice and would undertake not to replicate this practice again. That is important that he did make the characterization of it as being reprehensible but having made that characterization, I’m sorry and regret and don’t understand and don’t understand why he did not make the proper ruling.
Question: Isn’t he also recognizing that there’s limits to what the purview of the Speaker of the House of Commons? These actors are beyond the House of Commons. They’re a political party. I mean, he said it’s reprehensible but he’s also recognizing that, I mean, what’s his purview for a political party making phone calls?
Cotler: Well, I cited extensive principle and precedents in that regard. I myself, as he mentioned in his ruling, I cited that the Speaker has limited authority but with respect to that limited authority, there are principles and precedents which cover this exact situation of matters that occur outside the House of Commons where the Speaker rules within the Commons on those matters. There is precedent to that effect.
Question: If there's no punishment...does it mean it’s open season on, on any politician? They can lie about them to their heart’s content?
Cotler: I have a, you know, an abiding trust in the Canadian people. I have an abiding trust in the good sense of the Canadian people. I think they’ve already indicated through their reactions and through the reactions of commentators of Conservative as well as, as stripes, of any political stripe, that not only is this practice reprehensible, but as they have referred to it as something be, beyond the pale. ....
I’m hoping that the Conservatives will respect the court of public opinion, will respect nonetheless the privileges of the House and regard this as having been only a technical ruling, but on the merits, it remains reprehensible. The Speaker, on the merits, said it was reprehensible and I hope that they will cease and desist from it and that we’ll not see the likes of these practices again.
Question: On a practical question... What other options do you have at this point in time?
Cotler: ....There are other options. For example, people said to me 'why don’t you take the matter to court and my response is that since I take my responsibilities in Parliament so seriously, this is the forum in which I work, this is the forum in which I make submissions and the Speaker has ruled, as I said, mistakenly but has ruled. I don’t have the time to start going to court because I’m concerned about being able to discharge my duties. I think these reprehensible practices did so confuse in the minds of the electorate. I think they did impede me in the performance of my duties. They did take me away from what I much more wish to have focused upon.
.... Look as I said, but you and I know how the courts work and that is if I go to the courts now, I will have to expend a lot of time, a lot of money, you know, for a number of years for an outcome that if it’s in my favour, at the end of the day, will long have been forgotten what the whole thing was all about to begin with. So I rely on the court of public opinion. I’ll make the case in the court of public opinion. For me, this still serves as a, a relevant precedent and principle in the court of public opinion and as I say, the Canadian people have yet to speak and they will speak.
Question: Does this make you at all a little sick of being a Member of Parliament? Do you think what am I doing here? I’m wasting my time?
Question: Are you planning to retire? [Laughter]
Cotler: To the answer does it make me, you know, sick or cynical about being a Member of Parliament? I happen to always have a, an optimistic disposition. I have a lot of work to do. As we are speaking, today I’ve got, you know, 26-year old Egyptian blogger. Now maybe people will turn to that case whose life is on the line and I’m his international legal counsel. Bill C-10, the omnibus crime bill’s moving into the Senate. I’ll have something to say while it’s in the Senate and increasingly in the court of public opinion. We’ve got the imminent danger to the residents of Camp Ashraf and our Foreign Affairs Subcommittee just today adopted unanimously a motion to sound the alarm about the danger to the residents of Camp Ashraf in Iraq. I’ve got concerns with regard to the hate speech legislation that the Conservatives want to repeal Section 13.
I can go on and on. I’ve got a lot of work to do and I’m going to continue it.
Question:Would you tell somebody else to go into politics if this is the kind of thing that would happen?
Cotler: I would still recommend people going into politics. I go back to what, you know, John Turner once said when I first tarted to work with him in, in my late 20s, and he said politics is the highest form of public service. I still regard is as a, the highest form of public service and I was brought to this House when I was 12-years old and my father turned to me and said, and I still remember his words, and he said son, this is vox populi. This is the voice of the people.
Today, people might react cynically. I don’t. I still think this is the voice of the people. I intend to speak and work on behalf of the people. And on this issue, their voice has not yet spoken the final word either.
Question: Mr. Cotler, would this make you more likely to stick around?
Cotler: Look, as I said, there’s no imminent or pending by-election. I’m not resigning. I hit the ground running soon after I was elected. I will continue to be hitting the ground running. I’ve got a full plate of undertakings and commitments on the domestic justice and human rights agenda, on the international justice and human rights agenda that are far more compelling than only dealing with this issue. Whenever you guys would ask me about the calls, as you will know, I used to say guys, I’m involved in A, B, C and D. Write about those things. Those are what’s before the Canadian people, the international community. That’s what I’m going to continue to do.
Question: Do you think you’ve actually done some good by at least having this public, I mean shining a light, spotlight on this practice, because you have colleagues for example, who are before Elections Canada .... in terms of regular calls that are being conducted by political parties during an election campaign. Many of them hesitated coming forward with this stuff thinking well, it’s all water under the bridge. Do you think there’s a benefit, at least you raised the issue and these people didn’t?
Cotler: I think it was important to raise the issue. I think it was important that public opinion engaged on the issue. I think it was important that the Conservative Party was called out for what, a practice, that the Speaker himself characterized as reprehensible. I think that in the light of this, they’ll have to cease and desist from this practice cause they can’t just because it was a technical ruling, as the Speaker put it, that did not come down as we might have liked, you can’t continue practices that have been uniformly regarded as reprehensible. They may not want to acknowledge their wrong, but they’re going to have to cease and desist from these practices, undertake not to do it again.
For those reasons alone, I think all this was worth raising. And I think at the end of the day, both the House and the members in it will be well served by this having been raised. We can protect people in the performance of their duties. We can protect people from false and misleading information. We can seek to assure that such reprehensible practices are not repeated. I hope the Conservatives learned a good lesson from this as well.
Question:Mr. Cotler, long before you came to this place, you were a champion of human rights, a champion of democracy around the world. Taking a step back, what’s your assessment of the evolution of democracy and human rights in Canada over the past six months or so?
Cotler: Well, I would like to think that we will not get to the point where matters of democracy and human rights, as you mentioned, are not being addressed on the merits but are getting politicized. I get very concerned when a court ruling is not respected. I get very concerned when we have practices of this kind. So I hope we will return to respect for the rule of law, respect for democracy and respect for Parliament as an institution. At the end of the day, that will prevail. Okay. Thank you.