THUNDER BAY – At issue this week in the Ontario Legislature has been a debate over the tabling of documents related to the decision by the Ontario Government to cancel a gas-fired power plant during last year’s election campaign. Energy Minister Chris Bentley faces sanctions or censure over the delay in providing all the related documents to a Legislative Committee.
Thunder Bay Superior North MPP and Minister of Natural Resources Michael Gravelle joined the debate on Thursday.
Here is the text of the Minister’s remarks:
“Certainly, I won’t begin by saying it’s a pleasure to be speaking on this motion—I guess we’re speaking on the sub-amendment to the amendment to the motion—but I do feel it’s an honour to have an opportunity to stand up and speak about the situation that we’ve seen developing here in the Legislature over the last number of days, if not the last number of weeks. I hope to use my time, as much as possible, to put some facts on the table that perhaps have gotten lost with some of the discussions that have gone on previously.
“Like many members in the Legislature, I have listened to the remarks and the speeches made by my colleagues from all sides of the House, and again I think it’s important that we make sure that everyone understands the situation as it truly should be put forward. It’s important for the people who are attending in the gallery today, important for those people who are visiting the Legislature and watching on TV and others.
“I am certainly very, very proud of the relationship that I have with my colleague the Minister of Energy, Mr. Bentley. I think we all know him well and respect him well. He is a man of the highest integrity, and I think he handled the situation in a fashion that truly showed respect for the parliamentary process, in light of the challenges that were being faced and the questions that he was being asked under those particular circumstances. As a gentleman who was elected in 2003 and served in a number of ministry positions prior to his position of Minister of Energy—I know that I’ve had a great opportunity to work with him in some of those portfolios very, very closely, and I can only say that it has been an honour to work with him. I know how much the role of an MPP and the role of minister means to him.
“I do think that perhaps the most important thing we can do is to, again, remind everyone of the exact circumstances that transpired. Let me try to run through those for everyone who is listening today. We do know that since this particular debate started on the motion and, prior to that, over the last number of weeks, the official opposition and the third party have attempted to create, I think, what is a myth, and that myth is that the Minister of Energy has willfully attempted to hide or conceal these documents from the Legislature. Quite frankly, I think nothing could be further from the truth, and that’s why I think it’s important for us to work our way through the process.
“On May 9, Minister Bentley appeared before the estimates committee. Between May 9 and July 11, he was there on a number of occasions. He appeared before the committee, and of course the purpose of appearing for estimates—others of us in cabinet have had that opportunity to appear before estimates as well. This was regarding the 2012-13 estimates of the Ministry of Energy. While the minister was answering questions related to a number of issues—certainly there’s no question, particularly if one looks at the Hansard—committee members from the official opposition spent considerable time asking the minister questions specifically related to the two gas plants which were to have been built in Oakville and Mississauga respectively. I don’t think there is any argument that while he was before the committee, the minister was certainly being placed in a very, very difficult position. He was repeatedly asked to answer questions related to those two facilities. The overwhelming majority of the questions related to the outstanding legal proceedings and the confidential negotiations that were under way.
“From my perspective, Mr. Speaker, and I think from the perspective of many of us in the Legislature, the Minister of Energy attempted, as best he could, to strike an effective balance between respecting the estimates committee’s authority to ask those questions—which included them requesting those documents—and the minister’s obligation and his need to protect the public interest in the midst of what were highly sensitive commercial negotiations and litigation. There’s no doubt that the minister had a responsibility as a minister of the crown, and those responsibilities are different than the responsibilities that we have as members of the provincial Legislature.
“Again, it’s important to point out that the Chair of the committee, the member for Beaches–East York, certainly recognized, as Chair, the rather delicate, if not precarious, situation the Minister of Energy was in. In fact, the Chair, the member for Beaches–East York, repeatedly ruled that while the committee members were permitted to ask such questions, the minister was able to exercise his discretion and respond to such questions in a manner that would protect or could protect the interests of the province.
“Let me just quote the Chair’s remarks. Mr. Prue said, “The minister has the right to decline either giving that documentation or giving voice to that documentation during his answering of the questions.” That was one segment that I saw from Hansard, Mr. Speaker.
“Another section that’s important for I think all members to be reminded of is that the Chair said on the same day, May 16, “I would advise that I’m going to allow the motion to proceed, but I would also advise—and I think the minister, being a lawyer himself, knows full well that he may choose to answer the question in such a way as not to prejudice the province in any way, and I would expect him to do so. That would be my ruling.”
“Certainly, Mr. Speaker, the minister relied on the Chair’s repeated statements and rulings that the minister was permitted to respond to questions and document requests from committee members in a manner that did protect the interests of the province.
“Following that, the minister wrote to the committee on May 30 and advised the committee that he was exercising his discretion and would not be able to produce the requested documentation as they were confidential, subject to solicitor-client privilege, litigation privilege or highly commercially sensitive.
“The fact is, Mr. Speaker, the opposition chose to ignore the flags that were raised by the minister. They certainly chose to show no restraint. That isn’t something we’ve seen in the past, and it was unfortunate. We know, of course, that on June 5 the member for Cambridge moved a motion to report to the House the minister’s failure to produce all the records, pursuant to the motion of May 16, and that of course began this process related to the contempt proceedings.
“What I think is so disturbing to many of us and, obviously, particularly those of us on this side of the House, is that the official opposition and the third party, in their attempt, quite frankly, to vilify the Minister of Energy, a man of extraordinary integrity, and I think also, may I say, to score political points, will try to tell you and the public that the minister hid or concealed these records. Clearly, that is simply not true. We need to deal with the facts. I think that’s incredibly important. The record absolutely shows that the Minister of Energy at all times was trying to balance—one of the great challenges that many of us have—two important yet competing public interests: the supremacy of Parliament versus the protection of taxpayer interests. As the process unfolded over the summer, I think there was further proof of the minister doing just exactly that.
“With the legal matters pertaining to the Mississauga gas plant having been settled, the minister then directed his ministry to provide the committee with all correspondence related to the Mississauga facility that was responsive to the motion of May 16, except for the records that were subject to solicitor-client privilege. Those documents were indeed provided to the committee.
“Certainly, if the minister was in any way trying to conceal those documents, you have to ask the question: Why would he have released them the moment he had a settlement with respect to the Mississauga gas plant? Again, I think it’s important that we continue to deal with the facts of the matter.
“Speaker, if I may, I’ll move on to the ruling that you made on September 13, which related also to the negotiations with TransCanada regarding the Oakville plant. They were still ongoing. As they were still ongoing, the minister was not in a position to produce the documents prior to the Speaker’s ruling. On September 13, Speaker, you ruled that while a prima facie breach of privilege had been established, you would set aside the matter. You asked the three House leaders to take it upon themselves to find a path that would satisfy the request of the estimates committee.
“Generally speaking, I know the member could have moved his motion forward, but in this matter, with your ruling, you exercised your discretion to follow the approach—and I think it was an approach adopted by Speaker Milliken in the Afghan detainee matter—of setting aside your ruling to allow the House leaders to get together to devise a means where both concerns were met—certainly challenging, but one, indeed, where we’d like to think it could happen.
“I think, quite frankly, Mr. Speaker—and I trust you will agree with what I’m saying—that what you were doing was recognizing that there were two competing public interests at play: the interests of the committee in exercising its parliamentary privilege, unquestionably, and the interests of the government and the Minister of Energy, in temporarily refraining from the disclosure of sensitive information in the midst of commercial negotiations and related proceedings. Certainly, that gave an opportunity for all three parties, the House leaders, to talk very frankly about how we could get to come to that ruling.
“Again, Speaker, you laid out that this was a pretty unique situation. It was a unique situation, unlike various other cases of privilege, and in that case, it did warrant a unique solution.
“The House leaders did meet on I think four separate occasions, actually, to determine whether a solution could be found. We certainly had high hopes that the parties would ultimately reach a solution that struck a balance between the competing public interests identified in the Speaker’s ruling. We tabled two separate proposals and we asked for a number of meetings. A couple of times the leaders chose not to continue to meet to discuss it. Certainly, we heard many things publicly as well.
“This past Monday—you made it clear you needed a resolution by, I believe, the end of the day on Monday, September 24—the minister was able to announce the completion of the negotiations, the settlement of the Oakville matter. When that was announced, the minister complied. The government complied, the minister complied, and released all 36,000 pages of the records that were responsive to the original motion of the estimates committee.
“The fact is, Mr. Speaker, that the request of the committee has been standing here, so one has to ask the question: Why are we here today having this debate? I think it’s not inappropriate to say that there is a political agenda at work here. There’s no other way to put it other than the fact that the opposition, particularly the Conservatives, has made a decision to stop the regular business of the Ontario Legislature, bringing it to a halt. We saw it in the spring, when they were ringing bells all spring long, and now we have this process under way.
“A couple of days ago, we completed debate on a very important piece of legislation, the home renovation tax credit, something that we completed third reading debate on, I believe, Monday. We could have and we should have had a vote on this, Mr. Speaker, but we are not able to do so. Here is a piece of legislation that will help improve Ontarians’ lives and certainly help our seniors in a specific way, and that is being held up.
“We’ve seen the Legislature being hijacked by this, ultimately to debate the nuance of documents that I don’t think all the members have even tried to tell us they’ve actually read in full.
“Again, I think it’s just so important to remember actually what has happened here. We have a minister of the crown, Minister Bentley, again, a man of extraordinary integrity, somebody I think really, truly—if you ask each of the members individually, they would tell you they admire and respect very much and appreciate working with him incredibly closely. It’s just so true. I believe that every member across the floor would say the same thing. But we have them moving forward on a motion when the minister actually has complied with the request.
“The official opposition asked for the documents. We certainly made the case that releasing those documents at that time would compromise our ability to negotiate with the company. We concluded those negotiations; 36,000 pages of documents were then provided to the opposition. We complied with their request. We followed through, Mr. Speaker. The Minister of Energy followed through.
“Now we have—I want to be careful with the words that I use, Mr. Speaker, because you will upbraid me if I don’t—a startling process. The member for Lanark–Frontenac–Lennox and Addington was referencing remarks made by the Minister of the Environment, Minister Bradley, earlier this week. I think he misunderstood them, misinterpreted them.
“Minister Bradley, with the benefit of the long history he has had in the Legislature, was truly trying to alert us to the dangerous process that we were going down with this particular motion. He also was able to give examples—again, with that extraordinary benefit of history—of how parties have worked their way through these kinds of challenges and how members from different sides of the House have responded differently.
“Nobody argues at all with the fact that, as elected officials, we must always balance the supremacy of Parliament with the public interest. There are circumstances—and I think they’ve been well established and I think Minister Bentley established them very well. We were in a very difficult position in terms of sensitive negotiations, but there was always a recognition that indeed it was our goal to release those documents.
“What are we seeing? We’re seeing the opposition throwing mud against the wall to see, quite frankly, if anything sticks. This is about partisan politics. This is not about a minister of the crown not responding to the will of the Legislature. Indeed, when he was able to do so, he has, and quite frankly it’s discouraging to see this kind of process under way, particularly when we’re seeing the work of the Legislature truly ground to a halt. There are a number of issues, I think we would all agree—I just heard one of the members across the floor from Hamilton Mountain talking about a private member’s bill that she was hoping to bring forward today, and I don’t know what will happen this afternoon.
“The fact is that we are very committed to the supremacy of Parliament. We are certainly very supportive of Minister Bentley. I will acknowledge that Minister Bentley is a dear personal friend of mine, but he’s also somebody I’ve learned a great deal from. He has served the province of Ontario in an extraordinarily positive way. This is not a process that should be carrying on in our Legislature anymore”.