What is parliamentary privilege? A closer look at O’Toole’s CSIS revelations

Click to play video: 'Erin O’Toole says he was targeted by China as Conservative Party leader'
Erin O’Toole says he was targeted by China as Conservative Party leader
WATCH: Erin O’Toole says he was targeted by China as Conservative Party leader – May 30, 2023

As probes continue into foreign interference by China, former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole and NDP MP Jenny Kwan revealed this week each has been told they were — or are, still — targets.

But the details they raised in their explanations differed, likely due at least in part to where they spoke, the sensitive nature of the briefings, and the protection each had under parliamentary privilege when they made their remarks.

On Monday, Kwan confirmed Canada’s spy agency CSIS had informed her about being a target of Chinese government interference for years.

Kwan raised concerns over the timing she was informed, saying intelligence authorities should have informed her, and other targets, the minute they were aware of such interference attempts. But she said she would not be intimidated or silenced.

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Kwan, who is the NDP MP for Vancouver East in B.C., repeatedly stressed while speaking outside the House of Commons chamber that she could not provide details about what form the attempted influence took, citing “national security reasons.”

O’Toole, MP for Durham, Ont., and former Conservative leader, spoke about what he called an “active campaign of voter suppression” against him by China from the floor of the House during a question of privilege on Tuesday.

He also laid out four separate “categories of threats” he had been briefed on, naming a specific Chinese government department and how intelligence officials told him that department’s workers were operating.

Click to play video: 'Former Canadian Conservative leader targeted by China'
Former Canadian Conservative leader targeted by China

These four categories included foreign funding and the alleged payment of funds from China through its United Front Work Department to create “misinformation” targeting O’Toole, as well as using foreign-controlled social media platforms – specifically WeChat – to campaign to spread misinformation.

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O’Toole stopped short of providing full details on the intelligence briefing, though noted that under the rules of the House of Commons, he could have.

“While I recognize that the law of parliamentary privilege affords me the absolute freedom of speech here in Parliament, subject only to the rules of this House itself, I also proudly held our late Queen’s commission as an officer in the Canadian Armed Forces and have taken several oaths to protect our nation and its secrets,” O’Toole said.

“I do not want any details to reveal sources or methods of collection,” he told lawmakers.

“While I have more detail than I’m sharing with the House, I want to make sure that the public interest is properly served alongside ensuring that important intelligence gathered can continue unimpeded by appropriate parliamentary review.”

But what is parliamentary privilege and why did O’Toole make a point of noting it?

Click to play video: 'Alleged foreign interference: NDP MP says she was targeted by Beijing'
Alleged foreign interference: NDP MP says she was targeted by Beijing

By speaking on the floor of the House of Commons, MPs are protected by parliamentary privilege from civil or criminal prosecution under freedom of speech provisions in the rules and procedures for how the chamber operates.

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Under this privilege, members of Parliament are able to speak freely “in the conduct of a proceeding of Parliament,” such as in the House itself or during committee meetings, without fear of potential prosecution or civil liability for any comments made. The privilege is also extended to witnesses who appear before the House or its committees.

Parliamentary privilege dates back centuries, and it allows MPs to say things while in the House of Commons that could get them sued, for example, if they were to say them outside of the chamber.

That’s why listeners to question period or other exchanges in the House of Commons will sometimes hear MPs challenge one another to “repeat those words outside this chamber” if their political opponent makes a particularly incendiary allegation. Making an allegation that could normally result in a defamation lawsuit won’t do so if it is said within the chamber.

The same is true with criminal matters. Disclosing classified information can result in prosecution — but by speaking in the House of Commons, O’Toole’s parliamentary privilege would appear to protect him from being prosecuted.

The rules and procedures note that privilege provides “absolute immunity” from “fear of civil or criminal prosecution for what might be said in the House and committees.”

As Kwan spoke outside the House, she would not have been covered by that provision.

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Global News reached out to the NDP to ask if there was a conversation about having Kwan use her privilege to speak more candidly in the House on Wednesday, but has yet to receive a response.

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