Speaker’s Ruling Returns Power to Parliament

On April 27, the Speaker of the House of Commons, Peter Milliken, responded to a question of privilege raised by New Democrat Defence Critic, Jack Harris, and made a landmark ruling that should reign in the Prime Minister’s authority, and place power back into the hands of our elected representatives.

The ruling was regarding the government’s refusal to provide uncensored documents relating to the government’s knowledge of the potential torture of Afghan detainees. The ruling found that the government’s refusal to provide these documents to members of the committee looking into these allegations was a breach of parliamentary privilege, stating, "It is the view of the chair that accepting an unconditional authority of the executive to censor the information provided to Parliament would, in fact, jeopardize the very separation of powers that is purported to lie at the heart of our parliamentary system and the independence of its constituent parts." The government now has two weeks from the date of the ruling to find a compromise that both they and Parliament can agree upon.

Representatives from all three opposition parties have been questioning the government as to why these documents have not been handed over to MPs. Jack Harris, in particular, has been quite vocal about the government’s refusal to bend to the will of elected representatives, calling it "tantamount to contempt."

This has been a controversial issue for quite some time. On December 10th, 2009, the House of Commons passed an opposition motion requiring the government to provide the documents in question in an unedited form. Shortly thereafter, the Prime Minister prorogued parliament until March 3, 2010. Upon returning to Parliament, the government eventually did provide documents, but they were heavily censored.

The Conservatives argue that providing these documents would be a breach of national security. Successive governments have been able to ensure that contents relating to national security be safeguarded when documents are requested for review, yet the Conservative Government has continually refused to deliver the documents that would allow parliamentarians to effectively do their work. New Democrats did table a motion that entails a plan for the Special Committee on Canada’s Mission in Afghanistan to be able to see the documents while ensuring that legitimate national security concerns are addressed.

Harper campaigned on promises to bring transparency to government. However, there seems to be a stern contrast between what he promised, and what he has been delivering. The Afghan detainee issue is just one example. We still don’t know the reasoning behind the removal of Helena Guergis from the Conservative caucus, and any accusations of wrongdoing have been hidden behind claims that it could compromise an RCMP investigation. Canadian stimulus funding for the economic recovery seemed shrouded in mystery, in contrast to the U.S. model, which provided a framework for their citizens to track where stimulus funding was going. These are only a few examples that clearly do not speak to the promise of transparency from this government.