Today is an important day. From CBC,
“The House of Commons has a right to order the government to produce uncensored documents related to the treatment of Afghan detainees, Speaker Peter Milliken has ruled.”
From TorStar “Parliament wins in showdown with Harper government“, and editorial “Wise ruling on secret files“.
[Lee:] The precedent here today is the clear, unequivocal, benchmarked statement of authority of the House to send for papers and records and it is absolute. And he says the House has never acted to curtail its powers. It was always absolute and it still is. So that’s the rule, that’s the law.
The government members took it quite well. It maybe wasn’t a cold shower, I don’t know. I mean, I wrote a book on this, it wasn’t new to me. But to some of them, to hear that said, it would be a bit of a cold shower.
An excerpt from Macleans “The Commons: The House always wins“,
There seemed, at first, points for each side. Halfway through, the tally might have been said to be tied. Then, the will of Parliament began to run up the score.
“Before us are issues that question the very foundations upon which our parliamentary system is built,” Mr. Milliken observed. “In a system of responsible government, the fundamental right of the House of Commons to hold the government to account for its actions is an indisputable privilege and, in fact, obligation.”
Then came the reference to Bourinot. Then references to Maingot, Erksine, McGee and Odgers. Then this.
“It is the view of the chair,” Mr. Milliken said, “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.”
MPs on the opposition side applauded. The Speaker continued. ”Therefore,” he said, “the chair must conclude that it is perfectly within the existing privileges of the House to order production of the documents in question.”
A cry of “yes!” came from the far end of the room.
The verdict now seemed assured, but the Speaker kept on, now venturing an attempt at peace. “It seems to me,” he said, “that the issue before us is this: is it possible to put into place a mechanism by which these documents could be made available to the House without compromising the security and confidentiality of the information they contain?”
Regardless, a properly empowered individual or committee is the obvious solution to the problem of deciding what should be released and what should be kept confidential to protect national security and the confidence of Canada’s allies.
Mr. Milliken has made it clear that the very legitimacy of Parliament rests on such an outcome. “It seems to me we would fail the institution if no resolution can be found,” he said.
Failure will come in the form of a bitter election that would damage the country. The Liberals, NDP, and Bloc would campaign on Conservative autocracy; the Conservatives would campaign in defence of protecting our troops in Afghanistan from betrayal on the home front. That would be one ugly election.
Mr. Harper might force a vote on contempt or confidence in the House, thinking he can convince one party to support the government – only one is needed for a majority – or he might refer the matter to the Supreme Court. Both would be dangerous and irresponsible moves. Courts should not intervene in parliamentary squabbles, and it would be a brave opposition party leader who decided to break ranks and save the government.
Every arrow of reason points to compromise. Only passion or ambition could force an election. And then the 40th Parliament and those who served in it would go into history as the greatest failure since Confederation.