The Commons: Never mind the fine print

"The fact of the matter is the government cannot break the law"

The Scene. “Mr. Speaker, I hope I speak for everyone in this House when I salute your historic decision made yesterday.”

At least four Conservatives clapped at this submission from the Liberal leader. Michael Ignatieff paused to let the Speaker receive the House’s thanks and then continued.

“I would like to ask the Prime Minister if he will fully comply with your ruling yesterday,” he said, “and will he now work with us in good faith to do what we first proposed five months ago, that is respect the authority of Parliament, deliver the documents, and provide Canadians with the truth that they deserve?”

Confronted with the ramifications of a Speaker’s ruling as to the very foundation of Canadian democracy, the Prime Minister stood and shrugged.

“Mr. Speaker, you have made a ruling,” he observed. “At the same time, as you know and I think was recognized, the fact is that the government has certain obligations that are established under statutes passed by this Parliament. We obviously want to proceed in a way that will respect both of those things, and of course we will be open to any reasonable suggestions to achieve those two objectives.”

A day after the Attorney General of Canada had to be lightly, but soundly, corrected on his understanding of the law of the land, the Prime Minister seemed here to arguably misunderstand Peter Milliken’s verdict.

For sure, the ruling was long and nuanced and rife with arcane reference. And no doubt, the Prime Minister does not generally see much use in nuance. (Perhaps he worries about seeming elitist.) But here, apparently, Mr. Ignatieff felt it necessary to enlighten his counterpart.

“Mr. Speaker, I still did not hear a clear answer to the question as to whether the government will comply with your ruling,” the Liberal said.

Conservatives across the way grumbled.

“My question is now about his understanding of that ruling,” Mr. Ignatieff continued. “Does the Prime Minister now understand that the ultimate decision to invoke national security to prevent the disclosure of documents rests with this House, with the elected representatives of the people, and not with the government?”

Over again to the Prime Minister. “Mr. Speaker, as I have said, we look forward to both complying with your ruling and with the legal obligations that have been established by statutes passed by this Parliament,” he said.

“Weasel words!” cried a Liberal.

“The fact of the matter is the government cannot break the law,” Mr. Harper continued, “it cannot order public servants to break the law, nor can it do anything that would unnecessarily jeopardize the safety of Canadian troops.”

Right. Except that Parliament would seem to be the law, that which determines what can and cannot be disclosed, that which is ultimately responsible for determining what would and would not jeopardize the safety of Canadian troops. As Mr. Milliken pointed out to the Justice Minister just the other day, quoting Bourinot in 1884, “it must be remembered that under all circumstances it is for the House to consider whether the reasons given for refusing the information are sufficient.”

If the Prime Minister wishes to debate this point with Mr. Bourinot, Beechwood Cemetery is a short eight-minute drive from Parliament Hill.

In the meantime, Mr. Harper had to deal with Gilles Duceppe, who presented an omnibus complaint that managed to reference document disclosure, access to abortion for women in the developing world, Rahim Jaffer, transparency, ideology and democratic accountability.

Mr. Harper stood and, taking one of these issues in isolation, countered that his government’s position on the health of mothers was in keeping with the expressed position of Parliament. Mind you, if the expressed will of the House were the Prime Minister’s standard, we’d presently be in the midst of a public inquiry into this country’s handling of Afghan detainees.

Mr. Duceppe’s voice only grew louder and his face only redder in response.

Shortly thereafter it was Jack Layton’s turn to test the Prime Minister’s constitutional understanding. The NDP leader first ventured that the Prime Minister was accountable to Parliament. The Prime Minister seemed to agree, though with use of the word “confidence.”

“Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister’s interpretation of your ruling, exemplified here today in the House, is wrong,” Mr. Layton ventured with his second opportunity, next citing some of the Speaker’s carefully chosen words. “Is the Prime Minister saying to us today that he is going to use other laws of Parliament in order to hide the truth that you have said has to be brought forward?”

Once more to Mr. Harper. “Mr. Speaker, I said no such thing,” he said. “You have delivered a decision. Obviously, the government seeks to respect that decision. At the same time, it seeks to respect its obligations established by statute and passed by this Parliament. That is the position of the government. The leader of the NDP talks about confidence. Of course, the government’s position always depends on the confidence of the House.”

Now Mr. Layton was quite upset, wondering if the Prime Minister was threatening an election. The Prime Minister insisted he was not.

“The government seeks at all times to respect all of its obligations,” Mr. Harper continued. “To the extent that some of those obligations may be in conflict, there are reasonable ways to accommodate that and we are open to reasonable suggestions in that regard.”

If you can ignore how we have arrived at such a willingness to compromise, this might be considered an achievement of some sort.

The Stats. Helena Guergis, 10 questions. Afghanistan, eight questions. Maternal health, six questions. Securities regulation, government appointments, infrastructure, workplace safety and prisons, two questions each. The arctic, employment, political financing, health care, Omar Khadr and forestry, one question each.

John Baird, 10 answers. Stephen Harper, eight answers. Jim Abbott, six answers. Vic Toews, three answers. Jim Flaherty, Rob Nicholson, Diane Finley and Lisa Raitt, two answers each. Peter MacKay, Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Steven Fletcher, Leona Aglukkaq, Lawrence Cannon and Denis Lebel, one answer each.

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