Harper grilled over prorogation, detainees

Opposition MPs wasted no time during the first question period in the new session of Parliament to renew their condemnation of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to prorogue Parliament for six weeks.

Opposition demands unredacted documents over Afghan detainee transfers

Opposition MPs wasted no time during the first question period in the new session of Parliament to renew their condemnation of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to prorogue Parliament for six weeks.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper responds during the first question period in the House of Commons since the prorogation. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))
Speaking Thursday in the first question period since Dec. 10, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff accused the Conservative government of trying to avoid facing legitimate questions about allegations of torture of prisoners transferred by Canadian soldiers into Afghan custody.

"Everyone in this House and everyone in the country knows why the prime minister shut down Parliament," Ignatieff said.

Ignatieff and NDP Leader Jack Layton called for the prime minister to support limiting the government's powers of prorogation and preventing its future abuse. Layton called the power "outdated" and cited the tens of thousands who took to the streets across Canada in January to protest the move.  

"A lock on the doors of the House of Commons is not worthy of Canadian democracy," said the New Democrat leader, who received a standing ovation from his caucus when he rose to speak. Layton disclosed last month he is being treated for prostate cancer. Harper said he was glad to see Layton "in fine form."

The prime minister then replied that federal governments have prorogued Parliament almost annually on average for the past 140 years and his government had no plans to make changes to its use.

In response to Ignatieff, Harper acknowledged his own "unusual" use of the power in late 2008 to assert the principle that the opposition must face an election if it wants to replace the government.

"If the honourable leader wants to revive the Liberal-NDP-Bloc Québécois coalition he can take it to the Canadian people," the prime minister said.

Government knew of detainee torture in 2007: Dosanjh

Ignatieff called on the government to respect the will of Parliament and provide unredacted documents to the special House committee on Afghanistan "so Canadians can get the truth that they deserve."

Before Parliament was prorogued, the House voted to order the government to produce unredacted documents related to Afghan prisoner transfers, but the government has refused.

In response, Harper said the opposition should know that the decision to redact documents rests with government lawyers, who do so "according to the law."

"There were literally tens of thousands of pages of documents, released and all of those have indicated over and over again, Mr. Speaker, the Canadian Forces have conducted themselves with the highest performance," the prime minister told the House.

Liberal defence critic Ujjal Dosanjh cited a May 2007 memo by the  judge advocate general warning senior Defence Department officials that it was a crime to ignore claims of abuse.

"They clearly knew of allegations of torture," Dosanjh said. "Why does the government refuse to admit it knew?"

Harper replied that on the date in question, the Conservatives had already put in place a new transfer agreement with Afghan officials. He added it was ironic that the Liberals, who as a government, were in Afghanistan for four years before the Tories came to power, now question their own old agreement.  

'Nothing on climate change' in throne speech: Duceppe

Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe decried the government's position at the UN climate change summit in Copenhagen in December, saying the prime minister "took his marching orders" from the oil and nuclear industry.

"The government spoke for Canada, it did not speak for Quebec, and it continued to do the same thing, on the throne speech because it included nothing to fight climate change," Duceppe told the House.

The prime minister encouraged Duceppe to listen to Canadians and Quebecers from the recent Olympics in Vancouver and hear a "different perspective.

"When the leader of the Bloc says we have different  interests than those of Quebec, we saw just how well Quebec did by acting in unity and our country is a united country, proud country and it includes Quebec.

The heated exchanges in the Commons came just hours before Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was to table this year's federal budget.

Despite nationwide protests over the Conservative's six-week suspension of parliamentary business during the Winter Olympics, the government has maintained it needed the time to recalibrate its legislative agenda and implement the second phase of its economic stimulus package.