Afghan records release has legal limits: PM

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he is open to "any reasonable suggestion" to end the impasse over the release of documents related to Afghan detainees.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he is open to "any reasonable suggestion" to end the impasse over the release of documents related to Afghan detainees, but stressed that his government must also meet its own legal obligations.

"We look forward to both complying with the ruling and with the legal obligations that have been established by statutes, passed by this Parliament," Harper told the House of Commons on Wednesday when asked if he would fully comply with the Speaker's ruling a day earlier.

"Of course the fact of the matter is, Mr. Speaker, the government cannot break the law and cannot order public servants to break the law, nor can it do anything that would unnecessarily jeopardize the safety of Canadian troops."

Harper said his government wants to proceed in a way that would respect both the Speaker's ruling and its legal obligations and "will be open to any reasonable suggestion to achieve those two objectives."

Dimitri Soudas, spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said that senior government ministers will meet opposition party officials Thursday in a preliminary bid to find a compromise.

Soudas said Justice Minister Rob Nicholson and government House leader Jay Hill will be at the meeting to demonstrate the government's "spirit of openness" on the matter.

Earlier, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said he's willing to work with Harper's government over the issue — if the "extremely secretive" prime minister changes how he does business.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff called the Speaker of the House's privilege ruling a 'clear defence of democracy.' ((Pawel Dwulit/Canadian Press))

Speaking to reporters, Ignatieff said his party will work in good faith toward a process that can determine what in the material can be made public without endangering the operational security of Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.

"I don't think it's difficult to find a solution, but there needs to be good faith on the other side, and there is that good faith on this side," he said after his party's weekly caucus meeting in Ottawa.

On Tuesday, House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken ruled the government breached parliamentary privilege with its refusal to produce uncensored documents and called on all parties to find a solution within two weeks that would balance Parliament's right to access the material with concerns over national security.

Ignatieff called Milliken's ruling a "clear defence of democracy," saying it reinforces that the federal government must respect the will of Parliament and the will of the people. 

Parliamentarians, he said, have been dealing successfully with similar disputes for centuries.

"Let's not make this more complicated than it need be," he said.

Expanding Iacobucci's mandate a 'possible solution'

The government has so far refused to hand over uncensored documents to MPs examining allegations that detainees transferred by Canadian soldiers into Afghan custody were tortured.

Under pressure from opposition parties, it appointed retired Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci to review the material to determine what can be released.

Opposition parties have said his appointment only slows the process and the government is under no obligation to make his findings public.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said Tuesday the government welcomed the "possibility of a compromise while respecting our legal obligations," but will not compromise Canada's national security or "jeopardize the lives of our men and women in uniform."

Ignatieff said he would consider a possible solution that would see Iacobucci's mandate changed to have him report directly to Parliament. But under Iacobucci's current mandate, he said, the former judge was "essentially operating as the government's lawyer."

If no agreement is reached on the matter, the government could make it a non-confidence vote in the House, which could trigger a snap election if all three opposition parties vote against the government.

The Conservatives could also attempt to challenge Milliken's ruling in the Supreme Court, but legal observers have cast doubts whether the court would agree to hear such a case.