Commons privilege fight continues

A committee looking at whether the government needs to turn over more information to the House of Commons will hear from its first witnesses Wednesday.

MPs hear witnesses on Speaker's ruling all day Wednesday

Speaker Peter Milliken, seen ruling on a point of privilege in February, said last week the government may have breached parliamentary privilege by denying information to MPs. (The Canadian Press)

A long day of testimony is set to get underway in Ottawa Wednesday morning at a committee that could recommend the government, and a cabinet minister, be found in contempt of Parliament.

The House of Commons procedure and house affairs committee will begin hearing from witnesses at 10:30 a.m., and it's a packed lineup on the first of three days of meetings. The House of Commons is not sitting this week but the special meetings were called because the committee faces a deadline of March 21 to deal with the matter and report back to Parliament with recommendations.

The committee is looking at complaints by Liberal MPs Scott Brison and John McKay that the Conservative government and International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda breached their rights as parliamentarians.

The opposition parties accuse Oda of lying about who inserted the word "not" into a funding recommendation, cancelling the cash, and implying her agency's staff supported her decision. The "not" ended a bid by international aid group Kairos for $7 million to support its programs overseas.

In a separate case, Brison argued MPs need more cost information on 65 F-35 fighter jets, as well as on corporate tax cuts and the impact on prisons of tougher sentencing rules. The complaint originated from the finance committee in the fall. It has been seeking cost estimates from the government since then and has been locked in a battle with the government over the release of information.

Wednesday's meeting has expert witnesses lined up from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a whopping 12 set for only one hour in the afternoon.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson will answer questions from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m., backed up by 10 government officials. The officials rank as high as CSIS director Richard Fadden and Canada Border Services Agency head Luc Portelance.

Committees generally give ministers 10 minutes each for opening statements. If that happens Wednesday, the committee will have 40 minutes to question 12 people.

'Looks like they’re still playing games'

Brison says that's counter to the Conservatives' promise to co-operate.

"They're jamming two ministers and 10 officials in a single hour," he said in an email.

"Looks like they’re still playing games to avoid giving Parliament and Canadians a straight answer ... they still refuse to provide Parliament and Canadian taxpayers with the real cost of their U.S.-style prison agenda."

House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken said last week — in an unprecedented set of rulings — that there was enough of a case to continue examining whether both Oda and the government may be in contempt of Parliament. The ruling allowed the House to refer both cases back to committee. Once the committees report back to the House, which is expected to happen March 21, MPs can vote on whether Oda and the Conservative government are in contempt.

Information commissioner Suzanne Legault, parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page, Commons law clerk Rob Walsh, former head of the Privy Council Mel Cappe, and departmental experts are also set to appear Wednesday.

Minister of State for Finance Ted Menzies is scheduled for Thursday and Oda is scheduled Friday, along with Canadian International Development Agency president Margaret Biggs. Parliamentary procedure expert Ned Franks will appear Thursday and Friday.

Live blogging the committee

Beginning at 10:30 a.m.