House committee ends second day in stalemate

A Commons committee hearing ended in a stalemate Thursday, as opposition MPs were set to recommend finding the government in contempt of Parliament.

Tories hold off vote that could recommend contempt finding

A committee of MPs that could recommend the House of Commons find the government in contempt has ended in a stalemate — for now.

Opposition MPs on the Procedure and House Affairs committee were set to recommend a draft report find the government in contempt of Parliament, but Government MPs managed to run out the clock before they could vote on the motion Thursday afternoon.

The committee meets again Friday morning to hear from International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda. It's not clear whether they can continue Thursday's debate on the contempt motion. The draft report is to be delivered to the House of Commons by Monday.

Earlier Thursday, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews testified at the procedure and house affairs committee for a second day and again told opposition MPs that they have provided all of the information requested on the estimated costs of 18 law-and-order bills.

Following their testimony, opposition MPs accused the ministers of stonewalling.

"We're not satisfied that we've got all the information yet, we're still being denied the basic tools we need to do our job. That's what led to the accusation that our privileges are being trampled on and by definition that's contempt of Parliament," said NDP MP Pat Martin.

The government has said $2.1 billion will be spent over five years to expand prisons due to the impact of some of its legislation, but the opposition has been trying to get cost breakdowns for specific bills, arguing they can't be expected to vote on legislation without knowing how much it will cost to implement.

Liberal MP Scott Brison, who has been leading the charge to get the cost estimates, was not impressed by the ministers' second appearance Thursday.

"After two days of testimony, the Harper government continues to mislead Parliament ... continues to do just about anything to hide the real costs of its out-of-control spending on U.S.-style prisons and continues to demonstrate contempt for Parliament," said Brison.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, right, and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson look at a BlackBerry as they appear before a Commons committee looking into Parliamentary contempt hearings in Ottawa on March 17, 2011. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)
Wednesday, the ministers showed up with binders of information they say satisfies both a motion from the opposition and a ruling from Speaker Peter Milliken.

Toews and Nicholson said Thursday that the binders provided more details on the estimates that were  provided on Feb.17 in response to a motion from Liberal MP Scott Brison. The total pricetag for the bills listed in Brison's motion is $631 million, Nicholson told the committee. Some of the bills will not incur any added costs if passed, the justice minister told MPs, and in other cases, it is the provinces that will bear additional costs.

The ministers said the government has only provided estimates for the bills they were asked about, not its entire crime-related legislative agenda.

For example, the recently-passed Bill C-59 is expected to cost $40 million and was not one of the bills included in the request for information. That figure was revealed at a public safety committee meeting on Feb.17 by Don Head, head of the Correctional Service of Canada, after MPs had voted on it.

"If you're worried about the cost of our crime bills, you've got it here, you've got an excellent analysis of this, and I trust that will please all honourable members," Nicholson said, referring to the 1,000 pages represented by the binders.

The dispute over the production of documents with cost estimates for the crime legislation, as well as corporate tax cuts and the F-35 fighter jet deal, has been dragging on for months and has involved a series of motions in the House of Commons to try and force the government to release them. It reached Milliken last week, who ruled the privileges of MPs may have been breached because of the withholding of information.

Cabinet confidence

Opposition MPs struggled to get answers from Toews and Nicholson to questions on why the information provided Wednesday wasn't given when originally requested last fall, and what happened to the government's initial objection that the estimates were covered by cabinet confidence.

Cabinet confidence allows for some information to be kept secret and exempts it from access-to-information laws. The opposition argues that once a bill is made public, cabinet confidence no longer applies and that case law backs up their argument.

"If something is a cabinet confidence of course it continues to remain so, we have an obligation on that," said Nicholson.

Toews explained that the written materials given to the committee Wednesday are not the same physical documents seen by the cabinet and the ministers therefore haven't broken cabinet confidence.

"My understanding is that there are no cabinet confidences disclosed here. We're not disclosing documents that were submitted to cabinet," said Toews. "This is all material that has been put together by the officials, the public officials, on information that may well have been put into a cabinet document, which is a different issue. The information here is not a cabinet document."

When House Leader John Baird tabled a document on Feb.17 outlining cost estimates for some of the bills, he said cabinet confidence had been waived and that Prime Minister Stephen Harper was comfortable releasing the information.

The NDP's Martin said the ministers are "parsing down" the definition of cabinet confidence and misusing the practice.

"I think incrementally we are getting closer and closer to a finding of contempt but we're not finished with our study at this point," Martin said. "To date we haven't heard any testimony that changes our opinion that we are being systematically denied basic information, which is the definition of breach of privilege, ergo contempt."

Thursday afternoon, the committee heard from a parliamentary expert from Queen's University, Ned Franks. He was not in favour of using the practice of cabinet confidence as a justification to withhold cost estimates.

The House of Commons isn't sitting this week but three days of meetings were convened to consider whether the government, and International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda, should be found in contempt of Parliament. The Oda matter is a separate case that will be dealt with on Friday.

The government will face a confidence vote by the end of next week, either related to the budget being delivered on March 22, or, to the reports delivered by the committee. If the government loses one of those votes, Canadians will be heading to the polls this spring.

At the end of Thursday afternoon, the committee began considering a draft report suggesting what the committee should conclude. It said that the government has failed to provide specific documentation and that this failure "constitutes a contempt of Parliament." The committee did not get far in debating the draft report and will resume debate Friday morning.

LIVE BLOG: Committee hearings on question of privilege

Kady O'Malley liveblogs the hearings.