Ministers defend prison costs numbers

Conservative ministers told a Commons committee they've disclosed all the numbers they have on the cost of their crime bills - but opposition MPs said the government is still not complying with Parliament.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, left, and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews appear before a commons committee hearing into whether the government is in contempt of Parliament for failing to disclose cost estimates for its anti-crime bills. (Canadian Press)

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews tabled documents and provided a joint defence of their crime bills while appearing before a committee Wednesday that could recommend the government be found in contempt of Parliament.

The ministers said the thick binders they brought with them to Parliament Hill provide more "substance" and details on the cost estimates for 18 justice bills. The estimates, with a total pricetag of $631 million according to Nicholson, were already tabled in the House of Commons on Feb.17 in response to a motion from Liberal MP Scott Brison. 

Opposition MPs on various parliamentary committees have been trying for months to get a full costing of the Conservative government's law-and-order agenda and the dispute has now landed before the procedure and house affairs committee, following a ruling from Speaker Peter Milliken last week. The government had originally withheld the information because it said the documents were protected by cabinet confidence, which allows for some information to be kept secret.

Toews told reporters following his testimony that there is "no substantive variance" in what was tabled Wednesday and what was tabled last month except that the pages contain more detailed cost breakdowns. He said the government believes its response on Feb.17 should have satisfied the opposition parties but based on the ruling by Milliken, the ministers were prompted to provide even more information.

Hearings resume Thursday

Ministers Vic Toews and Rob Nicholson will return to testify at 10 a.m., according to a government spokesperson.

"All of the numbers in respect of the bills that were requested have been provided. All of the numbers," said Toews.

The government has already said it is spending $2.1 billion over five years to expand the size of prisons to accomodate an increase in the prison population due to sentencing changes made through some of its legislation. The $631 million pricetag for the 18 anti-crime bills is separate from the $2.1 billion. The ministers said for some bills there are no expected costs associated with them.

"We’re giving them all the detail they need. They may not like the bills, they may not like where we’re going on that but if they’re worried about the costs, if they’re worried about the details, we provided that to them today", the justice minister said.

But opposition MPs rejected Nicholson's and Toews' assertion that they have met all of the requests for detailed information and they continued to accuse the government of hiding the "real" cost of its legislative agenda.

"We still maintain that the public has a right to know the real cost and the whole cost of the government’s crime bills. And we didn’t get it today," NDP MP Pat Martin said following the testimony.

"Canadians might not be so interested in their outdated, obsolete crime agenda if they knew the whole cost and that’s what they're afraid of, that’s why they’re not telling us," said Martin.

The committee is studying two separate allegations from Liberal MPs that the Conservative government and International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda breached their rights as parliamentarians. The cases ended up at the committee after Speaker Milliken ruled last week that "on its face" there appears to be a breach of those rights. The committee must report back to the House of Commons by Monday with its opinion on whether the government and minister are in contempt.

Based on the appearances by Nicholson and Toews, the opposition-dominated committee moved closer to coming to that conclusion, said Martin.

"I would say we are incrementally, hour-by-hour, getting close to a finding of contempt because frankly, the MPs around that table are just getting more and more angry. We won’t be treated this way," he said.

The MPs will get another chance to question the ministers. A government spokesperson said late Wednesday Toews and Nicholson have accepted an invitation to return to the committee Thursday morning.

The opposition parties argue they should not be expected to vote on bills without knowing how much they will cost to implement.

The first of three days of testimony began with Parliament's top information and legal experts. Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault began her testimony by outlining how her office handles claims of cabinet confidence.

But Legault instead faced questions about the number of access to information requests her office handles, how much they cost to investigate, and how money could be saved without those complaints. The rounds of questioning also saw government and opposition MPs taking partisan shots at each other and their parties.

Rob Walsh, legal clerk for the House of Commons, was the first witness to appear at the committee, and much of his testimony centred around the tradition of cabinet confidence and whether it should apply in this instance. Walsh often referred to Speaker Milliken's ruling rather than giving his own opinion when asked for it by MPs.

Wednesday's and Thursday's meetings are focused on Brison's motion related to the production of documents that accuses the government of withholding information on the costs of corporate tax cuts, the F-35 fighter jet deal and the Conservative crime bills.

Later in the week, the committee will hear from Oda, who is accused of misleading Parliament over her decision to decline $7 million in funding to the aid organization Kairos. The word "not" was inserted into a funding recommendation memo, cancelling the cash, and implying her agency's staff at the Canadian International Development Agency supported her decision.

Brison, the Liberal party finance critic, has been leading the charge for the government to turn over the cost estimates the crime bills, tax cuts and F-35s, since the fall of 2010. Following a request from the finance committee, the government said the information was protected by cabinet confidence.

Parliamentary practice dictates that discussions and deliberations by the cabinet are kept secret and can be exempt from access-to-information laws. The opposition argues that once a proposed bill is made public, cabinet confidence no longer applies and all information related to it should be released.

There has been a lot of procedural wrangling related to the opposition parties' efforts to force the government to release the cost estimates.

Wednesday's hearings will run until 6 p.m. In addition to ministers Toews and Nicholson, other high-ranking officials appearing include 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.

Heading into the meeting Wednesday morning, NDP MP Yvon Godin said parliamentarians need the information to do their jobs. Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski said the government will do its best to comply with Milliken's ruling.

RECAP: Question of privilege hearings live blog