OTTAWA — The three opposition parties united in a bid Thursday to force the Conservative government to let them look at uncensored documents on the Afghan detainees affair or face rare parliamentary contempt proceedings.
They said the government would not have to table uncensored documents in the House of Commons or on the Internet, but could provide them to members of the special committee on the mission in Afghanistan who could be sworn to secrecy to safeguard national security and other legitimate grounds of confidentiality.
Liberal, New Democratic Party and Bloc Quebecois MPs argued in Commons that their parliamentary privileges have been breached by the government's failure to respond to a Dec. 10 motion, passed in the Commons, requesting uncensored documents related to such policies as the transfer by Canadian Forces of Afghan detainees to Afghan prisons and to warnings from diplomats that they could be tortured.
"We are aware of national security concerns and we have indicated publicly our willingness to discuss these valid concerns and provide a method of protecting them," said New Democratic Party defence critic Jack Harris. "However, we are not prepared to compromise on Canadians' right to have an accountable government that does not use national security as a catch-all phrase to cover up embarrassing or damaging information."
Speaker Peter Milliken said he would rule on the potential breach or privilege after giving ministers a chance to respond. But Milliken immediately dismissed a government argument that the opposition MPs are too late in their objections because it's been three months since the Dec. 10 motion was passed.
Milliken rejected that because the government had prorogued Parliament and there was no opportunity for MPs to lodge their objections when Parliament wasn't sitting.
Toronto Liberal Derek Lee, an expert on parliamentary rights, said the request from Parliament was based on "340 years of bedrock constitutional history" in which Parliament has the right to keep the government accountable and to summon documents and witnesses to perform its functions.
"There are no other persons who can come into this House to protect the constitutional foundations of this country, only the 308 persons here," Lee said, referring to MPs. "So if we do not stand up for our Parliament's role on behalf of Canadians, then there is no one else out there to do it."
Meanwhile at a defence committee hearing, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said the government would soon appoint an acting chairperson of the Military Police Complaints Commission for a one-year term. He said the person would be someone from inside the commission.
The job is already filled by an acting chairperson from inside the commission, former Windsor police chief Glenn Stannard. He replaced Peter Tinsley, a lawyer and former member of the armed services whose appointment was not extended as he hoped in December. The commission is set to resume hearings on Afghan detainees next Wednesday.
"This is the continuing saga of the obstruction and the obfuscation that this government is engaged in," said Liberal defence critic Ujjal Dosanjh. "This whole mess started with the Military Police Complaints Commission's work being stymied by the justice lawyers who sent intimidating letters to witnesses and brought umpteen motions before the courts to shut it down."
Dosanjh says the commission should be chaired by a lawyer because of numerous jurisdictional arguments that come up at the hearings. The other commission panellist is a former deputy RCMP commissioner.
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