By John Ibbitson, Globe and Mail, March 9, 2011
Stephen Harper faces not just the prospect of being found in contempt of Parliament. He faces a new challenge: to fight an election not simply on economic issues, but on the charge his government abuses power.
House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken ruled on Wednesday that, “on its face,” the government withheld information from a parliamentary committee, and that International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda may have misled the House.
If the finding is upheld, as expected, by another parliamentary committee next week and affirmed by the House the week after, for the first time in Canadian history, a government and a cabinet minister will be guilty of contempt of Parliament.
An election was already looking increasingly likely, with all opposition parties inclined to defeat the Conservatives on the budget that Finance Minister Jim Flaherty will unveil on March 22. Mr. Milliken’s decision adds a second lane on the road to that election.
First, congratulations and thanks to the Speaker of the House of Commons. "For the first time in Canadian history" a government and a cabinet minister will be guilty of contempt of Parliament," as Ibbitson puts it. And that puts a different slant, than merely a difference of opinion, on the way this government has operated.
Second, we can only hope that the ruling will come as a kind of wak-up call to the millions of Canadians who pay so little attention to the workings of our government that Will Rogers' statement, uploaded to the screen of a recent CBC "George" program make too much sense. The statement reads approximately like this:
"Times certainly are changing. Now people are taking the comedians seriously and laughing at the politicians."
Unfortunately, the issues before the Canadian parliament, like those before most western democracies, are neither trivial, nor laughable, even if some of those politicians serving are "in contempt".
What galls this scribe is less the misdeeds of an individual, like Minister Oda, than the attitude and the arrogance and the sheer disdain of the government as a whole for the simple request for dollars, a costing of the several crime bills that have passed the House of Commons, resulting in the need for more prison cells, more guards and more construction of more prisons.
A government, as this one does, can legitimately hold a "right-wing" law-and-order agenda, but there is always a need to estimate costs, and to come clean with those figures, even if those figures might fly in the face of the original purpose of the law-and-order agenda. The two must be balanced, as they will inevitably be when the bills come in. A little foresight, a little planning and, more imporantly, disclosure of the budgeted numbers goes a long way to establishing credibility...and failure to disclose on such a simple request, is indicative of an attitude that could be summed up this way: "make me disclose, because I don't have to"....akin to the little child who is playing a game of bravado.
And it is the hollow nature of the government's bravado, its mask of "untouchability," that could become its undoing.