Conservatives keep lid on cost of crime measures
By: Meagan Fitzpatrick, National Post
OTTAWA — The federal government is trying to keep the cost of its law-and-order agenda a secret — and its refusal to make the figures public could set Parliament up for another high-stakes battle between the Conservatives and opposition MPs over access to information.
The House of Commons is currently waiting to hear from the government after a question of privilege was raised by the Liberals on Monday, accusing the Conservatives of breaching the privileges of MPs and of being in contempt of Parliament.
Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski, parliamentary secretary to House leader John Baird, asked Speaker Peter Milliken for a delay in his ruling on the matter so the government could prepare a “comprehensive response” first. Mr. Milliken granted the request and the Conservatives have pledged to respond “quickly.”
No further comments were provided by government officials Tuesday in response to requests from Postmedia News.
Opposition MPs say the government’s rationale for keeping the estimated price tags out of the public eye — cabinet confidence — doesn’t hold up and taxpayers deserve an answer.
“Their American-style justice approach has a very hefty price tag. They’re trying to hide that information from Canadians using the false argument of cabinet confidence,” Liberal finance critic Scott Brison said.
Mr. Brison raised the question of privilege following the tabling of a report from the Commons finance committee, which has been trying since the fall to get cost estimates for 18 crime-related bills.
The government also stonewalled the committee when it asked for five-year projections of corporate profits before taxes.
To both requests, the government said it was “not in a position to provide” the documents because they are protected by cabinet confidence, which allows for policy discussions to be kept private and shields them from the Access to Information Act.
Once the government proceeds with a decision and it is made public, however, the background materials related to the proposed legislation that were considered during the discussion are no longer protected under the Act.
“This is a bogus argument by the Conservatives and we’re right to stand up to them,” the NDP’s finance critic, Thomas Mulcair, said.
Since the bills have been introduced, the cabinet confidence argument for withholding estimates for their costs doesn’t apply, opposition MPs argue. The government has yet to explain why it believes it does.
The finance committee, which is chaired by Conservative MP James Rajotte and has a majority of opposition MPs, also wants the projections for corporate profits for the next five years, which are used by the Finance Department for revenue models. Mr. Brison said the Liberals had no problem releasing these figures when they were in power in 2005.
“It wasn’t cabinet confidence then. It isn’t cabinet confidence now,” he said.
The dispute has the potential to erupt into a scenario similar to the one that played out last spring over documents related to Afghan detainees.
The government ignored the requests for documents, questions of privilege and contempt of Parliament were raised, and Milliken provided a key ruling declaring MPs had a right to order the government to produce the documents. He instructed the parties to come to an agreement on how to handle the documents.
In this case, however, sensitive documents related to national security and the operations of a war are not being sought; it’s background material that accompanies proposed legislation.
The opposition MPs say it is their fundamental responsibility to scrutinize the cost of legislation and ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely.
“We should not be asked to support legislation without being told the cost or the fiscal impact of that legislation, particularly when we have a record $56-billion deficit,” said Brison.
If the government backs down in the next few days and releases the information, the documents could show cost estimates in the millions or even billions of dollars. The Liberals likely would be eager to use the price tags to bolster their claim that the Conservatives are wasting taxpayer dollars on initiatives that are not the priorities of Canadians.
The Tories’ plan to expand prisons alone is estimated by the government to cost $2-billion, while Parliament’s budget officer, Kevin Page, has put the tab much higher — at $5-billion, plus another $5-billion at least for costs borne by the provinces.
The opposition MPs accuse the government of showing disrespect not only to the will of the committee, but to taxpayers — and say they shouldn’t have to go to such lengths to get basic information.
“It’s another brazen attempt to stifle the work of Parliament,” said Mr. Mulcair. “We’re not going to allow it, we’re going to stand up and we’re ready to go to the limit on this one. We’re not going to back down.”
If the government should be found in contempt of Parliament, or if it were determined that it breached the privileges of MPs, an election could be triggered.
Mr. Mulcair doesn’t think it will get to that point, saying the Conservatives have “no choice” but to back down.