Canada's secret government on trial

Endorsing Parliament's supremacy over government, Canada's Speaker has ordered secret documents concerning how Canadian troops handled Afghan detainees to be made available to the House

Canada’s Parliament has sent a blunt message to the country’s extremely secretive minority government Prime Minister Stephen Harper: “you are not the boss of me”. A Speaker’s ruling that upheld Parliament’s right to see censored documents is a victory for democracy in an epic war opposition parties have been fighting with the Conservatives.

Now the clock is ticking on the two week deadline Speaker Peter Milliken gave all parties to come up with a “workable accommodation” that would allow politicians to see documents related to the way Canadian forces treated Afghan detainees. If nothing is worked out, technically Harper’s team will be in contempt of Parliament and that could trigger yet another election.

The fuss has arisen over screeds of detainee documents, but it is much bigger than that because it is a direct challenge to Harper’s style of governing which is more akin to running a Court – a King’s court, not a court of law. Harper is widely known for micro managing his ministers, but also seems to have surrounded himself with ‘yes’ people and sycophants to the point where he appears to believe in his own magic, minority or not. This was evident in his three prorogations of parliament in three years to avoid being called to account by the House. It also pays to remember the overtly controlling and hush-hush Mr Harper ran on a ticket of accountability. Clearly it was not accountability to voters he had in mind.

Now he is being told that he does not have the right to break the long standing Westminster constitutional tradition – collaboration between government and the House of Commons on major issues. There are few more serious issues facing Canada than its involvement in the war in Afghanistan.

It appears the best option out of this impasse is to form a cross-party committee of MPs who would be sworn to secrecy and then availed of the full controversial file on whether the country’s troops knowingly sent Afghan detainees off to torture by handing them over to Afghan officials. If Harper objects to that, by implication he is saying elected members can’t be trusted.

There are two obvious problems with swearing other parties to secrecy. First, from the opposition point of view the issue itself – what the government did or did not know about the treatment of detainees and the lengths it is going to keep everything secret – has become such a valuable political mine that they may not want to forgo the traction they have made painting Harper as a control freak with something big to hide.

From Harper’s point of view his reluctance – apart from being seen to lose to Milliken – will be grounded in his minority status. If there is a committee set up to deal with the entire file, opposition MPs on that committee would out-number the Tories and could therefore out-vote them to release information. That, however, is always the risk when running a minority government, so it is difficult to feel too sorry for Harper on that count.

The information may be messy and very unhelpful to Harper, as the litany of corrections and misunderstandings on just who knew what and when has so far proven when raised in the House. At this stage only Harper’s tight coterie knows how unhelpful all that blacked out stuff actually is, because documents made available to MPs investigating the allegations have so far been so heavily redacted as to render them nonsensical. Farcical even. Such behaviour by Harper’s censors also highlights once again the arrogance of a Prime Minister who at every turn refuses to be held to account.

Secrecy saturates his government as journalists, businesses and general members of the public know through often ignored requests for official information. The Opposition of course likes painting Harper as the great conspirator. Equally Harper finds fertile ground in painting his opponents as risks to national security, and on it goes.

However the Milliken decision is a call to them all to grow up. In that, it is healthy for democracy because it goes to the very heart of the supremacy of Parliament and the accountability of government. But growing up in a parliamentary sense means compromise and the will or wit to find solutions. Will and wit are usually bested by outright partisan self-interest as has been the case with this issue to date, and true to form, partisan self-interest in hung parliaments is very complicated.

Not known for compromise, Harper could fight the Milliken ruling and force a vote of confidence in the House. To survive that he would need one of the three opposition parties to support him and in so doing join a giant one fingered salute to Westminster style parliamentary process. Not an attractive prospect for an opposition party leader and neither is yet another election. It is difficult to conceive of a more fundamental and principled position on which to fight an election, but in reality parliamentary supremacy may not be sexy enough to woo voters.

As for the military Harper says he is protecting, the country’s top general Walter Natynczyk has told the CBC that he’s not worried about MPs seeing the documentation at the heart of this imbroglio. The general admits the troops are not perfect, but they are doing a fine job, and when they get it wrong they go on trial.

So Milliken’s decision, which has implications for all Westminster-style parliaments is being roundly hailed as a thoughtful, reasoned, intelligent and groundbreaking solution to months of power politics and stonewalling. Milliken’s aim is to avert a potential crisis for this system of democracy and by the end of the week, or soon after, he will get his answer.

Can the inhabitants of the most expensive kindergarten in the country learn to play together and trust each other for the good of that country or, will Harper take it to the brink by gambling on possible legal avenues to establish his supremacy over parliament? If he does, politics in “have a nice day” Canada will become officially and irrecoverably ugly.