Fight over cost of Tory crime bills sets up Commons confrontation

February 11, 2011

The three opposition parties are building toward a showdown with the government next week over the cost of Conservative crime bills, urging the Speaker to rule Parliament's right to know outweighs rules protecting cabinet secrets.

The united push echoes last year's dramatic standoff over the release of Afghan detainee documents, in which Peter Milliken confirmed the House of Commons has broad powers to get what it wants from government.

Building quietly on Parliament Hill since November, the issue started when the opposition-controlled House finance committee began asking Finance Canada to hand over statistics on corporate profits - which had been made public in the past.

The department denied the request, claiming the information was protected by cabinet confidentiality. In December, the committee received a similar answer from the Justice Department, saying the projected cost implications of the government's crime bills was similarly privileged.

Liberal MP Scott Brison appealed to the Speaker this week, with the support of the NDP and the Bloc Québécois. The Conservatives will respond next week. But Mr. Brison said he's picking up signs from the Tories they may soften their objections.

"It's very clear the government is in contempt here," he said. "I think they realize that they're on thin ice."

The debate exposes an anomaly in Canada's political system. Whereas legislation in the United States or Germany must be accompanied with estimates as to what the measures will cost, that doesn't happen in Ottawa.

The creation of the Parliamentary Budget Office was supposed to help with this, but the Conservatives dispute the PBO's estimates of how much the justice measures will cost. Further, watchdog Kevin Page has said he often runs into problems getting documents from government that parliamentary committees have asked him to find.

"We could be in for another showdown," NDP MP Paul Dewar said Friday. The party's justice critic, Joe Comartin, also urged the Speaker to consider the issue as a basic right of MPs to know what policies will cost.

"The whole issue of crime legislation has been a centre point for the government. It has been a centre point for the Conservative Party before it was government. However, when we try to ascertain the facts as to what this will cost, how many additional prisoners we will have in custody, we are denied that information," Mr. Comartin said. "It is just vitally important that it is not allowed to get away with it."

Tensions around law-and-order legislation flared this week when the Liberals announced they would not support Bill S-10, a sweeping piece of legislation that imposes new mandatory minimum sentences aimed at drug traffickers. The government's proposals were first announced in 2007 and the Liberals were previously supportive.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson accused the Liberals of flip-flopping on the issue. The Liberals countered that they've determined the bill would impose unfair sentences for minor drug possession offences and would impose exorbitant incarceration costs.

Conservatives said Friday they cannot talk about the issue until the government provides its official position to the Speaker. When asked about the cost of crime bills during Question Period, Tory House Leader John Baird suggested the Liberals and NDP were simply raising the issue as a procedural tactic to delay a crime bill that has the support of the Bloc.

"Can we afford to let down victims of crime? The answer is an unequivocal 'no,'" Mr. Baird said. "Our government believes that dangerous offenders should be locked behind bars."

Don Head, the commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada, told a committee this week that plans are underway to hire more than 5,000 new employees in his department. He also said a team is currently working to come up with an answer as to the total cost impact of the government's crime bills.

"We're working through that right now.. to assess the cumulative impact of all the bills," he said. "I need to make sure, in an integrated way, that I'm still meeting the intent, the spirit, and the specific mandate as described in the Corrections and Conditional Release Act. So I've put together a team that's helping me to make sure that we are weighing all the elements of this and making sure that's reflected in our plans going forward."

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