While Canadians wait to find out whether or not the minority Government of Canada will be found in contempt of Parliament for refusing to disclose the fiscal costs and related information pertaining to their punishment agenda, the ruling Conservatives attempted to avoid this eventuality by tabling a binder to members of the Standing Committee on Procedure and Government Affairs moments before their meeting today outlining many of the same figures disclosed a month ago in an Excel sheet (read 17 February article by David Akin).
In what can only be described as a bewildering day, with Parliamentarians and witnesses discussing a range of topics including access and the right to information, the need for government secrecy and the application "Cabinet confidence", and the costs of punishment bills and new prisons, we're left swimming in so many details that it is hard to decipher what the main issues are and who, if anyone, is in the wrong. And depending on where you sit on the political fence, maybe the creation of uncertainty around these issues was the objective being pursued going into today's proceedings.
While I found myself scratching my head at several points this morning and this afternoon, I do think there is some clarity that can be gained from this political gong show.
During many points of the day, Parliamentarians and their guests were discussing whether or not "Cabinet confidence" can be invoked to withhold information from Canadians and their elected representatives. While no one challenged this feature of Parliamentary governance today, as far as I recall, this non-existing debate sidetracked one of the main issues at stake, which was to determine whether or not the costs of punishment bills are matters of "Cabinet confidence" in the first place. Unfortunately, the line between what matters are or are not, and when these matters are or are not matters of "Cabinet confidence" is no clearer today.
A second issue that emerged over the course of the day was the disagreement between government Ministers and opposition MPs over whether the costs of new federal penal infrastructure initiatives should have been included in the package delivered to the committee today. While the Conservatives insisted that because these figures were not requested as part of Liberal Finance Critic Scott Brison's recent Question of Privilege (read 7 February post), opposition MPs appeared to be puzzled by the notion that the penitentiary construction associated with this government's punishment agenda would not be disclosed. To agree with a government that insists that their punishment bills and prison construction are two separate issues, one would have to conclude that the opposition parties are just not asking the right questions. Perhaps "show me the money" would have been a more effective approach.
A third issue that was raised on multiple occasions, was the federal government's rationale behind not including the costs of their punishment bills for the provinces and territories in the documents tabled in February or today. Both Conservative Ministers and MPs defended the absence of such details in the projections produced by their government, noting that the provinces and territories supported their 'tough on crime' proposals. While this claim is true in some cases (e.g. the Truth in Sentencing Act), it certainly does not apply across the board. More importantly, this omission is irresponsible given the fact that at the end of the day there is only one taxpayer and they need to know what they'll be on the hook for.
A fourth issue that has yet to be resolved, as Parliamentarians sift through the pile of documents tabled today, is whether or not the documents tabled by the Minister Nicholson and Minister Toews - or Batman and Robin - provide the basis through which the reliability of the cost projections enclosed can be evaluated. As noted by the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer last month, such a determination requires the disclosure of "analysis, key assumptions, drivers, and methodologies behind the figures presented" (read p. 2). Should such information not be included in the impressive binder given to MPs today, the Conservatives cannot legitimately claim that they have been acting in good faith as has been the party line.
In reflecting upon today's developments, one could rightly critique the Conservatives for not fulfilling their fiduciary responsibility to provide Parliamentarians with the full financial costs of proposed legislation so that they can make informed decisions of these matters. At the same time, one must also ask why it has taken so long for opposition members to exercise their fiduciary responsibility and demand this information be tabled prior to voting on the bills before them - a responsibility they did not exercise on numerous other occasions since 2006 where the members of at least one of their parties supported the bills that have become law. Did the costs not matter then?
This being the case, the democratic crisis currently before us cannot be viewed simply as a function of an administration that refuses to share information that belongs to the taxpayers of Canada, but rather the emergence of a brand of politicking where MPs are more concerned about their future electoral prospects than making principled decisions.
Whether it's a ruling party who hides behind "Cabinet confidence" to postpone the disclosure of details related to their proposed bills instead of putting forward legislation, tabling the related costs and defending their position, or opposition parties who allowed the Conservatives to run roughshod over Canada's democracy, presumably because they were afraid of being labelled 'soft on crime', all Parliamentarians are wearing egg on their faces today and they only have themselves to blame for the stench that surrounds them.
- CBC News
- CTV News