Contempt in its ordinary meaning is not terribly far off the legal one, and it is that ordinary meaning - lack of respect, intense dislike, scorn - that offers a useful guide to understanding Wednesday's ruling by Speaker Peter Milliken. The government has scorned Parliament, and shown a lack of respect to the people entrusted by Canadians to represent their interests, in refusing a committee's request for detailed information on the costs of federal law-and-order legislation. Mr. Milliken's ruling that the government "on its face" breached parliamentary privilege will now give rise to a vote on contempt.
The government has also shown contempt for its own reformist underpinnings. One of its core promises was to let legislators of all parties be more effective and productive representatives in Ottawa. Yet how can they be if they are denied basic information on the costs of the government's program?
It was the second time in just under a year Mr. Milliken has been obliged to make the point that Parliament has an unconditional right to demand information from the cabinet. The first time involved documents requested by a parliamentary committee relating to the military's transfer of Afghan detainees. Mr. Milliken wound up quoting his own ruling from last April: "No exceptions are made for any category of government documents. . . . it is perfectly within the existing privileges of the House to order production of the documents in question." How many more times will he have to repeat himself?
The issue goes beyond a particular law or set of laws. Those are important enough in themselves - the possibility that billions of dollars will be spent to put more people in prison would be a gargantuan waste, especially at a time of massive deficits. But it is the idea that the government would ask Canadians and their elected representatives to go blindly into the future that is disturbing. As Mr. Milliken said, it "goes to the heart of the House's undoubted role in holding the government to account."
If the government is so uncomfortable with its law-and-order agenda that it has to hide the costs, it might as well scrap the program. It is unacceptable that the government needs to be lectured by the Speaker on how to live within the rules of Canadian democracy.