Prime Minister Stephen Harper has lost his battle to keep documents related to the detention of Afghan detainees out of the hands of opposition members.
In a precedent-setting ruling Tuesday, Speaker Peter Milliken said the House of Commons has the right to request any documents it needs and that the government must turn them over or risk being found in contempt of Parliament.
Mr. Milliken gave both sides two weeks to reach a compromise. If none is obtained, the House of Commons could vote to find the government in contempt of Parliament.
"The House and the government have, essentially, an unbroken record of some 140 years of collaboration and accommodation in cases of this kind," Mr. Milliken said in imploring that a compromise be found.
"It seems to me that it would be a signal failure for us to see that record shattered in the third session of the Fortieth Parliament because we lacked the will or the wit to find a solution to this impasse."
Review our coverage as the ruling was delivered:
Mr. Harper, who had argued that the release of the documents would constitute a breach of national security, now must produce them or take the country into another election. But neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals are polling well and there is unlikely to be strong desire on either part to go to the polls at this juncture on this issue.
Mr. Milliken said that the sensitive nature of these documents and the need to protect the confidential information they contain must be considered. He suggested, for instance, that they could be released to a Commons committee that is closed to the public.
The key decision facing Mr. Milliken was determining which was supreme: the government or Parliament. He came down firmly on the side of Parliament.
"It is the view of the chair that accepting an unconditional authority of the executive to censor the information provided to Parliament would in fact jeopardize the very separation of powers that is purported to lie at the heart of our parliamentary system and the independence of its constituent parts," Mr. Milliken said in his ruling.
"Furthermore, it risks diminishing the inherent privileges of the House and its Members, which have been earned and must be safeguarded."
Read the full text of Mr. Milliken's remarks:
The Speaker agreed there had been times when cabinet ministers have successfully asked that information not be disclosed on the basis that it could compromise national defence or international relations. But, in this case, he said, the House did not agree - and the House's decision must stand.
"The Chair must conclude that it is within the powers of the House of Commons to ask for the documents sought in the December 10 order it adopted," Mr. Milliken said.
"Now, it seems to me, that the issue before us is this: is it possible to put into place a mechanism by which these documents could be made available to the House without compromising the security and confidentiality of the information they contain? In other words, is it possible for the two sides, working together in the best interest of the Canadians they serve, to devise a means where both their concerns are met? Surely that is not too much to hope for."
The leaders of all three opposition parties declared victory following the ruling and said they were willing to work out a compromise with the government over the coming two weeks.
Only NDP Leader Jack Layton spoke of a possible election, saying he was "absolutely" prepared to go to the polls over this issue should the government attempt to bring the debate before the courts rather than share the documents.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson delivered a brief statement to reporters and declined to answer any questions. "We welcome the possibility of a compromise while respecting our legal obligations, as acknowledged by the Speaker," he said.
"The government will not knowingly break the laws that were written and passed by Parliament. Our government will not compromise Canada's national security. Nor will it jeopardize the lives of our men and women in uniform. That being said, we welcome the possibility of a compromise while respecting our legal obligations as acknowledged by the Speaker."
With a report by Bill CurryReport Typo/Error