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House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken delivers his ruling on whether the government's refusal to hand over documents on Afghan detainees violates parliamentary privilege on April 27, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken delivers his ruling on whether the government's refusal to hand over documents on Afghan detainees violates parliamentary privilege on April 27, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

NDP wants Speaker to rule on Tory shielding of political staffers Add to ...

The Speaker of the House of Commons could be asked to decide if the Conservative government is breaching parliamentary privilege when it says the staff of cabinet ministers cannot testify at Commons committees.

NDP MP Bill Siksay will ask the Commons Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Committee on Thursday to send a report outlining the chronology of government's refusals to the House of Commons, which would in turn ask Speaker Peter Milliken for a ruling.

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If Mr. Milliken were to find that privilege had been breached, and the House of Commons then declared the government to be in contempt of Parliament, an election would likely result.

But the Liberals hope instead to send the issue to a Commons committee for study, a move that would circumvent a showdown in the House and eliminate the threat of a vote that no party seems to want at this juncture.

The duelling proposals to challenge the Conservatives over their refusal to accede to the will of the committees come a week after Sebastien Togneri, one of the aides in question, submitted his resignation to Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis. Mr. Togneri was found to have interfered with several access to information requests.

Now that he is a private citizen, he might yet be compelled to appear before the access committee, which summoned him last May to testify about his admitted meddling with the release of documents when both he and Mr. Paradis were at the Public Works Department.

But the probe into Mr. Togneri's actions has turned up names of other staffers who may have been involved in similar interventions. One of them, Jillian Andrews, has ignored a summons from the committee, as has Dimitri Soudas, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's director of communications.

The government sent cabinet ministers to testify in their stead - a move that opposition MPs have deemed both unsatisfactory and a violation of the rights of Commons committees to conduct unhampered investigations.

Mr. Siksay's motion will be debated late Thursday afternoon by the Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Committee.

Earlier in the day, the Commons Procedures and House Affairs committee will debate a motion by Liberal MP Yasmin Ratansi to "begin a study to develop guidelines for the appearance of exempt staff and staff of parliamentary secretaries as witnesses before Parliamentary committees."

If that motion passes, the Liberals may argue there is no need to support Mr. Siksay's proposal.

"I know the Bloc is supporting it," Mr. Siksay said Wednesday, "and I worry about what the Liberals are going to do with it."

Mr. Milliken was asked to make a similar decision earlier this year after the government refused to hand over documents related to the detention of Afghan detainees.

In that case, he found the Conservatives appeared to have breached parliamentary privilege and urged the parties to find a compromise before the matter was put to a vote in the House that could have found the government in contempt of Parliament.

The government agreed to send the matter to a closed-door ad-hoc committee of MPs which is still sifting through piles of documents.

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