Conservative staff members will no longer appear before "hostile" Parliamentary committees, the Government House Leader told the House of Commons on Tuesday. Instead it is the ministers themselves who should appear - if they decide to do so.
"Ministers are individually and collectively responsible to the House of Commons for the policies, programs and activities of the Government," Jay Hill said.
"We ministers are answerable to Parliament and its committees. It is ministers who decide policy and ministers who must defend it before the House and ultimately before the people of Canada."
Speaker Peter Milliken may again have to decide which is dominant, the Prime Minister's Office or Parliament - a ruling that follows on his decision the government could not withhold documents demanded by MPs.
Ministerial staff did not run for office, Mr. Hill said, arguing that committees have operated unfairly and that parliamentary staffers have been intimidated.
This comes after Sebastin Togneri, an aide to Christian Paradis, who was then Public Works minister, was called before the Commons ethics committee to explain why he blocked an Access to Information request. Mr. Tognieri's testimony did not go well.
So when Ryan Sparrow, an aide to Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, appeared before the same committee, Ms. Finley herself showed up to testify - despite the fact she had already appeared.
And on Tuesday, Dimitri Soudas, the communications director for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, did not show up when summoned before the same committee. Transport Minister John Baird appeared in his place.
Committee Chair Paul Szabo agreed - over the objection of opposition MPs - to allow the minister to address the committee. But he cut him off when, instead of providing information about ministerial attempts to block access requests, Mr. Baird wanted to discuss why parliamentary staffers, including Mr. Soudas, would not longer appear before committees.
Liberal MP Wayne Easter labeled Mr. Baird's appearance in place of Mr. Soudas "a serious affront to Parliament" and one that could set dangerous precedents, allowing the government to block the appearance of witnesses that could provide testimony it deemed unfavourable.
Parliamentary committees are "sovereign" masters of their own destiny, Bloc MP Carole Freeman said, suggesting the ethics committee should be debating the sanctions it would impose on Mr. Soudas rather than allowing the minister to talk about matters of no relevance to the issue being studied.
Mr. Baird was eventually dismissed as a witness.
Bill Siksay, anNDP member of the committee, said: "We can't let Mr. Soudas, let the government, let the Prime Minister, off the hook." He gave notice that he would table a motion asking that Mr. Soudas be summoned to appear.
Mr. Szabo instead suggested that he be given approval to issue a summons to any witness who refuses to testify - a move that was given the green light despite the opposition of Conservative members.
"There is a new game being played," Mr. Hill said earlier in the House of Commons. "The tyranny of the opposition majority has turned its attention to the men and women who make up our political staff. Men and women who did not sign up to be tried by a committee - to be humiliated and intimidated by members of Parliament.
"When they accepted their jobs, they never imagined that one of the skills required was to stand up to the interrogation of a bitterly partisan parliamentary committee. They could not have expected, in our Westminster parliamentary system of responsible government, that hostile committees and tyrannical chairmen would deny them the protection of the rules and their minister."
Ralph Goodale, the Liberal House Leader, stood to complain bitterly about the government's decision.
"It is another Conservative government policy about secrecy, about preventing accountability, about stifling transparency about muzzling all of the assistants who work for the Prime Minister and various ministers in the cabinet to prohibit their attendance at Parliamentary committees to give evidence or answer questions," Mr. Goodale said.
"The arrogance and the hypocrisy of this position are breathtaking."
Parliamentary staffers are not juveniles, he said. They earn something in excess of $100,000 annually and they handle the government's most important business.
"If they are qualified to hold the jobs they hold and to be paid the amounts they are paid, at public expense, then they should be required to respond to House of Commons committee requests for information and for answers to questions."