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Tory whip defends manual on disrupting committee meetings

Government Whip Jay Hill says a manual that tells Conservative committee chairs to disrupt meetings when the debate threatens the party's agenda is nothing more than a defence against an opposition that is trying to assert undue power.

"There's nothing sinister at play here," Mr. Hill told CTV's Question Period yesterday.

"It's no big secret that this is a minority Parliament. We're outnumbered both in the chamber, dramatically outnumbered of course in the Senate by the Liberal majority over there, and outnumbered in every single standing committee."

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So it's important, he said, to ensure that the committee chairs have the tools they need "to push back when we see the opposition parties basically getting together and trying to put together a coalition government between the three of them."

Mr. Hill was in Ottawa on Friday when the existence of the 200-page manual was revealed in a newspaper report. But he ducked reporters who spotted him in the House of Commons and refused to return phone calls about the book that apparently tells the chairs how to select and coach party-friendly witnesses, obstruct unwanted debates, pick witnesses from Conservative ridings and call a halt to meetings that have gone off track.

Although the work of Commons committees receives less attention than debates in Parliament, it is in the committees that much of the actual business of government is accomplished. And many chairs of all political stripes take pride in their ability to run meetings in a non-partisan manner.

But antagonism has dominated Parliament Hill as the spring session draws to a close. Conservative MPs have filibustered two committees and the Conservative chair of a third cancelled meetings when the discussion turned to the government's controversial cancellation of the Court Challenges program.

"It's the end of a five-week spell, tempers get a little short, including my own," said the normally good-humoured Mr. Hill. But "this so-called book of dirty tricks is nothing more than the parliamentary tools that are available to all committee chairs. And 90 per cent, probably, of the information that's contained in that manual is simply the standing orders that all committee chairs should apprise themselves of."

The House of Commons will not sit this week but the issue of the manual is expected to be raised again when MPs return on May 28. New Democrat Libby Davies has asked that it be tabled in the House for all politicians to see.

The acrimony that pervaded Ottawa in recent days has fuelled speculation that the session will end early. It is scheduled to continue to June 8, with a possible extension to June 23, and the opposition parties say they will force the government to continue to the last minute.

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But a deal could be struck to send politicians home - or the government could prorogue the Parliament and return in the fall with a Throne Speech outlining new priorities that the Conservatives could take into an election campaign.

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