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Committee finds Tories in contempt for stonewalling on crime-bill costs

A Canadian flag flies over Parliament Hill on March 21, 2011, after a Commons committee recommended the Harper government be found in contempt.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

An opposition-dominated Commons committee has voted to find Stephen Harper's government in contempt of Parliament - a historic first as parties gird for a possible election call later this week.

The move paves the way for MPs in the House of Commons to find the Harper government in contempt for stonewalling on the full costs of its tough-on-crime agenda including big prison expansions.

Such a Commons-wide vote could take place as early as Wednesday evening but the Conservatives are expected to try and stall this because it would be embarrassing and feed the opposition narrative that the Tories have abused their power.

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The Commons procedure and House affairs committee voted that "the government's failure to produce documents constitute a contempt of Parliament" and that "this failure impedes the House in the performance of its functions."

The committee's report was tabled in the House of Commons shortly after Question Period Monday. After a 48-hour waiting period the Liberals or other parties will be able to call for a Commons-wide vote on the matter.

Liberal MP Scott Brison said Mr. Harper has brought this on himself.

"Respecting Parliament is key to making Parliament work. This is a prime minister who has shut down Parliament twice and does not answer questions truthfully and provide the facts to Parliament that MPs need to do our jobs."

Tom Lukiwski, parliamentary secretary to the Government House Leader, said the Conservatives "fundamentally and profoundly" disagree with the committee's findings.

He said the opposition parties had from the start planned to deliver this verdict. "The report was a foregone conclusion," Mr. Lukiwski said.

"We believe we have fully complied with the request of the speaker. [This is] far more about politics that it is about trying to get information."

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The Conservative MP, also a member of the procedure committee, played down the finding of contempt.

"Contempt, as we heard during the [committee]hearings is a very nebulous word," Mr. Lukiwski said. "It's almost like in the eye of the beholder. ... It can mean a lot of different things."

On March 9, the Speaker of the Commons issued a historic rebuke to the Conservatives for flouting the will and rights of Parliament by refusing to provide sufficient details of its justice agenda to opposition parties.

Last week, the Conservatives grudgingly released a 4.5-centimetre-thick stack of documents on their crime bills - but this failed to placate their rivals.

Mr. Lukiwski said a debate on the committee's contempt finding could take place 48 hours later - as soon as Wednesday - followed by a vote.

If the House finds the Tories in contempt, the Conservative parliamentary secretary said he doesn't consider such a verdict a vote of no-confidence in the Tories.

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He said the opposition would have to call for such a vote.

"From a procedural standpoint, just a finding of contempt does not automatically mean a matter of non-confidence. What would have to happen is one of the opposition parties would have to bring forward a motion of non-confidence."

Mr. Lukiwski noted the Liberals have an opportunity on Friday to bring forward a motion of no-confidence.

"It may be that this is part of their plan, that they bring forward a motion of non-confidence, citing this [contempt]ruling, if there is a ruling that has been voted on ... as the basis of their non-confidence in the government," he said.

"That's all speculation but this is the road we seem to be going down."

Asked if he felt Canada was headed for an election, Mr. Lukiwski said only that it would depend on whether the opposition parties want one.

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