A parliamentary confrontation over the cost of crime bills has become a battle over framing the rationale for defeating the Conservative government as early as next week.
The question over whether the Tories are being secretive about the cost of their agenda came to a head in a Commons committee hearing Wednesday, where the Harper government was forced to hand over more details about the price tag attached to its crime bills.
If they're going to topple Stephen Harper, the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois would prefer to justify their actions as bringing down a government that's abused its power.
And special Commons hearings this week about whether the Tories are acting in contempt of Parliament are shaping up to be a fight over whether the opposition can make this weighty charge stick.
On Wednesday, the Tories grudgingly handed over more detailed cost estimates for their law-and-order agenda to comply with a historic rebuke by the Speaker of the Commons last week that said they may be in breach of Parliament's right to demand information.
But opposition parties - who hold the majority of seats in Parliament - insist the real price tag is higher and suggest this won't deter them from finding the Conservatives in contempt.
A landmark ruling from Commons Speaker Peter Milliken last week concluded the Conservatives may be flouting the rights and will of Parliament by stonewalling on cost estimates for measures such as justice bills and corporate tax cuts. He also ruled that International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda may have misled the House.
Opposition parties, however, say the information released Wednesday doesn't represent the full costs of the Conservative justice agenda.
"There's still a substantive gap between what we asked for and what they delivered," Liberal Finance critic Scott Brison said. He noted the party doesn't want to prejudge the outcome of the hearings but said the government is acting in bad faith.
NDP Leader Jack Layton said a pile-up of problems for the Tories, including accusations they are in contempt of Parliament, could be a "game changer" for the NDP as it tries to decide whether to defeat the Tories in the weeks ahead.
NDP MP Pat Martin warned the Tories are getting closer to being voted in contempt of Parliament by the opposition-dominated Commons. If this happens, it would be the first time in Canadian history a government has been found in contempt of Parliament.
"I think they're provoking the obvious outcome of these hearings. … I would say we're incrementally, hour by hour, getting closer to a finding of contempt," Mr. Martin said.
The federal budget is being delivered March 22. The Tories would prefer to be defeated by a vote against their budget because they could accuse the opposition parties of thwarting their plan to help Canada's economy recover from recession.
But an opposition supply day next Friday, March 25, gives the Liberals an opportunity to move a motion of no-confidence that could allow parties to defeat the government without voting against the budget.
The opposition-dominated Procedure and House Affairs committee is holding three days of hearings this week and is widely expected to recommend the government be held in contempt of Parliament as early as Monday.
Tom Lukiwski, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Government House Leader, complained at committee Wednesday that the three opposition parties seem determined to find the Tories in contempt regardless of what the Tories do or say.
"The testimony serves no useful purpose. If the united opposition is predisposed before coming to committee that they will find a ruling of contempt … what are we doing here?"
The Liberals say, however, the documents released by the Tories Wednesday show evidence the government was misleading Canadians about the true cost of their crime agenda. One page shows the price tag for amendments to young offenders law could hike custody costs for Ottawa and the provinces by more than $700-million over five years. This was not disclosed previously by Ottawa.
With a report from The Canadian Press