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Justice Minister Rob Nicholson speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Friday, March 5, 2010.

Sean Kilpatrick

The Harper government's point man on the Conservative decision to withhold records on the handling of Afghan detainees says MPs do not have an unlimited right to see state secrets that could compromise national security.

"Our parliamentary privileges are not indefinite and not unlimited," Justice Minister Rob Nicholson told the House today. "The exact scope of those privileges have been a matter of debate since Confederation."

He noted the Australian government routinely refrains from divulging documents to its Parliamentarians on the grounds some information cannot be disclosed.

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Mr. Nicholson is defending the minority Tory government's decision to refuse opposition MPs access to some detainee records, even though the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois said they can be trusted not to divulge secrets.

The debate over Canada's conduct in Afghanistan - and whether it turned a blind eye to torture or knowingly handed over captives to serious maltreatment - has morphed into a pitched political battle between the Harper government and opposition parties. The Tories have refused to offer an uncensored version of events even in the face of threats by rivals to find them in contempt of Parliament.

Opposition parties are threatening to pass a motion finding Conservative cabinet ministers in contempt of Parliament for refusing to release uncensored versions of detainee records. Commons Speaker Peter Milliken is preparing to rule on whether such a condemnation would be possible.

Last week, the Harper government answered opposition MPs' demands for internal details of the Afghan detainee controversy with a blizzard of documents - many censored beyond comprehension.

It was the latest volley in a battle between opposition parties and the Conservative government that pits national security concerns against the will of an elected Commons. All opposition parties, representing a clear majority in Parliament, have passed a rare order-to-produce motion demanding all the records on how Canada handled foreign prisoners.

After initially suggesting they would withhold documents until a retired judge reviews the sensitive parts, the Tories last week changed tack - dumping 2,600 heavily-censored pages in the Commons.

Whether Canadians will ever learn what lies under the heavily blacked-out sections of these records, however, is still up to former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci. His job remains to decide if disclosure would represent a threat to this country's security.

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