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Politics Opposition undeterred by Tory refusal to hand over emails

The federal government's refusal to give a Commons committee the e-mail records of a Conservative staff member has not deterred opposition members who say they will fight to get the documents into their hands.

Conservative House Leader John Baird wrote last week to the clerk of the opposition-dominated Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics committee to say the government would "not be acceding" to the committee's demand for the electronic correspondence of a political aide who blocked the release of an Access to Information request.

Mr. Baird defended the decision, saying cabinet ministers, and not their staff, are responsible to Parliament. More than that, said Mr. Baird, parliamentary and constitution convention dictates that the political communications related to decisions and actions of cabinet ministers are never disclosed.

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And, he said, a Parliamentary committee's ability to summon people and documents has never been used to give the majority of MPs, in this case the opposition, access to internal communications of the government minority.

"Such interference would be unprecedented and abusive," Mr. Baird wrote.

But Liberal MP David McGuinty said Sunday that his party is not willing to drop its demand for the e-mails of Sébastien Togneri, an aide to Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis, who "unreleased" documents requested by The Canadian Press when Mr. Paradis headed the Public Works department.

The government's refusal to comply with the order of a Commons committee "comes hard on the heels of other series of matters where the government is anti-democratic, where the government censors information, where the government lets go of senior officials who speak truth to power," Mr. McGuinty said.

New Democrat MP Charlie Angus said the government needs to be taken to task over the refusal.

"It's an out and out fabrication and it's a desperate fabrication," Mr. Angus said of Mr. Baird's reliance on precedent to refuse the release of Mr. Togneri's correspondence. "Freedom of information exists so that we can hold government departments accountable and that includes allowing us to see e-mails," Mr. Angus said.

When the government refused earlier this year to release documents related to Afghan detainees over security concerns, Speaker Peter Milliken ruled that Parliament was supreme and the information had to be shared with opposition MPs.

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In this case, however, the fight is really about whether government staff members are protected in the same way as cabinet ministers from having to divulge their internal communications.

Liane Benoit, a public affairs consultant who wrote a major paper about the role of political staffers for the Gomery commission, said there are no guidelines to say whether or not the members of a minister's staff are covered under the ministerial exemption.

"This is something that I have been calling for," she said. "The development of a code of conduct for political staff that would simply clarify all of these outstanding issues so that when the dirt hits the fan there is something to refer to."

But constitutional expert C.E.S. (Ned) Franks does not believe the government can withhold the e-mails. "I think the Parliament is entitled to know what instructions the minister's office staff gives," Mr. Franks said, "and I also think the Parliament is entitled to know whether the minister has any knowledge of this."

Editor's note: Documents that were incorrectly withheld by an aide to Christian Paradis after being released under Access to Information laws were requested by The Canadian Press. Incorrect information appeared in the print version of this story.

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