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Prime Minister Stephen Harper (CHRIS YOUNG/The Canadian Press)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper (CHRIS YOUNG/The Canadian Press)

Ottawa bars ministers' staff from appearing before committees Add to ...

The Conservative government is launching another showdown with the opposition over the powers of Parliament, this time issuing an edict that only cabinet ministers - and not their political staff - can appear as witnesses before committees.

The new cabinet position, to be outlined in detail Tuesday morning, comes just days after the opposition and government resolved a heated dispute over Parliament's power to see documents related to Afghan detainees.

This latest line in the sand will play out later Tuesday at the House of Commons access to information, privacy and ethics committee, where the Prime Minister's director of communications, Dimitri Soudas, is scheduled to appear as a witness.

Mr. Soudas let it be known Sunday that he's not coming.

"I don't anticipate I will be appearing at the committee," he told CTV's Question Period. "As a political staffer, I'm accountable to my minister. As you know, witnesses have appeared at this committee, political staff. They have been intimidated, they've been humiliated."

Mr. Soudas's minister is Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Yet it is extremely rare for sitting prime ministers to appear before committees. Rather, it would appear the government's new position would see other cabinet ministers respond to questions related to the Prime Minister's Office.

As opposition leader in 2004, Mr. Harper was highly critical of the then-governing Liberals for shutting down hearings on the sponsorship scandal before Liberal political staffers could be called as witnesses as part of hearings by the public accounts committee. When the Liberals were later reduced to a minority, the Conservatives worked with the other parties in 2005 to successfully call Mr. Kinsella and other former staff to Liberal ministers as witnesses before the same committee in connection with polling contracts raised by the Auditor-General.

The chair of the ethics committee, Liberal MP Paul Szabo, said the government's latest move goes against the Speaker's ruling on Afghan detainees, which he said clearly proved that committees have the power to call for any people or papers they wish.

"I'm extremely disappointed," he said of Mr. Soudas's remarks. While Mr. Szabo would not speculate on what might happen next, the committee will have to decide whether it wishes to move a motion finding Mr. Soudas in contempt of Parliament. If approved, such a motion would then have to be approved by the full House of Commons and dealt with by the Speaker.

The government could choose to treat such an issue as a matter of confidence in the government, but Mr. Soudas insisted Sunday that the Conservatives are not looking for an election.

Mr. Soudas is scheduled to be the next Conservative political staffer the committee has called to discuss allegations of political interference in the release of documents through Access to Information legislation.

The committee study was triggered in part by reports that Sebastien Tognieri, when he was an aide to then-Public Works minister Christian Paradis, ordered bureaucrats to "unrelease" a report on the government's real-estate portfolio that was about to go out the door in response to an access request.

The debate over whether political staffers or their ministers should do the talking came to a head at the same committee last Thursday. The MPs had called Ryan Sparrow, the communications director to Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, to comment on reports that he had blocked the release of information that a Globe and Mail reporter had requested by phone from the department.

The MPs got a surprise when they arrived at the committee to find Ms. Finley had appeared, uninvited, to answer for her assistant. She insisted Parliament had a long tradition of not calling on staffers, yet the committee chairman, Mr. Szabo, ruled her out of order.

"Government fully recognizes the authority of parliamentary committees to call for persons or papers as they carry out their work. However, ministers are accountable and answerable to Parliament for government policies, decisions or operations," Mr. Soudas said in an e-mail to The Globe. "It's one thing for politicians to be tough on each other. But we draw the line when people who aren't elected, like ministerial staff, are humiliated and intimidated by members of Parliament."

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