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Liberal MP Scott Brison speaks after the Speaker Peter Milliken issued two privilege rulings in the House of Commons on March 9, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Liberal MP Scott Brison speaks after the Speaker Peter Milliken issued two privilege rulings in the House of Commons on March 9, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Conservatives flood contempt hearings with phalanx of bureaucrats Add to ...

The Harper government has drafted a squad of top bureaucrats to help them face a grilling Wednesday over opposition charges they're in contempt of Parliament for stonewalling on the costs of their law-and-order agenda.

Opposition MPs accuse the Tories of playing games by making plans to bring a phalanx of 10 civil servants to field questions that Conservative ministers should be answering themselves.

An opposition-dominated parliamentary committee begins hearings Wednesday morning on whether the Harper government should be voted in contempt for failing to fully lay out the price tag for a raft of law-and-order legislation.

Facing the possibility of being defeated as early as next week, the Tories are eager to disprove accusations by rivals that they are autocratic and undemocratic for withholding information. Among the witnesses to be heard will be Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson.

It's widely expected the Commons procedure and House affairs committee, where opposition MPs outnumber government MPs, will ultimately recommend to Parliament next Monday that the Tories be found in contempt of Parliament.

But the committee is nevertheless going to probe the matter for two days before also considering a second contempt charge against Bev Oda, the International Co-operation Minister, for allegedly misleading Parliament over cuts to an aid group.

House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken set in motion this chain of events last week by ruling that "on its face," the government withheld information on anti-crime bills and that Ms. Oda may have misled the House.

If opposition parties uphold these judgments in committee, and later in the Commons, it will mean that for the first time in Canadian history, a government and a cabinet minister will be found guilty of contempt of Parliament.

(A government being found in contempt of Parliament, of course, is only a charge that could arise during an era of minority government when the ruling party is outnumbered by political rivals in the Commons.)

The Tories have nevertheless acted contrite in the face of the Speaker's rulings and have promised to comply with demands for more information. This may include releasing more government documents on the costs of law-and-order bills and calling upon senior bureaucrats to defend the lack of information or provide additional detail.

To help their cause, Mr. Toews and Mr. Nicholson are bringing the following senior public servants to the hearings Wednesday: Luc Portelance, president of the Canadian Border Services Agency; Richard Fadden, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service; Don Head, commissioner of Correctional Service of Canada; Yves Côté, assistant deputy minister of the Department of Justice and two of his directors general; Bill Baker, deputy minister of the Department of Public Safety; Marie-France Pelletier, executive vice-chair of the National Parole Board; Brian Saunders, the director of public prosecutions; and Rod Knecht, senior deputy commissioner of the RCMP.

Liberal MP Scott Brison, the man behind the effort to find the government in contempt of Parliament, accused the Conservatives of trying to frustrate the committee. He said Mr. Toews and Mr. Nicholson appear to be trying to duck direct questions during the hour set aside for their testimony.

"Jamming two ministers and 10 officials into one hour of hearings is not co-operation; it's a Conservative photo-op," Mr. Brison said. "Effectively the civil servants are being brought as wallpaper or a backdrop for Harper's refusal to come clean with Parliament."

Conservative officials declined to explain their plans for Wednesday.

Also appearing Wednesday to give their opinions are Suzanne Legault, the Information Commissioner; parliamentary budget watchdog Kevin Page; and Mel Cappe, a former clerk of the Privy Council.

The jam-packed committee schedule comes after the Conservative government announced that the Liberals will have to wait until March 25 before they can move a motion of no-confidence that could take the country into an election.

That means the federal budget can be unwrapped as planned on March 22. But it does not necessarily mean that the government will survive the week.

A vote on the budget, which would necessarily be a confidence matter, could be scheduled before the Liberals have had the chance to introduce a motion.

It might work better for the Conservatives to have the government fall on the budget, which would then become the central election issue, rather than some other issue related to accountability.

With a report from Gloria Galloway

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