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Opposition asks Speaker to shut down Commons probe of CBC

The CBC's headquarters are shown in Toronto in 2009.

Charla Jones/Charla Jones/The Globe and Mail

There are more accusations of a Conservative conspiracy to shut down the CBC as a fight in a parliamentary committee over internal documents belonging to the Crown corporation suddenly landed on the floor of the House of Commons.

In a dramatic move Monday, the NDP appealed directly to House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer to shut down a study by the Conservative-dominated ethics committee into the CBC's legal battle with the Information Commissioner over documents it has decided to withhold.

Usually, these sorts of issues are dealt with by the committee itself. Committees are considered their own masters and are not controlled by the government – although a majority of government MPs now sit on the parliamentary committees.

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NDP House Leader Joe Comartin outlined his party's concerns to the Speaker after a seven-page legal opinion by Rob Walsh, the parliamentary law clerk and counsel who warned that Conservative MPs could be violating the Constitution by forcing the Crown corporation to turn over the documents.

Mr. Scheer said he would consider the matter and get back to the House.

Mr. Walsh had been asked to respond to a number of questions by the NDP about what the committee could or could not do. The law clerk said the committee's efforts conflict with a case before the Federal Court of Appeal between the CBC and the Information Commissioner.

He feared that attempts by the committee to get the documents could be "seen as interfering and possibly undermining the judicial process established under the Act [the Access to Information Act] which in some circumstances might be seen as contempt of court."

And Mr. Comartin said that if the Speaker would not go as far as ordering the committee to shut down the study, he could at least order the study suspended until the court proceedings were over.

The Liberals, meanwhile, dove right into what many believe is at the heart of this matter: long-standing contempt for the CBC and by Stephen Harper's government and its suspicions that the public broadcaster is biased against Conservatives.

That "hidden agenda" was noted by Manitoba Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux, who accused the government of wanting to see the "demise" of the CBC.

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Government Whip Gordon O'Connor dismissed the idea of a plot against the public broadcaster, saying that he watches hockey games on CBC as do some of his Conservative colleagues. "So we have no hidden agenda," Mr. O'Connor said.

The committee and the Tories on it want to see records the CBC has provided to Quebecor media outlets and also see the records it has refused to disclose under access to information law. And in a luncheon speech Monday, president and chief executive Hubert Lacroix said the public broadcaster would handover some of the documents requested while keeping others sealed.

Dean Del Mastro, the Prime Minister's parliamentary secretary, put forward a motion at that committee to view the documents in order to assess "whether the redactions made by the CBC are in accordance with the [a section of the Access to Information Act]" according to Mr. Walsh's letter.

The law clerk was quite direct in his view of this tactic, writing that it is comparable to "a demand for a taxpayer's income tax returns with related documents to assess whether the taxpayer has paid all the taxes required under the Income Tax Act."

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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