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The Conservatives' overstretched interpretation of cabinet confidentiality - now the subject of contention in the Commons procedure and house affairs committee - does not warrant a non-confidence vote or a federal election. But the government evidently needs a reminder of the purpose of cabinet confidentiality, which is an essential element of Canadian democracy.

The cabinet must be able to deliberate freely and frankly - on such matters as how to pay for the consequences of the Harper government's "tough-on-crime" series of bills (the issue being thrashed out in the procedure committee). Ministers should not have to be afraid that their views in the course of cabinet discussion will be quoted against them, or that the various shadings of their opinions will make the government look like a nest of quarrelling factions.

That doesn't mean that any information placed on the cabinet table should be sheltered from public view. But written briefings prepared by civil servants to assist the cabinet's thinking, presenting a range of policy options with some commentary on the pros and cons, are inseparable from the ministers' deliberations; these papers should indeed be kept confidential.

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Bureaucrats' estimates of the future costs of prison expansion, on the other hand, are information of a kind that should be available to Parliament; they are not part and parcel of the cabinet's decision-making process.

Suzanne Legault, the Information Commissioner, told the Commons committee that the number of government claims of cabinet confidence to justify withholding documents actually fell a bit last year. Thus there is no rampant epidemic of abuse of this principle.

The government's rather shabby conduct - silence followed by 11th-hour document bombardment - invites an inference that the Conservatives were embarrassed about how little was really understood about the probable costs of their own criminal-law program.

The committee has drafted a finding that the government acted in contempt of Parliament, a dramatic verdict that will leave a stain on the government's record, but will not lend itself to a compelling "ballot question" in an election. If the opposition parties object strongly to the government's program, that is another matter, and they can vote against next week's budget.

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