The Milliken is the message .. or, two weeks that will shake the world .. well Canada anyway?

Apr 28th, 2010 | By | Category: In Brief
Tasha Kheiriddin at Preston Manning’s gospel centre, March 2009. As she has rightly noted a year later, the Afghan detainee issue is something for which both the Martin Liberal and Harper Conservative minority governments share some responsibility.

Tasha Kheiriddin at Preston Manning’s gospel centre, March 2009. As she has rightly noted a year later, the Afghan detainee issue is something for which both the Martin Liberal and Harper Conservative minority governments share some responsibility.

One thing that’s always been a bit hard to understand about the Harper minority government’s reluctance to release the now fabled “Afghan detainee documents” in Canada is why the prime minister should be quite so worried?

It wasn’t his minority government that started the current Canadian adventure in Afghanistan. And, as Tasha Kheiriddin at the National Post has just reminded us: “the documents have the potential to embarrass not only the Conservative administration of Mr. Harper, but Liberals from the government of former Prime Minister Paul Martin.” (In which case they also have the potential to embarrass almost everyone — and no one in particular. Let the holier-than-thou NDP and BQ who have never had the responsibility of governing say what they like. Who cares?)

In any case Speaker of the Canadian House of Commons Peter Milliken has now confirmed what most of us now claim to have known all along. The democratically elected parliament is constitutionally supreme in a parliamentary democracy. And the government or executive branch cannot keep “unredacted” documents that a parliamentary majority wants to see from the elected representatives of the Canadian people.

At the same time, there is (as we have all known all along as well, etc) a national security case for exercising care in having parliamentarians examine such things as Afghan detainee documents. (What if, eg, some information has been provided by other sovereign governments among our allies, on the understanding that it will be kept confidential?) The national security requirements, however, cannot be dictated by the government (especially a minority government). They must be decided by parliament itself. Mr. Milliken has given all parties two weeks to agree to a compromise for making the documents available while still meeting national security requirements. If they cannot do this he will be forced to come up with a ruling that, almost everyone involved seems to agree, is almost bound to precipitate yet another Canadian federal election that almost no one wants. (Well … maybe a few …? )

In what David Brooks in the USA today has recently called a “sensible country” the outcome here would be a total no-brainer. The parties would quickly negotiate a compromise within the two-week deadline. As Ms. Chantal Hébert has just opined, there are some obvious options, and “the first order of Conservative business” ought to be “giving the Liberals a call.” Given the latest opinion polls, ie, the Conservatives and Liberals ought to have the greatest self-interest in avoiding “a spring election.” And, not surprisingly, the Winnipeg Free Press has just informed whoever may be listening: “Liberals willing to bend to reach Afghanistan docs deal: Ignatieff.” (And oh, Ooops: now the headline here has suddenly changed to “Tories signal willingness to compromise on release of Afghan documents.”)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks with Commons Speaker Peter Milliken during a signing ceremony for the Book of Reflection in Ottawa, March 29, 2010. ADRIAN WYLD/THE CANADIAN PRESS.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks with Commons Speaker Peter Milliken during a signing ceremony for the Book of Reflection in Ottawa, March 29, 2010. ADRIAN WYLD/THE CANADIAN PRESS.

So what’s all the fuss about? As Mr. Milliken has urged, the present Canadian confederation has for the past 140 years been a place forged and recurrently renewed in a deep and endless tradition of compromise. Except Canada today, under the minority rule of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, has recurrently been no more of a sensible place than David Brooks’s United States under the sway of the Tea Party, and 41 Republican Senators who can bring the will of the democratic majority to an abrupt halt, etc, etc. Mr. Harper has already proved, more than once, that he is capable of doing things which palpably make no sense at all, for reasons only he can fathom. Which means that no one can say for certain just where Canada may be about to go over the next two weeks. Our guess is still that there will not be a spring election in the end. But prudence and past history do suggest getting ready for some form of yet another big surprise! Just in case Mr. Harper and (presumably) his closest advisors are about to go commando again …

Meanwhile, if you missed Peter Milliken’s verbal decision in the Canadian House of Commons yesterday afternoon, you can catch up with in it print here: RULING ON THE QUESTIONS OF PRIVILEGE RAISED ON MARCH 18, 2010, BY THE MEMBER FOR SCARBOROUGH—ROUGE RIVER (MR. LEE), THE MEMBER FOR ST. JOHN’S EAST (MR. HARRIS), AND THE MEMBER FOR SAINT-JEAN (MR. BACHAND) CONCERNING THE ORDER OF THE HOUSE OF DECEMBER 10, 2009, RESPECTING THE PRODUCTION OF AFGHAN DETAINEE DOCUMENTS, April 27, 2010.

Politics, as they say, often enough makes strange bedfellows — especially in Canada?

Politics, as they say, often enough makes strange bedfellows — especially in Canada?

Patrick Monahan, a constitutional scholar and provost at York University in Toronto, has called Mr.  Milliken’s handiwork “an outstanding ruling … It’s significant for its recognition of the need for all parties in a political system such as ours to work together and reach accommodations. Our system works best when those types of compromises are found.” Ken Dickerson, program manager at the University of Alberta’s Centre for Constitutional Studies in Edmonton, has similarly pronounced the Speaker’s ruling “impeccable … The government, for as long as it could, was saying, ‘yes, there has to be an accommodation but that it’s up to us — the government — to decide how much compromise is enough.’ And the Speaker came down on the side of the opposition parties which is, ‘no, it’s actually up to a majority of parliamentarians to decide how much of an accommodation is enough.’”

Meanwhile again, if you want to check out further press reports, here is a selection from east to west (or from the Halifax Chronicle Herald to the Vancouver Sun): “MPs can’t be kept in the dark … Speaker rules government must let Parliament see documents, ‘even those related to national security’” ; “Détenus afghans —  Harper perd sa bataille … Milliken réaffirme la suprématie de la Chambre. Les élus ont deux semaines pour trouver un compromis” ; “Speaker’s verdict puts the heat on PM for compromise … Parliament had every right to ask for secret reports on Afghan detainees and allegations of torture, Milliken tells House in historic ruling” ; “Parliament wins in showdown with Stephen Harper government” ;   “Liberals willing to bend to reach Afghanistan docs deal: Ignatieff” ; and “Parliament given two weeks to resolve detainee document issue.”

http://harpervalley.wordpress.com/2009/06/17/conservative-and-liberal-marriage-official-what-will-happen-when-the-honeymoons-over/

These two bedfellows, some would say, are maybe not so strange, but others would disagree. They were at least both born in the same province!

For some generally very good instant comment and analysis try: John Ibbitson: “Milliken’s plea: Let’s not fail democracy now … Compromise does not come easy to our party leaders, but it must come if we’re to endure this imbroglio” ; Norman Spector: “Odds of an election have increased” ; Tasha Kheiriddin: “The Speaker has spoken, but will pensions trump privilege?” ; and Chantal Hébert: “Torture paper ruling a victory for Parliament.”

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