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Milliken's plea: Let's not fail democracy now

House Speaker Peter Milliken's powerful ruling holding the Conservatives in apparent contempt of Parliament is nothing less than a plea to save our system of government.

"The House and the government have, essentially, an unbroken record of some 140 years of collaboration and accommodation in cases of this kind," Mr. Milliken implored. "It seems to me that it would be a signal failure for us to see that record shattered in the third session of the 40th Parliament because we lacked the will or the wit to find a solution to this impasse."

The Speaker's words radiated frustration and fear: frustration at the Conservative government's disregard for the ancient liberties of our Parliament; fear that brinksmanship on all sides could invoke a crisis of legitimacy at the federal level.

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Now Stephen Harper, the most secretive and controlling of prime ministers, must choose whether to fight or back down. The leaders of the opposition parties must choose whether to compromise or go for the throat. The legitimacy of our federal government in the eyes of Canadians is at stake. Either way, we are living historic days.

If precedent is any guide, Mr. Harper will divide if he can, compromise if he must, fight if he thinks he can win. Michael Ignatieff for the Liberals, Jack Layton for the NDP and Gilles Duceppe for the Bloc Québécois will embarrass and harass the Conservatives, while trying to prevent an election.

The odds heavily favour compromise; there is too much on the line here. But compromise does not come easy to these men.

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Constitutional scholars such as Patrick Monahan and C.E.S. (Ned) Franks have proposed extending Frank Iacobucci's mandate. The former Supreme Court justice is already reviewing the files that launched this imbroglio - censored documents detailing the treatment of detainees in Afghanistan - to see what can be released. His mandate is to report his finding to the government. If, instead, he were instructed to report to the House, this crisis would pass.

Trusting the decision to a parliamentary committee would be bad for all sides: the government would fear the opposition would release sensitive materials for political gain, while opposition MPs, sworn to secrecy, would chafe at being unable to tell their caucus colleagues what they know.

Regardless, a properly empowered individual or committee is the obvious solution to the problem of deciding what should be released and what should be kept confidential to protect national security and the confidence of Canada's allies.

Mr. Milliken has made it clear that the very legitimacy of Parliament rests on such an outcome. "It seems to me we would fail the institution if no resolution can be found," he said.

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Failure will come in the form of a bitter election that would damage the country. The Liberals, NDP, and Bloc would campaign on Conservative autocracy; the Conservatives would campaign in defence of protecting our troops in Afghanistan from betrayal on the home front. That would be one ugly election.

Mr. Harper might force a vote on contempt or confidence in the House, thinking he can convince one party to support the government - only one is needed for a majority - or he might refer the matter to the Supreme Court. Both would be dangerous and irresponsible moves. Courts should not intervene in parliamentary squabbles, and it would be a brave opposition party leader who decided to break ranks and save the government.

Every arrow of reason points to compromise. Only passion or ambition could force an election. And then the 40th Parliament and those who served in it would go into history as the greatest failure since Confederation.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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