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Harper keeps Canada in dark at his own peril

The Liberals believe they have the Conservatives dead to rights on two key issues: the Tory plan to cut corporate taxes, and their decision to spend $16-billion on fighter aircraft. There may be a third one: the Harper government's obsession with secrecy and control.

Last week, Finance critic Scott Brison rose in the House and asked Speaker Peter Milliken to find the government to be, on its face, in contempt of Parliament.

It has been less than a year since Mr. Milliken ruled against the government on the question of releasing detainee documents, and this motion is equally dangerous for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

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At issue are taxes and prisons. The House Finance committee, which is dominated by opposition MPs, wants to know two things: the projected corporate profits from 2010 to 2015, and the cost of implementing the Conservatives' legislation to lengthen prison sentences and reduce parole.

To both requests, the government returned a one paragraph answer: such data was "a matter of cabinet confidence and, as such, the government is not in a position to provide such information."

The Harper government uses "cabinet confidence" the way the Nixon administration used "executive privilege." The Liberals provided projections of corporate profits when they were in government. And it is ridiculous for the Conservatives to maintain that the cost of their law-and-order legislation is a state secret. How is Parliament to judge the wisdom of that legislation if it can't measure its projected impact in prisons built and guards hired?

The Globe's Bill Curry reports that the Conservatives may soften their position this week. But even if the government does release the data, this latest episode reinforces the Harper government's determination to keep such a tight control on information that it becomes impossible for you to judge your government or for Parliament to do its job.

Some of this control-freakishness is understandable: media and opposition politicians seek information because they hope to use it against the government. Access to information requests are really hopes-for-a-juicy-story requests.

And Mr. Harper must exercise a firm hand with a caucus that can be the government's worst enemy. Last week, for example, Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke MP Cheryl Gallant was in Newfoundland, where she urged that those in peril on the sea should rely less on the Coast Guard and take greater personal responsibility, adding that back in Ontario, people who got into trouble on the water relied on provincial and municipal governments and private companies to be rescued.

The Ottawa River. The North Atlantic. No wonder Mr. Harper tries so hard to be the sole voice of his government.

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But the result is a Prime Minister elected on a promise of accountability who governs like a Stuart king.

We saw this again last week, when Treasury Board President Stockwell Day told a parliamentary committee that plans were in place to balance the budget while reducing the size of the public service through attrition, but refused to explain how this could be achieved and what impact it might have on government programs. Trust me, he says. Why should we?

All of this helps reinforce the Liberal message that, not only do the Conservatives give tax cuts to fat cats and waste billions on toys for the military and prisons that turn scared kids into hardened criminals, but they also erode democratic freedoms by keeping Parliament and the rest of us in the dark about their plans.

Only you don't have to camp out at Liberation Square to bring this government down. You only need to cast a ballot.

None of this may matter. The Conservatives think they can win the next election on the ballot question of competence and leadership, and the polls suggest they're right.

But don't be surprised if you see a Liberal attack ad that shows Parliament with the doors chained shut. And the Conservatives will have only themselves to blame.

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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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