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Tories accused of flip-flop after revealing crime-bill costs were never secret

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews testified at a Commons committee on Parliament Hill on March 17, 2011.

Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press/Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews told a Commons committee probing contempt charges against the Tory government that nothing the Conservatives have divulged this week on the costing of crime bills are "cabinet confidences" that had to be kept secret.

This prompted opposition parties to ask why the government has balked for months at releasing a 4.5-cm thick stack of information on the costs of its justice agenda - a binder of data it only divulged Wednesday in response to a rebuke from Commons Speaker Peter Milliken last week.

Liberal finance critic Scott Brison said the Conservatives are contradicting themselves, noting that in December the government said it had nothing left to impart because any information that remained hidden was classified as cabinet confidence and could not be released.

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Last December the Tories told the Commons there was no more they could say on the costs of their crime bills. A statement issued from the Justice Department on December 1, 2010, said: "The issue of whether there are any costs associated with the implementation of any of the government's justice bills is a matter of cabinet confidence and, as such, the government is not in a position to provide such information or documents."

Mr. Brison said the government's document dump this week illustrates what opposition parties have been arguing all along: that the Tories have been stonewalling.

"They didn't do it earlier because they were falsely using the excuse of cabinet confidence back in December to deny providing Parliament and the taxpayers with the real costs of their crime agenda," the Liberal MP said.

Mr. Toews told the Procedure and House Affairs Committee Thursday that the information disclosed does not come from protected documents.

"My understanding, Chair, is there are no cabinet confidences disclosed here. We are not disclosing documents that were submitted to cabinet," the minister said.

"This all material that has been put together by the public officials on information that may well have been put into a cabinet document, which is a different issue. The information here is not a cabinet document."

A parliamentary confrontation over the cost of crime bills has become a battle over framing the rationale for defeating the Conservative government as early as next week.

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The question over whether the Tories are being secretive about the cost of their agenda came to a head in a Commons committee hearing Wednesday, when the Harper government was forced to hand over more details about the price tag attached to its crime bills.

If they're going to topple Stephen Harper, the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois would prefer to justify their actions as bringing down a government that's abused its power.

And special Commons hearings this week about whether the Tories are acting in contempt of Parliament are shaping up to be a fight over whether the opposition can make this charge stick.

On Wednesday, the Tories grudgingly handed over more detailed cost estimates for their law-and-order agenda to comply with a historic rebuke by the Speaker of the Commons last week that said they may be in breach of Parliament's right to demand information.

The Conservatives Wednesday said the cost of 18 crime bills will total $631-million, on top of the cost of expanding prisons, which they have previously said would cost $2.1-billion over five years.

But opposition parties - who hold the majority of seats in Parliament - insist the real price tag is higher and suggest this won't deter them from finding the Conservatives in contempt.

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A landmark ruling from Commons Speaker Peter Milliken last week concluded the Conservatives may be flouting the rights and will of Parliament by stonewalling on cost estimates for measures such as justice bills and corporate tax cuts. He also ruled that International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda may have misled the House.

The opposition-dominated Procedure and House Affairs committee is holding three days of hearings this week and is widely expected to recommend the government be held in contempt of Parliament as early as Monday.

The Tories face the almost-certain prospect of being found in contempt of Parliament by the opposition-dominated Commons next week. If this happens, it would be the first time in Canadian history a government has been found in contempt.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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