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Speaker's contempt rulings add ammunition to election-minded opposition

Stephen Harper faces not just the prospect of being found in contempt of Parliament. He faces a new challenge: to fight an election not simply on economic issues, but on the charge his government abuses power.

House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken ruled on Wednesday that, "on its face," the government withheld information from a parliamentary committee, and that International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda may have misled the House.

If the finding is upheld, as expected, by another parliamentary committee next week and affirmed by the House the week after, for the first time in Canadian history, a government and a cabinet minister will be guilty of contempt of Parliament.

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An election was already looking increasingly likely, with all opposition parties inclined to defeat the Conservatives on the budget that Finance Minister Jim Flaherty will unveil on March 22. Mr. Milliken's decision adds a second lane on the road to that election.

Until now, the Conservatives have shrugged off these and other controversies, saying that most Canadians are more worried about the economy, taxes and controlling government spending. And polls have backed them up.

Mr. Milliken's rulings, however, give the political equivalent of a judicial decision affirming that, at least in two cases, the Conservatives may have flouted the rights and will of Parliament. They would hand a weapon to the opposition parties to use in a campaign against the Tories, who came to office in 2006 promising to clean up government after the Liberals' sponsorship scandal.

"There is no doubt" that the government had failed to comply with a parliamentary committee's demand for costs related to the Conservatives' crime bills, Mr. Milliken concluded. "This is a serious matter that goes to the heart of the House's undoubted role in holding the government to account."

Mr. Milliken was less emphatic on whether International Development Minister Bev Oda had misled Parliament when she said she did not know who had ordered funding to a foreign-aid charity cut, only to later tell Parliament that she had ordered the change.

He concluded only that "sufficient doubt exists" to warrant a finding that Parliament's privileges appear to have been breached.

The rulings were in response to complaints from Liberal MPs. Both matters now go to the procedures and House affairs committee, on which opposition politicians are in the majority, as they are in the House. The committee is to report to the House on March 21 with its recommendation on whether the government should be held in contempt for withholding prison costs; it reports on whether it believes Ms. Oda misled Parliament on March 25. In between comes the budget.

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"I respect the ruling from the Speaker of the House," Ms. Oda said in the Commons shortly after Mr. Milliken's ruling. "The Speaker is the arbiter of the rules of this chamber."

For weeks, the Liberal Party has been trying to entrench the idea that Mr. Harper's government is autocratic and undemocratic. Liberals accused the Conservatives of a litany of sins: charges against Conservatives under the Elections Act of campaign finance abuses over the 2006 "in and out" spending arrangement; allegations that Immigration Minister Jason Kenney used his ministerial office to campaign for immigrant votes; an order from the Prime Minister's Office that "Government of Canada" be replaced with "Harper Government" on official documents.

Mr. Milliken's rulings on Wednesday were the latest, but by no means the least, items added to the list.

House Leader John Baird attempted to minimize the situation, calling it opposition antics made possible by minority government.

"I think the longevity of the minority government has sort of allowed the opposition to go where no opposition could go or has gone before," he told reporters.

Nonetheless, Mr. Milliken's decision guarantees a week of parliamentary hearings in which opposition politicians will castigate Ms. Oda in particular and the government in general. It will ensure a second week of political theatre as the parties battle over both the budget and the questions of contempt, with an election call the almost-certain outcome.

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The House did, however, rise above partisanship for one moment on Wednesday, as NDP Leader Jack Layton took his seat mere days after hip surgery. When he rose to cast his vote, all sides gave him a standing ovation.

With a report from Bill Curry

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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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