Sunday, May 2, 2010

Cracks in Opposition approach to Afghan detainee issue.

The difference hinges on whether Frank Iacobucci should be used to help resolve the problem. Iacobucci has already been hired by the Conservatives to advise them on what could be released uncensored. Why Ignatieff would also accept him is a bit hard to comprehend since Iacobucci in accepting the Conservative job which in effect implies that his vetting the documents is appropriate compared to MP's doing so. Neither the NDP nor the Bloc Quebecois go along with relying on Iacobucci. Perhaps next week the parties will come to a resolution. It is quite doubtful that Ignatieff would ever contemplate anything that could result in an election!

Cracks appear in opposition's approach to Afghan detainee issue
By Steven Chase
Globe and Mail
Parties divided on whether they should call on retired judge to resolve the problem of accessing uncensored documents

As the search continues for a parliamentary compromise on Afghan detainee records, the real question appears to be whether opposition parties can remain united.

There were glimmers of progress Thursday in high-stakes negotiations between the Harper government and the opposition majority over how to grant MPs access to uncensored versions of detainee documents without breaching national security.

Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats emerged lauding what they called a willingness to work on a solution after this week's historic ruling by Speaker Peter Milliken reaffirmed Parliament as the supreme authority in the land with a virtually unfettered right to demand documents. Talks continue next week.

But opposition parties are divided on whether they should call on retired Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci to resolve the problem. He's already been hired to advise the Conservative government privately on whether any of the information blacked out by censors can be made public.

A big problem, should MPs tackle the documents directly, is how all four parties bridge inevitable disagreements about whether particular portions of redacted records can be released.

Legal scholars say it would help legitimize the process if an independent party with no political stake in the outcome was brought in to help scrutinize records.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said this week he would consider relying on Mr. Iacobucci if the former judge's mandate could be changed to make him report to Parliament instead of the Tories. Some Liberals are leery of committing senior MPs to reading mountains of documents - a process that because of the need to swear an oath of secrecy would neuter their ability to speak publicly on the treatment of detainees after Canadian soldiers hand them over to Afghan officials.

Thursday, however, the NDP and Bloc Québécois flatly dismissed the notion of turning to Mr. Iacobucci.

Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe said the former justice is effectively tainted because he consented to being part of a process the Harper government previously argued was superior to letting MPs scrutinize uncensored documents.

"He accepted to be hired by the government knowing perfectly that was a question here in the House saying that the members have the right to know," Mr. Duceppe said.

NDP defence critic Jack Harris said his party wants MPs to serve as the filter for what should be released or withheld.

"We want Parliamentary oversight, not a proxy."

Opposition parties, who comprise a majority in the Commons, passed a rare "order-to-produce" motion in Parliament for the documents last December, but the minority Conservatives responded by releasing heavily censored versions of records.

The Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois pressed the matter because they want more details on detainee handovers in the face of allegations that prisoners captured by Canadian soldiers were transferred to torture at Afghan hands - and because they want to ensure censors are not hiding records of misdeeds.

In a widely accepted verdict, Speaker Milliken ruled this week that the government does not have a unilateral right to censor documents and gave the Commons two weeks to work out a compromise that would allow MPs to see unredacted copies.

If a solution cannot be found, the government could be voted in contempt by the opposition majority - a situation that would be all but certain to trigger a snap election and undermine the reputation of Canada's Parliamentary system.

The NDP appears to favour a two-stage process where a select group of Parliamentarians screen the tens of thousands of pages of documents, deciding what censored passages can be released. Under this scenario any new freshly released information would be funneled to the Special Commons committee on Afghanistan.

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