OTTAWA – The Harper government appears to be signalling a new willingness to compromise on the release of uncensored documents related to Afghan detainees.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Wednesday the government is open to any “reasonable suggestion” that will give MPs access to documents while protecting national security.
“We are seeking ways to respect those two obligations and obviously we are open to reasonable suggestions,” Harper told the House of Commons.
Harper said the government “looks forward to complying” with a historic ruling Tuesday by Speaker Peter Milliken.
Milliken sided with the opposition parties, ruling that parliamentarians have unlimited power to demand the release of all uncensored documents related to allegations that Afghan authorities tortured prisoners captured by Canadian soldiers.
While he said the government will comply, Harper nevertheless stressed that the government has “legal obligations” to ensure no information is disclosed that would jeopardize national security, the lives of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan or Canada’s international relations.
“The fact of the matter is … the government cannot break the law, it cannot order public servants to break the law, nor can it do anything that would unnecessarily jeopardize the safety of Canadian troops.”
NDP Leader Jack Layton noted Milliken specifically ruled that the right of Parliament to demand documents is absolute and trumps the right of government to keep secrets, even on matters of national security.
He suggested Harper is planning to “use other laws of Parliament in order to hide the truth” about the treatment of detainees.
Harper denied it but added, in what Layton took as a veiled election threat: “The government’s position always depends on the confidence of the House.”
Layton questioned whether Harper is planning to defy Milliken’s ruling “in order to go to an election.”
“I think I said quite the contrary,” Harper replied.
“The government seeks at all times to respect all of its obligations. To the extent some of those obligations may be in conflict … there are reasonable ways to accommodate that and we’re open to reasonable suggestions in that regard.”
Earlier Wednesday, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said he’s “encouraged” the government can find a way to release uncensored documents to opposition MPs without jeopardizing national security.
He pointed out that other countries, including the United States, routinely swear politicians to secrecy when reviewing sensitive documents.
Milliken has given government and opposition parties two weeks to reach a compromise over the issue.
That has set stage for critical backstage negotiations aimed at avoiding an ugly parliamentary showdown, a potential court battle, or even an election.
Layton met separately Wednesday morning with Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe to discuss Milliken’s ruling. He has also requested a meeting with Harper.
Ignatieff said there are “a range of options” available to satisfy security concerns while giving opposition MPs access to the documents.