April 27, 2010 / 8:24 PM / in 8 years

Speaker sets deadline in political standoff

OTTAWA (Reuters) - The speaker of the House of Commons, charged with settling a power struggle between opposition legislators and the Conservative government, gave both sides two weeks on Tuesday to sort out their differences.

<p>House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken reads his ruling that opposition members of parliament have the right to ask for uncensored Afghan detainee documents from the government in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa April 27, 2010. REUTERS/Blair Gable</p>

Peter Milliken announced his decision after opposition parties asked him to find government ministers guilty of contempt for refusing to hand over uncensored files on people detained by the Canadian military in Afghanistan.

The House of Commons, where the Conservatives have only a minority of members, ordered the government to turn over the files in December. The government refused, citing national security.

Milliken said that while the government had been in contempt of the House by not handing over the documents, a way should be found to ensure sensitive information did not leak out once the papers had been given to legislators.

“The House and the government have essentially an unbroken record of some 140 years of collaboration and accommodation in cases of this kind. It seems to me it would be a signal failure for us to see that record shattered (now),” Milliken said in his 40-minute ruling, which he read out in the Commons.

Milliken said that if the two sides failed to agree to a compromise in the next two weeks, he would then announce the wording of a resolution that legislators would vote on to settle the matter.

This might be a motion finding the government in contempt, which could trigger an election if adopted by the House. It seems unlikely, however, that either side would accept that result.

Polls show neither the minority Conservative government -- which must have the support of at least one other party to stay in power -- nor the main opposition Liberals stand a chance of a clear election victory now.

There was no immediate reaction from the government. Opposition legislators hailed the ruling, which they said had established primacy of the House of Commons.

“We think there are many ways to sort this out,” said Jack Layton, leader of the left-leaning New Democratic Party.

The opposition is also unhappy about what is sees as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s bid to grab as much power as he can at the expense of Parliament.

Milliken said he was troubled by the government’s suggestion that legislators could not be trusted with sensitive information. He also labeled as “singularly unhelpful” suggestions that the government had something to hide.

One solution to the problem could be to set up a special House of Commons committee to examine the documents in secret, he said.

The opposition wants to see the documents because it suspects the government knew that prisoners handed over by Canadian troops to Afghan authorities could be abused.

Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson

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