April 26, 2010 / 6:11 PM / 10 years ago

Canada Afghan dispute could trigger early election

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada’s minority Conservative government is locked in a power struggle with opposition members of Parliament over allegations that Canadian soldiers left Afghan detainees open to abuse, and the confrontation might just trigger an early election.

Former translator Malgarai Ahmadshah speaks to media after testifying at a special committee meeting on the Canadian mission in Afghanistan on Parliament Hill in Ottawa April 14, 2010. REUTERS/Blair Gable

Last December, the House of Commons, where the Conservatives have a minority of members, ordered the government to turn over uncensored files on people detained by the military in Afghanistan. The government refused, citing national security.

What happens next depends on House of Commons speaker Peter Milliken, who is due to rule shortly on who has the right to control the documents. If he backs Parliament and the government refuses to obey, the House could vote nonconfidence in the government, and that would trigger an election.

The government could also refer the matter to the Supreme Court of Canada, asking it to judge who has priority, or it could set up a special commission.

Opposition legislators insist Parliament is supreme and say the government’s behavior shows too much power is concentrated in the office of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who they portray as being obsessed with secrecy.

“It is one of the fundamental roles of the House of Commons to hold the government to account ... it is a basic tenet of our democracy,” said Jack Harris, a member of the left-leaning New Democrats.

Government officials say Canada’s relations with major allies could be seriously harmed if sensitive details leaked out from the documents.

“I would remind the House that our parliamentary privileges are not indefinite nor unlimited,” Justice Minister Rob Nicholson told legislators last month, saying governments in other nations with similar political systems had withheld documents on security grounds.

Polls show an election now would most likely produce another minority Conservative government, albeit with fewer seats than the party gained in the October 2008 vote.

This could temper the willingness of main opposition Liberal Party to push the matter too far. If the Liberals back down, however, they could find themselves under attack from critics for being weak.

Constitutional experts say Milliken’s ruling could radically change the way Canada is ruled.

“The fundamental foundation of our parliamentary democracy is that the executive has to be accountable to the House of Commons. It cannot be accountable only to itself,” University of Ottawa law professor Errol Mendes told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp on Monday.

Milliken also could send the matter to a parliamentary committee and urge legislators from all sides to work it out themselves.

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

The government, which has released thousands of pages of often heavily censored material, last month asked retired Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci to look at the documents and decide what can be released.

A spokeswoman for Milliken said he would not issue his ruling on Monday but that he would try to do so this week.

Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Peter Galloway

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