OTTAWA — Talks aimed at averting a parliamentary showdown — and possible election — over sensitive Afghan detainee documents are going down to the wire.
Commons Speaker Peter Milliken gave the government and opposition parties until Tuesday to find a way for MPs to scrutinize the documents uncensored without jeopardizing national security.
With the deadline looming, negotiators for all parties are to meet again early Tuesday morning for only the fourth time since Milliken’s ruling two weeks ago.
But there were signs Monday that opposition parties are beginning to lose patience with what they suspect is deliberate government foot-dragging.
Negotiators haven’t met since last Thursday, much to the surprise of opposition parties which had expected the government to schedule meetings over the weekend or at least on Monday.
“It is right up to the edge, obviously, isn’t it?” said NDP defence critic Jack Harris.
“It is a long time (between meetings). The government did say they were hoping for some sort of resolution by last Friday. That sense of urgency was certainly not there after the meeting last Thursday.”
Last week, opposition negotiators said they’d be willing to ask Milliken for an extension as long as it appeared the negotiations were making progress and the government was acting in good faith.
But Harris said his party will need to see “considerable progress” at Tuesday’s meeting before it will agree to an extension.
If it concludes the government is not sincere about wanting a deal, Harris said he’s ready to move a motion Tuesday that would lead to a finding of contempt of Parliament against the government.
Such a motion could trigger a court challenge or even an election.
Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe said the government’s apparent lack of urgency is “concerning.”
However, a spokesperson for Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, the government’s lead negotiator, suggested scheduling difficulties have hampered efforts to set meetings. She insisted the government is committed to working “in a spirit of openness in an effort to come to a resolution.”
There were also signs of trouble Monday among the opposition parties.
Duceppe said opposition negotiators were planning to meet Monday evening in a bid to forge a common proposal to take to the government on Tuesday.
His disclosure annoyed Liberals and New Democrats who feared the perception of an opposition gang-up on the government might sour negotiations. The opposition-only meeting was eventually cancelled.
After last Thursday’s meeting, all parties had agreed that a small special committee — made up of at least one MP from each party, all sworn to secrecy — should be allowed to scrutinize all relevant documents.
The documents relate to allegations that prisoners were routinely tortured by Afghan authorities after being turned over by Canadian soldiers.
The parties have yet to agree, however, on the most crucial point: how to resolve any disagreement that may arise over which documents can be disclosed publicly without jeopardizing national security.
Various options have been discussed, including asking a judge or Milliken to settle disputes or simply deciding the matter by a majority vote of the committee.
Another option would be empowering the committee to release summaries of sensitive documents, without releasing the details.