It was Liberal MP Derek Lee who set off the chain of events resulting in today's historic ruling from Speaker Peter Milliken about Parliament being supreme -- over the prime minister and cabinet and government. I caught up with Lee after the ruling was over, and I've put the interview below. (Note to media colleagues, competitors -- if you want to use any of this in your stories, feel free, in the new parliamentary spirit of collaboration, to give the Star credit ... or Tim Naumetz or Kady O'Malley who were also there....)
Derek Lee: It puts off for a couple of weeks the final chapter. The government and its members now know they can’t hide behind secrecy or claims of secrecy in relation to these documents and we all have collectively to put something together to protect the sensitive documents.
Q: Do you know what that would be?
A: We’ve done it before and we may end up swearing members. We may end up having documents that can be looked at or not copied or taken away.
Q: Or a Security Intelligence Review Committee type thing.
A: We’ve done it before. We don’t have to set up something permanent. Although it’s my view that we should.
Q: When have we done it before?
A: The al-Mashat inquiry, the five-year review of CSIS. All had top-secret documents made available to MPs and it worked.
Q: So what should Canadians take away from today’s ruling?
A: I would say the supremacy of their Parliament in holding their government to account has been confirmed by the Speaker. We didn’t invent anything here today. We just dusted it off, gave it a spin and it worked; it’s going to work. And all of us in the House will be committed to making it work. We’ve got two weeks to hammer something out on the detail and I’m very happy. These opportunities to benchmark some of these powers don’t come up very often; like once every 50 or 100 years, but in a minority Parliament, things do come up like this.
Q: So was history made today?
A: Our Speakers have never been so clear as this one was today and if people aren’t sure, they just have to read his remarks again.
Q: When did you realize this was turning your way?
A: Well I always knew it was a question of privilege but at one point in talking with him, it became apparent that he was going to look back at the House to construct this mechanism, rather than turning to me to move a motion. It’s hard for one MP to kind of bring it all together with one motion. I don’t have the whole department of Justice behind me. So he’s looked back to the House. He’s said this is a matter of huge significance; you have an obligation essentially to our electors to make it work. If it doesn’t, he’ll come back to the House and we will then move a motion that does the job.
Q: Which one moves the motion
A: I got up first, so he will probably turn to me. … In the end, this is so significant and the proof is here today because he didn’t follow the standard procedure, any motion that does go forward will have his thumbprint on it. But he isn’t going to turn to anybody until he sees some consensus in the motion. And that’s exactly what I would do.
The precedent here today is the clear, unequivocal, benchmarked statement of authority of the House to send for papers and records and it is absolute. And he says the House has never acted to curtail its powers. It was always absolute and it still is. So that’s the rule, that’s the law.
The government members took it quite well. It maybe wasn’t a cold shower, I don’t know. I mean, I wrote a book on this, it wasn’t new to me. But to some of them, to hear that said, it would be a bit of a cold shower.
Q: Were you one of the ones applauding?
A: At the end? Oh, I was happy with it. You know why I was happy? Because he didn’t have to turn to me. I had a motion ready, but the route that he took is the one that I had speculated on and I am ready to work with that too.
Q: Technically now we have a case of contempt, right?
A: “Incipient contempt” – certainly we have a contempt in motion if it continues. But they’re actually continuing with this little striptease of releasing documents every once in a while. But the House said forthwith so that compliance would involve both an initiative by the government and an initiative by the House on our end to protect those documents that were sensitive or in need of protection. Both have to get done.
Q: And where does this put the Iaccobucci part of all this?
A: I’d like to see him be an adviser, collaborator in the mechanism. He’s not dumb. He has experience. He’s probably looked at 5,000 or 10,000 documents by now. Let’s not waste his efforts. But the Speaker actually made the point that his role was not collaborative..
Q: That the government was his “client.”
A: Right. I spoke to (Justice Minister) Rob Nicholson about this in the early days on this. I said don’t do it. He actually asked me if a mechanism like that would work and I said to him only if the person you bring in is approved by Parliament to do work for us. Will that work. He obviously didn’t pay attention to that.
Two parties can hire one person… It’s like a mediation. If one of the parties loses confidence, you back off both, so it’s tricky, but Iaccobucci could do it. And now that we’re there, this will succeed.
Q: Do you think there’s enough trust in this Parliament for them to have their act together in two weeks?
A: I think the trust has to exist between the people on that committee, so you’ve got 10 or 20 people involved. That should be sufficient. We’ll overcome this distrust in the House and God forbid that the Prime Minister wouldn’t be onside. Will he take this as a loss or an insult? He wasn’t there…
Q: Do you take anything from the fact that the Prime Minister wasn’t there in the House?
A: He was one of the few leaders to leave. I saw him leave. He’s Prime Minister and he may have other responsibilities. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. I was disappointed he didn’t stick around for some of it. And if he has good attitude as Prime Minister, the resolution will be pretty easy, because the House has done this before, successfully.