POLITICS

Former Commons speaker Milliken testifies at Ontario gas plant committee

03/07/2013 08:55 EST | Updated 05/07/2013 05:12 EDT
TORONTO - Ontario's Liberals and opposition parties all claimed former House of Commons speaker Peter Milliken supported their side after he testified Thursday at a committee looking into the government's cancellation of two gas plants.

Milliken was called by the Progressive Conservatives as an expert witness on parliamentary privilege, which is at the core of their contempt motion against the Liberals for initially refusing to release documents on the cancelled energy projects in Oakville and Mississauga.

Milliken, the first witness to appear, told the committee he was not up on the gas plants issue, but agreed with the Tories that the government may have violated a member's privilege by redacting some of the documents it eventually did release.

"It would be a prima facie breach because the legislature has the power to demand production of documents, so having made that demand I think it's entitled to see the documents," he said.

"The question is, there's a dispute here as to what parts should be made public in order to protect the public interest, that's the argument."

The Speaker of the Ontario legislature, Dave Levac, ruled last fall that there was a "prima facie breach of privilege," and sent the issue to committee for further study. If the committee concludes there was a breach, its findings would go to the full legislature to decide the issue of contempt.

However, the Liberals, found Milliken also supported their position that the government had finally met the committee's request when it eventually released all the requested documents that it was aware of at the time.

"I don't know why there would have been a breach. I don't understand that," Milliken told the committee.

The Liberals said that was proof there was no contempt.

"I think speaker Milliken said on numerous occasions that this did not meet the standards for a contempt motion," said Liberal committee member Bob Delaney.

The NDP said the bottom line for them was Milliken confirmed the committee's right to demand the government produce the documents.

"Mr. Milliken made it clear parliament has the right to demand and receive information and t can decide on its how to limit or not limit that information, that’s what’s important about today’s testimony," said New Democrat Peter Tabuns.

The Liberal government initially claimed premature release of the documents to a committee could have hurt its negotiating position with the developers of the gas plants for compensation for the broken contracts.

There were various ways the issue could have been dealt with, including letting the committee members view the documents without making them public, said Milliken.

But he called it "odd" that the Conservatives were still pursuing the contempt motion against former energy minister Chris Bentley, who is no longer a member of the legislature.

The Tories said they never named Bentley in their contempt motion, just the energy minister.

"The only ones mentioning Chris Bentley's name are the Liberals," said Tory Rob Leone.

Even if the committee does recommend the legislature find the minister of energy in contempt for not releasing the documents when demanded, there is not a lot of precedent to set out what the punishment would be, said Milliken.

"I guess it would be a motion saying the member was wrong, and beyond that I’m not sure what more the house can do," he testified.

The committee's mandate has been broadened to investigate all aspects of the cancellation of the gas plants, which the Liberals say cost taxpayers $230 million.

The Conservatives say they still intend to pursue the original contempt motion while the committee also digs into the cost of the cancellations.

The committee members were given memory sticks today containing over 56,000 pages of documents on the gas plants.