Speaker demands Ontario Liberals release gas plant documents
Published Thursday, September 13, 2012 11:45AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, September 13, 2012 3:41PM EDT
TORONTO -- Energy Minister Chris Bentley said Thursday he would comply with a Speaker's ruling to release all documents on two cancelled electricity generating stations to a legislative committee to avoid a vote that could find him in contempt of Parliament.
Bentley had told the committee he was worried the public release of all the documents on the cancelled Mississauga and Oakville power plants could hurt the government's position as it tries to negotiate with the developers of the projects.
Speaker Dave Levac found Bentley had breached privilege by not turning over the documents.
"The standing committee on estimates was unquestionably entitled to request the documents sought from the minister of energy, and the minister had an obligation to comply," Levac said in his ruling.
"I am therefore satisfied that a prima facie case of privilege has been established."
Despite the Speaker's ruling, Bentley refused to admit he had done anything wrong.
"The Speaker has spoken to the issue," Bentley told reporters.
"We will be complying with the ruling in all of its terms."
However, Levac also said he wanted the debate over the documents to go to the three party house leaders to resolve among themselves by Sept. 24.
The Speaker refused to discuss his ruling with the media, but said in the legislature he felt the three parties could work this out if they tried and avoid a vote on contempt of Parliament, something that's never happened in Ontario.
"The House and the government have essentially an unbroken record of some 140 years of collaboration and accommodation in cases of this kind," said Levac.
"It seems to me it would be a signal failure for us to see that record shattered."
Any disregard of, or attack on the rights of MPPs is a "breach of privilege" punishable by the legislature, but contempt is much more serious and applies to any action that obstructs or impedes the legislature or any members in the performance of their duties.
The Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats objected to the delay called for by Levac, and wanted to deal with the issue immediately in the legislature, knowing they have a majority and could outvote the Liberals and find Bentley in contempt.
The opposition parties also said the house leaders can't even agree on how to re-establish legislative committees for the fall sitting, and are unlikely to be able to reach an agreement on the release of the gas plants documents, despite the extra time they've been given.
"If the house leaders would have been able to resolve this by now we would have done it," said NDP House Leader Gilles Bisson.
Levac also suggested the government could redact part of the documents or have the committee review the documents behind closed doors, neither of which was acceptable to the Opposition.
"They should be made public to the people who pay the bills," said Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak.
"Taxpayers have a right to know, so these documents should be made public."
The government has already admitted it will cost taxpayers $190 million for the Liberals' decision to halt construction on the Mississauga power station in the middle of last year's election campaign, which helped save Liberal seats in the area.
But the Liberals have so far refused to say how much the scrapping of another gas plant in Oakville will cost. They cancelled the plant after local opponents brought in well-known environmental activist Erin Brokovich to speak against the project.
In 2003, then-speaker Gary Carr found a prima facie case the Conservative government was in contempt for introducing the Ontario budget at a Magna car parts factory instead of in the legislature, but the Tory majority defeated the motion so there was no finding of contempt.