On Friday, Security Minister Stockwell Day articulated the reasons why the Harper government had refused to release uncensored documents to the Parliamentary Committee investigating Afghan prisoner abuse. "We are not going to make information available just readily," he said, "about friend and foe alike, about specific items, about a security operation that could imperil our own troops and imperil the citizens."
It's interesting to compare Day's statement to one that Stephen Harper made as he assumed office three years ago: "Restoring accountability will be one of the major priorities of our new government. Accountability is what ordinary Canadians, working Canadians, those people who pay their bills, pay their taxes, expect from their political leaders."
And then there was this trope on how a minority parliament should operate, from the then Leader of the Opposition: "And I think that the real problem we're facing already is that the government doesn't accept that it got a minority."
What the prisoner abuse scandal illustrates is what these statements illustrate: what the government says and what the government does are oxymoronic. Peter McKay says that there is "no absolute proof" of prisoner abuse. General Natynczyk says there is. Richard Colvin says the government knew of the problem in 2006; but it only attempted to fix it a year later, despite the fact that our allies, the British and the Dutch, had acted on the problem much earlier.
More importantly, there is the principle of the supremacy of Parliament. It is the fundamental check against a government's abuse of power. The simple truth is that we are dealing with two kinds of abuse here: abuse of prisoners and abuse of Parliament.
As Jeffrey Simpson pointed out in Saturday's Globe and Mail, there was a fairly straight forward way out of this mess. Harper inherited the war and the problem of what to do with prisoners from Paul Martin. The government could have made the following statement:
We heard Mr. Colvin's warnings and those from other sources. He was a fine public servant, but he had only one angle on the challenges he faced. We listened to his information and sought to cooberrate it because, after all, we were working in another country for which we had to show certain respect. When we gathered more information, we acted to upgrade our agreement with Afghan authorities.
Instead, the Harperites turned their guns on Mr. Colvin, as they had on Linda Keen before him. Then they brought out the generals to discredit Colvin -- until Natynczyk discredited the generals. Mr. Harper's government, like Richard Nixon's government, has taken on the personality of the man at the top. It displays a deep and bitter sense of paranoia.
Hamlet was wrong. Conscience doesn't make cowards of us all. But paranoia does. And, if Mr. Harper succeeds in withholding those uncensored documents from Parliament, he will make cowards of us all.