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Tory MP steps down as committee chair

[PoliticsWatch posted 2:45 p.m. May 10, 2006]

OTTAWA  — A Conservative MP who made controversial comments about the chief justice of the Supreme Court announced Wednesday he was resigning as chair of the aboriginal affairs committee.
  
Maurice Vellacott, a Saskatchewan Conservative MP first elected to Parliament in 1997, in effect short-circuited an embarrassing no-confidence vote at the committee later Wednesday. 

All three opposition parties had signaled they would vote no-confidence in Vellacott, guaranteeing his defeat. 

"I hereby submit my resignation as chair of the committee," Vellacott said in a lengthy statement.

Vellacott became the target of criticism for the Liberals in the House of Commons this week following comments he made to a CBC reporter about judicial activism. 

He said it was not the role of Supreme Court judges to "play the position of God" and suggested that Beverly McLachlin, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, herself said a "mystical power" comes over judges on the high court.

In a rare move, McLachlin through the court's executive legal officer denied making the comments Vellacott attributed to her.  The Canadian Bar Association also condemned his comments on Tuesday saying it brought disrepute to the judiciary. 

In his statement, Vellacott took shots at the Liberals who brought forward the non-confidence motion. 

"Regrettably, I see displayed a more reckless partisan nature by the Liberals on the aboriginal affairs and northern development committee than I have in all my nine years as a member of Parliament," Vellacott wrote. 

"They seem to think that they have some divine right to govern and it is greatly upsetting to them when the public judges otherwise."

Vellacott said Liberal MP Anita Neville, who put forward the non-confidence motion, had "poisoned" the tone of the committee. 

He said he had received "expressions of encouragement" from MPs from his caucus and other parties and affirmative messages from across the country. 

Although he is not a cabinet minister, Vellacott becomes the first casualty for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government. 

Harper immediately distanced himself from Vellacott's comments earlier this week, but defended him in the House of Commons from opposition attacks. 

Harper pointed out in the House the hypocrisy of the Liberal complaints and to a degree media coverage of Vellacott's comments, when similar statements have been made by Liberal MPs in the recent past without great fanfare. 

Vellacott's resignation did not stop the Liberals from continuing to pound away at his controversial comments in question period on Wednesday. 

Even though some members of the Liberal caucus believe the courts have been too activist in recent years, the Liberals believe that comments such as Vellacotts' by Conservatives raises questions in the minds of voters about the future intentions of the Tory government -- the so-called hidden agenda revealed.

In the House of Commons, Harper said Vellacott "decided himself" to step aside as chairman of the committee. 

"I gather that (Vellacott's) view was that the committee and the opposition members on the committee should not be fighting over the chairmanship, they should be working on aboriginal issues," Harper said.

But interim Liberal Leader Bill Graham said the issue was not over for the Liberals. 

"This issue has now far surpassed the matter of (Vellacott), it's now the credibility of the office of the prime minister that's in question," Graham said. 

"Why did it take the condemnation of the Canadian Bar Association, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, aboriginal leaders, and a host of other Canadians to get this prime minister and this member to act in the best interests of Canada?"

Harper said if Graham believes someone with views on judicial activism should not be chair of a committee then "surely he must believe they should not be senior critics in his own caucus."

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