Ottawa: Canada`s government was found twice in contempt for misleading and withholding information from Parliament, in a rebuke that could provoke elections.
House Speaker Peter Milliken ruled in two separate cases that the government failed to provide sufficient cost estimates for its prison expansion plans and a key minister may have lied to MPs in a foreign aid funding flap.
Opposition parties have repeatedly accused the minority government of abuse of power for sidelining Parliament while defending cabinet confidence.
They could now use Milliken`s decision to force a vote of no-confidence in the government as early as March 21, one day before the release of the federal budget.
Main opposition Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff described the judgments as "crushing”, while Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe said they are proof the ruling Conservatives "lie brazenly" and "flout democracy”.
"Wherever we go with this, Canadians will be asked to make a judgement about whether these people are competent economic managers and they`ll also be asked the simple question do you trust this prime minister with power?" Ignatieff added. "It seems to be obvious the speaker of the House of Commons does not."
The government had maintained there would be no major costs associated with its tougher sentencing legislation, but opposition parties demanded numbers to back up the claim.
International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda, meanwhile, was derided for telling MPs she did not know who had altered a document that cut funding to a foreign aid group and later saying she ordered it changed.
Leftist New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton, who was discharged from hospital after minor surgery, was said to be raring for a possible snap election at month`s end.
All eyes have been on Layton, 60, for any hint of his readiness to join other opposition parties in triggering an election and waging a gruelling campaign. He underwent surgery last week to repair a fracture in his hip and is being treated for prostate cancer.
The government needs the support of at least one of the opposition parties to stay in power and pass the federal budget.
The New Democrats, with only 36 out of 308 seats, hold the balance of power in Parliament.
"There`s no doubt Mr Layton and the party will be ready if there`s a spring election," Layton`s spokesman Karl Belanger said.
Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto said Layton "has been up and walking and making great progress in his rehabilitation" following his surgery.
His surgeon added in a statement that he believes Layton`s prognosis for a full recovery from his hip surgery is excellent.
The Liberals, New Democrats and the Bloc Quebecois have hinted they would vote to bring down the minority government if their budget demands are not met.
The parties have sought a rollback of corporate tax cuts, help for seniors and relief on home heating costs, as well as assistance for Quebec to harmonise its provincial and federal sales taxes.
At present, the New Democrats appear most likely to prop up the government, but have kept their cards close to their chests.
"If they keep playing cat-and-mouse (with what) parliament needs in order to do its job, then they`ll have to face the music," New Democrat MP Thomas Mulcair told reporters.
"At some point, Parliament has to be respected."