The Scene. The Prime Minister leaned on his left elbow and chatted happily with the Foreign Affairs Minister and the Environment Minister. He seemed entirely undaunted by the prospect of what was surely about to happen, unmoved by the gravity one might have applied to the moment at hand.
A short while later, the Liberal leader stood and asked the Prime Minister en français to assure the House that Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan will not be involved in combat after July 2011. The Speaker then turned the floor over to the Right Honourable Prime Minister. And Mr. Harper here stood and, acknowledging for the first time on Canadian soil a complete and total reversal of his most recent position on this country’s involvement in a nine-year-old war, confirmed as much.
With his second opportunity, Michael Ignatieff, switching to English, sought not only a confirmation, but a guarantee. “Mr. Speaker, 20,000 Canadians served in Afghanistan since 2001, 153 brave soldiers did not survive and their sacrifices must not be in vain. We need to be clear about this new engagement of Canada after 2011,” he said, putting his hands together in front of his face as if in open prayer. “Can the Prime Minister guarantee that this is not going to involve combat, that it is going to be out of Kandahar and that the training will occur in safe conditions in Kabul?”
“The answer,” Mr. Harper responded, “is yes to all of those questions. As the Minister of National Defence, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and others have said, we are looking at a non-combat mission that will occur. It will be a training mission that will occur in classrooms behind the wire in bases. The government has been very clear and we do think this is a way of ensuring we consolidate the gains that we have made and honour the sacrifices of Canadians who have served in Afghanistan.”
Here then is how Prime Minister Stephen Harper committed Canadian military forces for another three years to the defining international conflict of this generation—a thousand people in all, at a total cost to the nation of something like $1.5-billion.
He did not stand in the House of Commons and deliver a speech. He did not summon reporters to gather around a podium. He did not request air time on the television networks. He did not attempt to assuage the 60 percent of Canadians who oppose the presence of this country’s military in Afghanistan, nor did he endeavour to persuade the 34 percent who believe we have already failed in our mission there. He did not make more than a token effort, in brief comments made a week ago on another continent, to explain why he is now committing Canadian soldiers for another three years when he once swore he would do no such thing. He did not, despite so much shouting and waving these last five years about his Support For The Troops, make any kind of equally loud gesture to account for what he is asking those troops, and by extension this country, to now do. He simply stood and responded to a question from the leader of the opposition.
Anyone who might still care could’ve already gleaned the relevant points from the explanations of his press secretary on the TV chat shows, from the various leaks to the press gallery and from a news conference convened by three of his ministers this afternoon to confirm what had already been leaked.
And, really, why bother doing anything more to explain or justify?
The official opposition is more or less satisfied with the result. It is not like the public is clamouring on the Hill lawn. And it is not like the press gallery is much interested in anything more. Those paid to scrutinize these matters of national importance have deduced that what matters here is that Jack Layton has somehow won and that Peter MacKay has somehow been demoted and that the Liberals have somehow been duped and that, once again, Stephen Harper has outsmarted them all.
As it is, this matter will now pass with neither a debate, nor a vote, but not quite without the indignant questions of the Bloc and the NDP.
It was the former who quibbled with the distinction between training and combat and what does or does not require, by the Prime Minister’s own words, a vote in the House. And it was the leader of the latter who was very nearly overcome by the curiosities and contradictions before him. “Can the Prime Minister tell us,” Jack Layton demanded, “did he break his promise to bring our troops home?”
Mr. Harper could not. Or, at the very least, he would not. “Once again, Mr. Speaker, let me be very clear,” the Prime Minister graciously offered. “The mission that we are authorizing going forward does not authorize combat. Our soldiers will be training Afghan personnel on bases and in classrooms. We are very clear on that.”
That thus clarified, Mr. Harper retreated to where he could bravely stand behind the men and women of the Canadian Forces. “Our Canadian Forces have served in Afghanistan for almost 10 years,” he said. “They have taken a lot of casualties. It is important we honour the sacrifice they made, important that we do things to make sure that we consolidate those gains. We are very proud of the work that our Canadian Forces have done and that we will be doing in Afghanistan.”
The NDP leader redirected his complaint. “Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister campaigned on a promise and that promise was that, when we were to send our troops abroad, there would be a vote in the House of Commons. He did that in 2006, he did that in 2008, but now the government is combining with the Liberals to break that promise to allow Canadians to have the right to have their Parliament vote on whether we put our troops in harm’s way,” he said. “If it is the right thing to do, why not bring it to a vote in this Chamber?”
This seemed a profoundly worthy question. Hopefully one day it will be answered.
“Mr. Speaker, we have never in this House of Commons put to a vote missions that do not involve combat. The government’s actions here respect the parliamentary motion,” Mr. Harper responded—these two sentences having the benefit of being both true and having nothing to do with the question asked.
The Prime Minister pivoted then to a denunciation of NDP’s views on military policy, even managing to work in a reference to September 11.
That was more or less that, the Liberals choosing to use the next questions for the purposes of delighting in rumours that the Defence Minister might be quitting soon, the government delighting in the opportunity to gush about how happy they were to have Defence Minister for however much longer he’ll be here.
Afterward it was Mr. Ignatieff, not Mr. Harper, not even Mr. Harper’s press secretary, who was out in the foyer, being made to explain and justify this nation’s mission in Afghanistan to a pack of eager, doubtful reporters. Had the Prime Minister stepped out of his office on the floor above and gazed down upon the scene, he no doubt would have been assured that he had not erred in saying so little.
The Stats. Afghanistan, 11 questions. Ethics, seven questions. Poverty, six questions. The environment, four questions. Veterans, the Defence Minister, the military and crime, two questions each. Privacy, the G20 and aboriginal affairs, one question each.
Peter MacKay, nine answers. Stephen Harper, seven answers. John Baird and Ed Komarnicki, six answers each. Lawrence Cannon, three answers. Rob Nicholson and Rona Ambrose, two answers each. Jacques Gourde, Andrew Saxton, Vic Toews and Chuck Strahl, one answer each.