The Commons: Why bother?

As it is, the matter of extending the Afghan mission will now pass with neither a debate, nor a vote

by Aaron Wherry

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.

The Commons: Why bother?

  1. Harper has been 'very clear' on a number of occasions.

    Everytime he changes his mind.

  2. Great line from George Galloway: " Canadians should ask themselves, just how much training do these Afghans need anyway???"

  3. As much as Nato feels is necessary and for as long as Nato chooses to stay in Afghanistan. There feel better now.

  4. Then perhaps we need to rethink NATO

    Everyone else is.

  5. Oh c'mon who takes QP or it's aftermath seriously. It's gotcha! time for the opposition and the press in both cases. I agree with the government or any government of the day. Why bother? It's all been reduced to ET type prime time fluff. Waste of time, space and air.
    Move on!

  6. On this issue, I've defended his executive prerogative to make this decision (without a vote), and applauded the Liberals for not playing partisan politics with this. I must admit, I am disappointed (but not surprised) that Harper would not address the Canadian public on this. He is the leader of this country – why can't he take the time to explain to Canadians why this is the way we are moving forward? Don't we deserve at least that?

  7. It seems that QP and your post have so much in common….

  8. Perhaps it doesn't count that 3 ministers explained the mission and took questions from thre press. If Mr. Harper had done it, assuredly there would have been voices raised that he doesn't trust his ministers to convey the information.

  9. No, he'd simply have been called a liar….which he is.

  10. How can 60% of the people in this country not want Canadian soldiers as trainers for the Afghans when 60% of Canadians allowed the Liberals and the UN to send them there is the first place in a fighting mission. You may recall that the majority Liberals only had 60% backing in the previous election.

  11. 9 years ago we were called out under Article 5 of NATO to help the US find bin Laden.

    That mission was over years ago, and we should long since have been home.

    So try not to be stupidly partisan on a serious issue, kay?

  12. This is a non-combat training role that, had we not been involved, and had we simply been sending troops to support the locals and help out in this way, would likely not have made it to the news except as a filler item. Iggy supports it, or so he says, as does Jack (who cares what the separatists think), so this is simple grandstanding on the part of Iggy and His Stooges (invluding Aaron Wherry).

  13. How did 'Iggy' grandstand? Just because you support a non-combat role in Afghanistan, and just because you support this as an executive decision, doesn't mean you support not being told about what the mission is.

    I don't think Jack supports any of that, btw, so he isn't grandstanding either.

  14. "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"

    Is AW angry? If so i can empathise. Yes i would have voted to extend this mission even though i doubt it can be done without combat casualties. And yes i can see that no vote or perhaps even a debate [ despite Harper promising one] were strictly necessary. But this isn't right, past PMS [ certainly Mulroney and Trudeau - Chretien maybe?] would have taken the time to explain [ via tv or press conference] to those who are opposed [ the majority of Canadians] why this was the right thing to do – it's called respect i believe.

  15. Um – I guess your nickname is meant to be ironic then? Kinda like calling a fat guy skinny?

  16. Because it is about wedge politics.

    Chalk this strategy up to caputuring the votes of the people of the regions, who will not forget, that this is a principled decision which has been made with great regret.

  17. Iggy grandstands about everything. He's a typical American rabble-rouser (don't worry about where he was born). The mission has been clearly defined as non-combat. Iggy accepted that (and who really cares about Jack anyway, other than Olivia (although he did support it in his odd round-about way – check your facts, and there are few better grandstanders). Enough already. Parliamentary debate never has been worth much as the government of the day usually gets it's own way (including – especially – those precious liberals when they had the controls), so why indeed bother?

  18. Well thank heaven we have NATO to make our decisions for us.

  19. This is the point that I was trying to make. A great leader would take the time to address the people on this. What would Sir John A., Laurier, Borden, or King have done? While there are many that are against this war, there are also many who are sympathetic, or at the least, have mixed feelings on all of this. This is the time when you need a leader to stand up and talk to us. This is exactly why Harper, to use his own propaganda, is not a leader. At least not a great one…

  20. Harper can't make one on his own.

  21. Iggy announced ages ago that a training mission is Afghanistan was a pillar of his foreign policy, so this is hardly news.

    And since he spent just 5 years in the US, he isn't an American anything.

  22. Given the fact Harper is neither a great debater or communicator i can see he didn't want to give the NDP or bloc a soapbox to galvanize public opinion. Ignatieff i find more of a puzzle…but hen he isn't PM.

  23. I really don't buy the idea that a vote isn't needed on this. We live in representative democracy. We elect people to represent us in Ottawa. By denying a vote in the House of Commons on this, a major policy decision, we are being denied the right to be represented and, in turn, the opportunity to hold our representatives to account for the way they represent us.

    It doesn't matter that the is a technicality that allows Harper to make an executive decision. He said he wouldn't do something like this without a vote. Now, like a mob lawyer, he's diving for loopholes and trying to get off on a technicality.

    Harper has gone back on his promise to end the mission. He's gone back on his promise to hold a vote on issues like this. He's gone back on his promise of transparency and accountability. He's denying the people of Canada their democratic representation. And Ignatieff is there helping Harper out on all of this.

  24. It really does the body good to watch you Colnservative haters at MacLeans squirm…

  25. I don't know what a 'Colnservative hater' is….but this has nothing to do with partisanship….I don't know why you think it does.

    But the idea that Cons can force something on the country that the country doesn't want should make even you rethink this.

  26. I have no idea why the detainee issue seemed so important a year ago and now it`s lost somewhere.
    Maybe the Liberals did some internal polling and discovered that their own caucus and the commenters at macleans.ca was not representative of the views of the Canadian populace.
    Maybe they are just a floundering Party, no focus, and a death wish ( figuratively ) for their leader.
    Maybe even they think Harper is the best leader for us at this time.

  27. The committee as you might recall, is sworn to secrecy.

    Believe me, Canadians are quite concerned about being considered war criminals.

    Stop fantasizing….Harper is barely holding his devout base much less anyone else.

  28. From Harper I expect as much, but the puffball questions lobbed by Ignatieff disgust me.

    How phony can you get? Dance Iggy, dance. You're the greatest marionette out there!

  29. Maybe you should give up your delusions of being an insightful analyst of the opposition's motives.

  30. Chretien answers GW Bush ask, sends troops to Kabul…..no vote
    Martin reassigns troops to combat in Kandahar…..no vote

    But Harper should have a vote before he is 'allowed' to reassign troops to classrooms.

    Liberals have an opposition day on Thursday,
    nothing stopping them from calling for a vote.

  31. Well since 'training' in Afghanistan is a pillar of Iggy's foreign policy, I see no reason why he'd ask for a vote.

    PS…and they won't be in 'classrooms'.

  32. Iggy is pro-training. Pillar of his foreign policy in fact.

    All he's asking for is details.

  33. ''I have no idea why the detainee issue seemed so important a year ago and now it`s lost somewhere. ''

    Maybe now that the Opps have all the documents, not just those leaked to the media,
    things are not as they were made to appear..

  34. Has Lawrence Martin come up with the reason the Liberals have been pushing to keep troops in Afghanistan, since June?
    The detainee documents turned up some not so good info on the previous Liberal gov,
    and for 'security' reasons, is not to be revealed as long as troops are in Afghanistan….?

  35. Then why were they secret?

  36. Evidence or source please…otherwise i might be compelled to think you're merely engaging in wishful thinking.

  37. why don't you read Martin's article…he wonders if indeed all the docs are available.

  38. We knew from the beginning that the committee wasn't going to see all the documents. Just the ones the govt was willing to release….without black marker all over them.

  39. Then why in god's name did the libs agree to the committee – they had the force of the speaker's ruling behind them. Is there a reason or is that just another Ignatieff/liberal party blunder?

  40. Hear, hear.

  41. Did you expect actual secret documents?

    In any case they can't blurt out what they've learned in public.

  42. I've got to say, you've got a funny definition of grandstanding. While it's possible that Ignatieff was trying to embarrass the government here I'd say that it's equally plausible, given the questions asked and the answers given, that Ignatieff COORDINATED these questions with the PM to allow them to get this all on the public record in the House, while NOT having a vote (which wouldn't have helped the Liberals).

    What you call "grandstanding" another observer might call "cooperating fully".

  43. They actually still have the force of the Speakers' ruling behind them. There's no reason the Liberal members of the committee couldn't throw up their hands, proclaim that the government isn't acting in good faith as per the compromise agreement, and walk right back to the Speaker to get him started issuing subpoenas.

  44. That is one perspective on his questions. Have you considered the possibility that the Leader of the Official Opposition and the Prime Minister actually agreed to the tune before hand? After all, the song was taken from the Liberal Party policy book.

  45. ah thank you…however, if you're right then is Martin then wrong – he seems to think the libs have been snookered?

  46. We do not live in a representative democracy. If we did then a Party that gets 36% of the vote and a minority of seats would not be allowed to form gov't. They would have to form a coalition…such as England.

    Given the fact that our voter turnout is around 55%, that means a Party that has 19-20% support is able to engage in military adventures. That is not democracy, representative or otherwise.

  47. I also commend the Liberals for not playing partisan politics with this. After all, a "training mission" extension without a vote in the House of Commons is precisely what the Liberal leader wanted. Playing partisan politics on this point would have been spectacularly disingenuous.

  48. All that said, debate and discussion on the terms, parameters and goals of a mission in a war zone is not partisan politics. I support the combat mission. I support continuing the combat mission. But I also support democratic, parliamentary politics, which is why I foolishly voted Conservative in the last election.

    A Prime Minister who can't even be bothered to read a little statement in the House pointing out the risks of what he's doing, the costs, or the change in policy is not a Prime Minister at all.

  49. After Harper made the announcement as de facto policy – in KOREA.

    So not, it doesn't count. Sorry.

  50. Well, it might have something to do with the fact that a government elected in part on the promise that it would respect soldiers and sell our expanded role abroad decided to hide the fact we were at war and leave the field of debate at home open for the Jack Laytons to play in, instead.

  51. Yeah, and I said they needed an open debate and a vote for both of those things too. I'm not sure where this idea that "The Liberals did it too!" is a valid reason for anything. It seems a lot like something you'd hear in a Kindergarten playground, not what you'd expect from adults discussing policies and democratic principles.

  52. This is hilarious : step back folks because the smoke coming from the House won't be from any ammunition Iggy fires at Harper BUT the real struggle is Jack vs the Iggy .. check out the gains lately by the NDP, the staleness of LPT numbers and this is a perfect wedge issue. truly amazing :)

  53. Throw up their hands! That about sums the skillset of the motley collection of 3rd string nobodies aka the Liberal Caucus.

  54. You're easily amazed.

  55. It is unfortunate that in this day and age making the right decision will get you in trouble.

    I love being able to get behind my government and this is one issue I can say I'm 110% behind them. Hippies be damned.

  56. I assumed this was a scripted question right from the beginning. That is what I find so disgusting.

    Dance Iggy dance.

  57. Parliament should be a place to debate issues of national importance and a place where the elected representatives of all the people have the opportunity to speak and vote on issues. Harper is behaving like some delusional tin pot dictator from a third world banana republic. His arrogance is just a reflection of how little respect he has for democracy or for the people of Canada. After all what business is it of ours what decisions are made on our behalf or why.

  58. Nah. Iggy wouldn't stoop so low as to COORDINATE (sorry about the yelling) a deal with Harper. There are many ways to get the information on the record without grandstanding (there I go again). "Cooperating fully" is just not in Iggy's repertoire right now. He's fighting to retain the small amount of personal power he has left, which isn't much. He has to be seen to be doing something. Otherwise he might just as well pack up and head home to his beloved USA. Funny how Liberal parties are self-destructing across the country, all at the same time, due in no small part to their leadership. Or lack of same. Iggy, Dolton and Gordo are three of a set. They are all (well, maybe except Gordo, whose time has run out) grandstanding.

  59. Iggy has repeatedly referred to the USA as "our country" and "our land" in speeches made when he lived there. He clearly has adopted the US as his true homeland, regardless of how long he lived there. He's as American as apple pie. As soon as his political career is over – well, as soon as he finally realizes his political career is over – he'll be heading back. Guaranteed. His ego will allow no alternative. He cannot stay in a country that has shunned him by denying him his "destiny" as the leader of the "Chosen Ones". Not when he has the alternative, which he does.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *