Harper is a missing chance to shaft the Liberals with an Afghan vote

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The Gazette, Monday, November 15, 2010

Stephen Harper is not wrong on the facts when he says he doesn't need a parliamentary resolution to extend and re-profile Canada's mission in Afghanistan. But he is on the wrong side of history, including his own, having sought parliamentary approval in 2006 and again in 2008.

And, unusually for him, he's passing up a tactical opportunity to jam the Liberals, who are by no means unanimously in favour of reconfiguring the mission from combat in Kandahar to training in Kabul, while reducing our contingent from 2,500 troops to fewer than 1,000.

This is essentially what Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae suggested several months ago after a tour of Afghanistan, presumably with the support of his leader, Michael Ignatieff. But Bob and Iggy haven't had this conversation with the Liberal caucus, where there are many MPs opposed to extending the mission past next July in any way, shape or form. These dissenting Liberals want Canada out of Afghanistan, period.

Maybe when Harper gets back to the office today, and gets over his jet lag from the Asian summits, he'll think about it again. Or maybe he's deliberately doing Iggy a favour by not holding a debate and a vote, in return for his support. Harper isn't known for doing favours for the Liberals, but it's interesting that Rae is all right with no parliamentary vote. "Whether there's a parliamentary resolution or not is not a matter of law but the choice of the government." Rae told the Globe and Mail's Jane Taber. "In the current circumstance, I fully understand the government's decision."

That sounds more like the Liberals' circumstance than the government's. NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar, clearly sensing that the fix was in, blasted the "deplorable" deal between the Cons and the Libs to thwart a parliamentary debate.

For all the right reasons, including the tactical calculations he thrives on, Harper ought to open a short window of opportunity and allow an emergency debate before the NATO summit which begins in Lisbon on Thursday.

If he were to schedule a vote on Wednesday following the Liberal caucus in the morning, he'd have Iggy between a rock and a hard place. If Ignatieff tried to enforce party solidarity by putting on a three-line whip, no one knows how many Liberals would avoid the vote by staying out of the House. If he were to allow a free vote as a matter of conscience, there's no telling how many Liberals would vote against the plan.

With 143 Tory members and two independents who always vote with the government, Harper wouldn't need even 10 Liberals to carry a motion to extend the mission. As there are now four vacancies in the 308-seat House, the current magic majority number is 153. But that's not the point. The point would be how many Liberals would support their leader and foreign affairs critic. Many of them are not troubling to conceal their annoyance at not being consulted.

A resolution would also allow Harper to go to Lisbon with parliamentary approval for Canada's renewed, reduced, reconfigured role in Afghanistan. Furthermore, a resolution would give Harper the opportunity to define the limits of the mission, putting our soldiers "behind the wire" on a base rather than in a mentoring role in the field, as the Americans have requested, in an extraordinary break with protocol.

Rather than knocking on Harper's door, or Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon's, or Defence Minister Peter MacKay's, U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder gave an interview, in which he suggested Canada step up for the more dangerous mentoring role "outside the wire."

Perhaps he should have spoken to Dimitri Soudas, Harper's director of communications, who is evidently making policy of behalf of the cabinet, as well as announcing it. MacKay has every right to be annoyed by this -decisions involving troop deployments are made by the minister of defence, not by the prime minister's staff. It's called cabinet government.

The persistent big-footing by the Prime Minister's Office may be one reason why MacKay was reported last week considering moving on to the private sector with Gowlings, a national law firm.

This story surfaced at a very inopportune moment for MacKay. This is not the time for him to leave, much less desert, his post.

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