The real scandal in Ottawa...
We need a debate on Canada's post-2011 role in Afghanistan...and all our politicians want to talk about is a years-old debate on Afghan detainees...
Last weekend on the CBC radio program The House, the Committee's leading Conservative member, Edmonton MP Laurie Hawn, was obliged to once again defend his government's handling of the lurid "Afghan detainee issue" that has aroused so many Ottawa insiders. But here's the really crazy part:No one knows more about what is NOT going on than Terry Glavin. Please read his whole article.
Without so much as a hint of embarrassment, the committee's leading Liberal, Ujjal Dosanjh, and the committee's recently-appointed New Democrat, Jack Harris, both insisted to the CBC that it is not the job of the Special Committee on Canada's engagement in Afghanistan to address itself to the immediate and now desperately urgent question about Canada's engagement in Afghanistan: What happens in 2011?
Big questions to address
Bear in mind that Canada is a prominent signatory to the multi-nation Afghanistan Compact, the role-assigning agreement that expires next year. Canada's Kandahar "combat role" also ends next year, but that's only one of six Canadian priorities in Afghanistan. The others involve providing basic services, delivering humanitarian aid, helping with border protection, building national institutions, and backing national reconciliation efforts.
Should Canada continue with these priorities? Should Canada play a completely different role? Are Canadians ever going to be allowed to consider these questions and make decisions about them? Because of the paralysis in Ottawa, almost all projects supported by the Canadian International Development Agency in Afghanistan are coming to a screeching halt next year. With 2011 only a few months away, what is the committee's advice to the House of Commons?
The exasperated host of The House, Kathleen Petty, persisted with this very simple question. It's the same question I'd been raising in Ottawa that very week on behalf of the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee. It's been two whole years. When is this committee going to get around to talking about the Canadian mission in Afghanistan?
Jack Harris: "First of all, the Afghanistan Committee was not put forward to discover what we're going to do post-2011. The Afghanistan Committee's job and role, and this came from the Manley commission report and the motion, was to report to Parliament on the mission and what's going on."
By "the Manley commission report," Harris was referring to the independent panel chaired by former Liberal deputy prime minister John Manley that recommended an extension of Canada's Kandahar combat role to 2011. The panel offered no direction on what should happen in 2011. That wasn't the panel's job.
Perhaps Harris can tell the rest of us "what's going on" and what should happen next year? Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made some noises about Post-2011 humanitarian aid. If Harris is satisfied by this, why doesn't he just come right out and say so?
Ujjal Dosanjh: "The issue isn't what committee is doing what. The issue is whether or not these issues are being studied. The issue with respect to Post-2011 is going to be studied by the other committee," he said.
The "other committee" Dosanjh referred to is the Standing Committee on National Defence, which is in fact not studying the issue, and has no mandate to study the issue, and would be the last place to talk about the issue anyway. It's the committee that generals and military experts are routinely summoned to attend in order to patiently instruct earnest and well-meaning MPs in the subtle differences between howitzers and ham sandwiches.
It was in fact the "special" Afghanistan committee that was explicitly tasked with the very job Dosanjh doesn't want the committee to do. The relevant cabinet ministers have consistently said it's up to Parliament to decide what Canada's post-2011 role in Afghanistan should be, so this isn't something you can easily lay solely at Harper's feet. The special Afghanistan committee is the lead House of Commons committee on the question. That's why it's called the "special" committee.
If the committee has decided that its job doesn't include advising Parliament about what Canada should be doing in Afghanistan, then why does it still exist? Why doesn't it just get out of the way and let Parliament get to work?
Mandates never carried out
The "motion" Harris referred to is the same March 2008 House of Commons motion that extended Canada's combat role in Kandahar to 2011 and created the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan in the first place. The committee's mandate was renewed in February last year and again this year on March 3.
Apart from issuing a report about training Afghan soldiers that everyone has already forgotten about, the committee has done nothing its mandate requires.
In both of its renewal motions, the committee's parliamentary leadership role on Afghanistan was confirmed. So were the two other big jobs the committee was established to do. The committee is supposed to "review the laws and procedures governing the use of operational and national security exceptions for the withholding of information" and "ensure that Canadians are being provided with ample information on the conduct and progress of the mission."
The committee has done neither of these things.
The committee hasn't just failed to address the problem of a policy vacuum on information-release exceptions. It has made the problem worse. The committee has in fact exacerbated the problem to the point of turning it into a constitutional crisis.
The Liberals say it's the Conservatives' fault for resorting to the most frivolous and partisan excuses to withhold all sorts of information. The Conservatives say the Liberals are beating dead horses and insinuating that Canadian soldiers are SS monsters. The NDP says the committee should put the matter aside and get down to business, but it hasn't once used its tie-breaking vote to get the committee back to work.