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Defence Minister Peter MacKay speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Nov. 15, 2010. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Defence Minister Peter MacKay speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Nov. 15, 2010. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Defence Minister goes 'AWOL' on Afghan debate Add to ...

Defence Minister Peter MacKay is once again being shut out of the debate about Canada's decision to extend the Afghan mission, fuelling more questions about his role in the Harper government.

In Question Period on Monday, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon fielded questions about future troop deployment in the Prime Minister's absence.

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The move has Liberals perplexed, with foreign affairs critic Bob Rae calling it "really quite strange."

"The Minister of Defence is not a part-time job," Mr. Rae said. "And this is no time for the Minister of Defence to be going AWOL, and I hope he is there full-time to deal with the questions that we have."

Last week, Mr. MacKay denied reports he was leaving his post after leaks he had met twice last month with Bay Street law firm Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP.

Although he professed his love for his job and said he was not going anywhere, he did not answer specific questions on whether he had met with an official from the law firm.

The law firm has been equally vague.

A source told The Globe and Mail that Mr. MacKay is not currently in discussions about joining Gowlings. But the firm declined to answer questions on whether he has held talks with them in the past.

Mr. MacKay, meanwhile, was not asked about the reports in Question Period. He rushed by reporters as he left the chamber, refusing to stop to answer questions about the mission extension.

Mr. Rae suggested Mr. MacKay may be looking for work in the private sector because his boss, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has cut him out of the loop.

It wouldn't be the first time.

"He was locked out of the UAE; he wasn't participating in that contract," charged Mr. Rae, referring to the cabinet debate over allowing two United Arab Emirates air carriers more landing spots in Canada.

Last month, the Prime Minister sidelined the Defence Minister during negotiations over the Canadian military's use of Camp Mirage, a strategic airbase in the UAE, free of charge for the past nine years.

Mr. MacKay had fought for additional landing rights as compensation for the use of the base. At first the Prime Minister seemed be on side, but then changed his mind after hearing some forceful arguments against giving way to the UAE from Government House leader John Baird.

Mr. Rae also noted that leaks about the extension of the Afghan mission did not come from the Defence department. There were reports about this fact last week.

"He [Mr. MacKay]wasn't the guy who leaked the information," said Mr. Rae. "He then held an impromptu press conference so he could get in on the act. He was then taken off the team again."

Last week, Dimitri Soudas, the Prime Minister's director of communications, was on television explaining the options for the extension of the mission. Mr. MacKay was not as present on the issue.

Mr. MacKay's office is dismissing Mr. Rae's arguments.

MacKay spokesman Jay Paxton sent out a list of the minister's public engagements for the past week to show that he has been "working for his constituents and the men and women of the Canadian Forces."

Mr. Paxton noted that on Nov. 7, Minister MacKay held a press conference to mark the end of the Halifax International Security Forum in which he "provided the first on-the-record comments regarding the post-2011 training option in Afghanistan."

Then last Wednesday at the True Patriot Love dinner in Toronto (a fundraising gala for military families) the minister "took questions on the incorrect rumour that circulated around Ottawa circles."

On Remembrance Day, the minister attended four different ceremonies; the next day he made a couple of announcements in his Nova Scotia riding, and on Sunday he announced a tidal energy project for his province.

Later this week, he is attending the NATO summit in Portugal with the Prime Minister.

With a report from John Ibbitson

Follow on Twitter: @janetaber1

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