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Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay appears before the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan on Parliament Hill. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay appears before the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan on Parliament Hill. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

John Ibbitson

MacKay may be indefensible, but his job is safe Add to ...

In a different time, over a different issue, with a different minister, a resignation might be in the offing. But in these times, when the issue is Afghanistan, and when the minister is Peter MacKay - not likely.

"Ministerial responsibility" is an anachronistic phrase that used to hold cabinet ministers responsible for whatever goes on in their department. It lost any meaning back in 1991, when then-foreign minister Joe Clark refused to resign over the al Mashat affair, blaming his staff for the arrival of Iraq's former U.S. ambassador as an immigrant, with inside help.

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Today, a minister is as responsible as a prime minister says he is. Defence Minister Peter MacKay should never have openly attacked the credibility of a senior public servant, Richard Colvin, who had warned back in 2006 that Afghans captured by Canadian troops were being tortured by Afghan jailors.

The Defence Minister absolutely should not still have his job, after insisting that there was no credible evidence of such torture in 2006, only for evidence to emerge this week so compelling that even Chief of Defence Staff Walter Natynczyk admitted yesterday it proves abuse occurred.

But while Stephen Harper did not explicitly confirm his confidence in Mr. MacKay in the House yesterday, it is somewhere past unlikely that he will ask his Defence Minister to step down. The reasons for this are threefold:

First, Afghan detainees, even innocent ones, are not sympathetic people. And this government's popularity hasn't suffered even though there is compelling evidence that our mission in Afghanistan is a failure - for all the bravery of our troops, there were too few of them to secure their sector from Taliban infiltration, which is why the Americans now plan to flood that sector with their own forces.

Most voters appear to have concluded that the effort was noble, even if the results have been disappointing. Detainee abuse is not, and never will be, a ballot question.

Second, the timing is starting to work in the government's favour. Parliament rises for its Christmas break at the end of the week, and doesn't return until late January. Some convenient votes in the House short-circuited the efforts of a parliamentary committee to grill Mr. MacKay along with Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon. The opposition majority may be able to keep the committee functioning, but the truth is the holiday season and the January break are the government's best friends right now.

Third, and most important, Peter MacKay is a partner in the Conservative coalition. Don't forget that this government is in office only because Mr. MacKay agreed to merge his Progressive Conservatives with Mr. Harper's Canadian Alliance back in 2003. Firing Mr. MacKay would split the party. And with his deep Atlantic roots, the Conservatives wouldn't have a safe seat in Atlantic Canada if the member for Central Nova were forced out of cabinet.

So unless something new and very large comes to light, Mr. MacKay is safe.

A public inquiry is also highly unlikely, despite opposition demands for one. Not only would it prolong a story that the government believes will eventually go away, such an inquiry would vindicate opposition accusations of incompetence and covering up.

The Conservatives might, instead, revive the Military Police Complaints Commission investigation of the charges, which they have previously tried to stymie.

Something has to be done about these charges of abuse. The MPCC is arguably the best forum for investigating them.

This government's best asset is its own cussedness. Liberals want to be seen as virtuous; they want people to think they believe in human rights - even the rights of those who quite possibly tried to kill our own soldiers.

But nobody believes Stephen Harper or Peter MacKay has ever lost an hour's sleep over what might have been going on in Afghan prisons. Anyway, it was three years ago. We fixed it in 2007. Move along.

Objectively, the abuse of Afghan detainees is hugely important. Canadian soldiers and officials might have been complicit in violating the Geneva Conventions. Their political masters were cavalier, at best, or negligent, at worst, in how they handled the matter. Heads should roll.

But politically, this is an issue that doesn't resonate outside Ottawa. The revelations haven't moved the polls. The Liberals are in what is turning into typical disarray. Firing Mr. MacKay is the one thing Mr. Harper could do that would undermine his own party while helping to unify his opponents.

You think Stephen Harper is nuts?

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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