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Norman Spector

Will Harper get away with misleading Canadians? Add to ...

Perusing my morning read, I see that "The United States is asking Canada to take on a more robust - and risky - role after the planned 2011 pullout of combat troops from Afghanistan, including risking enemy fire outside of bases to mentor Afghan security forces in the field."

However, in a CTV telephone interview last night, Prime Minister Harper seemed to scotch that possibility:

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"I haven't made a secret of the fact that I'd like to see all of our troops come home. That said, as we look at the facts on the ground, I think the reality is, there does need to be some additional training of Afghan forces. So we are looking at some training options for a smaller number of Canadian troops, but this would be a strictly non-combat mission."

The operative word in the foregoing paragraph is "seemed."

For, as the even the Prime Minister himself had to (very slightly) concede in the CTV interview, leaving any troops in any role in any region of Afghanistan would constitute a major shift in his position, as expressed in an interview at the beginning of the year:

"We will not be undertaking any kind of activity that requires a significant military force protection, so it will become a strictly civilian mission ... we will not be undertaking any activities that require any kind of military presence, other than the odd guard guarding an embassy."

And, as Paul Wells reminds us, lest there be any confusion as to the Prime Minister's position, here's how the Government reacted when Bob Rae first recommended that Canadian troops remain in Afghanistan as trainers:

In Ottawa, Minister of State Peter Kent of Foreign Affairs told reporters after question period that "there's no wiggle room at all" despite Rae's overture. "As I said in the House, the parliamentary resolution of 2008 made it quite clear that Canada's combat mission will end in 2011 and it will become a civilian and a development mission."

Kent appeared to dismiss Rae. "The committee is free to talk about whatever it wants," he said.

"In fact, we think that some of the opposition members of the committee have been irresponsible in recent months in refusing to accept the motion made by government members of the committee to consider post-2011 mission dimensions."

The big question now is: Will the Prime Minister get away with having misled Canadians on this issue for the better part of a year?

Judging from recent events in British Columbia surrounding Premier Gordon Campbell and the HST, I'd say that it all depends on the opposition parties and the media.

Like Canadian participation in the Afghanistan war, the HST is a very unpopular tax. But this is not the first time that Premier Campbell was seen to have misled the people of British Columbia. For example, early in his premiership, having campaigned as a hard-liner and having held a referendum on the issue, he totally reversed field on the question of aboriginal rights. But that reversal went down smoothly, largely because the NDP and journalists covering him agreed with his new position recognizing aboriginal title. And his political base swallowed the shift.

Later, when he betrayed his election promise and privatized BC Rail, the opposition and trade unions stirred and found some echo in the media. But Mr. Campbell still retained enough political capital and was able to get away with it - though it was messy. And he got away with imposing a carbon tax over the objections of the NDP, largely because of sympathy among reporters.

In the matter of the HST, the NDP found the issue too good to pass up, notwithstanding their affinity for taxes. From the right, Bill Vander Zalm rose from the ashes to lead a populist revolt. And the media fuelled the perception that he had lied to voters, in part because reporters and editors were embarrassed not to have themselves asked Mr. Campbell about the tax during the campaign - even after Ontario's signing on to it had become public knowledge.

On Afghanistan, Mr. Harper's political base is tickled pink. Canadians oppose leaving our troops in Afghanistan, but - unlike the HST - few of us are directly affected by the decision. The media have so far been quite supportive of his reversal; there has been very little analysis of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and whether Canadian troops can make much of a difference. The Liberals appear to be internally divided or hedging their bets or listening to the blandishments of our allies, particularly the United States. And Jack Layton gives no sign of mobilizing the anti-war movement.

Right now, therefore, it looks as though Mr. Harper will get away with it, though this might change if the Canadian role expands to one "outside the wire," if the opposition parties find their voice and if dissenters in the media give these voices some space.

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