Prime Minister Stephen Harper has reached across party lines for foreign-policy help, appointing a Liberal MP as his adviser on the Middle East and Afghanistan.
The sudden appointment of Mississauga Liberal MP Wajid Khan, a Muslim Canadian, to advise the Conservative government on the thorny political issues was made with the last-minute blessing of interim Liberal leader Bill Graham.
Mr. Khan, who served in Pakistan's air force before coming to Canada in 1974, said he will travel to the region as Mr. Harper's envoy and prepare a report for the Prime Minister by Oct. 1, primarily dealing with the Middle East conflict and Canada's role in Afghanistan.
Mr. Harper's advisers said that report will provide an additional perspective to that provided by Canadian diplomats abroad.
Mr. Khan declined to say where he stands on the Middle East, telling a reporter he is heading into his role with an open mind.
He voted against the Conservative government's motion to extend the mission of Canadian troops in Afghanistan past 2007, although he said he supports the mission but believed Mr. Harper's government did not allow enough debate.
Mr. Khan's appointment comes as polls suggest that Mr. Harper's support of Israel in the Mideast conflict may have hurt public support for his Conservative government. However, Mr. Harper's advisers insist that the appointment was not sparked by the current crisis and that Mr. Khan will have a mandate to present his views on a broader region, including South Asia.
"I think the credit goes to the Prime Minister," Mr. Khan said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "He has reached across party lines. I think this is a supra-partisan issue, a non-partisan issue, and he realized that I have experience and depth of knowledge of that region, and he's asked me to do some work for him."
Mr. Khan, who is seen as a shrewd political organizer and is prominent in Toronto's Muslim-Canadian community, was first elected in 2004. He said he will remain a Liberal MP and Ontario chair for the campaign of Liberal leadership candidate Joe Volpe. Mr. Khan took the Volpe post after Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis resigned, citing Mr. Volpe's pro-Israeli stance in the Middle East conflict.
The appointment caught Liberals off guard Tuesday.
A spokesman for Mr. Graham, the interim Liberal leader, said Mr. Khan told Mr. Graham of the appointment late Tuesday, and Mr. Graham gave his approval.
"He came to Bill about an hour ago and said that he was going to undertake this assignment. I think his words were that it superseded partisan politics, and it was an opportunity for him to use his knowledge, skills and contacts in the area to help to work for a lasting peace," Pat Breton said. "Bill had a hard time saying no to that."
A spokesman for Mr. Volpe, Corey Hobbs, said the Liberal leadership hopeful also gave his blessing and that "we're glad to see that Mr. Harper has such confidence in members of Mr. Volpe's campaign."
But some Liberals quietly suggested that Mr. Harper had developed a cunning strategy to use a Liberal to deflect criticism of his own position.
Mr. Harper's parliamentary secretary, Jason Kenney, said that Mr. Khan approached the Conservatives in May about the need to better communicate the goals of Canada's mission in Afghanistan, and that his discussion with the government began before the Middle East conflict broke out.
"We were thinking about doing this before the situation in Lebanon developed," Mr. Kenney said, adding that Mr. Khan "has his own military and intelligence contacts" in the region.
Mr. Khan's Liberal caucus colleagues suggested that Mr. Harper needs to mend political fences in Canada.
"It is unusual. I called to congratulate Mr. Khan on his appointment," said Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj, who has been critical of Mr. Harper's stand on the Middle East conflict.
"Mr. Harper has taken some significant hits in the polls recently, especially in multicultural communities," he said. "If there was a time for him to make this sort of appointment, it would be now."