As today's Globe and Mail editorial and numerous experts have correctly pointed out, there's no legal requirement – written or unwritten – for the House of Commons to debate, much less approve, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's change of mind in deciding to leave Canadian troops in Afghanistan until 2014. However, this does not mean we don't need a new parliamentary resolution to continue Canada's participation in that war.
Without a vote, Canada will be involved in a war in Afghanistan without the authorization of Parliament. As was the case for about four years between February, 2002 and May, 2006 – a fact that Mr. Harper had been known to lament.
How do I know all this?
Prime Minister Harper told me so. Me and more than 31 million other Canadians (as we were in 2006, according to the census of that year).
On May 17, 2006, the Prime Minister rose in the House of Commons and asked that "the House support the government's two year extension of Canada's deployment of diplomatic, development, civilian police and military personnel in Afghanistan and the provision of funding and equipment for this extension."
Here's part of what he had to say that day:
"Mr. Speaker, as members of the House know, we made a pledge during the last election campaign to put international treaties and military engagements to a vote in this chamber.
If we made this promise, it was because before we send diplomats, relief workers and soldiers on dangerous missions abroad, it is important to be able to tell them that Canada's parliamentarians believe in their objectives and support what they are doing….
This evening we will vote for a renewed commitment.
It is a vote that is long overdue. It is a vote that all parties in the House have asked for and have agreed to. As members know, our diplomats, aid workers and soldiers have been deployed in Afghanistan for almost five years.
Despite the fact that members of three of four parties in the House have consistently voiced support for a mission in Afghanistan, Canadians on the ground in Kabul, Kandahar and in the PRT have never received a clear mandate from this Parliament. That is not fair to the brave men and women who wear the maple leaf. They need to know that their Parliament is behind them….
this government is seeking Parliament's clear support to renew Canada's mission in Afghanistan. Our men and women need to know that we share their goals and support their efforts and are willing, regardless of polls that sometimes go up or down, to back them for the next few years so they can finish the work they were sent there to do."
Back then, in imploring MPs to support our diplomats, aid workers, police and soldiers in their dangerous work, Mr. Harper described the goals of the Afghanistan mission in soaring layers of rhetoric. Since then, he's often given the impression that his heart is no longer in the fight and that his head is dubious about success. With President Obama's commitment to the "good war" equally problematic, Canadians no longer can be sure what our notoriously uncommunicative prime minister thinks about the mission. Without a debate and a vote in Parliament, we're unlikely to find out.