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Why are Liberals pretending Ottawa has no say over Saudi arms sale?

Former prime minister Stephen Harper tours the General Dynamics Land Systems facility in London, Ont., last year.

Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press

The Liberal government's declaration this week that the sale of armoured military vehicles to Saudi Arabia is a private matter between a manufacturer and its client is completely disingenuous and not worthy of Justin Trudeau's election promises of openness and transparency.

The $15-billion sale was brokered by a Crown agency on behalf of General Dynamics Land Systems Canada. The agency, the Canadian Commercial Corporation, is the prime contractor and is responsible for delivering the vehicles. Fulfilment of the contract is guaranteed by the Canadian government.

As well, Ottawa must approve any military sales to countries with poor human-rights records. So a spokesman for Global Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion qualifying the sale as "a private company … delivering the goods according to a signed contract with the government of Saudi Arabia" is the height of insincerity.

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The Trudeau government is merely distancing itself from the deal to cover its political behind. Saudi Arabia routinely tortures and executes dissidents and violates the human rights of women and foreign workers. It added another smear to its reputation when it executed 47 people on Jan. 2 – including a popular Shia cleric. The killings set off a new crisis in the Middle East.

Ottawa has condemned the mass executions but says it won't stop the sale. That's not unusual. It's commonplace for a country to criticize a troublesome ally and also do business with it. Furthermore, if the vehicles aren't built in London, Ont., they will be built somewhere else. Any controversy over the sale is lost on the estimated 3,000 Canadians whose jobs are being preserved by the lucrative contract, and on their union, Unifor, which pushed hard to save those jobs.

Let's be frank: Canada has been selling arms for decades, including to Saudi Arabia in the past, as well as to Pakistan, Indonesia, Colombia and Algeria – not exactly the sweetest countries in the world. This is not a new or shocking development.

But the Liberals' desire to absolve the government of responsibility for the sale is ridiculous. It is not out of their hands to cancel it. Ottawa made a tough – and correct – choice by allowing it to go ahead, but still somehow managed to appear weak.

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