Ignatieff in hot seat over Afghanistan mission vote

Michael Ignatieff was left in the hot seat Friday after Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s assertion that parliamentary approval isn’t necessary to extend Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan.

OTTAWA — Michael Ignatieff was left in the hot seat Friday after Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s assertion that parliamentary approval isn’t necessary to extend Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan.

The Liberal leader came under immediate pressure from the NDP and Bloc Quebecois to ensure the House of Commons gets a chance to debate and vote on any extension of the mission beyond the parliamentary approved exit date of July 2011.

The Liberals could use a scheduled opposition day to force a vote on Thursday, one day before the start of a NATO leaders’ summit in Lisbon, Portugal.

No other party has an opposition day scheduled before the summit, at which Harper is widely expected to commit to leaving up to 1,000 troops in Afghanistan until 2014 to help train the Afghan military.

However, until Harper discloses the details of the planned extension, Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae said, it’s “premature” to decide whether a vote is required.

Harper argued Friday that such an extension wouldn’t require parliamentary approval because it would involve a strictly non-combat role.

“My position is if you’re going to put troops into combat, into a war situation, I do think for the sake of legitimacy, I do think the government does require the support of Parliament,” Harper said in Seoul, South Korea, where he was attending a G20 leaders’ summit.

“But when we’re talking simply about technical or training missions, I think that is something the executive can do on its own.”

Both the NDP and Bloc immediately vowed to use every procedural tool at their disposal, including potentially requesting an emergency debate, to ensure Parliament gets a chance to weigh in on the issue.

“I certainly believe that there ought to be a debate and vote in the House of Commons, by hook or by crook,” NDP Leader Jack Layton said in an interview.

However, Layton said the Liberals are in the best position to force a vote, by virtue of Thursday’s opposition day.

If they don’t take advantage of that opportunity, Layton said, “it’ll tell me that they’re somehow content to try to duck under the radar screen of Canadians’ concerns and hope that this goes away.

“It’s not going away. The NDP will make sure of that.”

Layton accused Ignatieff of “conspiring” with Harper to “break two promises at once,” referring to the prime minister’s past vows to hold parliamentary votes on the deployment of Canadian troops and to withdraw entirely from Afghanistan by next July.

Since last spring, Ignatieff has been advocating a post-combat training role for Canadian troops. But, in the absence of details, he’s refused so far to endorse Harper’s plans for a three-year extension.

Ignatieff dodged questions Friday about the need for a vote on the matter by complaining once again about the dearth of details.

“We still don’t know what they’ve got in mind and I can’t pronounce on it or make a decision on it until I see exactly what they have in mind,” Ignatieff said in Richmond, B.C.

“We want to know what it costs, we want to know who we’re doing this training with, we want to know what the objectives are. At the moment the government gives the impression that they’re kind of making it up as they go along and I don’t think that’s good enough.”

Both the NDP and Bloc are opposed to a continued military presence in Afghanistan — in any capacity — beyond next summer.

And both maintain it’s impossible to have troops involved in training the Afghan military without occasionally winding up in combat. Hence, they say, Harper’s justification for proceeding without a vote does not hold water.

Bloc defence critic Claude Bachand speculated that Harper wants to avoid a vote before the Lisbon summit because he’s afraid it will expose parliamentary divisions. He accused the prime minister of “kicking democracy around” — both in his refusal to hold a vote and in choosing to announce the mission extension while travelling outside the country during a parliamentary break week.

“We think this is very bad for democracy,” Bachand said.

Layton echoed that sentiment, saying: “This really sets the record for breaking a promise long-distance. … It’s totally disrespectful of Parliament and of Canadians.”

Parliamentary procedure expert Ned Franks said Harper is technically correct that he doesn’t need parliamentary approval to deploy Canadian troops. However, Franks said “courtesy” suggests Harper should show some respect for Parliament’s opinion on the matter, particularly since the planned extension alters the 2011 exit date approved by a Commons vote in 2008.

Franks was not optimistic any such courtesy will be forthcoming.

“I think he’s shown less respect for Parliament than any other prime minister I know,” he said. “That’s harsh but I don’t think it’s too wrong.”