The outcome was never in doubt, but that is not to say there wasn’t much at stake in Tuesday’s debate over the extension of Canada’s bombing mission in Libya.
As a test of constructive, substantive, civilized debate in this new 41st Parliament, it was a success.
As a test of a new opposition, the NDP passed, confirming that this was not your grandmother’s NDP.
As a test of the third party and its interim leader, Bob Rae proved there is still enough talent over in the Liberal corner to further debate on such a substantive matter.
But for Canadians seeking a better understanding of what our end game is in Libya and how long we are prepared to continue this NATO mission, it was a bust.
We are in deeper, but no more enlightened.
Civility, decorum and backroom briefings for party leaders have their downsides.
Too much of the debate felt pre-cooked and no one was about to try too hard to bump someone off their canned talking points.
The mission that was extended until the end of September is clearly a mission of regime change in Tripoli, but that was impossible to divine from Tuesday’s debate.
The Conservative government kept hiding behind a United Nations resolution that limits the mission to enforcing a no-fly zone that protects civilians.
New Democrats kept reaching for assurances that the goal of the mission is not regime change.
Yet, as they were talking in Ottawa, a NATO airstrike hit an area just outside Moammar Gadhafi’s compound in Tripoli and NATO was dropping leaflets east of the capital warning government troops to abandon their posts or “face destruction.”
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird announced Ottawa would recognize the rebel-led National Transitional Council as Libya’s legitimate representative.
He said the Conservative government, along with most governments, agreed Gadhafi must go.
“He is a clear and present threat both to his people and to the stability of the region,’’ Baird said.
Yet, in Ottawa, none of this added up to regime change.
Certainly, no one was discussing the obvious — that regime change could be one smart bomb away.
“We can’t decide who we like and don’t like and go around the world taking out people we don’t like,’’ said NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar.
No one asked point blank whether Canadian JTF2 troops are on the ground.
If there were confidential backroom briefings, there was also likely an understanding that question was not to be asked, although the NDP is opposed to any Canadian “boots on the ground.’’
There was no explanation as to why the UN Responsibility to Protect doctrine — something the former Liberal government helped craft — justified action in Libya, but apparently does not in Syria.
There was no serious push to justify a $60 million price tag through to the end of September, a figure that sounds highly efficient, if not deliberately lowballed.
And there was no more light shed on what the Canadian role would be come September, if Gadhafi is still hunkered down and NATO allies tire, something that is already being signalled.
New Democrat MP Libby Davies asked if there was an exit strategy.
She received no answer.
Liberal John McKay tried, pointing out to Defence Minister Peter MacKay that bombing is not a strategy but “a means to an end.’’
MacKay corrected him, telling him bombing was a strategy and dismissing calls to suspend the bombing missions to allow for an attempt at ceasefire.
Humanitarian aid was increased by $2 million, including money to assist those allegedly sexually assaulted by Gadhafi troops.
All the right things were said about diplomatic efforts to find a peace, but no one on the government side would talk about rebuilding until the current NATO effort plays out.
It’s just that nobody knows when that will be.
Tim Harper is a syndicated national affairs columnist for The Toronto Star.