What was Stéphane Dion thinking?

All of the news media is reporting the result of last night’s vote on the Liberal motion on Afghanistan: It was defeated with 150 opposed and 134 in favour.

What was Stéphane Dion thinking?

The Liberal motion was uncritical of the military mission and supported its continuance unchanged, yet called for the government to notify NATO that our troops would be withdrawn from the combat mission in Kandahar when the current commitment ends in February 2009.

The Conservatives have indicated the mission will go well beyond 2009, and so Liberal MPs said their party’s motion was intended to compel the government to “be clear” on when the mission will end. The Bloc Quebecois, which like the Liberals have been all over the map on the war, voted for the motion.

In politics, the wording of a motion is important. When I first read the Liberal motion last week, I feared that it was D.O.A., or Dead-on-Arrival. The motion let the Conservative government off the hook by not expressing any concerns at all about the failing mission, did not call on the government to change the focus from war-fighting to peacebuilding, and missed what is becoming an obvious solution to the war: a diplomatic settlement.

We urged the Liberals to make a small amendment to their motion in order to win NDP support, and Former UN Ambassador for Disarmament Peggy Mason actually suggested specific changes to the language that would likely have been palatable to both Liberals and the NDP. We sent the suggestions to every Liberal and NDP Member of Parliament. The NDP even proposed an amendment during the debate, but the Liberals rejected it.

The big question is, what was the Liberals’ strategy for this motion?

There was no clear objective that I can see. Where was the win for Stéphane Dion? By including language in the motion that directly contradicted NDP policy, such as “this House call upon the government to confirm that Canada’s existing military deployment in Afghanistan will continue until February 2009,” (the NDP wants troops out as soon as possible), the motion was doomed to failure. In fact, there were more than a dozen Liberal MPs who didn’t even show up for the vote.

IgnatieffThere is something wrong inside the Liberal leadership to have so politically mishandled this motion. While Stéphane Dion may be seen as a more progressive leader, it seems like former Bush-apologist Michael Ignatieff won the day in the caucus. He and his supporters shamefully supported the Conservatives in May 2006, giving Harper enough support to narrowly win the vote on extending the military mission for another 2 years. Ignatieff is unwilling to admit that he misjudged how quickly this mission would go off the rails (not the first time he has made this mistake, since he also initially supported George Bush’s invasion of Iraq).

The NDP, which has rightly argued that the mission is “unbalanced,” inappropriate for Canada, and has called for troops to be withdrawn right away, predictably could not support the motion.

I have always urged the NDP to take a principled position on the war. I think that is what they did in this case by not supporting the motion. No one can fault them for that, for if they voted for this flawed Liberal motion, they stood to be accused of abandoning their convictions for political expediency.

However, in politics perceptions are sometimes more important than substance. No doubt many Canadians will not be aware of how this unfolded on the Hill, and will awake today to hear that the NDP voted with the Conservatives on a motion that would have called on the government to end the war in 2009. “Huh?”

Two letters I received yesterday from supporters capture the divided reaction to the Liberal motion amongst people opposed to the war. The first letter suggested my blog did not express enough concern about the weak Liberal motion. The next letter, which arrived a few minutes later from an NDP supporter, expressed disbelief that the NDP intended to vote with the Conservatives.

This morning, my colleague Mike Wallace voiced his concern on this blog that, “While the NDP’s action may please its antiwar “base”, it is almost certainly a strategic and tactical error.”

Stephen HarperNo matter how you feel about the Liberal motion, it’s hard to see who has more reason to smile than Prime Minister Stephen Harper. In a minority government, Harper’s greatest fear is facing a united opposition that together hold more votes than the government. But there was little worry of that for this Liberal motion.

Why did the Liberals not write the motion so it could win NDP support? Why did the NDP choose to vote with the Conservatives rather than with the Liberals, despite the motion’s obvious shortcomings, as Mike and others have suggested?

The answer lies in the fact that many key issues in Parliament are seen through a partisan lens, where “wedge issues” are used to score political points against opponents. In this highly-charged environment, the war is swung like a political hammer.

“What?” you may ask sarcastically, “People playing politics in Parliament? Say it ain’t so!”

It is plain to me that citizen groups have a crucial role to play in ending this war. We need to create a political environment that pulls all of the political parties toward our view, and this can only be done by shifting public opinion. Despite the efforts of pro-war and anti-war sectors of society, public opinion remains essentially divided on the war – so why would we expect Parliament to be any different?

Clearly, people who want to see the war end have their work cut out for them.


P.S. The NDP, in response to the Rideau Institute’s appeal to parties to use their opposition day motions to focus debate on the war, have tabled a motion on Afghanistan which could be debated on Thursday.

Tags: Afghanistan, Defence policy