Should the House of Commons be debating Syria right now?

On parliamentary accountability and military action

The Globe’s editorial board thinks so.

As the world ponders how to respond to the growing evidence that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on its citizens, one body remains conspicuously silent – the Canadian Parliament. Prime Minister Stephen Harper should recall Parliament immediately, as Britain has done, in order to debate this urgent question and the role Canada should play…

Parliament, under a Harper government, held debates about extending the Canadian Forces mission in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2008, and Parliament voted to support the deployment of fighter jets in Libya in 2011. There is time to debate the Syria crisis and the situation is grave. Parliament should not sit idle at such a moment.

We covered the precedents on Tuesday. Of course, if, as CP reported yesterday, Canada is unable or unlikely to participate in a military strike on Syria, there might not be much of a debate to be had.

The question of whether the House should vote on military deployments is one Philippe Lagasse tackled extensively in this piece two years ago for the Institute for Research on Public Policy. He made his basic argument before a parliamentary committee last year.

I am very strongly of the view that we should preserve the crown’s prerogative to deploy the military without necessarily having the approval of the House of Commons.

That being said, there is the question of what role the House of Commons does have in debating these missions and obliging the government to, at the very least, outline what it intends to do, what it intends to spend. And if it needs incremental funding from the House it should be able to secure that.

Again, the reason I’m so adamant about this is that to my mind, accountability in our system is preserved when the executive is fully responsible for the decisions it makes and doesn’t have the capacity to launder its decisions through the House, as I believe this government has done on a number of occasions. I find that really muddies accountability for national defence.

That being said, there should still be a debate in the House, motions in the House, where members of Parliament have the opportunity to debate these missions. That should be required. The government should also be required to divulge the full information in terms of costs, in terms of what it’s deploying and what it foresees as the end game.

It is possible then to have a debate in the House without a binding vote that would determine whether this country engages in a military action. On whether the House should be voting on military action, Lagasse makes important points and raises valid concerns, though I’m not sure I entirely share those concerns—I think I would tend to see military action like any other decision of public policy.

Of course, to what degree the executive can act without the approval of the legislature is a point of debate in the United States as well. The British House is debating the matter of Syria at this moment and David Cameron’s situation is perhaps turning into an interesting test of the idea that the legislature should approve military action—in this case, Mr. Cameron is facing doubts and having to work to get the House to go along with a mission. I dare say that seems to be how it should be.

Regardless of whether Canada can or will participate in Syria, there is something in the Globe’s idea that Parliament “should not sit idle at this moment.” It should be, though perhaps increasingly is not, the centre stage that it is supposed to be.

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