The Commons: Stephen Harper says a lot of things

Reminiscing about the Prime Minister’s words is always a good place to start--for entertainment’s sake.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper stands in the House of Commons during Question Period in Ottawa, Wednesday April 25, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

The Scene. Thomas Mulcair began with a reminder of something Stephen Harper had once said. This is always a good place to start. Not for the sake of accuracy or precedent or for the purposes of demonstrating the seriousness with which one should regard the words of the Prime Minister, but for entertainment’s sake. A bit like sitting around with a bunch of friends recalling various things one of you once did or said. As that Nickelback song so poignantly captured.

“Mr. Speaker, this is what the Prime Minister said in 2009,” Mr. Mulcair said. ” ‘The military mission in Afghanistan will end in 2011. I have said it here and I have said it across the country. In fact, I think I said it recently in the White House.’ ”

That is, indeed, what Mr. Harper said on October 1, 2009, as recorded in Hansard, in response to a question from Jack Layton.

“It is now 2012 and our soldiers are still in Afghanistan,” Mr. Mulcair continued, now speaking for himself. “Has Canada received a request from the United States to keep our troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014?”

Mr. Harper stood here and said another one of those remarkable things. “Mr. Speaker,” he said, “our military presence in Afghanistan is determined by this House.”

This was remarkable mostly for another thing the Prime Minister once said.

“When we’re talking simply about technical or training missions, I think that is something the executive can do on its own,” he said in November 2010. “I’m not resistant to having debates on that matter in the House of Commons. But I do think when it comes to decisions such as this, the government has to be free to act.”

That was once his explanation for extending the mission in Afghanistan three years past the point at which he previously said it would end. This despite what he had once said about seeking the House’s affirmation before committing the nation’s soldiers.

Mr. Mulcair now had another quote, this one from a man who used to sit beside Mr. Harper in this House. “Lawrence Cannon, minister of foreign affairs at the time, said in 2010, ‘We might be pressured obviously, but I think the Prime Minister has made this perfectly clear. March of 2014 is when we will be leaving,’ ‘” Mr. Mulcair recalled.

Indeed, that is what Mr. Cannon said on November 23, 2010, five months after Mr. Cannon had said Canadian Forces would be out of Afghanistan after 2011.

“We have heard those words before,” Mr. Mulcair continued. “We were supposed to be out before. Are we being pressured again to keep soldiers in Afghanistan beyond 2014?”

The Prime Minister was all up-turned palms in response. “Mr. Speaker, I am told we have not had that specific request from the United States and whether it comes or not, let me be very clear. Canada will make its own determination in this regard,” he clarified. “We have our forces there now to help train the Afghan security forces because it is in the interests of our country that Afghanistan does not become, once again, a safe haven for terrorism and also in our interest that in order to prevent that, the Afghans themselves assume greater responsibility for their own security. Our government will make any decisions it makes with those best interests of our own country and the world community in mind.”

Mr. Mulcair detected a notable nuance, nodding as he stood. “Mr. Speaker, that was artful,” he complimented. ” ‘That specific request.’ We will see what that means.”

The opposition leader rolled his eyes here and then proceeded to the thrust of his concern. “Canadians do not want yet another Conservative extension of the mission in Afghanistan and the NDP will not support one,” he declared, winning applause from the New Democrats in attendance. “Canadians have been perfectly clear. They want our troops home. They want this mission to end. It was supposed to end in 2006. It was supposed to end in 2009. It was supposed to end in 2011. It is supposed to end in 2014. When will it finally end?”

Mr. Harper came up swaggering slightly. “Mr. Speaker, it is not a remarkable statement that the NDP will not support the mission,” he remarked. “The NDP could not even make up its mind to support World War II, that mission.”

The Conservatives in attendance found this quite humorous.

Here though, as the chuckles finished, the Prime Minister made news. Never mind what Mr. Cannon said. Never mind the exact specificity of the request. Never mind what Mr. Harper once said about the need to put “an end date on these things.” Here now was the Harper government’s position on this country’s presence in Afghanistan.

“Canada has been involved in Afghanistan with the support of most of the parties in the House for some years,” he said. “Our plan at the current time is obviously for the mission that goes to 2014, but as we approach that date, we will examine all options and we will take the decision that is in the best interests of this country and in the best interests of our security objectives for the globe and not an ideological knee-jerk response like the NDP.”

This commitment to flexibility won Mr. Harper a standing ovation from the government side. But then Mr. Mulcair was up again, nodding once more. “Mr. Speaker, Canadians are taking note,” he ventured.

And on that note, he was on to something else Mr. Harper had once said. “In 2006, the Conservative platform pledged that Parliament would vote on the ‘commitment of Canadian forces to foreign operations,’ ” the leader of the opposition recalled. “By 2010, that had been artfully amended to ‘combat’ missions. Will there be another amendment now? Will Parliament only review the missions that the Prime Minister feels like discussing?”

Once more to Mr. Harper, once more with something interesting to say.

“Mr. Speaker,” he said, “all of the military missions committed to under this government have come before the House.”

This much is true. But only because the Bloc Quebecois put forward a motion calling on the House to condemn the government’s decision to “unilaterally extend” the mission after 2011. That, as noted, after Mr. Harper had decided that the extension didn’t need to be put before the House.

“Certainly, should there be any other significant military missions, we are committed to getting the consent of Parliament before we act,” the Prime Minister continued. “That has been our action and that is what we will do in the future.”

Perhaps it is best to file that one away for future reminiscing.

The Stats. Ethics, 10 questions. Military procurement, six questions. Afghanistan, five questions. Arts funding, three questions. Food safety, fisheries and abortion, two questions each. Old Age Security, the environment, prostitution, immigration, the Dalai Lama, Ukraine and affordable housing, one question each.

Stephen Harper and Peter Van Loan, nine responses each. Rona Ambrose, five responses. James Moore and Rob Nicholson, three responses each. Pierre Lemieux, Keith Ashfield and Denis Lebel, two responses each. Joe Oliver, Jason Kenney, John Baird and Kellie Leitch, one response each.