The Commons: Those in mud houses

The government has plenty of promises, if few explanations, for the mess in Afghanistan

The Scene. Stéphane Dion—not to mention Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae and party whip Karen Redman—were not to be seen when Question Period began this day, the last Monday of this Parliamentary season. And perhaps there was some method in keeping him away.

With just a week left to tarnish this government’s reputation—or, rather, a week left to do so on business hours—the Liberals seem intent on leaving no alleged wrong unreferenced. Indeed, today offered a veritable buffet of the unappetizing—from Julie Couillard’s ambitious seductions to the Chuck Cadman tape to the in-and-out affair, NAFTAgate and the legal aspirations of Vic Toews.

So exhaustive and unrelenting was the opposition that Peter Van Loan, that solid champion of the public trust, was heard crying out for something more substantive. And if Mr. Dion is to announce this week the defining policy of his leadership—a boldly wistful plan that asks voters to put aside the individual needs of now for the sake of meeting a greater common good at some point in the unknown future—it is perhaps best at the moment to put some distance between him and this tawdry business of democracy.

Not, of course, that there weren’t legitimate issues to discuss this day. On the contrary. Just in time for summer, there are entirely new and serious questions to be asked about the country’s mission in Afghanistan.

Up first on this front was Jack Layton, wondering how the government could account for the rather brazen jailbreak (as a rule, all jailbreaks are brazen) the Taliban executed last week, sending several hundred undesirables into the Afghan countryside.

Rising to take the question from his mustachioed friend, the Prime Minister first deemed this “an incident,” before quickly upgrading it to “a very serious situation.” Later, he split the difference and deemed it “a very serious security incident.”

Layton, with his second opportunity, then attempted to make the sort of policy suggestion Van Loan and his mates always feign desperate interest in hearing. “The NDP has been pushing, along with Amnesty International and others, for the creation of a joint facility to keep Afghan detainees,” the NDP leader said. “Will the Prime Minister at least support this idea so that Canada can be sure to meet its obligations under international law?”

But in keeping with his splitting of differences, the PM went immediately for the easy political score. “Mr. Speaker, I will ask the NDP to explain the contradiction of wanting us out of Afghanistan but also to build permanent Canadian institutions there.”

Then, for good measure, Mr. Harper underlined for duller minds the real point of last week’s setback. “What that should remind everybody in the chamber of,” he said, “is how dangerous some of the prisoners in that prison indeed are, indeed the danger of the Taliban that the local population and our Canadian Forces have to deal with every day. This should bring that appreciation to every member of the House and we should support Canadian troops.”

Yes, supporting the troops. About that. What, wondered Liberal Bryon Wilfert, about these suggestions that the prison in question was perhaps not up to standard? What with the walls made of mud and the creek full of land mines that ran through it.

“The Canadian Forces continue to distinguish themselves each and every day as we are in Afghanistan,” assured Peter MacKay. “We continue to make every diligent effort to provide security in Afghanistan so reconstruction and development can continue to take place in that war-torn country.”

Wilfert, though, then dared suggest the government was being less than forthcoming.

“We have now had 28 technical briefings!” thundered the Defence Minister, stirring the echoes.

And yet, undeterred by this Churchillian pronouncement, the opposition persisted.

What, Liberal Brent St. Denis asked, are we doing to help those troops deal with the unspeakable trauma of war?

“We are getting the job done,” assured Veteran Affairs Minister Greg Thompson.

Okay, St. Denis countered, but what of these reports that Canadian soldiers are being told to ignore incidents of sexual assault among Afghan soldiers and civilians?

“These are serious allegations,” explained MacKay, “and we will get to the bottom of them.”

Such commitments will no doubt be of great comfort on the other side of the Atlantic, where today’s news is that the Taliban has overtaken several villages and is thought to be considering an assault on Kandahar city. As one of those soldiers this government steadfastly supports put it: “Shit’s hitting the fan.”

If that is the case, though, Mr. Dion’s presence will be all the more unnecessary. Indeed, if the proverbial shit is hitting the proverbial Afghan fan, little effort at all will be required of these opposition members.

For quite unlike the scandals and controversies that come every week or so around here, war is an inescapable reality. And even without the daily trifle of Question Period, this government will be left to account for the battle reports and death tallies that are sure to come through what is now looking to be a dreadful summer.

The Stats. Maxime Bernier, seven questions. Afghanistan and the economy, six questions each. Minority rights, four questions. Chuck Cadman, election financing, product safety, Vic Toews, NAFTA, arts funding and firefighters, two questions each. The environment, employment and natives, one question each.

Peter Van Loan, eight answers. Josée Verner, six answers. Stephen Harper, five answers. Jean-Pierre Blackburn, four answers. Peter MacKay and John Baird, three answers each. James Moore, Pierre Poilievre and Steven Fletcher, two answers each. Diane Ablonczy, Rob Nicholson, Monte Solberg and Chuck Strahl, one answer each.

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