Norman Spector

Lying politicians/revolting voters

Special to The Globe and Mail

A demonstrator holds a placard next to a broken window as protesters clash with police after forcing their way into the headquarters of Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative Party in central London. (Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)

In today's lead editorial, The Globe and Mail weighs in on Prime Minister Stephen Harper's change of mind on withdrawing Canadian troops from Afghanistan -and on his continued insistence that these troops will not be involved in combat:

An extension of Canada's military commitment to the country, in the form of a less-dangerous training role in Kabul, is necessary. Canadian casualties will be reduced, perhaps dramatically so. But to pretend that Canada can play a critical training role while remaining safely cocooned is an artifice. So long as there are Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan there will be a risk of casualties. Conservative and Liberal politicians owe it to Canadians to be clear on this point.

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Turning to the news pages of The Globe, however, I note a certain reluctance for clarity on the part of at least one Liberal - a Liberal, as it happens, who for several months has been prodding the government to leave our troops in Afghanistan in a training role:

Mr. Dewar argued that a decision on sending troops to a war zone, even for training, should require a vote in Parliament. The Liberals said they do not necessarily agree with that.

"That's a discussion that needs to be had with all the parties after the government tells us exactly what it's doing. But in principle, I don't think it's absolutely necessary," said Bob Rae, Liberal foreign affairs critic.

In normal circumstances, one would expect the Official Opposition to be pushing a minority government for a vote in the House of Commons. However, since its inception, the Afghanistan mission has been a joint Liberal-Conservative effort. And neither party has had much interest in levelling with Canadians, which helps explain why the objectives of the mission have never been clear.

Consistent with past practice in matters of war, Jean Chrétien - Mr. Rae's political mentor - did not give MPs the final say when he first deployed Canadian troops to Afghanistan, nor when he committed to a larger mission with a greater number of troops. Neither did Paul Martin. Indeed, the take-note debate in Parliament on his decision to deploy Canadian troops to Kandahar, the most dangerous province in the country, was a late-night affair that was scarcely covered by the media.

Now, after misleading Canadians for the better part of a year, Mr. Harper too says that a parliamentary vote is not necessary, as the mission will not involve combat. Without a vote, however, it's unlikely that Liberals and Conservatives will come clean on the progress of the mission to date and its role and prospects between now and 2014.

Before the two parties conclude that it's still in their interest to maintain a conspiracy of silence on the war, they should have a gander at the student protests in London this week which, as Doug Saunders perceptively points out in this morning's paper, heretofore have been considered by most Britons to be a specialty of the French.

During the recent British election campaign, Liberal Democratic Party Leader Nick Clegg said that his objective was to end university tuition fees. He also promised to "implacably oppose" raising them to £7,000 a year - as some Conservatives were proposing - which would be a 'disaster'. Along with many of his candidates, he signed the National University Student's anti-fees pledge: "I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative."

This week, in the wake of the riots in London, Mr. Clegg allowed that he "should have been more careful" before he signed on the dotted line. But, while there's no place for the anarchist tactics we saw in London, it's hard to fault British students, who voted disproportionately for Mr. Clegg's party, from feeling they'd been lied to when the coalition government of which he is now Deputy Prime Minister decided to allow fees to increase in some cases to £9,000 per year.