Prime Minister Stephen Harper won't test his plans for a post-2011 Afghan training mission in Parliament, sparing the Liberals from a potentially divisive vote in the Commons, but raising accusations the two parties cooked up a deal to extend the military's role.
Mr. Harper, who spoke to reporters in Seoul on Friday, said a vote in Parliament is required to lend legitimacy to missions in which troops will face combat.
"But when we're talking simply about technical or training missions," he said, "I think that is something the executive can do on its own."
The New Democrats accuse the Liberals and Conservatives of collaborating to keep troops in Afghanistan for training without a vote in Parliament, pointing to the fact that Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon called Liberal Bob Rae a week ago to talk about the plan.
But Mr. Rae, who has said Mr. Cannon called only briefly to inform him of options the government was considering, insisted no deal was struck.
"There's no deal. ... It does not exist," he said. "The government has held a series of press conferences and we've indicated we were interested in seeing what it is the government has in mind, exactly.
"There was no discussion about any vote at that time," Mr. Rae said of his conversation on Nov. 5 with Mr. Cannon.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said in Vancouver on Friday that the Liberals and the Conservatives had no conversations "of substance" regarding the future role of Canadian troops in Afghanistan.
"A phone call between Lawrence Cannon and Bob Rae does not make a deal," he said. "There is, in fact, no deal at all."
Mr. Rae and the Liberals, however, did open the door for the Conservatives to change the time-frame on the mission.
Mr. Rae returned from a Commons committee trip to Afghanistan in June and called for a post-2011 training mission, surprising some of his Liberal colleagues.
For Mr. Harper, who came under heavy pressure from the United States and other allies to keep Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan for training beyond the scheduled 2011 withdrawal, it was opposition political cover for a decision that would otherwise have been politically risky.
And for the Liberals, the lack of a vote in the Commons means they can avoid a hard decision for the caucus members who are uncomfortable with a post-2011 role for the military, and others who have argued, for political reasons, that the Liberals should let Mr. Harper bear sole responsibility for the decision.
Agreement between the Liberals and the Conservatives on the future of the Afghanistan mission would also take much of the potential fire out of the issue during an election campaign that could come as early as this spring.
Mr. Ignatieff endorsed Mr. Harper's assertion that parliamentary approval for an extension of the mission is not required on the condition that Canadian soldiers who remain would be performing the training role that has been floated by the government.
"If - please note the word if - the mission is a genuinely non-combat role, then you could imagine proceeding without a parliamentary resolution," Mr. Ignatieff said. "But we're not there yet. We've got to define what the mission that the government proposes actually is."
Important questions remain unanswered, Mr. Ignatieff said, including the number of troops that would be involved, which other countries would also remain in Afghanistan after 2011, and how much the operation would cost.
"This has to be publicly debated," he said. "The question of whether he needs a resolution or not depends entirely on what kind of mission he proposes and whether all the details are there and acceptable."
But NDP Leader Jack Layton said any move to prolong an operation that has cost the lives of 152 soldiers as well as aid workers, a journalist and a senior diplomat must be put to a vote in the House of Commons.
If the mission is extended without parliamentary approval, the Liberals and Conservatives would be breaking two promises to Canadians, Mr. Layton said in a telephone interview from Montreal.
First "they're not going to bring our troops home as promised in 2011," he said, "and secondly, they're are not going to have a debate and vote in the House of Commons."
In 2008, Mr. Harper opted to seek Parliament's support for a motion extending Canada's military mission in Afghanistan through to July, 2011, a vote the government won 198-77.
Mr. Layton said even the 2008 motion stressed the priority of the troops would be training, not combat. "So this is a spurious argument that Mr. Harper is using."
With a report from Ian Bailey in Vancouver