Monday, March 22, 2010

The Clock Is Ticking

Now that the opposition parties have rejected the Prime Minister's proposal to let former Justice Frank Iacobucci recommend which documents in the Afghan prisoner file should be made public, the ball is in the Prime Minister's court. The man has a talent for avoiding the consequences of his actions. But, in this case, he's in a box. It appears that he has three options. 

The first is to continue to stonewall.The problem with this strategy is that there are people outside the government, such as Amir Attaran, who know what is in the file. If Mr. Harper continues to ignore the House's order to see the uncensored documents, they will be leaked. Mr. Harper is smart enough to know this. 

That leaves the prime minister with two other options: he can either broaden Mr. Iacobucci's mandate and ask him to conduct a public inquiry; or he can call an election and argue that it is time to put the opposition in its place.

Having seen -- and having taken advantage of -- the political damage which the Gomery inquiry did to Paul Martin's government, Mr. Harper might reject this option. On the other hand, a public inquiry would buy the government time -- as the recent padlocking of Parliament was meant to do; and, if the  public has a short attention span, Mr. Harper might be able to change the channel and send the whole issue down the memory hole. 

However, if Mr. Iacobucci does his job, the revelations from the inquiry would force some departures; and it could eventually lead to the government's defeat in the next election.

Which leads to Mr. Harper's third option -- to call an election.   The advantage of an election is that it might bury the issue. The Conservatives could attempt to turn the discussion to the economy and the "government's action plan." Moreover, an  improving economy might shift public opinion in the government's favour. But elections -- like wars -- seldom go as planned. And the prisoner abuse scandal might sink the Harperites.

Which option will the prime minister choose?  The best option for all parties would be a public inquiry. It is a time honoured parliamentary tradition. But Mr. Harper has already shown that he has little respect for parliamentary traditions. And he clearly takes pleasure in sticking it to his opponents. At present, polls suggest that none of the parties would win a majority. But, if he could talk himself into it, Harper might roll the dice. 

If -- when all was said and done -- the Conservatives found themselves in opposition, Harper would probably return in a sulk to Alberta. If the government again won a minority , the knives would come out. So he might make one last attempt to seize the brass ring. If he succeeds, we are all in deep trouble.

Whichever option the prime minister chooses, the clock is ticking. We are headed for a showdown.


Anonymous said...

Good post.

There is, however, another potential problem with a public inquiry. Harper would likely appoint someome he trusts to set the terms of the inquiry according to what he wants. Look at the Mulroney-Schreiber inquiry. Taxpayers spent something like $17M to have an inquiry that was not allowed to ask any questions on the single most important issue regarding the Mulroney-Schreiber affair: were there any inappropriate actions in the purchase of the airbuses? Even Mulroney himself is on record criticizing/regretting this.

Unless the opposition parties have a say in the terms of reference of the public inquiry, and I do not see why Harper would let them based on his stonewalling tactics, it would be a waste of public money.

Owen Gray said...

I agree with you that Harper will want to control the terms of reference. Whenever he makes a decision, the prime directive is always self interest.

We can only hope that those outside the government will have the temerity to bring the information to light.

In the end, it is they who can break Harper's hold on the information democracy requires.

True Blue said...

Even if Canadians do learn the full truth about the disposition of Afghan prisoners (a highly unlikely prospect), that truth may not be as detrimental to Mr. Harper as the opposition would like. Glibly comparing his predicament to Mr' Mulroney's or to Mr. Martin's is to overlook important differences.

Mr. Harper's government is not suspected of having accepted bribes for favours, nor of dispersing largess to supporters. It's suspected of lying and misleading the Canadian public - certainly a serious enough accusation.

But governments of nations at war routinely hide what they consider sensitive information, lying to conceal it in order to protect its troops or it's nation's overall war effort. Who knows what Mr. Harper is trying to protect?

If the truth ever emerges about the handling of the Afghan prisoners, Canadians may not condemn the Prime Minister as harshly as many of his detractors might wish. His prevarications may prove not to be so ignoble.

Owen Gray said...

Truth, they say, is the first casualty of war. Nonetheless, if a democracy is to function, there must be checks on executive power.

All governments resent these checks. And all governments try to circumvent them -- as the Harper government is now doing.

But to acknowledge that phenomenon is not to accept it. The opposition parties shouldn't accept it. Neither should the Canadian public.

Cari said...

Whatever works out, a poll said most of the people are not interested in what happened about Afghanistan. If Harper calls an election he could tell the people it was over National Security, and nothing could be released.
What then?

Owen Gray said...

Public apathy on Afghan prisoner abuse is deeply troubling. It is a symptom of the kind of myopia which leads nations into political and moral swamps.

But, occasionally, people do the right thing. The opposition parties and the press can't let this issue die. It is not just about knowing if the leadership of this country has given implicit consent to war crimes.

The real issue is whether or not the leadership of this country will be held accountable for its actions -- something the prime minister says is a fundamental principle his government stands for.