OTTAWA – The Harper government is once again calling in the troops in an effort to smother the public debate over the treatment of Afghan detainees.
Besieged by questions over the government’s handling of the detainee issue for a third consecutive week, the Tories mounted a full frontal offensive Monday. They accused their critics of maligning Canada’s soldiers – even though no one has done so. That prompted an immediate opposition counter-attack.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff called it a “disinformation campaign” and accused the government of “hiding behind our soldiers. “
Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe said the Tories are pushing an argument of “astounding simplicity” that is beneath a prime minister.
And NDP Leader Jack Layton accused the Conservatives of “trying to change the channel.”
“This has never been about troops,” he said.
Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae called the tactic “frankly reprehensible,” while arguing that how Canada handled Afghan prisoners is a “critical question for the success of our mission.”
“We are in Afghanistan because we believe in democracy, we believe in human rights, we believe in diversity, we believe in reconciliation,” said Rae.
“We don’t believe in corruption. We don’t believe in torture. We don’t believe in these things as a country. And it’s very important for us to carry on with a real discussion and saying, ‘Well, did we live up to those standards?’
“I don’t think that’s an illegitimate question. I think that’s a perfectly rational question and a serious question.”
Not for Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his government.
No one has accused Canadian soldiers of abusing detainees, but testimony from diplomat Richard Colvin has raised difficult questions about whether senior government officials turned a blind eye to abuses committed on detainees after they were handed over to Afghan authorities by the Canadian military.
Opposition parties want a formal inquiry.
The furor appears to have stung the prime minister, who queued his partisans with an incendiary statement to a military audience aboard a Canadian destroyer Sunday in Trinidad and Tobago.
Harper used a photo opportunity – staged when no reporters could attend, and at which no questions were asked – to accuse his political opponents of “throwing the most serious of allegations at our men and women in uniform based on the most flimsy of evidence.”
The statement was then delivered to reporters travelling with the prime after they boarded the flight home.
To make sure no one had missed it, a Conservative backbencher reread Harper’s comment in the House of Commons just before question period began Monday, setting the tone for a nasty war of words.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay argued that if you accept last week’s testimony by three generals, you must agree the government has acted properly. The corollary was that if you don’t believe the generals you are against Canada’s troops.
The bad blood is sure to persist.
New Democrats will use an opposition day motion Tuesday to push for a vote on a public inquiry into the detainee abuse issue. Party MP Paul Dewar raised a point of privilege Monday concerning the withholding of government documents from MPs on the special committee on Afghanistan.
And Liberal Anita Neville cited a report from information commissioner Suzanne Legault who criticized the flow of information on the Afghan mission.
“Will the prime minister take the information commissioner’s advice, or will he attack her as a Taliban sympathizer like he has so many others who have questioned the government’s actions?” Neville asked in the House.