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Prisoner abuse off public's radar

Issue doesn't seem to be hurting Tories

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Political pundits and journalists are on constant lookout for THE ISSUE, the one that changes fortunes and reverses trends.

It is not an easy thing to spot. Some issues seem at first blush to have the potential to ruin a party or government. Unfortunately, the issues that offend pundits and journalists don't always tax voters.

This fall, there have been several issues on the federal stage that seemed to have the potential to be "the one." One of the most promising involved allegations that the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper was funnelling federal infrastructure funds to Tory-held ridings.

For several weeks, the opposition rode those allegations hard while news outlets published reports that showed ridings held by Tory MPs were indeed getting more federal stimulus funding than opposition ridings.

It was a solid issue for the opposition, further proof that the Conservative government is no better or worse than its predecessors when it comes to patronage. However, the issue had absolutely no resonance with voters. While the Tories fended off shrill, daily allegations in the House of Commons, public opinion polls showed voters flocking to Harper's Conservatives and souring on the Liberals and Michael Ignatieff.

Having seemingly (or so far) survived this issue, the Tories have waded into yet another maelstrom that some pundits believe could be "the one." This time, it's about the federal government's decision to turn over prisoners to Afghan authorities with the knowledge they were being tortured.

The issue arose following stunning testimony by Richard Colvin, a senior Canadian diplomat who claims he warned the current federal government as far back as 2006 that prisoners captured by Canadian troops in Afghanistan, and then turned over to Afghan authorities, were being tortured.

Colvin alleged Canada not only violated international humanitarian law, but then tried to cover its tracks. Colvin said his reports to senior government officials were at first dismissed, then ignored and then suppressed. At one point he was told to stop making written reports.

To date, the Tory government has used every trick, dirty and otherwise, to deflect Colvin's allegations. The Tories at first tried to portray Colvin as a fool who bought into Taliban propaganda. Then, he was accused of being a traitor who may himself have broken the law by revealing what he knew.

However, a day later, Defence Minister Peter MacKay claimed that Canada changed its policies for turning over prisoners to Afghan forces in part because of Colvin's concerns. Dismissing reports and then claiming you took them seriously is, as they say in politics, sucking and blowing at the same time. And it's a clear sign of a government scrambling to find an excuse.

Many political commentators believe Colvin for a couple of important reasons. First, it seems pretty clear Colvin is being selfless in blowing the whistle; his testimony is essentially professional suicide. But there is another reason why these allegations ring true.

Torture has been a consistent feature of this and the other skirmishes that make up the War on Terror. Ever since terrorists crashed commercial jetliners into the World Trade Centre, civilized countries have utilized uncivilized tactics in a rather futile attempt to restore order to the world.

It is not hard to imagine Afghan forces torturing prisoners because the architect of the war in that country, the United States, has itself made extensive use of torture to elicit intelligence from prisoners. It is also not hard to imagine that Canadian officials would be reluctant about making a fuss about an issue that the U.S. has embraced as a necessary evil, despite evidence that torture produces little genuine intelligence.

That we would not stand on our own values when it comes to torture is certainly a sorry tale. To then work diligently and systemically to suppress the evidence of our shortcomings is shameful. To suppress and then threaten a civil servant who raised concerns is simply horrendous.

Despite all this ugliness, it is not clear the Tories will suffer politically. To punish the Tories we would all have to agree that what happened in Afghanistan was wrong. And after enduring the steady, tragic deaths of Canadian soldiers, voters are probably unsure just how concerned they should be about torturing Afghan prisoners.

Perhaps the Tories knew that Canadians are conflicted, and it emboldened them to attack Colvin and deny his allegations.

This is not one of Canada's finest moments. But in the final analysis, no government should fear an issue that the voters themselves don't fear.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 23, 2009 A6

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