Prime Minister Stephen Harper has decided he wants a broad consensus in Parliament and across Canada before deciding whether to extend the deployment of a C-17 cargo plane in support of France's counter-insurgency in Mali.
He's been obliged by Opposition leader Tom Mulcair who has agreed, following consultation with the prime minister, to continue Canada's role in the Mali operation. In return, the prime minister has agreed to allow the foreign affairs committee of Parliament to monitor Canada's role in the conflict.
Mr. Harper was not required by law or tradition to seek a coalition, but the move is both smart and appropriate.
It's politically smart because it provides a wider front for moving forward and ensures the decision to help the French will not become a wedge issue. Afghanistan was frequently a divisive issue in Parliament and among the general population, which the prime minister clearly wants to avoid over Mali, even though Canada's role is miniscule.
It's appropriate because the government should keep other parties informed on foreign deployments and try to gain their acceptance.
Mr. Harper's sudden concern for a consensus, however, also raises questions that are rarely asked, namely: What is the correct political process for sending troops to war or peacekeeping and peace-making missions?
In Canada, the declaring of war or deployment of troops has been a somewhat vague affair. On Sept. 9, 1939, Parliament held a debate and voted to declare war on Germany, but it was not required and it had no legal force. The next day, then prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King simply signed an order in council declaring war. Sept. 10 is marked as the day Canada declared war.
There was no parliamentary debate when Canada declared war on Japan in 1941 because the House wasn't sitting. Mr. King simply signed another order in council.
The right to declare war or send troops overseas is a cabinet prerogative in parliamentary tradition, but an amendment to the National Defence Act at the start of the Korean War in 1950 required that Parliament be recalled within 10 days following the deployment of troops for action.
The amendment, however, didn't change the cabinet prerogative; it merely ensured Parliament would have an opportunity to meet.
Such recalls, assuming Parliament wasn't already sitting, were eventually known as "take-note" debates, which were used numerous times since the Korean War, including several debates on the Afghan conflict.
As in the past, they were usually intended to inform Parliament of cabinet decisions or intentions, and not to seek permission.
Some critics find this process unacceptable, particularly when compared to the intricate system of checks and balances on war-making in the United States.
Parliament, however, is a different creature. A minority government would need to solicit the support of other parties or risk a vote of no-confidence, but a majority party has a mandate to rule.
Prime Minister Harper may not need Mr. Mulcair's support, but the country is better for it, particularly at a time when decisions about war and peace are far less clear than when the enemy was Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.