Detainee issue won’t go away

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Prime minister Stephen Harper on Wednesday asked Governor General Michaëlle Jean to prorogue Parliament. Instead of resuming the session on Jan. 25, as would ordinarily have happened, Parliament will return on March 3 for a new session beginning with a Throne Speech followed by a new budget.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/01/2010 (4720 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Prime minister Stephen Harper on Wednesday asked Governor General Michaëlle Jean to prorogue Parliament. Instead of resuming the session on Jan. 25, as would ordinarily have happened, Parliament will return on March 3 for a new session beginning with a Throne Speech followed by a new budget.

The prime minister says that a new budget is needed to reflect new economic realities as the nation emerges from recession; his office is musing about making this an annual thing, although that would mean a radical adjustment of the Canadian parliamentary tradition. The government’s critics say that’s a bunch of malarkey, that the whole scheme is an attempt to make an end run around an issue that, curiously, hardly any Canadians appear to care about — the treatment several years ago of Afghan prisoners taken by the Canadian army.

If, by proroguing Parliament, it had been the intent of the Harper government to put the issue of Afghan detainees on the back burner in the hope that the faint flames that issue has sparked would finally flicker and go out, as the Opposition parties and many in the media say, it was a serious miscalculation.

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Coming as it does after a series of Tory manoeuvres to impede the work of the parliamentary committee investigating the alleged torture of prisoners handed over by Canadian forces to Afghan authorities, it seems more likely to fan those flames, to turn an issue that hitherto had hardly shown up on the public’s radar into a matter of active concern among voters.

From the Conservative point of view, it is not a bad short-term strategy. It allows the prime minister and senior cabinet ministers to avoid hard questions in the committee and during Question Period in the House of Commons. It effectively kills the committee, in fact, which dies with the session of Parliament just passed and must be replaced by a new one if the investigation is to continue. It allows Mr. Harper the opportunity to appoint five new senators, which will give the Conservatives control of Senate committees that for 20 years have been dominated by Liberals.

And it allows for — in fact, it seems to count on — the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games that open Feb. 12 and run through the month to serve as a distraction for Canadians who would rather watch hockey than hooey in the middle of winter and are more inclined to worry about our medal chances in figure skating rather than who knew what and when about alleged torture.

But once the medals have been decided, the issue of the detainees will remain on the agenda. The Tories are going to have tell the nation what they knew and when about torture, if in fact it took place.

The Conservative government does not come out of this smelling very good. If it has nothing to hide, it is giving a pretty good impression that it does. The opposition parties don’t emerge from it very fragrantly either; if they truly care about the Afghan detainees, or about anything other than embarrassing the Conservatives, they are doing a good job of hiding it.

Although polls show that most Canadians are at best indifferent to the issue, the question of the Afghan detainees does matter and needs to be settled because it goes to the root of government openness and honesty with the Canadian public. If this prorogation of Parliament is nothing more than an attempt to avoid that, it is an offence to this country’s democracy.

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