Ducking flak by heading to Kandahar
Don Martin, National Post
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
OTTAWA - A strange new pattern of Canadian political behaviour is gaining momentum -- when under heavy fire, flee to Kandahar.
The base for 2,500 Canadian troops has become the runaway photo op of choice for the Prime Minister, Cabinet ministers and government MPs trying to duck the harsh glare of their own poll-driven frailties and foibles back home.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper dashed off to Kabul and Kandahar on Sunday for his second visit to the region. Journalists who dared disclose the hushhush trip in advance were, for the first time, threatened with arrest in the event they triggered a national security breach.
Perhaps these handcuff-happy government heavies should slap a pair on Liberal MP Ralph Goodale, who was code-winking inside knowledge on Sunday television by tittering he would not be surprised to see Mr. Harper turn up in Kandahar for a diversionary pose or two.
The highlight of the first day was Mr. Harper visiting the same school where two of his ministers had already posed for pictures on separate visits. The school for the underprivileged received $39,500 from Canada last year, precisely matching the cost of Canadian International Development Agency Minister Josee Verner's visit with students there last October.
The only difference seemed to be that Mr. Harper gave the students pencil cases to put into the backpacks handed out by Ms. Verner.
Then, once again, Mr. Harper met with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai. There was the choreographed hug upon arrival, the stop-and-pose handshake at his door wrapped up by the obligatory news conference where Mr. Karzai denied there was any torture of Canadian-apprehended detainees and Mr. Harper denied his trip was just personal damage control.
"We are not daunted by shadows because we carry the light that defines them -- the light of freedom and democracy, of human rights and the rule of law, the light of this country's tangible progress to date, and its determination and hope for the future," Mr. Harper read off a text that could've been written by George Dubya himself. "Canada," countered the Afghan President, "your assistance has meant the world to us." More shakes and hugs followed.
Now, while the Conservatives like to interpret any Afghanistan quibbles as an oath of allegiance to the Taliban, questioning the photo ops is not to question the military ops.
These prime ministerial trips are logistical and security nightmares, costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to fly politicians and their entourages halfway around the world to give the appearance of personal risk while wrapped inside a protective military bubble.
And the sheer number of politicians flying into Kandahar in the last year has undoubtedly inconvenienced the military base in hosting a blitz that smacks more of damage control for the Conservatives than moraleboosting for the troops.
Mr. Harper's first trip to the region was in the heat of a domestic political battle when he stoutly refused to allow a debate on the Kandahar deployment before reversing himself a few months later.
Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor has been to Kandahar three times with every trip taking off across the Atlantic just ahead of a rumble of calls for his resignation in the House of Commons. He was there just two months ago and is back there with the Prime Minister now.
Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay has gone twice while Cabinet colleagues Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day, Treasury Board president Vic Toews and Environment Minister John Baird did a tour along with tagalong Conservative MPs Helena Guergis, Ted Menzies, Laurie Hawn, Jay Hill and Rick Casson.
If the Prime Minister and his ministers could report real progress, articulate a pressing reason to be there and actually listen to soldiers instead of unleashing the contrived rah-rah of their political thunder, there could be an argument to support their military manoeuvres.
If MPs went into the field of operations, visiting the forward lines to see the military's equipment, or lack thereof, in action, there could be acquired military intelligence.
But given they mostly stay inside heavily fortified zones, file no reports on the result of their visits and wrap the costs in the hazy transparency and hidden accountability that are quickly becoming the hallmarks of this government, they become a legitimate target.
The Liberals argue Mr. Harper's time would be better spent touring the European capitals to round up the next tenants for a Kandahar mission that's scheduled to end in February, 2009. Perhaps. But I don't recall the onus being on Canada to replace itself before the troops' redeployment.
If the government wants to maximize the bang for its morale- boosting buck, might I suggest the politicians stay at home this summer and fly in a bunch of Senators instead. Specifically, those of future Stanley Cup champion fame, not the sleepy patronage purveyors of sober second thought.
© National Post 2007