Harper's Afghanistan decision indicates how closed off Canadian decision making is
Nov 15, 2010

Harper's Afghanistan decision indicates how closed off Canadian decision making is

Canadian governance has a long history of simply announcing decisions, with little opportunity for public discourse to occur before the decision is made.  This last week we have seen yet another example where a decision has been arrived at without the time, ability or knowledge needed for Canadians to engage in a national discussion about it.

The Liberal party has long advocated for a continued training mission in Afghanistan which has been met with steely silence from the Conservatives. Last week John McCain came to Canada and included a CBS interview imploring Canadians to engage in a training mission in Afghanistan. The next day, the Harper government informs us it is taking such a policy under advisement with Ignatieff claiming he knows no details about it.  During the week Bob Rae and Lawrence Cannon met and then on Friday the deal is announced: Canada is staying in Afghanistan for a noncombat training role. I wrote about this mission during this past week as events were unfolding here and here.

The discussion I advocated for a week ago is now effectively over. There isn't going to even be a legislative debate on the issue of whether to send troops in. The government has the official capacity to engage in noncombat roles like this without parliamentary approval; however, this 3 billion dollar operation certainly could be opened up for debate. In one sense, there is little point as the Liberals have long backed this and the Conservatives now do as well; however, it would have the benefit of opening the topic up for actual debate. As it is, this policy will, like so many others before, simply become part of what we do with little discussion one way or the other.  Of course, that thus decision has been made will spark discussion about its details which is good, but it will be a discussion within the context that the decision has occurred.

In my two previous posts I firstly advocated for a more open discussion about Canada's military roles in particular with regards to Afghanistan and secondly supported the idea of a training mission. I have gotten the second, I have gotten a policy I support, but I have gotten it without the discussion I advocated for. This is insufficient not just because its top down nature is undemocratic but also because it is ineffective at utilizing the knowledge of a diverse Canadian people and parliament to achieve the best possible solutions.

This entire issue is indicative of a larger theme in Canadian governance that had been perfected to an art under the Conservatives. Decisions are reached at outside of the public preview an when they are all said and done thy are neatly presented to the public. We see this with the immigration review board, whose machinations remain mysterious. We saw this with the HST in BC that simply arrived as a done deal very shortly after an election that didn't address the issue. We saw this with the census changes, and what is interesting about this case is rather surprisingly this decision did trigger an enormous national conversation about this relatively minor issue. However it was a conversation that took place after the fact with essentially zero willingness on the part if the Harper government to consider any results of the national conversation. This deserves a larger discussion of its own, but the part of this story that the recent Conservatives have extended is by centralizing the media vetting process of government departments which allows for these controlled and polished presentations of policy only after all internal discussion and decision making is complete.

Having a democracy requires active engagement of the citizenry in their governance. It requires having open discussions about the issues of the day.

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