Chalk one up for Layton

Thursday, March 3, 2005

  • Jack Layton at the Bullring...(cannon.ca photo)

    Jack Layton at the Bullring...(cannon.ca photo)

Written by Scott Piatkowski

With just nineteen seats in the House of Commons, Jack Layton’s NDP is not really expected to set the government’s agenda. But, that is exactly what the party (together with the Bloc Quebecois) has done on the issue of missile defense: kept the issue in the public eye; informed Canadians about the dangers of the program; and ultimately forced both Paul Martin and Stephen Harper to reverse their previous strong support for the program.

It was just last October that Defence Minister Bill Graham told The Hill Times that Canada would “suffer the consequences” if it didn’t sign on to the program. “This is in the context of North American defence. Ever since Ogdensburg in the 1940s, Canada has been a partner of the United States in North America and I think it is extremely dangerous for Canada to turn its back on a very important American initiative to defend ourselves and say, ‘We're not going to have any part of this,’” Graham said.

Graham’s predecessor as Defence Minister, David Pratt, was even more hawkish on missile defence. In January 2004, Pratt wrote to Donald Rumsfeld that “In light of the growing threat involving the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction, we should explore extending this partnership to include co-operation in missile defence, as an appropriate response to these new threats and as a useful complement to our non-proliferation efforts… We believe this should provide a mutually beneficial framework to ensure the closest possible involvement and insight for Canada, both government and industry, in the U.S. missile defence program.”

Of course, Martin didn’t appoint Pratt to such a key job without knowing his position on missile defence (or his position in favour of the Iraq War, for that matter). He wouldn’t have had a problem with this position, because he himself was an outspoken passenger on the missile defence bandwagon. In April 2003, for example, he indicated that “I certainly don't want to see Canada isolated from any moves that the United States might take to protect the continent. If there are going to be missiles that are going off over Canadian airspace... I think that we want to be at the table.”

What about the Stephen Harper and Conservatives? In May 2003, Harper attacked the Liberals for not endorsing missile defence as eagerly as he would have liked. “This is about protecting Canadian airspace. It is about protecting Canadian sovereignty, about our role in NORAD, and about having a voice at the table with the United States. Why does the government not realize that these kinds of decisions, like continental missile defence, should be taken because they are in Canada's national interest?”

Later the same month, Harper and his party used a valuable opposition day to call for support of “any system developed to defend North America against ballistic missiles.” In the debate on the motion, MP Cheryl Gallant quoted Harper as follows: “The indecision toward ballistic missile defence is part of that policy of neglect. History tells us that when military preparedness is overly underestimated, which no one can doubt is happening in Canada today, tragic results occur.”

While Martin was an early and enthusiastic proponent of Canadian participation in missile defence, Harper thought that Martin wasn’t enthusiastic enough. As time passed, however, it became apparent to both leaders that Canadian voters weren’t quite as enthusiastic as they were. In fact, polls showed that nearly two-thirds of Canadians were opposed. Moreover, the more they knew about the program, the more likely they were to be opposed.

As a result, Martin began hedging his bets, insisting that “no decision” had been made to participate and that he was in no hurry to make one. Meanwhile, the Conservatives started challenging the Liberals for moving too fast, with too little consultation. Last fall, Conservative Defence Critic Gordon O’Connor charged that “the Canadian public is also justifiably concerned about the sudden policy change that links NORAD to ballistic missile defence...” Note that this “sudden policy change” is exactly what Harper had advocated in 2003.

This waffling by both the Liberals and Conservatives would likely have continued indefinitely if our newly appointed Ambassador to the United States hadn’t opened his mouth last week. Frank McKenna indicated that the government was already committed to participating. Martin still insisted for a few days that he would make a decision “when it's in Canada's interest to do so”, but the public outcry over McKenna’s comments meant that he ultimately had to make a decision – and that decision had to be to say no (although the government continues to equivocate on whether that no is a “not now” or a “not ever”; and it still refuses to condemn either the program itself or its core principle of space weaponization).

Outgoing American Ambassador Paul Cellucci (who seems to have confused his role in Canada with that of colonial governor) has pronounced himself “perplexed” at the Canadian decision. If he really is perplexed, he obviously isn’t as good at listening as he is at talking. Anyone paying attention to the debate on this issue would have noticed Martin and Harper slowly disavowing their support for missile defence, as more and more Canadians were ultimately convinced by Jack Layton’s passionate arguments against the program. Once the voters had been brought onside, the other leaders were sure to follow.


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