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Bloc issues ultimatum on Afghan mission

Duceppe says he'll try to topple Tories unless focus of troops shifts to rebuilding

Rheal Seguin, Daniel Leblanc and Gloria Galloway, Globe & Mail, 12 Dec 06

Article Link

 

QUEBEC and OTTAWA -- Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe is ready to trigger the defeat of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's minority government if Canada's role in Afghanistan does not change soon.

 

Mr. Duceppe wants the mission to concentrate on reconstruction, noting it is now "essentially military." If the change in emphasis doesn't take place soon, he will consider introducing a no-confidence motion in the House of Commons to topple the government.

 

To succeed, the Bloc would need the support of both the NDP and the Liberals. The three opposition parties have 182 votes in the Commons, compared with the Conservatives' 124.

 

The NDP's Jack Layton supports the removal of Canada's troops as soon as possible, while Stéphane Dion, the new leader of the Liberals, said he was watching the issue closely. While he would not withdraw troops overnight, Mr. Dion has said he would consider a staged pullout if progress is not made.

 

This is the first time the Bloc has hinted it is laying the groundwork for a no-confidence motion since the separatists worked to bring down the Liberals last November over the sponsorship scandal.

 

While the Bloc Leader refused to say when he would table such a motion, he did not exclude forcing a vote as early as February. Soldiers from the Royal 22nd regiment from Valcartier, Que., will be sent to Afghanistan next August.

 

"Everything is possible . . . I'm not excluding anything. We will judge," he said.

 

Canada risks getting in deeper and deeper, sacrificing the lives of its soldiers without producing any concrete results, he argued.

 

"Mr. Harper will need to rapidly and profoundly change the Canadian mission in Afghanistan, which in a few months will be made up of men and women from Valcartier. We will not be accomplices of an obtuse government who would stubbornly maintain the current course," he said.

 

Mr. Duceppe made the remarks in a speech to the chamber of commerce.

 

"If Mr. Harper refuses to make changes and remains incapable of getting better co-operation from our allies, we will not hesitate to withdraw our support and if we have to, defeat his government on the Afghan issue."

 

Once again, the Bloc is working to distance itself from the party in power on a key issue for Quebeckers. Mr. Duceppe's threat to bring down the government comes almost one year since Mr. Harper made a breakthrough campaign speech in Quebec City last Dec. 19.

 

Mr. Harper and his Conservatives went on to win 10 seats in Quebec, including seven in the immediate Quebec City region, with the promise of a more open federalism and a solution to the fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces.

 

The Bloc has been waging a fight ever since to reclaim its old ridings in the provincial capital, culminating with Mr. Duceppe's speech yesterday.

 

The Bloc initially supported the deployment of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. Last May, the party voted against extending the mission until 2009. Mr. Duceppe said Mr. Harper has no mandate to go beyond that period and must begin preparing now for the eventual withdrawal of troops.

 

Afghanistan isn't the only issue on which the Bloc would like to make life difficult for the Tories. If Mr. Harper fails to eliminate the fiscal imbalance in the next federal budget by giving Quebec $3.9-billion a year in additional funding or if he maintains his refusal to comply with the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the Bloc will seek to defeat the government on these issues as well.

 

The Conservative Party fought back by accusing the Bloc of impotence on the federal stage.

 

"Given the Bloc's lack of a list of accomplishments over the last 13 years here in Ottawa, our government has delivered on key campaign commitments," said Dimitri Soudas, a spokesman for Mr. Harper. "They could be in Ottawa for another 113 years and still be unable to deliver a single thing to Quebec."

 

International Co-operation Minister Josée Verner, who is also the lead minister in Quebec City, said Mr. Duceppe should pay more attention to the Canadian Forces members in Valcartier.

 

"I'm told that Mr. Duceppe is regularly in Quebec City. I invite him to meet the people at the base, which he hasn't done," she said.

 

Ms. Verner rejected the accusation that the Conservatives are inactive and are sending Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon to drive home the point in his own speech in Quebec City at the end of the week.

 

Mr. Layton said his party has long opposed the mission in Afghanistan, and would gladly vote against it one more time.

 

"We have never had confidence in Mr. Harper's approach to this foreign policy matter. We have said so and we have voted accordingly and it would not be a surprise to Canadians to have us continue on that path," Mr. Layton said.

 

Mr. Dion is also calling for a refocusing of the mission, which he said is facing "enormous problems." He refused to state how he would vote on a no-confidence motion in relation to Afghanistan, but he insisted the government was wrong to prolong its commitment until 2009.

 

"It was completely irresponsible for [Mr. Harper to do so] and now we are in the trouble that we know," Mr. Dion told reporters.

 

Mr. Duceppe's comments came on the same day that Kim Howells, British Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, urged Canada to "stay the course" in Afghanistan.

 

After his address, Mr. Howells was asked what he felt about Mr. Dion's assertion that Canada could withdraw from the region "with honour" before 2009.

 

"I am not sure what withdrawing with honour would mean from Afghanistan, quite frankly," Mr. Howells said.

 

"I think it's a very honourable endeavour to try and help the democratically elected government of Afghanistan fight the tyrannical body, a very cruel Taliban, and it seems to me the most honourable course would be to see that fight through."

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