The Domestic Dynamics of Canada’s Mali Mission

Steve Saideman considers the parliamentary politics behind the Mali mission as the Conservatives reach out for support from the NDP.

By: /
24 January, 2013

One of the things that has confused me the most during the decade I have been in Canada is the sense, here, that genuine bipartisanship is bad. In the U.S., the system works best when elements of the major parties can work together, which is why things in Washington, D.C. have been so dysfunctional as of late. In Canada, according to the ever-persuasive Phil Lagassé, having two parties support each other confuses accountability, which is bad.

I mention this because discussions of Canada’s role in the Mali mission have taken a confusing twist in Ottawa.  Having sent one transport plane to support French troops in Mali, Prime Minister Stephen Harper now says he is seeking “broad national consensus” on what Canada’s next steps should be. In particular, he is reaching out to the New Democratic Party, hoping it will support the effort. This is both instructive and confusing.

It is instructive in that, as the NDP seeks to maintain its position as the Official Opposition, rather than the third or fourth party it was not that long ago, it has incentives to support NATO efforts.  I noticed in my work on the NATO effort in Afghanistan that very new or very old (formerly Communist) left-wing parties feel a certain amount of pressure to support NATO operations so that they do not appear too fringe or pacifist.  It is far easier for more-established parties to oppose a country’s efforts in NATO.

It is confusing because Harper, with his majority government, does not need any votes from the NDP.  Canadian law does not require parliamentary votes for foreign deployments, regardless of the parliamentary votes over the Afghanistan mission.  So, why is Harper seeking the NDP’s support for Canadian efforts in Mali? I recently spent some time on Twitter with Phil Lagassé and Ted Campbell pondering what might be up. The possible explanations are many.

For one thing, Harper could be trying to get some political cover for this mission.  Lagassé has argued in various places that having Parliament consider military missions is a way of “laundering” responsibility.  Just as criminals seek to remove the criminal taint from their gains through various money-laundering schemes, prime ministers can get Parliament to approve deployments to confuse accountability.  Harper repeatedly said that the mission in Kandahar would end in 2011 because it was the will of Parliament (and thus, in other words, not his fault).  While this makes sense for other missions, I am not sure why it would be worth the effort in this situation, since the Mali mission really is uncontroversial and unlikely to escalate much beyond a second transport plane or become risky.

As another possibility, Harper might actually be trying to legitimate the NDP as the national opposition party.  Why? Because doing so would marginalize the Liberals that much more. Some have said that Harper is fixated on undermining the Liberals.  He might just feel that the NDP would be an easier party to run against down the road.

On the other hand, Harper could be trying to divide the NDP, as it is chock full of people who are opposed to most, if not all, military activities.  The Libyan mission revealed some of these cracks as then-NDP-leader Jack Layton supported the mission, but the party changed its stance as the air campaign went on.

Harper may just not feel comfortable with his majority.  He governed Canada for so long as a minority leader that he may simply not know how to do it otherwise. 

Or it might be about principle: When leading the opposition, Harper said he believed that Parliament should have a say on deployments. He maintained this stance when he came into power, even after his party gained a majority part way through the Libyan mission.  On the other hand, Harper launched the training mission in Afghanistan without a vote, saying that because it was not combat, it did not need one.  But the same would apply to Mali – which poses far fewer risks, as it stands now, than the training effort in Kabul, even as the latter remains behind the wire.

So, color me confused.  We have a pile of explanations, none of which is entirely persuasive.  It is, of course, probably a mix of reasons, including some we did not ponder on Twitter.  One thing is for sure: Harper’s effort to get support from the NDP on this mission has certainly confused things.

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