Analysis

Stephen Harper takes aim at terror, opposition gets dinged

The rollout of the new terror legislation went well, mostly. The prime minister's speech was clear and well staged. A friendly crowd applauded on cue. But it wasn't all statesman, all the time. It's an election year, after all, writes Terry Milewski.

Warning: When tackling terrorism in an election year, inaccuracies may occur

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in Richmond Hill, Ont., on Friday to announce his government's anti-terrorism bill. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

The rollout of the federal government's new terror legislation went fine. The prime minister's speech was clear and well staged. A friendly crowd applauded on cue. His pose was the stern statesman, on guard for thee.

But, it wasn't all statesman, all the time. It's still an election year and Stephen Harper did not forget to stick a knife in the opposition. If that required a glaring inaccuracy — well, did I mention it's an election year?

Harper turned to the flap over the fighting in northern Iraq and the role of Canada's troops.

"There's been some criticism of them, as you know," he said.

Um, no, we didn't know. In fact, there has been no criticism of our troops. Quite the reverse.

The criticism, of course, was aimed at the government, not the troops. The opposition complains that Harper promised Canadian soldiers would not "accompany" Iraqi forces to the front. Harper did say that — but we now know otherwise. In fact, our guys spend 20 per cent of their time with Iraqi troops at the front and have been shot at three times.

So, the opposition wants Harper to eat his words and Harper is fending off the attacks by pretending they're attacks on our brave troops.

'Accompanying' or not?

It hasn't always worked well. In the House of Commons, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson made sport of the opposition by observing that he didn't see how we could train Iraqi soldiers without accompanying them. The Conservatives chuckled at their naive rivals across the aisle. What chumps, thinking we'd teach without accompanying!

It wasn't so funny when it dawned on them that Harper was the first to say, no, we'll definitely be teaching but not accompanying. Oops.

Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Tom Lawson had a more candid strategy: he just fessed up. Lawson agreed that, yes, he originally said our guys would not go to the front — but, hey, things evolved, so then they did.

And everybody shrugged. In war, stuff happens. Even candour, sometimes!

But the government's strategy has been more problematic: trying to make an indictment of the government's honesty sound like an indictment of our troops — nay, of our troops under fire!

"If fired upon, they'll fire back!" the prime minister declared, as though anyone had urged them not to.

Still, Canadians are not marching with pitchforks upon the prime minister's office to protest what seems to be an acceptable degree of mission creep. And Harper has no apology. Nor was it the only bullet he aimed at terrorists that just happened to ding the opposition.

Asked Friday about a potential sacrifice of civil liberties on the altar of security, Harper was ready.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper addressed reporters' questions on his new anti-terror legislation 15:48

"This is really what we get from our opposition," he alleged. "That every time we talk about security, they suggest that somehow, our freedoms are threatened ... I think Canadians understand that, more often than not, their freedom and security go hand in hand ... We do not buy the argument that every time you protect Canadians you somehow take away their liberties."

Once again, nobody's actually making that argument. In fact, Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair said the opposite, agreeing that security and liberty can coexist just fine.

"We are capable of doing both at the same time," said Mulcair. "We'll make sure that this bill ensures that, and we'll ask the appropriate questions."

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair says the government can protect Canadians' rights while ensuring their safety, adding the RCMP, CSIS need the resources to do so. 1:06

So the prime minister's in combat with a straw man, the only one saying security means the end of freedom.

Rather, the opposition seems wary of being painted as "soft on terror." They have enough problems already after voting against a mission, which, pollsters say, most Canadians support. Conservatives hope voters will judge that vote a bigger sin than mere rhetorical baloney.

More powers, what about people?

To counter that, the opposition will paint the government as phoney tough guys whose rhetoric is not matched by funding for the security agencies. What if you introduced a shiny, new terror bill and no-one showed up to enforce it?

Ray Boisvert, the former assistant director of CSIS, says that's exactly what's happening.

"I know, from being a former insider, [CSIS is] maxed out," said Boisvert.

"They are so tapped out and they have stolen so much from Peter to pay Paul. In other words, they have closed down so many other investigations that are still rather important ... Get your chequebook out folks, because I think that's just a reality."

With a war, an election and a budget in the balance, we'll hear more of this. Who's really tough on terror? They're writing the attack ads now.

Warning: inaccuracies may occur.

About the Author

Terry Milewski

Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.

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