Libya debate would liven up 'boring' election: Hillier

Party leaders respond after Canada's former former chief of the defence staff says he's "puzzled" by the lack of debate over the conflict in Libya.
Rick Hillier, the former chief of the defence staff, said he'd like to see politicians discuss Canada's role in Libya during the election campaign. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Canada's former former chief of the defence staff says he's "puzzled" by the lack of debate over the conflict in Libya during a "boring" election campaign.

Rick Hillier, the outspoken former head of Canada's military, said in an interview with CBC Radio's The Current that he finds it puzzling that Canada's role in Libya is not coming under more scrutiny, especially as voters are heading to the polls on May 2.

Hillier said he'd like to see a debate over where the parties stand on the conflict in Libya happen on the campaign trail.

"I'm puzzled by the absolute absence of any discussion of the operations in Libya by the United Nations and by NATO on behalf of the United Nations, which is inclusive of Canada," Hillier said.

"I am just absolutely puzzled; we are two weeks into an election campaign, it is the most boring thing that I've ever seen in my life and this would be one of the questions that might liven it up just a little bit."

Party leaders react

Hillier's comments caused immediate reaction on the campaign trail.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said during an event in Hamilton, Ont., that he would welcome a debate during the election on the Libyan conflict. 

NDP Leader Jack Layton said he is concerned about the possibility of 'mission creep' in Canada's role in the Libyan conflict. ((Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press))
"We are playing an honourable role on the military side but we have got nothing to say or do on the diplomatic or political side, and it is on the political or diplomatic side that the leverage will be exerted to get Col. Gadaffi out of there," Ignatieff said.

Ignatieff said Canada should be involved in the discussion at the United Nations Security Council level. The Liberal leader said the Canadian government should have a place on the security council, but noted how Canada lost its bid to have a place on the security council last year.

"One of the key places where the action matters is the United Nations Security Council, it is the one that has authorized this mission, it is the one that was coordinating all the diplomacy — that is where the action was," the Liberal leader said.

"Canada ought to be there and we are not and everybody knows why —because Stephen Harper lost the vote to get us a seat there, first Canadian prime minister to do so. That is a major disappointment."

Harper also responded to questions about the Libyan conflict when he unveiled his campaign platform in Mississauga, Ont.

Harper said "it is a difficult mission, it is a tricky mission."

"We are all working together to get the best results for the people of Libya," he said.

NDP Leader Jack Layton said he has been concerned since the start of the Libyan conflict about the possibility of "mission creep."

"We insisted on parliamentary review and three months after [the Canadian involvement began], there will have to be a further review by Parliarment," Layton said in Esquimalt, B.C.

"We will be insisting on the government to produce an exit strategy and an end game at that point."

Canada part of international force

Canada has committed six CF-18s to join an international effort to enforce a UN Security Council resolution that is trying to prevent violence by forces loyal to Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi against rebels and civilians.

Hillier said in the interview the no-fly zone over Libya was a half-measure and that it won't protect people on ground.

The retired general said there is very little clarity on the mission in Libya. Hillier said, in his opinion, history has proved that air missions have never worked.

"You have always had to have a combination of actions. So if you cannot protect completely the people that you said you want to protect — and there are some questions there also — by keeping Gadaffi's forces away from them, then the only other solution in my view is to remove Gadaffi," Hillier said.

"And if you are not going to do that and you can't protect the people that you've said because he is still in power then really, what are you doing? It's half measures and that causes me discomfort when people are dying."

The retired general said the air mission could be an expensive, long-term proposition for the international community.

He said Gadaffi's best strategy may be to simply wait out the NATO forces.

The lack of parliamentary scrutiny over Canada's long-term mission in Libya stands in stark contrast to the country's role in Afghanistan, a mission that Hillier led during his time as chief of the defence staff.

"It hasn't come up during the election campaign whatsoever. We are at war, we've been doing this in Afghanistan, we've had immense discussion, huge amounts of discussions on the mission in Afghanistan including parliamentary debates," Hillier said.

"Here in Canada right now it is actually silent on what is happening in Libya and that is puzzling to me personally."