Stephen Harper more open with Americans, UN than with Parliament

Why is the prime minister so much chattier about his government's intentions when he's outside the country rather than in Parliament?

Canada to make decision 'shortly' on more Iraq help, Harper tells U.S. audience

Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry after speaking at the UN Security Council Wednesday. It's the place to meet influential people. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

Stephen Harper made an important announcement Wednesday about Canada's willingness to do more in the battle to stop Islamic State fighters in Iraq.

You might have missed it, though, because the prime minister let it slip during a question and answer session before a business audience in New York City.

Harper told an interviewer that Canada will consider stepping up its contribution to the US-led effort to stop ISIS, apparently at the direct request of the Obama administration.

"The United States just recently, in the past couple of days, has asked for some additional contribution,'' Harper said, before deflecting questions about what kind of support was being sought.

"Since they didn't release the letter publicly I'm not going to do that,'' he went on.  "I'll just say the government of Canada will make a decision on that very shortly.''

Canadian government sources indicated later that the request is "not for combat" troops. So as information goes, it's a shred.

But it's more detail than what the Conservatives have shared in the Commons, where opposition parties can barely get the government to divulge anything about the role Canadian Forces personnel already are playing in northern Iraq, or even how long those soldiers might stay.

Harper also didn't mention the U.S. request at a news conference on Monday, when a reporter asked what concrete action Canada would take in response to new threats from ISIS to target Canadians.

Now, this isn't the first time Harper chose to announce significant government policy overseas. Canadians first learned of the plans to make them wait longer to collect Old Age Security from a speech the PM gave in Davos, Switzerland in 2012.

When it comes to an audience, Harper obviously prefers barons of business to members of Parliament.

Parliament's role

For NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, Wednesday's announcement is just another example of Harper's continuing lack of regard for the Commons.

"If he has something that important to announce he should have, of course, said it here. Now the very least he can do is make public the letter from the Americans," Mulcair said. "It's now his letter. He can make it public."

That's not the plan. The U.S. State Department also declined to share "a diplomatic exchange.''

So what's wrong with telling Parliament some of these things? Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair, for one, would like to know. (Reuters)

But this isn't solely a question of process or diplomatic niceties.

It's about whether Parliament should be the appropriate place to first thrash out this country's response to a militant group of such extreme that it thinks nothing of beheading Western journalists, exterminating Christians and other religious minorities, and threatening whatever sliver of stability exists in the Middle East.

Canada is supposed to be a leading partner in the effort to take on ISIS, one of the first countries to heed President Obama's call to join a coalition to confront the Islamist threat.

Harper attended a special, expanded meeting of the UN Security Council late Wednesday. But he focused most of his comments on Canada's legislative measures to curb terrorism-related activity.

"We will continue to work with the government of the United States, Iraq and our other friends and allies in a range of humanitarian, political and military assistance to those fighting this phenomenon in the region," he said.

The prime minister will no doubt have more to say on Thursday afternoon when he addresses the UN General Assembly opening session for the first time in four years.

A useful pulpit

Harper has been no fan of the UN, and the truth is he still isn't.

He didn't attend the UN climate summit earlier this week because there's no political benefit there for his government, which environmental activists condemn for not doing enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

His involvement in past years has been focused on the maternal and child-health initiative that he co-chairs, a project around which he's helped build a noticeable consensus, and which has produced measurable results.

What makes this year different is that the world is a more uncertain, more dangerous place than ever.

ISIS represents only one challenge. Russia has annexed the Crimean peninsula. The Ebola outbreak continues to exact a deep human toll in Western Africa.

On these issues, at the very least, there is an emerging global consensus on what needs to be done. Canada is part of that consensus, something Harper is happy to extol.

But there's another important factor. Harper is heading into an election year, making the UN an irresistible bully pulpit for a world leader.

It is also one that is unavailable to his political opponents Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau, especially since the prime minister's intended audience is back here in Canada.

Thursday's speech is part of a narrative that Harper is a leader with principled stands on foreign issues. A leader who guided Canada through and out of a recession.

These are themes the Conservatives will use as a foundation for the 2015 campaign, which is already well under way.

John Trent is part of a group of retired diplomats and foreign policy experts who argue Harper's approach to the UN undermines Canada's influence in the global community, despite this year's decision to address the General Assembly.

"Does it mean Canada's back and going to work at the United Nations," he asked at a news conference Wednesday. "Or is it just an electoral ploy? It is hard to know.''

Hard to know. And just as hard to understand for Canadians who expect the prime minister to announce his big decisions at home. 


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.


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