Monday, May 03, 2010

Amir Attaran, political strategy, and the Torcher issue

The Torch, Canada's premier milblog, declared war on University of Ottawa law professor Amir Attaran nearly two years ago. He's been in their sights ever since, most recently in a salvo from Mark Collins.

Attaran, an indefatigable defender of human rights, has been an activist on the Afghan detaineee issue since 2006. He has been a continuing thorn in the side of the gung-ho crowd that uncritically defends our mission in Afghanistan, paints overly-rosy pictures of our "progress" there, and takes a what-me-worry attitude about our complicity in torture.

He had a piece published in the Ottawa Citizen on May 1, imploring the Opposition parties not to back down after Speaker Peter Milliken's recent ruling that reaffirmed the supremacy of Parliament. (I have already referred to it favourably.) In his article, Attaran looked at the constitutional issues dealt with by the Speaker, and explored options for resolving the impasse.

Should Harper continue to defy Parliament, Attaran says, the Opposition should lose no time in finding the government in contempt. But--since this could trigger an election--the contempt motion should be carefully phrased. It should raise the issue of the mission itself, and revoke Parliament's consent for continuing our combat role until 2011. That consent, he notes, was conditional: and one of the conditions, clearly broken, was that "the government must commit to a policy of greater transparency with respect to its policy on ... detainees."

This would place the government, he says, in the position of defending an unpopular war before the electorate, something he thinks it would be unwilling to do. Hence he predicts that Harper will not likely make this a confidence issue.

But, on the off-chance that Harper were to plough ahead and go to the polls to play the "Support Our Troops" gambit, the Opposition could effectively counter that our hands-off detainee transfer policies (which, among other things, ensure that Taliban prisoners can bribe their jailers and quickly return to battle) are endangering the lives of our soldiers.

There is much here with which I disagree. In my own view, the key issue is, and must remain, the constitutional one--namely, the supremacy of Parliament. That broad principle must not be put into question every time a new controversial matter arises, but remain unalloyed.

We would run considerable risk of losing this essential focus were the issue before the electorate to be the Afghan mission simpliciter. Indeed, most Canadians would not place our involvement in Afghanistan high on their list of election priorities. If this were indeed to be the Opposition's primary campaign strategy, Harper would be most likely to campaign on the recovering economy instead--and do well.

Better by far to explain to the electorate precisely why they were being forced to the polls: because Harper decided to stand in defiance of centuries of Parliamentary tradition, and attempted to dismantle our own tradition of responsible government. Ordinary Canadians figured out Charlottetown, they grasped the essence of the prorogation controversy just a few months ago, and they would not be slow to understand what is at stake in this case.

If there is to be an election, make democracy the issue.

But that's merely my strategic disagreement with Attaran. The main thrust of his article--with which I happen to agree--is that the current impasse must be resolved in favour of transparency, and he suggests way and means by which this can be done.

Enter Mark Collins.

Rather than deal with Attaran's arguments, he prefers to go after Attaran himself, first with silly namecalling ("up and at 'em Attaran") and even sillier nitpicking (yes, Mark, we know that "Parliament" is technically both Houses--so what?). Then he drops dark suggestions that Attaran doesn't really care about the constitution, or for that matter detainees:

It's not about detainees at all; it's about forcing an end to the CF's combat mission, the sooner the better.

This represents a significant shift in The Torch's line of attack. Last year, Damian Brooks was unequivocal:
"it's all about the detainee transfer agreement." Only this past April, Brooks stated that Attaran's "real beef is the detainee transfer policy." Which is it, Torchers?

In any case, Collins essentially accuses Attaran of lying for noting the conditional nature of Parliament's approval for the continuation of the Afghan mission. Why, Collins huffs, "transparency" about detainees is not the only condition as yet unmet by the government, as Attaran suggests--there are many others as well. So there!

The rest of Collins' article is a climb-down from his earlier assertion that Crown privilege trumps Parliamentary rights. Andrew Coyne's "brilliant piece" in Maclean's appears to have been instrumental in this regard.

Attaran's article is informed by his concern over Afghan detainees, but deals primarily with the current tussle over documents in the wake of the Speaker's ruling. So he was exercised enough by Collins' mischaracterization of his piece to send a note in response--which The Torch has not as yet had the courtesy to acknowledge.
Here it is, reprinted with permission:

Dear Mark,

I’ve read your blog post here:

It’s bizarre that you attack me as wrong, but praise Andrew Coyne as right, on the constitutional interpretation of Parliament’s order and the Speaker’s ruling. Please go back and reread Andrew’s article in Maclean's and my article in the Ottawa Citizen, because both conclude that the order and ruling are lawfully binding on the government and are of constitutional weight. I agree with Andrew’s opinion on this totally.

Yet in your twisted presentation, Andrew’s opinion counts as “brilliant”, and mine is just nonsense from “up and at 'em Attaran.” It appears that you find it easy to credit a fellow named “Andrew,” but choke on doing the same for a fellow named “Amir.” I need not speculate on why you decline to treat our identical opinions with identical respect, as it is evident enough to any person of average intelligence.

That said, let me respond to an issue you raised.

I argued in my article that because the Harper government broke a condition of its own March 2008 motion to extend the mission in Afghanistan—and specifically, the condition of “greater transparency” on detainee matters—Parliament is within its rights to put its consent to mission extension back on the table, and perhaps to rescind it. You replied angrily to my analysis, and you wrote that there are several other conditions in the mission extension motion which the Harper government has also broken. As you write:

“I challenge Mr Attaran to show that all of them [i.e. the conditions that the Harper government advanced to secure Parliament’s consent to extending mission] have been met. If not, then surely by his logic any other one not met equally demands putting ‘...the combat mission back on the table.’”

I agree with you in this passage, and thank you for amplifying the correctness of my argument. If the Harper government has broken not just one, but several, conditions that it pledged to Parliament in its motion to extend the Afghanistan mission—and your blog argues persuasively that government did exactly this—then certainly Parliament should ask whether it was deceived, Parliament should re-evaluate the mission, and Parliament should be outraged that the government sought its consent and fought a war based on false pretences. Thank you for making the point more strongly than I did.

Warm regards,

In fairness to Collins, he took no issue with the by-now-settled constitutional question that Attaran raised. But it is indeed a misrepresentation to suggest that Attaran is being sneaky, somehow: that discussing ways of throwing more light on the detainee transfer issue is, in effect, a smokescreen for a supposedly hidden anti-war agenda.

There's nothing hidden about it. Attaran opposes the war. But in his article he predicts that Harper is unlikely to tough it out--that a compromise will be found before Milliken's deadline, making a contempt motion unnecessary. His subsequent "what-if" speculation is only that.

The Torch can of course be expected to defend our mission in Afghanistan and to take on the critics. That's all to the good. The debate needs to be had. But there are ways and ways of doing that. I've had many civilized exchanges with the founder, Damian Brooks: he knows his stuff, and he's an honourable man.

But Amir Attaran is also an honourable man. He deserves better than the shoddy trash-jobbery that The Torch, for whatever reason, has been dishing out. Could changing his name to Andrew indeed make a difference?

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