Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Manley's report raises too many Afghan doubts

The question of continuing the war in Afghanistan largely comes down to how much Canadians trust Stephen Harper.
The Manley panel report on the mission this week was grim reading.
Harper asked the five members to recommend whether Canada should extend the military mission, scheduled to end next February.
The members, led by former Liberal cabinet minister John Manley, said yes, with conditions.
But in looking at the effort so far, the panel found things have badly managed by the government.
That's no reflection on the troops. The report noted their commitment and great efforts.
The government, though, has not shown the same dedication to the mission's importance.
It hasn't equipped the troops properly or ensured that there were enough of them to maintain security.
The $100 million a year being spent could be used much more effectively.
The government hasn't set clear benchmarks or objectives and has failed to push for more support from other NATO countries. The mission hasn't received continuing, serious attention from the politicians.
And the government hasn't been open and candid about the mission in communicating with Canadians.
I'm stating things more bluntly than the Manley report, but not much. (It's at www.independent-panel-independant.ca. Check for yourself. Not to be melodramatic, but people's lives are at stake.)
This is not really a partisan issue. The Liberals committed Canada to fighting in Afghanistan with no real plan or vision. The Conservatives have continued to treat the responsibility without the required seriousness.
Despite all that, the panel recommended that the military mission continue past 2009. The effort in Afghanistan is improving lives there and preventing the country from once again becoming a haven for terrorists, it said. And there is a chance at least of limited success - seeing Afghanistan emerge as a stable, sort of democratic, very poor country.
It's a troubling report on a troubling mission. There's sharp criticism of the current commitment and no ringing endorsement of a path forward.
That's as it should be. This is not a simple decision, or one that can be decided on the basis of simplistic sloganeering.
The panel does recommend conditions be set on Canada's continued military involvement in Kandahar.
There are simply not enough of our soldiers to maintain peace in the violent region, it found. Unless other NATO countries will add 1,000 troops to the 2,500 Canadians, we should withdraw.
Our soldiers also lack basic equipment that would make the mission safer, especially by reducing their vulnerability to roadside bombs.
The panel said that unless helicopters and unmanned aerial reconnaissance drones could be provided within 12 months, we should withdraw.
And it found the government has to change the way it approaches the war, bringing a much more serious, focused effort to its planning and management.
The prime minister should be leading the effort to increase the role played by other NATO troops and set clear goals and benchmarks to measure progress.
And the government should communicate honestly with Canadians about what's going on in Afghanistan.
This is pretty horrifying stuff, really. Almost 80 Canadians have died in Afghanistan. The troops have risked their lives and made a difference.
Yet the government has not done its part to equip them, support them or manage the effort.
There's no simple answer to whether Canada should continue this mission, from my perspective. There is the chance to improve life for the Afghan people and increase our security. But there is also a huge cost, in lives and dollars, and a risk of failure. Afghanistan has overwhelmed outside forces for centuries.
One critical factor is trust. Will Canada insist on additional NATO troops and pay for helicopters? Will the government be honest in measuring the mission's success and failures and communicating them to Canadians, or will it continue to mislead? Can the Harper government - or for that matter a Dion government - be trusted to provide the support and leadership and attention needed?
If it was my child or brother being asked to serve, the answer would be no.
Footnote: Harper said he welcomed the report but would take a few days to decide on the government's response. St├ęphane Dion said the Liberals continue to believe the current combat role should end in February 2009. Harper has promised a vote in Parliament on the mission, but has not said when that might be held. None of the parties should be keen on an election that would turn into a referendum on the war.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Conservatives self-destruct over nuclear plant

Gary Lunn is taking quite a hammering these days. The natural resources minister and Victoria area MP has got seriously on the wrong side of the national press.
If you read the papers — especially the two national newspapers — you’re probably wondering how Lunn could qualify for a driver’s licence, let alone a cabinet job.
He’s been soundly bashed for his role in the Chalk River nuclear reactor fiasco.
Here’s the stripped-down version of events. Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., a federal Crown corporation, operates a 50-year-old nuclear reactor at Chalk River that produces about two-thirds of the radioactive isotopes used in medical tests, like cancer screening.
You can’t store them, so no one has reserves; if the supply is disrupted problems mount quickly.
The Chalk River reactor was supposed to be replaced 15 years ago; the federal government has spent $300 million on the project. But the replacements aren’t ready.
People are nervous about nuclear energy. So the government set up the Nuclear Safety Commission as an independent licensing agency. Its job is to make sure nuclear reactors meet licensing requirements.
Chalk River didn’t. The back-up cooling system needed to protect against a meltdown wasn’t in place.
When the commission learned the problem hadn’t been fixed during a maintenance shutdown in November, it refused to allow the plant to start up. The licence requirements had to be met.
The government seemed to take a long time to figure out what this meant. Lunn’s office was sent an e-mail, but didn’t grasp its significance.
Then everyone went into panic. People’s cancer tests were cancelled; other countries wanted answers. Lunn sought advice from experts, who told him the plant had operated without the back-up system for decades and there was no increased safety risk. Everyone was clamouring for the isotopes.
So he called Linda Keen, the head of the commission, and pressured her to allow the plant to open, despite the violations. She looked at the commission’s mandate – public safety – and couldn’t justify allowing the plant to operate when it couldn’t meet the licensing requirements.
Then things got ugly. Prime Minister Stephen Harper implied Keen was out to make the Conservatives look bad because she had been appointed by the Liberal government.
It was an unfair charge; Keen had a career in government as a non-partisan manager.
Worse, Harper’s comments revealed that he knew the smear was false. His purpose, he said, was to convince the Liberals not to try to score political points over the shutdown. A pre-emptive dirty trick, you might say.
Ultimately, the government did what it should have done all along. It asked Parliament to pass legislation allowing the plant to re-open despite the licensing problems. All parties supported the proposal. Problem solved.
But by that point, Lunn and the government looked bad. The whole point of the Nuclear Safety Commission is to enforce the licensing requirements in the interest of public safety. Part of the purpose is to take political pressure out of the equation.
When Lunn called Keen and tried to pressure her, he brought politics back into issues of nuclear safety. That’s wrong.
Things got stranger, and worse. Lunn then wrote a letter – leaked to the media – to Keen asking her why she shouldn’t be fired.
The day before Keen and Lunn were both to appear before a Commons committee, Lunn did fire here — at 11 p.m.
Harper says Keen was fired because she showed poor judgment in not appreciating the seriousness of the isotope shortage and finding a way to keep the plant open.
But the commission is legally charged with ensuring nuclear safety.
The bigger problem is that it looks like Keen is really being fired because she wouldn’t cave into Lunn’s political pressure.
And that sends a message to all the other independent commissions and agencies that are supposed to protect the public interest free from political pressure. Obey the politicians in power, or face firing.
Footnote: The whole affair also drew public attention to years of neglect of reactors at Chalk River and huge spending on new reactors that don’t work. And it raised questions about the regulation of the nuclear industry at a time when it’s finally hoping for new power projects in Canada.