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Canadian Defence minister on the ropes

[PoliticsWatch updated 5:10 p.m. April 26, 2007]

Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor.

OTTAWA  — For the first time since coming to power,  the Conservatives looked this week like the aimless, desperately spinning previous Liberal government of Paul Martin. 
 
The government's handling of the allegations of torture by Afghani detainees seems to get worse and more confusing as each day passes. 

The problems the Tories are having trying to spin their way out of this controversy is even noticeable to prominent Conservative bloggers, including one who described the government as looking "confused and befuddled."

No single individual seems to epitomize that description better than Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor, whose performance before the Commons foreign affairs committee was perhaps the lowest point so far for a Tory government that ridiculed similar spin by the Liberal governments when they were in opposition.  

O'Connor surprised virtually everyone in Ottawa, including Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay, when he revealed in the middle of his appearance at the committee that the government had made an arrangement to have access to detainees being held by Afghan authorities.  
 
"Within the last few days we have basically made an arrangement with the government in the Kandahar province so that we can have access to our detainees," O'Connor said. "So henceforth, our military, but it can be anybody, can have access to our detainees." 

O'Connor's statement left reporters with many questions but the minister ignored them when he was done testifying and was shown on television news stories trying to avoid cameras and microphones by rushing to an awaiting elevator, much like Paul Martin rushing down the escalator. 

Martin-like off-the-cuff policy making and Panic Room ministerial behaviour is exactly the type of image that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has reportedly tried not to project as he tries to govern decisively. 

The Conservatives and O'Connor's policy pronouncement were ridiculed in question period Thursday as all three opposition parties continued to press for his resignation.  

"My question for the prime minister is this," said Liberal Leader Stephane Dion. "Does he still have confidence in his Minister of National Defence? 

Harper never directly answered that question and instead said he lacked confidence in Dion. 

However, according to a Globe and Mail story published on Thursday, the only thing keeping O'Connor in his job is the Taliban, who Harper described as "fanatics and killers" in question period Thursday. 
 
A Conservative source said the government is not pleased with the defence minister's numerous missteps, but that canning O'Connor would raise questions about the mission and Canada's resolve in fighting terrorism. 

"The Taliban would see (O'Connor's dismissal) as a positive thing," one source told the Globe. 

O'Connor's performance this week is the latest chapter in the problems the defence minister has had. 

His past career as a defence industry lobbyist is brought up by the opposition parties every time there are reports the government is planning a major military procurement. 

Over 50 Canadians have been killed in Afghanistan over the past four years, but last year O'Connor told MPs at the defence committee that the situation was not a war. 

But the calls for his resignation began last month after it was discovered that he misled the House for over a year about the Red Cross's involvement in reporting to Canada any abuse of Afghan detainees. O'Connor later apologized and said he did not do so intentionally. 

The only other cabinet minister in Harper's government to face so much criticism was former environment minister Rona Ambrose, who was shuffled out of her job to intergovernmental affairs in January. 

The opposition parties called for Ambrose's resignation for months, as the Prime Minister's Office tightened communications and control of Ambrose's office. After Ambrose gave contradictory testimony before the Commons environment committee in the fall, National Post columnist John Ivison reported just a few days later that insiders said Harper's patience was running thing with her. 

Opposition MPs who pressed for Ambrose's resignation told PoliticsWatch Thursday that O'Connor's handling of the war is just or bad or worse than Ambrose's handling of environment and they expect the PM to shuffle out his defence minister in the near future. 

"Just by watching Harper's responses and watching him not defend (O'Connor) personally, it feels like there's a clock on around here that his demise in terms of being in cabinet is imminent," NDP environment critic Nathan Cullen said. 

He compared Harper's failure to openly defend O'Connor to how Harper backed up Ambrose last spring when Cullen introduced a motion in the Commons environment committee calling for Ambrose's resignation. 

Harper forced Liberals to not vote for Cullen's motion by saying he would view a non-confidence motion in Ambrose as a non-confidence vote against his government. 

He also noted that it was MacKay, not Harper, who came to the defence of O'Connor in question period on Wednesday after Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale called the former general a chicken for not rising to answer questions. 

"I think in (Harper's) own mind he's cut him loose and it's just a matter of time."

Liberal environment critic David McGuinty told PoliticsWatch he thinks the cloud over O'Connor is "absolutely much more serious" than the problems Ambrose faced. 

"What we're talking about here are allegations that Canada has knowingly broke the Geneva Convention," he said. 

McGuinty also thinks O'Connor is getting much more protection from the centre than Ambrose received. 

"I don't see any performance by Mr. O'Connor because he's been silenced. They pick a minister every day to basically stand up and take the bullets for him. It was the reverse for Rona Ambrose. She was taking the bullets for the prime minister for a year."

: Related Links

> Canadian PM accused of lying about  torture allegations

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