For the second time this fall, Gilles Duceppe has been too clever for his own good. Now on the Afghanistan issue, as earlier on the question of Quebec as a nation, the Bloc Quebecois leader has stumbled over his own little tripwires. In the process, he has appeared to be a man interested in polls rather than principles.
In Quebec City 10 days ago, Duceppe abruptly flipped his party's longtime position, announcing he might try to topple the minority Conservative government in January unless it changed the mission from one of combat to a reconstruction effort.
But Pierre Paquette, the Bloc's finance critic, quickly backtracked, denying that Duceppe had ever issued the threat "for the short term." He added next spring's federal "budget will come first."
Then, Bloc MP Claude Bachand reiterated Duceppe's original version to La Presse, repeating that the non-confidence motion could come first. Duceppe's face-saving parting shot this week was that he would not force an early vote unless "provoked."
Sovereignist leaders love to discover cases in which Quebec is "humiliated" by Ottawa. But in this case Duceppe has humiliated himself, in the process lending credibility to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's contention that Duceppe and the Bloc are "playing political games on the backs of our soldiers."
It's meaningless to rebuild a school or hospital when terrorists are just around the corner waiting for you to finish so they can bomb it - again. For that reason, the military campaign in Afghanistan is inseparable from the reconstruction drive. Duceppe also knows Harper's government set aside $1 billion over 10 years in its last budget to help rebuild Afghanistan, not a negligible sum.
In any event, Duceppe's threat proved to be empty. Not only has he backed away from it, but Liberal leader Stephane Dion rebuffed the idea of toppling the Conservatives over the issue. The Liberals want no part of this touchy issue, if only because on Afghanistan their caucus is the most divided in the House.
Dion argues the mission is failing to accomplish its objective of improving Afghans' lot. But he can hardly rattle a sabre about it, considering it was his party that boosted the Canadian contingent from 850 peacekeepers in Kabul to 2,500 combat troops in Taliban-riddled Kandahar last year. Dion also complains that Harper ramrodded an extension of the mission through Parliament, a complaint that is true enough but that lacks sting, since the Liberals never gave MPs a vote on the combat role in the first place.
As for the New Democrats ... well, who cares?
Whatever your view on the merits of the Afghan mission - and we believe firmly in this effort - it is hard to deny that the Conservatives alone have stuck to one principled position. Harper has displayed backbone and integrity in staking his political career on the Afghan operation.