OTTAWA - The Conservative government has cobbled together a nascent political consensus with the Opposition NDP that should permit an extended deployment of Canada's heavy-lift military cargo plane, which is ferrying war equipment into Mali.
New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair agreed Sunday to allow the air force's C-17 cargo plane to continue assisting French and African forces as they battle al-Qaida-linked militants, said NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Wednesday the government is looking at "whether and how" to extend its support of France, which launched an offensive Jan. 10 to dislodge the terrorist organization from northern Mali.
Harper said he has reached out to colleagues and opposition parties to build consensus on the next steps in the unfolding crisis, but made it clear that "direct" military involvement in the form of troops is still not in the cards.
"Anything we do, I would like a broad Canadian consensus behind that," Harper told a news conference in Cambridge, Ont.
"I do think that it is important to help this mission, but at the same time I think we've been very clear — and I think this reflects Canadian opinion — that while we're prepared to help, we don't want to see a direct Canadian military mission to Mali."
Mulcair told Harper he supports the decision to send the transport plane, and even favours the French intervention, Dewar said.
But in exchange for that support, the prime minister will allow the House of Commons foreign affairs committee to monitor and debate Canada's evolving role in the conflict, which experts say has the potential to be a protracted event.
Dewar said parliamentary oversight should lead to less confusion, and hopefully clear up some of the contradictory signals coming from the government. Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird have been at odds publicly about what form Canada's contribution would take.
Whether preliminary support for the mission survives the slings and arrows of the approaching Commons session, however, remains an open question.
Harper said he views the French military action in North Africa as a "very important anti-terrorist mission."
Dewar said he hopes the government is not seeking consensus as a pretext to ask for a troop deployment of some kind down the road.
The government doesn't necessarily need opposition support for either combat or non-combat missions. The authority to deploy troops rests solely with the federal cabinet, although Parliament has been asked to debate and approve sending soldiers into harm's way since the Conservatives came to power in 2006.
Indeed, throughout the mission in Afghanistan, both the Conservatives and the NDP used the war as a wedge issue. Former New Democrat leader Jack Layton admitted in a 2010 book interview that Harper never consulted him about Afghanistan at all.
Dewar said the latest developments on Mali make him believe the Conservatives may have learned their lesson.
"Providing this oversight — which, by the way, they do in other countries — is the way to go and is clearly the result of our experience in Afghanistan."
The Conservatives, who've been eager in the past to be seen as part of and even leading international military missions, have shown uncharacteristic pause over the conflict in Mali.
Defence insiders have said there's a fear of getting bogged down, the way the country did in Kandahar, and that once involved they would be a constant victim of "mission creep" as the demands of the operation escalated.
Canada's current commitment of a single C-17 transport plane is set to expire Thursday. The government is widely expected to announce an extension any day now.
Defence sources have said that air force planners have already seconded the aircraft from regular duty in Canada and elsewhere for the next three months, a possible sign the Conservatives are poised to extend the commitment.