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Parliament needs Middle Eastern associations, partnerships: MPs

By Malloy, Kate      
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Parliament should establish full-fledged Parliamentary associations with the world’s Middle Eastern countries and, at the very least, should revive the less influential Parliamentary Friendship Groups, say some MPs.

NDP MP Alexa McDonough (Halifax, N.S.), who is trying to re-establish the Canada-Palestine Friendship Group, said Parliament needs to give these associations more financing and complained that compared to other countries, support for international Parliamentary associations is “very meager.”

The dozens of Parliamentary friendship and interparliamentary groups receive no funding from Parliament. The 12 Parliamentary associations have an estimated annual budget of $904,623.

Ms. McDonough said Parliamentarians should in the meantime make a “much more serious commitment to a collaborative structure” around the United Nations and UN reform, adding that it’s time to strengthen the working relationship between the UN Association of Canada and “concerned and committed” MPs.

Ms. McDonough said MPs can take four free trips to Washington, D.C., every year, but says MPs should be able to use some of those free trips instead to go to the UN in New York City and pointed out that “a lot of Canadian Parliamentarians don’t have a clue about what goes on at the United Nations and we need to and there are a lot of things going at the United Nations we need to be a part of.”

When she was the Canadian representative from the Parliamentary Network on Nuclear Disarmament and sat on the world council, she paid for her New York trip out of her own pocket, she said.

“It speaks volumes that I can go to Washington four times and use four of my travel points to do that and I can’t go once to the United Nations, so there’s a big problem,” said Ms. McDonough.

Meanwhile, Liberal MP Omar Alghabra (Mississauga-Erindale, Ont.), who was born in Saudi Arabia in 1969 and whose riding of 120,000 is made up of an estimated 12 per cent of Arab and Muslim constituents, said it would be a good start to put some life into the Parliamentary Friendship Groups dealing with some of the Middle East countries.

“I think these Parliamentary associations do serve a tremendous purpose. They humanize and encourage interaction with various countries and various cultures, which is always a good thing. So, absolutely, it’s a good thing and I think there is a need for it,” said Mr. Alghabra.

Some of the Arab-Canadian Friendship Groups have not been in operation for a number of years.

“I think the reality is, that from what I’ve seen, the Arab Canadian is probably more or less under-represented in Parliament and it’s also, relatively-speaking, one of the new immigrant communities. It’s not as established as the others,” said Mr. Alghabra.

Ms. McDonough said she thinks there is an argument to be made to establish the less formal Friendship Groups on a more formalized basis.

Parliament should establish full-fledged Parliamentary associations with the world’s Middle Eastern countries and, at the very least, should revive the less influential Parliamentary Friendship Groups, say some MPs.

NDP MP Alexa McDonough (Halifax, N.S.), who is trying to re-establish the Canada-Palestine Friendship Group, said Parliament needs to give these associations more financing and complained that compared to other countries, support for international Parliamentary associations is “very meager.”

The dozens of Parliamentary friendship and interparliamentary groups receive no funding from Parliament. The 12 Parliamentary associations have an estimated annual budget of $904,623.

Ms. McDonough said Parliamentarians should in the meantime make a “much more serious commitment to a collaborative structure” around the United Nations and UN reform, adding that it’s time to strengthen the working relationship between the UN Association of Canada and “concerned and committed” MPs.

Ms. McDonough said MPs can take four free trips to Washington, D.C., every year, but says MPs should be able to use some of those free trips instead to go to the UN in New York City and pointed out that “a lot of Canadian Parliamentarians don’t have a clue about what goes on at the United Nations and we need to and there are a lot of things going at the United Nations we need to be a part of.”

When she was the Canadian representative from the Parliamentary Network on Nuclear Disarmament and sat on the world council, she paid for her New York trip out of her own pocket, she said.

“It speaks volumes that I can go to Washington four times and use four of my travel points to do that and I can’t go once to the United Nations, so there’s a big problem,” said Ms. McDonough.

Meanwhile, Liberal MP Omar Alghabra (Mississauga-Erindale, Ont.), who was born in Saudi Arabia in 1969 and whose riding of 120,000 is made up of an estimated 12 per cent of Arab and Muslim constituents, said it would be a good start to put some life into the Parliamentary Friendship Groups dealing with some of the Middle East countries.

“I think these Parliamentary associations do serve a tremendous purpose. They humanize and encourage interaction with various countries and various cultures, which is always a good thing. So, absolutely, it’s a good thing and I think there is a need for it,” said Mr. Alghabra.

Some of the Arab-Canadian Friendship Groups have not been in operation for a number of years.

“I think the reality is, that from what I’ve seen, the Arab Canadian is probably more or less under-represented in Parliament and it’s also, relatively-speaking, one of the new immigrant communities. It’s not as established as the others,” said Mr. Alghabra.

Ms. McDonough said she thinks there is an argument to be made to establish the less formal Friendship Groups on a more formalized basis.

Conservative MP James Lunney (Nanaimo-Alberni, B.C.), who is head of the Canada-Israel Inter-Parliamentary Group which is the largest and rivals all the other interparliamentary groups, said he wants to move to get it recognized as a fullfledged Parliamentary association.

Mr. Lunney said he has an “intense interest in the geopolitical challenges” that the Middle East represents.

“The Canada-Israel Interparliamentary Group does not consider itself blatantly or does wholeheartedly support everything the state of Israel does in [the same way] that we don’t blatantly and wholeheartedly support everything that the Canadian government does,” said Mr. Lunney in a telephone interview with The Hill Times. “So just because we have an interparliamentary group does not mean that we’re uncritical of another government’s policies. We simply have an interest in the area.”

Mr. Lunney said the purpose of the Canada-Israel Interparliamentary Group, like the other Parliamentary associations and friendship groups, is to maintain relations with the other government and partner and “to be a link and a bridge and to help broaden the understanding of areas.”

He said the associations and friendship groups are largely used as a means to inform MPs and Senators and the parties’ caucuses.

“I think that’s certainly needed in the Middle East and the whole question of the Middle East is one that is very emotional and inflammatory and there’s a lot of rhetoric that goes on that can be confusing to people. So understanding facts on the ground and, wherever possible, visiting, to be able to clarify facts from fictions is an important part of that,” said Mr. Lunney.

Mr. Lunney said the Canada-Israel group visited Israel a few years ago, but he’s visited Israel many times on his own and has friends on both sides of the conflict.

“Israel is a democracy and certainly has been around for 58 years now, as a democracy in the Middle East, and it’s the only stable and liberal democracy in the Middle East, basically, in spite of the impossibilities of the area and the challenges of their proportional government,” he said.

For his part, Mr. Lunney said Hezbollah’s attack on Israel was “an international act of war,” and said the infrastructure Hezbollah has created in southern Lebanon is not in the interest of Lebanon or in the interest of establishing peace.

“I think people have noted that there’s a change in tenor from the previous government’s attempt to be a so-called or seen to be as a so-called ‘honest broker.’ I’m fully supportive of the position taken by the government in acknowledging that there are differences here in this conflict, where on one side you have a liberal democracy that does its best as a responsible government to avoid civilian casualties and to protect its own citizens. But on the other side, you have terrorist organizations who infiltrate and use civilians as cover for their caches of weapons and rockets and they live among the people and they use the civilians as cover, meaning they do their best to create civilian casualties. That’s how terrorists operate and so there is a morale difference in this conflict between the way the combatants engage,” he said.

Mr. Lunney said the most fundamental question is not whether Prime Minister Harper’s decision to back Israel was smart or not politically, but it’s to say that Israel’s sovereignty was violated by terrorist attacks on two fronts and Israel has a right to protect its citizens.

“I think the government is certainly is right to acknowledge that and there certainly is a level of moral equivalency that has to be recognized here and the response here is not just in relation to the incursion and what happened a the border, it’s in relation to what has been building and if Israel does not dismantle Hezbollah’s infrastructure in Lebanon it’s obvious there’s going to be great risk to her civilians and her citizens.”

But Ms. McDonough disagreed: “I think it’s becoming extremely dangerous what’s happening and nothing could be more repugnant and dangerous, in my view, than the statement that came out of Stephen Harper about the killing of the UN unarmed peacekeepers in Lebanon,” said Ms. McDonough. “Now maybe I’m just becoming so terrorized by Harper that anything looks scary that comes out of his mouth, but the statement is he’s doing backflips to make sure that Israel gets off the hook in what happened there instead of as an internationalist, and the head of the government for whom peacekeeping, comprehensive peace processes, peace building have been practically our identity internationally.”

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