David Akin, writing in the Toronto Sun, takes a critical look at what Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and been saying and concludes that, when addressing the question of “why” withdraw the CF-18s from combat in the Iraq, the minister’s answer: “seems unsatisfactory and it’s the kind of answer that has even some Liberals in Ottawa a little concerned these days. It’s too vague.” In fact, it sounds to me, and to some of my friends on Army.ca, as if “he is just parroting talking points from the PMO.” Now that commentator, like many, like David Akin, thinks that because Minister Sajjan was a lieutenant colonel, because he has a chest full of medals that he must be, somehow, uniquely well qualified to be the Minister of National Defence. Some people think, as does my Army.ca friend, that Harjit Sajjan is “is trying desperately in cabinet to get them to change their decisions.“
I wonder … I have only met the minister once, and then briefly, but his résumé does not fill me with confidence. He’s been a police detective and a reserve army officer, and, yes, he has a chest full of medals, but so does Government whip Andrew Leslie, and clearly, Prime Minister Trudeau didn’t pick his MND based on medal count or Mr Leslie would be it. It’s really not clear, to me, that he is well qualified to manage a very, very large department of government that has a bad track record for setting requirements and cost estimates for new weapons systems and for dealing with the medical and social needs of the men and women in the ranks of the armed forces.
Further: it is not the Minister of National Defence’s job to decide (or even recommend) what missions his department, specifically the Canadian Armed Forces, ought to undertake; that’s in the realm of Big Policy and the whole of cabinet, advised by the Privy Council Office, makes those sorts of decisions. Minister Sajjan’s voice would just be one amongst many and he should be more concerned with the “how” of a mission rather than with the “why,” which is more the business of the Minister of Global Affairs. The MND should be able to tell cabinet about the capabilities and limitations of the Canadian Forces and the costs of undertaking this, that or the other mission.
Anyway, if you want a really, really good Minister of National Defence then I suggest you need to look at Brooke Claxton, a Liberal, who ran DND from 1946 to 1954: tumultuous years that involved the Korean War and HUGE changes in defence policies and structures ~ changes, and expenditures, that were often resisted by admirals and generals and some of Claxton’s cabinet colleagues but which he, by dint of determination, saw through. He was a much better defence minister than the highly decorated Andrew McNaughton (Andrew Leslie’s grandfather, by the way) and even that the gloriously decorated George Pearkes, VC. Brooke Claxton did have some military experience, he was a battery sergeant major in World War I, he didn’t have many medals, but: medals don’t make a minister.
But, that’s a all prelude, and David Akin doesn’t get to the really important point of his column until the second half of his piece, after he has raked Minister Sajjan over the coals for being too vague.
Worse, Mr Akin says, “Our NATO allies think we’re cheap.“
Now, in fairness, we’ve been cheap, under both Conservative and Liberal governments for a very long time.
The simple fact is that we Canadians, by and large, don’t want to pay for our defence. Support for the troops may involve a red T-shirt or a yellow ribbon, but it stops, pretty much, at Johnny Canuck’s wallet. It, support for the military in Canada, is, I often say, a mile wide, but only an inch deep. All the polling data I have seen suggests that defence spending is, consistently, at the bottom of Canadians’ priority list ~ down there with payments to symphony orchestras and ballet companies. It’s a political fact of life about which I have also spoken here.
But, even though it’s a bit unfair, considering that he just inherited the office, Prime Minister Trudeau is now being branded as a freeloader by our allies. But, as David Akin says, “The Conservatives were as bad as the Liberals before them and the Liberals now seem set to copy the lousy Conservative track record.” The difference is that while Canada skimped under Prime Minister Harper he was willing to put Canadian blood and (some, limited) treasure on the firing line; Prime Minister Trudeau has promised to pull out or contribution so he should not be surprised that disappointed allies are taking pot shots.
Mr Akin concludes:
“Our navy is rusting from the inside out. The “Buffalo” aircraft we use for search-and-rescue in western mountain ranges went into service in 1967. I could go on.
No amount of smarts gets around equipment deficiencies like that.
We need a serious discussion in Parliament and realistic long-term plan to substantially boost funding for our own national defence.”
Actually, we need several serious discussions in the media ~ from which most Canadians get almost all their information ~ about what and why and also to address the question of “how much is enough? Then we need a realistic long term plan which can be supported, over several successive governments, by both Conservatives and Liberals, as Brooke Claxton’s reorganization of the military and his broad programme for modern equipment for all three services, for the “come as you are war,” was supported by successive governments of both parties.
Minister Sajjan can do some good right now: he can take a close, critical look at how the Canadian Forces are organized ~ there is plenty of room, now, for efficiencies that can produce measurable savings. Also, he can fight, hard, with Ministers Morneau and Brison, for some budgetary “room” and some quicker spending. His military experience and his medals are not relevant: his ability to manage a large, complex and hard to steer department is. He needs to leave the strategy to the whole cabinet, but he can do something about the management of his own department, he can get it right.