Many Canadians, especially in the media, were grateful to General Jonathan Vance, Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff, for explaining what Prime Minister Trudeau and Defence Minister Sajjan seemed unable to grasp: that we are going to fulfil a “non-combat” mission that might involve some combat. General Vance is a good soldier (and a brave one, too), a smart guy and, a nice guy, also, as many, including me, who know him will affirm, and as can be seen in that CBC News report, he is a very skilled communicator.
Good for General Vance for squaring that circle for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan..
- It’s not his job! Ministers, like Harejit Sajjan, are supposed to be able to tell Canadians, in parliament and through the media, that sort of thing. If they cannot, if they have not thought things through, it makes one wonder about their fitness for the job; and
- It puts General Vance, and the Canadian Forces, in some “danger” from an enemy that is far more ferocious than Da’esh/ISIL/ISI: the Liberal Party campaign team. It’s not ‘nice,’ in official Ottawa, to be publicly acclaimed for being able to explain what the prime minister could not.
There are, it seems to me and at the risk of grossly oversimplifying a very complex subject, three sorts of “communications” that are of special concern to government and, even more, to the military:
- Public information;
- Public affairs; and
- Public relations.
Two are (relatively) simple for the military, the third is fraught with difficulty and, for the sailor or soldier, danger, too, in my opinion.
First, the easiest one: public information.
It seems to me that the Canadian Armed Forces, like every other agency or department or branch of government, needs to be able to inform people: to give them accurate information about the CF (or any other agency), information that is unclassified,* and information that should be provided in a timely manner. I believe, therefore, that the CF needs to have a dedicated, professional team of information officers (and NCOs). But, in my opinion, these people should be subject matter experts, sailors, soldiers and aviators, first and foremost, with some training so that they can understand how the media works and why it makes some of the demands it does. But (another but) they should not be “public affairs” professionals because that group, it seems to me, are in a somewhat different business. Public information is just that, information, not opinion, which ought to be available to the public because a) it’s unclassified and, b) it’s about their armed forces.
Second, the hard one: public affairs.
I have worried, in the past, about Canadians adopting American political mores without too much thought. One which we seem to have adopted, with no thought at all, is the notion ~ incompatible, I think, with our Westminster parliamentary traditions ~ of officials, including admirals and generals, being required to testify to or, actually lobby parliament in support of specific programmes.
Now in the US’ representative government model, with its three separate and equal branches of government, the executive (the cabinet and the departments) needs to explain and justify itself to the legislative branch and, in the 20th and 21st centuries, that means using modern “lobbying” techniques to make the case for (or, now and gain, against) this that or the other programme. We are all too used to seeing admirals and generals trooping up to “capital hill” to stage a “dog and pony show” to persuade legislators to back certain projects.
It’s not something we used to see much in our, responsible system of government where it is, or was, the ministry’s (the cabinet’s) responsibility to explain its programme to parliament, and officials are just there to feed information to ministers who are accountable to parliament and through parliament to the electorate. But the system is broken. It started to break back in the late 1960s and it was broken, again and again, by Conservative and Liberal governments alike, when prime ministers sought to shield their ministers from parliament by refusing the hold ministers accountable for everything that happened in their departments. In a way the old, the proper system is unfair … some middle rank civil servant screws up and the minister must resign; it’s harsh, but it is our system, it has hundreds of years of parliamentary practice behind it and it worked for us. And it should go on working for us. Just because the Americans require officials (and admirals and generals) to answer in the legislature for departmental plans and programmes doesn’t make it right, and it certainly, definitely doesn’t make it appropriate for a Westminster type of parliamentary system. Ministerial responsibility and cabinet solidarity (and the sanctity of “advice to cabinet” which also has security implication*) are significant components of our Westminster system and they cannot, must not be tossed aside just because our friends in the great republic to the South do something different.
But I reluctantly accept that neither a Conservative nor a Liberal government is very likely to care enough about how our parliamentary system should work to reimpose strict ministerial responsibility and accountability ~ not if it risks political embarrassment, which is, as far as I can see, why it became unpopular. That being the case I understand the need for government departments, including DND and the CF, to have a public affairs team that tries to shape and manage public (and legislative) opinion in order to influence parliament. But (there’s that word again) in my opinion military Public Affairs Officers (that’s a branch of the armed forces) ought not to be involved in such issues, which, at least, smack of being a wee bit unsavoury. But, even more, it’s not the military‘s business; perhaps, if politicians will not protect an important aspects of our parliamentary system, then it is the Department’s business but the Department can and should have civilian public relations specialists (spin doctors) to do it, not uniformed military members.
Third, another easy one: public relations.
Although only I reluctantly accept the need for public relations, I fully appreciate the need for governments, and for ministers in governments to have active, effective public relations programmes. Selling the Trudeau government or selling Harjit Sajjan is no different from selling cars, laundry soap or soft drinks. Policies and politicians are both commodities that are sold to the public with a mish-mash of promises and testimonials and so on. It’s a business, a big business and an important business, and:
- It needs to be done by professionals;
- It ought not to be done with the public’s money (and Conservatives and Liberals, both, have something for which to answer in that domain); and
- It is no business of the Canadian Armed Forces ~ none at all.
Which leads me to a question: if public relations is no business of the CF, and if public affairs ought not to be a military job, and if public information ought to be done by subject matter experts, because accuracy (the truth) is the first and most important criteria, then why does the Public Affairs Branch even exist?
The answer is simple: the Americans have one so we want one, too.
I have mentioned before that we, and we includes the Canadian Armed Forces, tend to be uncritical adopters of all things American just because they are American. There are a lot of things our American friends and neighbours do well, things we ought to emulate, but the way the US military must try to influence the congress, because of how the US constitutions shapes their intra-government relationships, is different from how our constitutional conventions shape our system, and we ought to preserve the doctrine ministerial responsibility ~ that’s something I hope Conservative leadership candidates will take on board ~ and the CDS, the same General Vance who is such a good communicator, ought to disband the Public Affairs Branch and, instead, give us a public information staff to communicate with Canadians.
* This, of course, raises the issue that the Canadian Forcers, the whole of government, indeed, must be able to protect information that is not unclassified. There are real SECRETs and the government needs to be able to safeguard them enemies and the public. This also implies a responsibility to use the security classification system properly and responsibly: to protect real SECRETs, not, as I have seen done, to avoid embarrassing ministers or senior official;s who did or said stupid things.