On being Friends of the Military

In and amidst all of the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the Auditor General’s report on the F-35 procurement process, the issue of wilful blindness on the part of the government I think is something that needs further attention, and it goes back to the way in which they’ve positioned themselves since they first formed government in 2006. More specifically, they cast themselves as Friends of the Military™, and it makes one wonder if that’s the reason why they didn’t push back when officials at DND were feeding them incorrect information, or keeping their ministers out of the loop. After all, they invested so much time in denouncing the “Decade of Darkness” of the Chrétien years (never mind the fact that the Liberals under Paul Martin went a long way towards recapitalising the military, or that many of the problems during said decade were a result of mismanagement), that they didn’t want to be seen to be accused of being anything other than friendly. And so, they were quick to believe DND officials, despite the Statement of Operational Requirements being written specifically for the plane they wanted, or when the bidding process was rigged, almost in a transparent manner. They wanted to keep being the friend.

It’s not like they weren’t warned. Even if the opposition parties hadn’t been asking the questions about that process – and they were – remember the spanking Sheila Fraser gave them over the purchase of the Cyclone helicopters when DND also gamed the system, told their political masters one thing when the reality was a different picture. If the responsible ministers didn’t ask questions with this knowledge in mind, and with increasing questions from the opposition, then it can only be considered wilful blindness, especially when you look at the way in which they not only dismissed criticism, but gave a series of increasingly hyperbolic talking points in support of this fighter plane, no matter how much reality intruded.

I also think we need to point out that it’s been years since we’ve had any kind of a Defence white paper, or any other kind of guiding document as to what this government expects our military’s role in the world to be. That’s an important consideration with infrastructure and procurement, since it will determine the kind of hardware we acquire. This is at the heart of the F-35 issue – the F-35 is suited for a certain type of mission profile, and it’s one of being on the front lines of future engagements abroad – and is not as well suited for the defence our Arctic given its single engine and lack of cold-weather testing. And without any particular guidance as to the kind of missions we need this equipment for, it makes it really difficult to hold the government to account for its purchasing decisions.

And then we get to the issue of responsibility. The lines are muddy, but clearly heads need to roll, and in our system of government, it all boils down to the ministers of national defence and of public works. Ultimately, the buck stops with them. Not that Harper will either demand or accept resignations. But it should also be noted that against this government’s usual form, they’re not even blaming the bureaucrats for this debacle. In fact, the approved line is that this is all just the result of a series of miscommunications on such a complex file, so really, we can’t hold anyone responsible. And one has to suspect that we go back to this government’s intense desire to be the Friend of the Military™ that they don’t want to be seen to be being anything less than unwavering in their support for our men and women in uniform, no matter how many blind eyes they need to turn to what’s really going on under their own noses. And that needs to be called out for what it really is.