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Ken Pole's picture
Should ex-military avoid political public service?
Posted on Sep 18, 2015

There’s a body of opinion which holds that retired military officers should eschew politics, that lending their names and/or ranks to a political campaign is a form of prostitution, and that using their experience and leadership skills in the civilian world is somehow "wrong". 

That nasty hyperbole, which originated south of the border, popped up recently in a Huffington Post blog entry by Bruce Moncur. Identified as a “former soldier” and New Democratic Party “staffer”. Somebody forgot – ignored? – the fact that Moncur is the NDP’s candidate for election next month in the southern Ontario riding of Windsor-Tecumseh.

His blog was precipitated by a comment from one retired Canadian Armed Forces officer (Army LGen Andrew Leslie) to another (Air Force Capt. Erin O’Toole) “to lead, follow or get out of the way” in the march to imrpve the lot of Canada’s veterans.

Leslie, who ended a 35-year military career in September 2011, is a star newcomer for the Liberals in Ottawa-Orleans in the upcoming general election. O’Toole, whose regular and reserves career spanned eight years, was appointed Veterans Affairs Minister last January, 25 months after winning a byelection in the central Ontario riding of Durham.

O’Toole inherited a portfolio fundamentally damaged by budget cuts and infected by ministerial ineptitude, but after a positive beginning he seemed to lose momentum, possibly mired in the bureaucracy and/or muzzled, like most ministers and career-conscious public servants, by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Appearing on CBC-TV’s Power & Politics, O’Toole and Leslie, along with Peter Stoffer, the NDP incumbent in the Nova Scotia riding of Sackville-Preston-Chezzetcook and Official Opposition Critic for Veterans Affairs in the last Parliament, debated the Liberals’ proposal to improve the system. Their package included $300 million a year for new and expanded veterans programs as well as reopening local and regional VA offices closed by the Conservatives.

Power & Politics host Rosemary Barton started off by asking whether the Liberals’ platform plank was a tacit admission that their earlier crack at improving things for veterans, a decade earlier under then Prime Minister Paul Martin, was “a bad idea in the first place”. In 2011, the Conservatives put their own fiscally-constrained stamp on the VA portfolio with their New Veterans Charter, which introduced the notion of a lump-sum benefit for injured veterans.

Without agreeing with Barton, Leslie acknowledged that it is “time to revisit these charters”. It was clear, he said, that “tens of thousands” of veterans were “upset” and even, he added later, “enraged” by the Conservatives’ policies.

O’Toole said Liberals were essentially parroting what he had announced in March, but Barton pointed out that reopening the VA offices and providing more support for veterans and their families are not part of the government’s package.

Noting that the Conservatives had recently extended the appointment of Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent, Leslie said his party had accepted all of Parent’s latest recommendations on how to improve the support system.

“We talked over the issues with a whole host of veterans, those who’ve sacrificed all – and we’re doing it,” the retired general said, gesturing pointedly as he called on the minister to “lead, follow or get out of the way.”

While pithy and a good sound bite, it was hardly original. The credit goes to Thomas Paine, an English expatriate who supported the American Revolution.

Stoffer, first elected to Parliament in 1997 and formally commended by the Ombudsman for his work on the issue, criticized both of the other major parties.

Stoffer said the Liberals’ proposed return to a pension approach might require cuts elsewhere within VA but he faulted the Conservatives for their abandonment of previous benefits and said long-term care would be a priority for the NDP.

Asked where the Liberals would find $300 million a year, Leslie said more effective management would be a factor. Other than that, he demurred, saying that while he had seen “the costing program”, it was Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s prerogative to announce the details as part of the party’s economic agenda.

O’Toole returned to that later in the debate, insisting that the Liberals “don’t have their facts straight, nor have they even costed it.” He also said the Conservatives have been spending more on education programs for veterans.

Given the final say, Leslie said he “sincerely hoped we can move beyond the spin” because “Canada owes it to the veterans.”

However, rather than focus on the substance of the eight-minute panel discussion, Moncur’s criticism of Leslie focused on what he described as an unwritten rule that former military officers should remain apolitical.

The concern, according to the NDP staffer now running as a candidate, is that by becoming politically active, retired officers represent the military community as authoritatively as their erstwhile colleagues still in uniform.

That picks up on an argument put forward by Samuel Phillips Huntington, an influential conservative political scientist in the United States who died in 2008. Among other things, he wrote: “Politics is beyond the scope of military competence, and the participation of military officers in politics undermines their professionalism, curtailing their professional competence, dividing the profession against itself, and substituting extraneous values for professional values.”

Moncur was one of approximately 30 troopers severely injured by US Air Force “friendly fire” in 2006 during Operation Medusa, a Canadian-led offensive during the second Battle of Panjwaii. A founding member of the Afghanistan Veterans Association of Canada, he has written knowledgeably and extensively on military and veterans affairs and was a party backroomer until his decision to seek public office.

“While serving in the forces all soldiers have to remain apolitical and are not permitted to publicly endorse a candidate or party,” he correctly pointed out in his blog. “It is also seen to be in poor form when retired officers of high rank attempt to use the position obtained to their advantage. Especially if it is to settle a score.”

By that, he was referring to possible payback for how Leslie’s stellar career, which many expected would culminate with promotion to The Chief of the Defence Staff, was abruptly derailed by his push to give the Canadian Armed Forces “more bite and less tail”.

This was set out in his Report on Transformation 2011, commissioned by the government the previous year. To put it mildly, its comprehensive recommendations did not sit well with other officers in the chain of command or with a government worried about division at the top of the military hierarchy.

It was full of self-evident truths about DND’s financial situation and a clear need to reallocate finite resources in a bid to make the CAF “even more agile, more deployable, more ready to […] meet the new and emerging defence demands of tomorrow.”

Leslie conceded that “very few of the recommendations to get to where we have to go will be easy, popular, or risk free” and that “that there has always been significant resistance to change” within DND. The latter proved prescient and, in short order, the team’s recommendations were shelved, as was Leslie’s career.

He is reported to have rebuffed various offers by the Conservatives, opting instead to align himself with the Liberals, a development Moncur said would mean Leslie’s name “is surely to be at the top of a short list” for appointment as Minister of National Defence if the Liberals form a government.

“He will then be the boss of the chief of defence staff and the boss of the man he was passed over for promotion,” Moncur concluded. “Our nation's military must not be held hostage to anyone's motives and for all of our sakes, I hope the Liberals never get to implement their plans, and the fact that they would allow themselves to get involved in a vendetta is indicative of the quality of their leadership.”

A fact? Vendetta? Says who? Any supporting evidence that Leslie would abuse a cabinet position for personal revenge is circumstantial at best. If anything, his record in uniform would indicate otherwise. Moreover, Leslie’s political push is motivated by his deep dissatisfaction with how the Conservatives, primarily under O’Toole’s embarrassing predecessor, Julian Fantino, have mishandled the VA portfolio, notably its handling of Afghanistan veterans.

As for any suggestion that military service should somehow temper what you say about government in general and VA in particular, that’s nonsense. If anything, like him or not, it only enhances Leslie’s credibility. Whether he will ever become Minister of National Defence is obviously speculative but I’d bet his expertise and commitment will be put to good use by the party if he wins his riding in the coming election.