So, Anita Anand is out and Bill Blair is in as Minister of National Defence. This is bad news for my civ-mil classes as Minister Anand zoomed into my class both times I taught the class while she was Minister of National Defence. I think it is also bad news for Canadian civil-military relations, the Department of National Defence, and, yes, the Canadian Armed Forces. Let me listicle my way through this:
- the file is not an easy one, and Anand has done a heap of homework and understands the stuff pretty well by this point. While she has not been able to deliver a defence policy update on time, she has managed the file pretty well given the constraints imposed by the Prime Minister's Office, the world (hey, how about you spend much of your time working to help Ukraine), and resistance within the CAF and maybe within DND itself. Blair will come in and have to learn from scratch. Will he have the same determination to read everything (as Anand said on the BattleRhythm podcast)?
- Speaking of which, DND and CAF aren't very transparent, but Anand did do a fair amount of outreach, including appearing on our podcast. Will Blair?
- Beyond reading/speaking, Anand seemed more determined than most MND's to actually impose civilian control of the military, rather than just sign off on whatever the CAF wanted. While this might have been tough for the CAF to swallow, the military had proved that it did not handle its autonomy well at all.
- Which gets back to continuity. How long does it take it to create new institutions, rules, and norms and have them bite--shape the incentives, outlooks, and then ultimately who leads? Not sure what the magic number is, but I am guessing it is more than two years.
- What of that defence policy update? Will it be scrapped and started again with new leadership? Will Blair just sign off on the previous work? 🤷.
- I have written repeatedly about the problems of having a former military officer serve in this spot--O'Connor/Sajjan here, Mattis/Austin in the US. What about an ex-cop? Lovely. Not so lovely. If there is an agency or entity that has a worse record of civilian control than the military, it is
Global Affairsthe Royal Canadian Mounted Police as well as the other police forces in Canada. As an ex-cop, Blair almost assuredly had an attitude that the cops knew better than the politicians and that they should have autonomy to avoid being politicized. The problem, of course, is that all policing is political. Is Blair likely to accede to whatever the military recommends, or is he going to, yes, engage in management and even micromanagement? Gasp! I am guessing the former. While there are better leaders in the CAF now than a few years ago, decades of behavior and the dynamics in other countries have proven that giving militaries heaps of autonomy is not the way to go.
- So, that is the substantial stuff, but there is also the symbolic. No, I am not talking about swapping out a women of colour and putting in an old white guy (although, yeah, that might send some signals). I am talking about removing a super-competent, engaged person and replacing them with someone who has little clout and has mismanaged his previous files. The message this sends? Trudeau doesn't care about defence now that it is not burning as much, so he is sending someone who should have been shuffled out of the cabinet to defence. This is a damaging message to send to those who have been sticking it out in the CAF and DND, hoping for and fighting for change to happen. Is Blair going to help or hurt with the personnel crisis? Now that I think about it, that really would have been the first question I would be asking myself if I were PM. Sure, few folks condition their votes on defence or foreign policy, but when making this decision, I would use that attitude to do what is necessary for Canada's national interests. Given the primacy of the personnel crisis, that would shape the decision..... or not.
Maybe they need a sharp, detail-oriented person at Treasury Board. Ok, But Blair as Minister of National Defence?