National Column: Sajjan won the battle, but what of the war?

by Chantal Hebert

At week’s end, it looks like Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan will live to fight another day. Unless the opposition parties come up with fresh ammunition, they are unlikely to exact his resignation for having embellished his role in the planning of a major military offensive in Afghanistan.

But having won one battle, can Sajjan win the war and redeem what was until last week a promising political career? And, in the immediate, can he still be an effective national defence minister? The answer on both scores is a qualified yes.

Let’s take them in order.

As it happens, there is fresh evidence these days that an error in judgment – as glaring as it may be – need not be fatal to one’s political ambitions.

Consider the case of Maxime Bernier, the Conservative candidate best placed, according to the polls, to become Canada’s next leader of the official Opposition this month and a potential prime minister-in-waiting.

At around the same juncture as Sajjan in his parliamentary tenure, Bernier had to acknowledge that he had left some classified government documents at the home of a former girlfriend. To compound the embarrassment, she had been linked, in a previous life, to Hells Angels members.

The security lapse cost him his post as foreign affairs minister. But if Conservative insiders are to be believed, Stephen Harper had prior doubts as to his minister’s judgment.

What is certain is that when the prime minister invited Bernier back to the ministerial table three years later, it was in a junior capacity.

On this fragile record, Bernier has built a solid leadership bid for the leading opposition job in the House of Commons.

On the other hand, by all accounts, Sajjan was still in Justin Trudeau’s good graces when his exaggerated claims to fame surfaced – and there, it seems, he remains.

Trudeau is standing by his judgment-challenged minister. One does not get the impression that the prime minister is just biding his time until he can move Sajjan out of his portfolio under the cover of a larger cabinet shuffle.

On the contrary, within 48 hours of the storm breaking, Sajjan was back in the saddle, setting the scene for the imminent rollout of a revamped Canadian defence policy. This is not the kind of operation a government normally engages in only to change horses in midstream.

That Sajjan is a minister under a cloud in some military quarters is not in doubt. If he were commander-in-chief, his position would be unsustainable.

But the minister is no more the country’s first soldier than his health colleague is Canada’s chief medical officer.

On my watch covering federal politics, I have seen 16 defence ministers – including Sajjan – come and go.

They came in all shapes and sizes and, as often as not, had no prior military knowledge and/or no documented interest for the file.

Take Marcel Masse, Brian Mulroney’s next-to-last defence minister.

His seat was located in a maple-rich region of Quebec and he is more or less fondly remembered for his insistence on ensuring that Canadian maple syrup be on offer on every mess table.

Kim Campbell was his immediate successor. She fought the biggest battle of her tenure at national defence on the field of leadership politics.

Some of Sajjan’s predecessors were popular with the troops, others much less so.

Some were caretakers; others had proactive agendas. But it was their respective clout within the government and not their standing with the military that mostly distinguished the effective ones from the placeholders.

That is true not just of national defence but of many other not-always-top-of-mind federal portfolios.

A star candidate that Trudeau’s team had in mind for the national defence slot long before the 2015 election, Sajjan was meant to be a defining figure in the Liberal cabinet and, notwithstanding this month’s self-inflicted hit, he still is.

One of the recurring problems of Canada’s defence policy has been the short political attention of a succession of federal governments and an attending lack of consistency. When push has come to shove on the fiscal front, the national defence budget has often been little more than a juicy target for savings.

But this week, Trudeau put a lot of political capital on the line to defend his minister. As of now, the prime minister has a bigger stake in ensuring that Sajjan succeeds in his current role.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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