A problem of communication

In a four-star universe, it's hard for Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor to outshine his popular general

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The Gazette, Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The problem between Rick Hillier and Gordon O'Connor is that a four-star is working for a one-star.

As the chief of defence staff, Hillier is the only four-star general in the Canadian Forces. (This being Canada, of course, he actually wears four maple leaves, not four stars.) He reports to the Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor, a retired brigadier turned defence lobbyist before his election as a Conservative MP in 2004.

Everybody understands and respects the chain of command. The chief of defence staff has operational command of the forces and is the government's chief adviser on military affairs. But political authority is vested with the minister and, ultimately, the prime minister.

This is a vital constitutional separation of powers, and it applies in all aspects of defence policy, from Arctic sovereignty, to procurement, to the mission in Afghanistan. Hillier represents the brass. O'Connor represents the boss.

Yet it isn't that simple. The Conservatives took office promising to renew Canada's military after a decade of neglect by the previous government. They also inherited the mission in Kandahar, a daunting task on the ground and a hard sell at home.

So there's an unusual emphasis on military affairs in the media. And any time there's a perceived difference of opinion between Hillier and O'Connor, that becomes a big story.

A four-star working for a one-star.

There's also a difference in style. As a retired general officer, there's no doubt that O'Connor knows his department well, possibly too well. But he's not very articulate, and that makes him ineffective as a messenger. Hillier, on the other hand, is something of a rock star, the country's best-known and most popular officer since John de Chastelain was chief of defence staff during the Oka Crisis.

Since Hillier is such a good communicator, the government frequently makes him available for interviews. The potential downside is that the media are constantly looking to put Hillier and O'Connor on different pages.

Thus, when Hillier appeared on CTV's Question Period on Sunday, he said Canadian troops would be in a lead combat role in Kandahar "for a long while," appearing to contradict O'Connor's suggestion of the previous week that Canadian forces would shifting to a mentoring role of Afghan troops within six months.

This created a spate of second-day stories yesterday in which learned defence experts from the academic world speculated on yet another difference of opinion between the general and the minister, a situation that could not be tolerated much longer by the prime minister. Or as the Globe and Mail put it in a headline at its website yesterday: "PM warned on O'Connor-Hillier rift." The story also looped back to Hillier's recent comment dismissing the Conservatives' 2006 campaign promise to create more reserves to meet urban emergencies. This was the inspiration for the infamous Liberal attack ad about "soldiers in the streets of our cities." In any event, Hillier doesn't think much of it, and says we have sufficient strength in the reserves. That might well be, and his advice is important, but at the end of the day, it's not his call.

This isn't really about policy differences between Hillier and O'Connor. For the media, it's very close to becoming a game of gotcha. For the government, it's a communications-management issue. And on Afghanistan, there are a lot of players around that table, from the Prime Minister's Office and the Privy Council Office, to Defence, Foreign Affairs, the Canadian International Development Agency and the RCMP.

On the terms of the mission, there may actually be room for both Hillier and O'Connor to be right. We are committed to Kandahar until 2009, and no one seriously suggests the Afghans will be able to provide for their own security before then. Yet we may be hoping to move to more of a support role before then. There is room for both perspectives.

There is no question removing Hillier as chief of defence staff. There might well be a question of O'Connor being moved out of defence in any cabinet shuffle before a new session of Parliament in the fall.

Harper regularly grades the performance of his ministers. In any assessment of O'Connor, communications would be one of his challenges. At some point, Harper might decide that the mission needs a new messenger.

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