Let’s start with the email Dimitri Soudas, a former press secretary to the Prime Minister, sent from the Prime Minister’s Office on Aug. 25, 2010:
“On 24 August, two CF-18 Hornet fighter aircraft were launched and visually identified 2 Russian aircraft, the TU-95 Bear, approximately 120 nautical miles north of Inuvik, Northwest Territories. At their closest point, the Russian aircraft were 30 nautical miles from Canadian soil. The CF-18s shadowed the Bear aircraft until they turned around. The two CF-18s came from 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alberta.
”Thanks to the rapid response of the Canadian Forces, at no time did the Russian aircraft enter sovereign Canadian airspace.
”We are happy to report that CF aircraft returned to their base without incident….
”The CF-18 is an incredible aircraft that enables our Forces to meet Russian challenges in our North. That proud tradition will continue after the retirement of the CF-18 fleet as the new, highly capable and technologically-advanced F-35 comes into service. It is the best plane our Government could provide our Forces, and when you are a pilot staring down Russian long range bombers, that’s an important fact to remember.”
Never mind that the email contained an industrial quantity of bullshit; on a day like today, if we let that slow us down we will never get anywhere. Note, instead, the tone — “when you are a pilot staring down Russian long range bombers;” the assumption, too ludicrous to state outright but there all the same, that if our lonely flyboys don’t stare down the Russians they will be dropping their lethal payload on Edmonton any minute now; and most importantly, the casually assumed identification with the men and women in uniform, who actually do face danger whenever they taxi down a runway, hardly ever from an external enemy, but routinely from altitude, velocity, thin air and the immense hurtling canisters of inflammable liquid upon which they are perched.
This is serious business, the Harper government has said in one way or another a thousand times. They got at least that much right. It is so serious that one of the distinguishing characteristics of most professionals in uniform is an elevated degree of humility, because if you get too far up your own backside you will miss information that could cost lives. That level of humility helps explain why, immediately after Soudas sent his Top Gun email and the Sun papers began a fun week trying to figure out how to spell “Russki,” NORAD put out a news release stating for the record that the Russians had done nothing untoward. “Both Russia and NORAD routinely exercise their capability to operate in the North,” the people who actually wear uniforms and actually stare at bombers wrote. “These exercises are important to both NORAD and Russia and are not cause for alarm.”
There is a straight line from that day to today, when Peter MacKay should be hanging his head in shame and the Prime Minister of Canada with him, but instead they put on the kind of asinine spectacle that has my very even-tempered colleague Geddes plainly struggling to contain his temper. That line is drawn along the hard rule of a simplistic assumption that has been pervasive in this government: that because Conservatives like soldiers and pilots and airplanes, and the Liberals don’t, then the Conservatives will make correct decisions and any critic, anywhere, must therefore be a Liberal and therefore — what’s the word? — treasonous.
Stéphane Dion used to ask about the treatment of Afghan prisoners who were legally a Canadian responsibility. Stephen Harper used to say Dion cared more about the Taliban than about Canadian troops. The details of the file cost Gordon O’Connor his job as defence minister, and incidentally, on the ground in Afghanistan, real Canadian troops were scrambling to adjust, day after day after day, to meet and reconcile two requirements they, at least, took very seriously: the need to keep large numbers of potential bad guys out of circulation, and the need to respect those prisoners’ most elementary human rights. Which meant Stéphane Dion had a point.
Michael Ignatieff voted to defeat the government in the spring of 2011, and then Ignatieff led his party to historic defeat and he lost his own seat and ho-ho, isn’t it fun, but the really funny thing is that what made Ignatieff vote the way he did was grave concern over the cost of F-35 fighters and the government’s continued snit about even being asked to consider the question. The Canadian people voted the way they did, and there was probably real insight in their decision that the Liberals should be pushed further from power rather than invited closer to it. But if the Conservatives had “pressed the reset button” 20 months ago instead of today, then real pilots who have to stare down real threats would be 20 months closer to real equipment that might really help. Instead the pilots’ friends at Langevin have done the pilots a real disservice.
Every once in a while the government does listen to an opposition member, or a critic outside politics. It does reconcile its vision of the world with others’. That’s been an important part of Stephen Harper’s political longevity, too rarely recognized. But there was never any real chance that it would do so on a military procurement file until it was far, far too late, because Conservatives like soldiers and pilots and airplanes. This is how your strengths become weaknesses. There should be a designated full-time devil’s advocate in the PMO, somebody the prime minister trusts a lot and fears a little. The person should argue, every day, that the government might be wrong. We used to have a civil service to do that, but those days are gone. On odd days, the designated full-time devil’s advocate could preface his remarks by saying, “I’m not really the devil’s advocate, you know. I’m the Queen’s, and the Canadian people’s, and yours too, if you’re smart.”