In the classroom, we often discuss whether prior experience in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) matters.
Generally speaking, it does, and it’s not usually helpful.
Given the hierarchical nature of military culture, ministers who were professionally subordinate to the chief of the defence staff as CAF members tend to find the new power dynamic awkward, at best.
Depending on the minister’s reputation in the CAF, gaining the respect of the higher command can also be difficult.
Ministers who have served can be tempted to get drawn into the minutiae of military planning and operations, leading to overworked and resentful staff across the department.
Finally, there is the risk of other ministers around the Cabinet table questioning your loyalty. (Are you representing the government to the military or the military to the government?)
I have typically suggested to my students that the defence minister’s closeness to the prime minister, and by extension their relationships with the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office, are what really matters.
Lately, however, I have begun to question this view.
Certainly, a defence minister without the ear of the prime minister is at a tremendous disadvantage, but I’m no longer sure that a good relationship with the Centre is sufficient.
National defence is the Government of Canada's largest category of discretionary spending.
The Department of National Defence (DND) had a budget of about $26.5 billion in 2023. Compare that to the Department of Canadian Heritage, home to five separate ministers. Together, they had a budget of about $2 billion.
That means that if the minister of national defence requests a 10% increase to the DND budget, they are asking for more than the budgets of at least five other ministers, combined.
It seems to me, then, that any contemporary Canadian minister of national defence who can’t build collegial relationships around the Cabinet table doesn’t stand a chance of success.
Fellow Cabinet ministers must be convinced to put DND’s overwhelming requests for funding ahead of their much more limited ones.
The model for a successful minister is the late Bill Graham. When Paul Martin appointed him to Defence, Graham had no prime ministerial aspirations, he understood his file without being too close to it, and he was well-liked and well-respected across the Liberal Party.
As a result, he was able to convince his Cabinet peers to increase defence spending substantially at the expense of all sorts of other departments that were also seeking larger budgets.
Graham’s inclusion as one of the four members of the Ministerial Advisory Panel on Canada's Defence Policy Review in 2016 was no accident.
He was there in part to help Minister Sajjan make the same case that Graham had made over a decade earlier. Again, he was successful.
In this context, even though I thought that Minister Anand did a good job of bringing a level of seriousness and rigour back to DND, I’m not sure that such an ambitious minister would ever have been able to convince the Trudeau Cabinet to provide National Defence with the financial support that it so desperately needs.
Let’s see what Minister Blair can do…
Bill Graham’s memoir, The Call of the World, does a good job of explaining his success at National Defence.
If you teach Canadian foreign and/or defence policy, I hope you'll consider using this little debate about Canada's place in the world that Jeremy Wildeman and I just had in Canadian Foreign Policy Journal. I have some free e-copies for those without access to CFPJ. Please let me know if you'd like one.
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