CAMPBELL CLARK

Harper needs fresh faces in international portfolios

The Globe and Mail

Canada's Defence Minister Peter MacKay speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, April 4, 2012. (CHRIS WATTIE/CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Foreign affairs has become a big part of Stephen Harper’s majority government. But one year into majority, the group of cabinet ministers in international roles needs change.

In the past year, the Prime Minister has been a travelling man like never before. He’s signed border accords with the United States, touted victory in Libya, decided to enter a Pacific trade bloc and put a push on selling oil to China. In John Baird, he’s finally found an active and confident foreign minister.

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Other things have changed, too, like the budget. Now, two of the longest-serving ministers in international portfolios, Defence Minister Peter MacKay and International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda, are in the wrong jobs. It’s time Mr. Harper shuffled them.

Unlike the other ministers with international roles – Mr. Baird, Trade Minister Ed Fast and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney – Mr. MacKay and Ms. Oda now lead portfolios where the main job is restructuring and re-making their large organizations. Neither is suited for it.

It isn’t because Mr. MacKay called the air force to hoist him from his vacation, or because Ms. Oda pays $16 for orange juice. Those are sub-plots.

Mr. MacKay, defence minister since 2007, has been lauded by some commentators and he’s popular with the troops. His main jobs were to help the forces fight missions, to be a spokesman for troops in combat and to work with major allies.

He did well at defence diplomacy, building ties with counterparts like former U.S. defence secretary Robert Gates. He took the advice of the military, said University of Ottawa defence analyst Philippe Lagassé. “You can only have a functioning department and armed forces if the military feels their advice is being heard and respected,” Mr. Lagassé said. That’s especially true when the forces are fighting in Afghanistan or flying sorties over Libya.

Now the mission is restructuring. The budget will be billions less than once planned; 1,000 jobs are being reorganized or eliminated, with more to come. More importantly, as Mr. Lagassé notes, defence spending plans aren’t sustainable, especially as new fleets of ships and fighters are supposed to be bought. In a few years, they’ll hit a wall. Defence has to be restructured dramatically.

But Mr. MacKay hasn’t proven a crack administrative overseer. Under his watch, the department was unable to buy equipment on schedule, so it lost $1-billion that was budgeted for defence. An associate minister, Julian Fantino, was sent to take over the procurement mess. Now-retired Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie wrote a long report on making strategic cuts to preserve front-line capabilities, but Mr. MacKay can’t seem to explain his plans. He’s not a minister whose shown he’ll challenge the military’s preferences, Mr. Lagassé said. That’s now required.

Ms. Oda’s job, meanwhile, is already tenuous, for being a repeat PR disaster. But for bigger reasons, it’s time she was moved on.

The Canadian International Development Agency will lose almost 10 per cent of its $3.4-billion budget. Aid will be cut, and the department, too. It’s already a demoralized organization. Remaking the mission with less requires a clear vision and strong leadership, that Ms. Oda, in the job since 2007, cannot provide.

She’s talked about making aid more effective and taken some steps, like untying aid from local purchases and focusing on a slightly smaller number of countries. But CIDA’s goals are still often muddy, hampering effectiveness. Aid agencies don’t understand how decisions are made and they languish in her office. The PMO doesn’t give her latitude to lead. A new hand is needed.

So while Mr. Harper has increased the attention he devotes to the world, he’d better pay attention to its big-money tools, CIDA and the Canadian forces. Now that the job is restructuring them, it will have to start with the ministers.



Campbell Clark writes about foreign affairs from Ottawa