The Harper Index

Hillier, Rick – Brassy top soldier does what government can't

Chief of staff used as booster and stalking horse for government military policies.

Chief-of-staff Rick Hillier has become a main government spokesperson, sometimes trumping his boss.OTTAWA, July 30, 2007: Canada's top soldier Rick Hillier has needed no encouragement to become the Harper government's chief advocate for Canada's role in Afghanistan. Where most professional Canadian officers keep a low profile and avoid causing ripples, Hillier has moved up in the ranks despite, or possibly due to, a history of forcefully speaking his mind.

Hillier's occasional public contradiction of some Conservative party policies reinforce his credibility as a supporter of the military mission and military purchases. Last week, for instance, he told reporters that Stephen Harper's campaign promise to create new army units across the country was unnecessary.

And Hillier has frequently been seen to contradict or even pre-empt defence minister Gordon O'Connor. Today there are news reports that Hillier has once again contradicted O'Connor, saying that Afghan forces will not be ready to shoulder a fighting load by Canada's scheduled pullout date in February 2009. O'Connor had said recently that Afghans would be able to fulfill that role by the spring of 2008.

How freely Hillier speaks, however, is questionable. In April 2006, Hillier was asked to submit advance copies of his public speeches to O'Connor for vetting. Hillier's saying that Afghan troops will not be battle ready by February 2009 will likely result in NATO's increasing pressure on Canada to remain longer, something that Stephen Harper had been touting, at least until recently. In other words, Hillier may be Harper's stalking horse.

In selling the war in Afghanistan to Canadians, Hillier is merely "doing what the government has failed to do," according to historian and McGill University Professor Emeritus Desmond Morton. "I don't think the Tories have to give him a car or promises of a Senate seat," says Morton. "He enjoys doing it."

"Mr. Harper has tolerated, as did Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien, the advancement of a guy with a mind of his own," says Morton, who specializes in the history of the Canadian military, as well as the history of Canadian political and industrial relations. He says, "I don't think Hillier is a big seller, but among the gun crowd and in many working class areas, he would be a draw."

Morton says Hillier is rare among Canadian military officers. "He is the big exception. Most of them are faceless guys who don't cause any troubles and that's why they get ahead." Hillier is not like most officers, who hesitate to step out of line, lest someone complain. "Because he doesn't give a damn, no one squawks, and he gets ahead. He's a shrewd operator."

There may be an element of payback in Hillier's strong advocacy for government policy, says Morton. "This government has given the military all sorts of things they wanted," in return for which, Morton suggests, top brass are openly praising the government.

Morton, a former soldier and a strong supporter of the Canadian military, sees a very different military role for Canada in Afghanistan. He believes China should be encouraged to build - and defend - a national railway system to encourage the legitimate opium business. This would allow Canada to "tiptoe quietly out" of a situation in which it cannot succeed. "Most Canadians don't even speak French, much less Farsi."

He is critical of Stephen Harper's June announcement of the planned purchase of naval patrol vessels, with the stated purpose of enforcing Arctic sovereignty. To win political points, Morton says Harper wants to be seen "to offend the Americans" by talking about northern sovereignty and northern defence. "They have promised to build little ships, but they haven't promised to build icebreakers, just cheap little ones. Their procurement strategies are not based on any kind of cold rational strategic analysis. Why would you want boats in the Arctic that can't get through the ice?"

Morton travelled to Labrador in July on a "double-hulled Russian-built, Maltese-registered passenger ship" operated by Makovik Corporation, an Inuit economic development corporation. Even though it was an ice ship, he says there "were many ports where we couldn't put in" due to pack ice as much as 70 kilometers wide, in summer. "We got a working lesson on what works and what doesn't work in the Arctic."

Morton disagrees, as well, with purchases such as four Boeing C-17 military transport aircraft, at a cost of $3.4 billion. "Normally you don't own these aircraft, you rent them," at a cost of a few million per trip as opposed to "several million per minute," in the case of ownership. A hangar alone for these giant aircraft will cost $800 million, says Morton. Owning these aircraft "is like keeping a transport truck in your back yard," to use if you move. Purchases like these may keep top commanders like Hillier onside with the government.

This month, Hillier attracted political attention when the NDP accused him of "stonewalling and unreasonable delays" in obtaining records of Afghan detainees. News reports say Hillier has ordered no documents related to captured detainees be made public under the Access to Information Act, even though civil service staff are supposed to make such decisions. Hillier has justified the secrecy saying that making the information public would endanger Canadian soldiers and operations in Afghanistan. Keeping detainee records secret helps the Harper government defuse one of its most explosive and damaging issues.

Related individuals, organizations and significant events
Military contracting –- Afghanistan creates pretext for unscrutinized increases
Arctic sovereignty slogan masks win for military lobby

Harper Conservative vs. Public Values Frame
  Rick Hillier / Unaccountable, government stand-in
  Security / Secrecy, military spending binge

Links and sources
  Afghan detainee information ban infringes rights, CBC News, July 10, 2007
  NDP takes on Hillier over files access, Globe and Mail, July 18, 2007
  Canadians deserve full debate on Afghanistan mission, Sheila Pratt, StraightGoods.ca, July 23, 2007
  Opposition blocks Harperite deal, by Linda McQuaig, StraightGoods.ca, May 15, 2007
  Ottawa seeks closer watch on top general, Globe and Mail, April 19, 2006
  CBC News Indepth: Rick Hillier

Posted: July 30, 2007

Harper Index (HarperIndex.ca) is a project of the Golden Lake Institute and the online publication StraightGoods.ca


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