The Hon. Gordon O’Connor, P.C., at the Albany Club

Many thanks to Lt. (N) Paul Hong, who graciously invited me to breakfast at the Albany Club, hosted by the St. Paul’s and Toronto Centre Conservative associations.  The Minister of National Defense, Brigadier-General (Ret.) Gordon O’Connor, PC, OMM, CD was the guest speaker.  Although my host was a little late, I saw another familiar face in the room — Vincent Veerasuntharam, Tory candidate (previously reviewed here) for my former neighborhood of Scarborough Southwest.  I was also able to get in a few questions to the Minister before he spoke to the assembled guests.  I didn’t realise who he was, at first.  Gen. O’Connor is about my height and most general officers I have met fall into the Dilbert Executive Profile: tall, good hair, good looking.  The Minister has good hair and is good-looking in a craggy, distinguished way, but he was shorter than I expected.  But then that comes in handy when you have to fold yourself into a main battle tank every day for a couple of decades.

As usual I had to drag out my strat-lift hobbyhorse and see how things were going on that front.  Boeing has made a lot of noise in the past few months about the production line coming to a close in the absence of further orders from the U.S. Air Force, and I asked the Minister if the impending line closure could affect our delivery dates at all.  There are no worries there at all.  Apparently the USAF has graciously agreed to swap production slots with us and we will take delivery of our first C-17 in May or June of next year.  He actually recalled, off-the-cuff, the production tail numbers we would be assigned, although my memory is not good enough to cite them here.

My second question involved an issue raised by friend Mr. Damian Brooks, founder of The Torch.  Lately, it seems as if the CF is getting behind the 8-ball in the PR and information war.  I cited the example of CTV reporter David Akin asking the CF at 0900 for a knowledgeable source to appear on-air in a piece about the Excalibur precision-guided 155mm shells.  Dawn Black, NDP defence critic, and Stephen Staples from the Polaris Institute made themselves available for interviews, but the CF took all day (until 1600) to let Akin know that no official source was available for the piece.

The Minister’s take was that 1) he is appearing all across the country as the schwerpunkt of an information blitz, and 2) they get hundreds of requests from the media for on-air (or on-record) sources, and they can’t possibly accommodate them all.  So some requests are, unfortunately, going to fall by the wayside.  That is undoubtedly the truth of the matter, but it’s regrettable when it happens to reporters like Mr. Akin — someone who has shown a willingness to really do his homework and seek reasonable, knowledgeable sources for military stories.

The actual prepared speech was a bit of a mixed bag.  First off the Hon. Mr. O’Connor is not the world’s best speaker when reading prepared material.  He was very comfortable and at ease during the question-and-answer session afterward, but he was a wee bit awkward during the prepared material and I felt a little sorry on his behalf.

The material featured some standard "Canada’s New Government" boilerplate highlighting recent accomplishments.  Recognising accomplishments is good and necessary, but since we’re in the fourth quarter of the "new" government’s first year, can we drop the whole "new" business now?  It’s unseemly to run around calling yourself "the new guy" when it’s been twelve months since the election and eleven months after swearing-in.

The bulk of the speech covered CF funding restoration and progress in Afghanistan.  No specific figures for CF funding were elaborated, unfortunately, except the usual business of the CF being under-budgeted since the Mulroney era and requiring multiple years of consistent restorative funding.  No argument there.  He did unload some interesting factlets about Afghanistan, such as the increase in female representatives within provincial and federal legislatures (from zero to one-quarter, I believe), and the dramatic increase in postgraduate students (from 400-500,000 males to 3 million persons, a quarter of which are women).  Minister O’Connor also took pains to note that the CF has seen so much recent fighting because they are defending all reconstruction teams in a heavily Taliban-influenced Pashtun area.  Not just the CF’s own PRTs, but reconstruction teams from the UN, NATO, and other countries.

The Q&A afterwards was largely unremarkable (same old, same old questions from the crowd) but I did enjoy the minister’s response to one remark.  The questioner pondered whether we might be in Afstan for a lengthy period, given how long our forces remained in Europe following the Second World War.  Minister O’Connor’s reply was that Canada remained committed to Afghanistan for the long term, but that committment did not necessarily entail military forces for the duration.  As far as the Conservative government is concerned, the CF will be engaged in the mission until 2009 (as voted by the House), and no plans (affirmative or negative) have been made beyond that.

On the whole it was reasonable starting effort from the Minister, and I hope DND’s information offensive eventually includes a fast, responsive PAO that can help provide an accurate, appropriate warfighter’s perspective to the media’s military stories.

Cross-posted to The Torch .

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