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Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance watches a news conference from the front row of seats, May 7, 2020, in Ottawa.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

As the Vance mess has grown and metastasized, calls have multiplied for the Minister of National Defence to resign. The minister, it is widely agreed, must accept responsibility for the failure to investigate allegations that the then-chief of the defence staff, at a time when the military was already under heavy fire for winking at sexual misconduct in the ranks, was himself a prime example of the problem: both as winker and winkee.

Demands that the minister be held responsible betray a nostalgia for a system of government that no longer exists. Ministers have long since ceased to hold any independent brief beyond carrying the can for decisions made at the centre: in the Prime Minister’s Office.

In the present case it is quite clear that Harjit Sajjan is something of a bit player: the fall guy, if there were any likelihood he would actually be made to take the fall. Certainly it is true that, in the six years since he took the job, with former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps’s report into sexual misconduct in the military already sitting on his desk, nothing much has changed in the Canadian Armed Forces. If nothing has changed, it is reasonable to assume it is because the man at the top, the person who sets the culture for the organization, failed to make it change.

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But who is, or was, the man at the top? Was it Jonathan Vance, who – even as he was overseeing Operation Honour, the military’s response to the Deschamps report – was allegedly having an affair with a subordinate, to whom he allegedly boasted he was “untouchable” as the military investigative body answered to him?

Was it Mr. Sajjan, who, having been informed in March, 2018, that there were questions about Mr. Vance’s conduct, not only failed to follow up, but left him in place for three more years?

Or should attention rather be focused on the real man at the top: the Prime Minister? The question has been pertinent at least since it was revealed, in testimony before the Commons Defence committee the Liberals did their best to suppress, that the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, was informed of the Vance allegations shortly after the minister was.

May 7: Trudeau’s chief of staff says PM didn’t know of sexual misconduct reports against Gen. Vance

Indeed, as it has emerged, the minister’s first act on being presented with evidence of Mr. Vance’s alleged misconduct was not to look into the matter himself, nor even to pass it on to the Privy Council Office, as claimed, but to pass it up to the PMO.

At that point, if not before, responsibility for the file was assumed by the PMO. At that point, if not before, it became a political matter. There is not a thing that moves, in this government even more than its predecessors, that the PMO does not wish to be told about, and to manage itself. When Mr. Sajjan surrendered responsibility for something that, if ministerial responsibility still counted for anything, was manifestly his responsibility – when he passed a sensitive and confidential file, ostensibly to preserve it from “political interference,” into the supremely and omnitemporally political hands of the Prime Minister’s advisers – he was only following established protocols.

The issue, then, is not why Mr. Sajjan failed to take any action on the complaints against Mr. Vance, but why no one else did – why the matter, after a few perfunctory inquiries intended to “put some things in writing,” was allowed to drop. It is impossible to think its significance could have escaped them, not only for its potential impact on the campaign to root out sexual misconduct in the military but, should it come to light, on the government’s political fortunes.

If, further, its significance was so obvious, it is difficult to believe the Prime Minister would not have been told. And yet nothing was done. For three years. Only in the last week, after the involvement of the PMO came to light, was it suddenly decided to … order another review, by another retired Supreme Court judge.

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The issue, then, is no longer “who knew what when,” but who said what and did what – or did not say or do what – and for what reason. If the Prime Minister was, as he claims, not told, it would be of the greatest possible interest to know why.

Did his chief of staff take it entirely upon herself not to inform him of such a potentially explosive development? Or was there some prior understanding that he was to be kept out of the loop on such matters? If so, on what other matters is he kept out of the loop? And, most intriguing of all, why?

Or if he was told, then it would follow that the Prime Minister has been lying through his teeth, again, about a scandal for which he bears primary responsibility.

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