Six years and 33 days after a former Supreme Court judge issued a report calling for an independent body to handle complaints of sexual harassment in the military, the Liberal government has appointed a former Supreme Court judge to report on creating an independent body to handle complaints of sexual harassment in the military.
If you read that sentence again and spin around three times, you might just get a sense of the progress the Liberal government has made on the issue.
So it’s understandable that frustrated observers were criticizing the appointment of former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour to write another report as a way of punting the problem for another year, probably until after an election, because they don’t want to do anything about it.
But it’s worse than that.
This should have been the time for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan to put words into action, but everything Mr. Sajjan said Thursday made it clear that he hasn’t got the foggiest notion of how to do it.
That report on sexual misconduct from 2015, penned by former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps, gave a pretty straightforward recommendation about what was needed: an independent body, outside the military chain of command, to deal with complaints of sexual misconduct.
Mr. Sajjan, now 2003 days into his mandate as defence minister, apparently still didn’t know where to start. At his media conference, it almost sounded like he’d just heard a neat idea and now he’s hiring a smart person to tell him how it might work.
“We don’t need another review. All the information is there,” said Megan Mackenzie, the Simons chair in international law and human security at Simon Fraser University. “They’ve had five years to think about how to build an independent body.”
“It is still not action.”
Whatever bright insights Ms. Arbour might eventually offer next year, Ms. Mackenzie’s words sum up where the Liberal government is, after all this time, on sexual misconduct in the military: Still not action.
Over the past few months, it sometimes seemed like Mr. Sajjan didn’t think action was part of his job description. In fact, it was hard to tell what he thinks the defence minister is supposed to do.
He told a parliamentary committee he didn’t have anything to do with evaluating the performance of the chief of the defence staff, the commander of Canadian military. He danced around questions about whether it was his job to ensure that the commander is fit for the task.
On some days, the Defence Minister seemed to think it was just crazy talk to suggest that he was responsible for the military. Maybe that’s why he never seemed to think it was his job to follow up on Ms. Deschamps’s recommendations, and create a proper system for reporting sexual harassment in the military.
At any rate, it is clear that even after all these years, he doesn’t know how to do it.
But of course, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the people around him know something has to be done now. This is politics. They can smell something burning.
The allegations against several high-ranking officers that emerged this year were bad enough, but the tale of how Mr. Sajjan closed his eyes to evidence of alleged conduct by former chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance – and the fact that Mr. Trudeau’s aides knew all about that, too – is downright embarrassing. Added to failure at a systemic level – the failure to create a proper system for reporting misconduct – it is politically damaging.
Thursday was supposed to be a political reset starting with an admission of contrition, followed by an announcement of the next step – Ms. Arbour’s review.
Mr. Sajjan said the government was sorry for failing to live up to its responsibility to victims.
That’s a good thing. Mr. Sajjan and Mr. Trudeau sure would’ve done themselves a lot of favours if they had only taken an attitude of responsibility and contrition from the get-go.
Yet by now, Mr. Sajjan’s credibility is down near absolute zero. That’s another reason they needed to draft in Ms. Arbour.
The reset turned out to be a botched job. By Question Period on Thursday afternoon, Mr. Sajjan’s admission of responsibility had already given way to more tiresome dodges. And the Liberals’ next step was really about going round in circles.
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