The true grit of political battle

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To appreciate just how rattled federal Conservatives are about the prospect of facing an invigorated Justin Trudeau clad in the full metal jacket of his pre-election campaign armour, consider the strange plight of retired Canadian Forces lieutenant-general Andrew Brooke Leslie.

He’s the army officer who led the country’s mission in Afghanistan in 2006. Earlier in his career, he served as Winnipeg Area Chief of Staff during that city’s spring floods in 1997. Later that year, he commanded the 1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group, providing disaster relief in the storm-lashed south shore of Montreal.

More recently, General Leslie hitched his political star to Mr. Trudeau and company, becoming the co-chair of the Liberal International Affairs Council of Advisors as well as a possible candidate for office.

And for that, apparently, the military leader, patriot and, some might even say, hero cannot be forgiven – at least not within the ranks of his former Tory bosses.

Earlier this week, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson described a recent moving bill, for $72,000, the general charged the taxpayers thusly: “grossly excessive”. Specifically, he questioned “how an in-city move could possibly total over $72,000. In the meantime, it is important for Andrew Leslie to explain why he believes this is a reasonable expense for hard working Canadians to absorb. This is a matter of judgment and the responsible use of taxpayers dollars.”

Sure, it is, except for one thing: It’s all perfectly legal.

The amount might seem extraordinary, especially in light of the ongoing toothache that is the Senate expense scandal. But, in fact, the payout is standard operating procedure for senior military personnel; they get one final move, on the public dime, to anywhere they’d like in Canada.

Besides, as General Leslie explained in his own statement on Facebook, “Each step of the process is overseen by a third-party supplier, and independent approvals for every expenditure are required, as directed by the Treasury Board of Canada. Costs are paid directly to the suppliers (real estate agents, movers etc.) by the Department of National Defence.”

If we’re apt to blame anyone for such largess, then blame the rules-makers and keepers in Ottawa who are master adepts in the fine art of separating the taxpayer from his wallet, for all manner of “legitimate” exercises. After all, what’s a few million bucks for a water park, replete with gazebo, en route to a billion-dollar economic summit in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression?

In fact, it is General Leslie’s outspoken support for “a change in how politics is conducted” in this country that has unnerved the Tories and inspired their partisan barbs.

A former top-ranked military officer with a distinguished service record, a chest full of medals and a vocally Liberal perspective on current affairs is the sort of nightmarish figure that keeps Conservative strategists up into the wee hours, popping handfuls of no-doze.

Combine that with a charismatic, telegenic and increasingly shrewd Grit leader, and the Tory Party’s road ahead to 2015 does seem suddenly long, winding and rough. At the very least, it’s clear that Mr. Trudeau is no longer the lightweight (if he ever was) his detractors have portrayed. Indeed, coming into Thursday’s Liberal policy convention, even his vaguer pronouncements sound formidable.

“The challenge and the responsibility for this year and over the next year and a half is to pick the team and build the plan,” he told the Globe and Mail last week. “And always get the big things right.”

The big things like, presumably, education, infrastructure, and the economy. To date, Mr Trudeau has avoided cornering himself with specific policy objectives and procedures. He is wisely keeping his powder dry. After all, a lot can happen in 15 months. Why make promises which might well prove untenable to keep?

In the meantime, the signs and portents in the body politic suggest that the tide of opinion in the country is shifting ever so slightly to the left. When establishmentarians such as Andrew Leslie publicly declare their allegiance to the Liberals, every true, blue Tory knows what that means.

It means war.

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