George Petrolekas: Serving in the reserves and Parliament
by George Petrolekas
November 16, 2015
It seemed a little quirky to some that Harjit Sajjan was sworn in as our new defence minister while still a member of the Canadian Armed Forces. He had to apply to be released from the army because otherwise he would have been the in unique situation of having to give orders to generals who technically outrank him (Sajjan was a lieutenant-colonel in the reserves). Maybe he didn’t have to.
In Canada, the only restrictions on serving in the military and holding political office are found in the Queen’s Regulations and Orders (QR&O) — the legal foundation that governs the actions, ethics and function of the Canadian Armed Forces. The QR&O explicitly restricts “regular” officers from engaging in overt political activity, campaigning openly or running for office. And for good reason: in a democracy, there must be a clear delineation between the armed forces and the political leadership. If not, we would be two steps away from military governments often seen in other parts of the world, which are not democratic.
However, the stricture in the QR&O only applies to regular soldiers — those whose entire career revolves around military service and who are paid to serve 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They have an unlimited liability to the government — they serve when, where and how the government will dictate. They are soldiers and do not, and cannot have a civic persona — a division that is a core tenant of our democracy.
Yet reservists only serve part time. Their very appellation denotes the difference: they are citizen-soldiers. Their willingness to voluntarily serve part time in the armed forces does not in any way diminish or impinge on their rights as citizens to engage in the civic or political life of the country. The only limitation is that reservists cannot use their uniformed status to campaign and conversely cannot use their political position to advance themselves in uniform.
There was no obligation for the new defence minister to surrender his uniform or his commission. Nor would doing so be unusual in many other countries, including the U.S. and the U.K.
In the United States, 18 congressmen currently serve in the reserves, which is three per cent of the total members of Congress. Rep. Adam Kinzinger continues to serve with his Air National Guard unit, as does Rep. Jim Bridenstine with his Naval Reserve unit. Until he was promoted to brigadier general, Rep. Scott Perry served as an aviator in Iraq. Rep. Steven Palazzo refuses to be anything but a sergeant in the infantry. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard commutes back and forth to Hawaii to serve as an MP company commander. Senator Joni Ernst commands a support battalion and Congressman Joe Heck, now a reserve brigadier general, applies his medical qualifications as a doctor within the reserves. Rep. Duncan Hunter and Sen. Dan Sullivan have long commutes back and forth from Washington, D.C., to their service locations and both have served with the Marine Corps in Afghanistan.
According to Seth Lynn, co-founder and executive director of the U.S. Veterans Campaign, an organization that encourages veterans to engage in political and civic leadership roles, which includes elected office, maintaining links with the reserve service “keeps them fresh on important topics in defence, foreign policy and veterans affairs and is part of an ethic of servant leadership that motivates them.”
Co-founder of Veterans Campaign Norm Bonnyman added, “if you pin U.S. politicians down on the specifics of their ongoing service, it’s apparent that they have to make significant political and personal sacrifices to continue serving — especially that annual training periods run smack in the middle of campaign season.”
It is not so different in the United Kingdom either.
Notwithstanding the 178 MPs who served in the military while being members of Parliament in the pre-modern era, 50 MPs served and died in the service of their country in the two World Wars. At least five MPs are currently serving in the reserves, in addition to their parliamentary duties.
There is in fact a distinct advantage to having political and civil leaders who have a personal connection to the people serving their country. For our new government, which has promised to do things differently, what more wonderful example could be given than to have had the minister of national defence retain his reserve status (even if he was inactive while serving as a cabinet minister), while also serving as an MP. It would put flesh to the premise that Canadians can serve their country while working in other fields. What an inspiration that might be.
George Petrolekas has served in Bosnia and Afghanistan and has been an adviser to senior NATO commanders. He is a Fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.