Thursday, April 24, 2008

More Popular Than The Pope

With General Rick Hillier's recent announcement that he plans to retire as Canada's Chief of the Defence Staff, there's been a flurry of speculation regarding his replacement. Important as that is, it's dwarfed in my mind by the conspicuously under-asked question of what the future holds for General Hillier and, particularly, whether it may involve a position within the Conservative Party of Canada.

A recent Ipsos Reid survey, conducted for Canwest News Service and Global National, has revealed some pretty incredible numbers:

Some 92% of those polled said they think Hillier did a "good job" during his 3 1/2 years as the chief of defence staff.

Pollster John Wright said he has never seen an approval rating this high for a public figure.

"The Pope hasn't seen numbers like this," said Wright, senior vice-president of Ipsos Reid, which conducted the April 15-17 telephone survey of 1,002 adults.

Atlantic Canadians at 96% liked him the most, followed by Albertans (95%) and Ontarians (94%).

Some 94% of men and 90% of women approved of the general, but among Canadians age 55 and over, the 52-year-old career army officer enjoyed a staggering 97% approval rating.

His numbers among the 34 to 55 demographic were slightly lower -- at 96%.

Only 79% of young Canadians, age 18 to 34, thought Hillier had done a good job.

Compare these numbers with overall approval ratings of the Afghanistan mission and you'll quickly discover that Hillier's immense popularity must be a function of Canada's interest in the man himself rather than of the mission to which his name has become attached. His McCain-esque persona has engendered a lot of support and his straight-talk, evinced, for example, by his public depiction of the Taliban as "scum-bags," did nothing to lessen his attractiveness in the public's eye. In fact, John Wright observed that Canadians see him as a "charming man of force."

Should Hillier decide to run for political office, common sense suggests he'd have little trouble securing a seat. Rumours to this effect spread like wildfire last spring but the General quashed them quickly. Since he announced his retirement, however, interest in Hillier has been renewed but this particular question has been carefully evaded.

His political convictions are widely recognized as right-of-center. His description of the Cretien and Martin years as "dark ages" for the Canadian forces certainly earned smiles from Conservatives, as did this comment in the 1990s:

Any commander who would stand up here and say that we didn't need more soldiers should be tarred and feathered and rode out of town on a rail.

His willingness to become involved in political debates has not gone unnoticed either. Memorably, his comments after last spring's controversy surrounding prisoner treatment in Afghanistan demonstrated this point. I contend that he's the most out-spoken and popular Chief of the Defence Staff Canada has seen since World War II and I doubt the claim will be met with much opposition.

Without question, Hillier would make a powerful addition to the CPC ranks. I have no special insight into Hillier's plans and I won't suggest he'll change his mind but I think it is worth noting that, if he did, he'd find broad support.

Wright puts it well:

"Who would have thought, a decade ago, that we'd be looking at numbers with a 92% approval rating in a job for a general of the Canadian Armed Forces involved in combat, where in fact, the common mantra has been, as soon as the body bags come home, there's going to be a downturn?" he said.

"This is a man who is seen to have integrity and managed his job about as good as it gets."

So why think Hillier would be interested in pursuing politics with the Conservatives? His loud and consistent activism for increased Canadian military spending is a big reason. With renewed calls by Canadian military officials to address equipment and soldier shortages, it's likely that military spending will become an increasingly important topic in Canadian political discourse in the near future. Despite his dismissal of rumours that he's interested in running for public office, Hillier's actions and convictions betray his passionate concern with Canadian politics and the current place of the military therein.

This Ipsos Reid poll shows he is wanted by Canadians and the growing prominence of the military in public discourse shows he would be a useful political ally for the Conservatives. Hillier is in his mid-50s - prime political age - and his place as Canada's outspoken defender of the military would make his transition to politics seem natural to the electorate.

Hillier once said:

"I admit I am no politician. And I don't think I'm very wise. But I represent the 87,000 Forces members and their families."

This is precisely what we're starved for politically. Canadian voters want a politician with convictions to crusade for rather than with a thirst for power.

It isn't much, but here's one reason for optimism:

I've talked to the Prime Minister. I'm absolutely clear where he wants to go and on what he needs and I'm absolutely in line with that.

Like many others, I'll be watching Hillier closely in the future for any hints about his plans moving forward. My fingers will be crossed.

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