Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

'Canada's Apiata' touches down in NZ

There's an old photo that follows Canada's new defence minister, Harjit Sajjan, wherever he goes, including to his visit to New Zealand and Australia this week.

It was taken 10 years ago at the end of Operation in Medusa in Afghanistan when Canadian forces and others had just handed the Taliban in Kandahar a hiding.

"We took out 1500 of their fighters within a span of three weeks," he told the Weekend Herald.

Mr Sajjan, a former police officer who worked on gangs and a former reservist soldier, had three tours of duty in Afghanistan, rose the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, and was decorated as one of the most valued intelligence assets in the field.

Intelligence work made all the difference in Operation Medusa.

"We actually did it with the support of the Afghan population we were trying to help," he said.

"The population was actually supporting the Taliban. We brought them back to our side."
Unfortunately he lost eight of his comrades in the operation too.

The photograph of Mr Sajjan in his Sikh turban and sun glasses went viral last November after his election as a new MP of Justin Trudeau's new Liberal Government.

Someone on social media made a derogatory comment about Mr Sajjan and his former Army comrades piled in with the fierce loyalty armed forces reserve for each other.

Mr Sajjan was born in Punjab, India, and emigrated to Canada in 1976 at the age of five.

Mr Sajjan went straight into cabinet in November. He is one of 18 first-time MPs in cabinet of 30.

A short time later he went to Brussels to meet other defence ministers of countries involved in the fights against Isis in Iraq and Syria, including Gerry Brownlee, to explain why Canada was withdrawing its six combat air strike force but upping its training and humanitarian contribution.

Asked what advantages there were to having served, he said he had a "deep sense of appreciation for the people who serve in the military."

"Everybody who serves in uniform serves Canada and it is my job as Minister of National Defence to serve them.

"I am no military expert. I had an experience and was very fortunate to have that."
He had phenomenal advice from the Canadian military.

"What this allows me to do is put things in perspective and ask very good questions during our briefings.

Before his talks in Wellington with Mr Brownlee he was especially thrilled to have been welcomed at the Pukeahu War Memorial in Wellington with a Maori challenge.

"To witness it personally and to be part of it was a tremendous honour.

"As Canadians I think we have a lot to learn in terms of the close relationship that you have with the Maori."

Canada's defence minister Harjit Sajjan at the Canadian High Commission office in Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Canada's defence minister Harjit Sajjan at the Canadian High Commission office in Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell

New Zealand is ... setting an example [in the Five Eyes alliance].
Harjit Sajjan

He said his visit allowed him to reinforce the great work that is done intelligence co-operation , international operation and the challenges in the South Pacific.

Asked if New Zealand was pulling eight in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance he said "I believe New Zealand is actually setting an example."

New Zealand did a lot for its small size "and the efficiency you have in your system because of your small size is quite envious."

Mr Trudeau has sent all his minister a "mandate letter" setting out his expectations of them, some of them general some of them specific to the minister in question.

In the interests of transparency he has also published them. Extracts here......

I made a personal commitment to bring new leadership and a new tone to Ottawa. We made a commitment to Canadians to pursue our goals with a renewed sense of collaboration. Improved partnerships with provincial, territorial, and municipal governments are essential to deliver the real, positive change that we promised Canadians. No relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous Peoples. It is time for a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples, based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership.

We have also committed to set a higher bar for openness and transparency in government. It is time to shine more light on government to ensure it remains focused on the people it serves. Government and its information should be open by default. If we want Canadians to trust their government, we need a government that trusts Canadians. It is important that we acknowledge mistakes when we make them. Canadians do not expect us to be perfect - they expect us to be honest, open, and sincere in our efforts to serve the public interest.....

As Minister, you will be held accountable for our commitment to bring a different style of leadership to government. This will include: close collaboration with your colleagues; meaningful engagement with Opposition Members of Parliament, Parliamentary Committees and the public service; constructive dialogue with Canadians, civil society, and stakeholders, including business, organized labour, the broader public sector, and the not-for-profit and charitable sectors; and identifying ways to find solutions and avoid escalating conflicts unnecessarily. As well, members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, indeed all journalists in Canada and abroad, are professionals who, by asking necessary questions, contribute in an important way to the democratic process. Your professionalism and engagement with them is essential.

- See more at here

Mr Sajjan said he did not see the letters as pressure but as an empowerment.

It was a bold demonstration of an open Government and helped set the priority for every ministry.

Among the expectations Mr Trudeau has laid down is to engage meaningfully with Opposition MPs.

"I think it is going well," said Mr Sajjan. I" think it is a bit of a shock to my political opponents."

He had opened up his department for briefings on issues they wanted and had invited two of them on a recent trip to Ukraine and Poland, where Canada has troops stationed.

"I invited critics from all the parties to come along with me, to be able to get the same information I am receiving."

Unfortunately they couldn't make it.

He said the Liberal Government tried to avoid attacking critics and to focus on the positive.

"The critics job is to try and make Government policy better. If they have a valuable argument, we should accept it.

- NZ Herald

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