'Global Outlook' by David Bercuson

Can Defence Policy create bi-partisan consensus?

by David Bercuson

Frontline Defence
August 18, 2017

It has been just over two months since the Trudeau Government released its Defence Policy and there has been nary a peep from the opposition, the press or the usual talking heads that dominate the airwaves. Part of the silence is due to the fact that Parliament is not in session and the usual nit-picking that goes on in the lobby of the House of Commons has been silenced by the crickets of summer. When the session resumes this fall, no doubt, the opposition will blast away at any of a number evils while at the same time attacking the government for its many defence sins and broken promises.

But does it really have to be that way? The Defence Policy is not a perfect document by any means, but it comes after one of the most exhaustive consultations between the government and the Canadian people in at least a quarter century. It is also a document that, although flawed in many ways, lays down what could be the basis of a bi-partisan defence policy between the Conservative Party of Canada and the Liberal government. If both parties were to take a gamble and open extra-Parliamentary discussions on arriving at a bi-partisan consensus, the best that could happen is that this country could have the two major parties agreeing on the general direction of Canadian defence policy, and the worst that could happen is that they wouldn’t – as they don’t now!

Why does this policy proposal provide the basis of such a discussion? First, because it literally puts people first. The document points out the many problems that have yet to be resolved in gender relations, veterans’ affairs, the return to civilian life after careers in the armed forces, and more. What is there to disagree on about any of these proposals? A military that does not treat all of its members equally and roots out discrimination of all sorts is the only kind of military that Canadian citizens will tolerate.

When the Defence Policy advocates greater emphasis on NATO or NORAD, how can many sensible Canadians disagree? Likewise, who would question when it advocates a modern sea-going navy? The acquisition of more than 80 fighter aircraft, and the building of regular and reserve force strength to an additional 5000 are surely reasonable for a nation the size of Canada – as is an increase of defence expenditures from roughly 0.98% to 1.4% of the GDP.

There is much to argue with in the report, such as the huge holes in procurement planning, no mention of joining the U.S. in an Anti-Ballistic Treaty and so on, but these are details that can be ironed out either going in to the document, or as the years pass by and the problems come to the fore.  But the main thrust of the document – larger fighting forces, a military more consistent with our liberal democratic values, closer cooperation with the United States and even UN operations when feasible and operationally realistic are areas that our two main political parties can agree on.  And if they do agree, at least the nation will know where defence in Canada will be ten years from now and every new idea won’t simply be picked apart for partisan political advantage.  The Australians for the most part have a bi-partisan defence policy and even the United States, as fractured as its domestic policy has become, more or less has one too.  It’s time for Canada to grow up in the matter.  The Liberal policy is a proposal.  Let’s hope the Conservatives take up the challenge and approach the Liberals to begin the discussion.

David Bercuson is Research Director of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

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  • commented 2017-09-05 07:54:22 -0400
    Calls for a “consensus” on defence are really calls for higher spending with little Parliamentary oversight or analysis. The reality is that there has been a consensus- to spend as little as we can but enough to “get a seat at the table” since at least the mid 60’s.

    It’s not obvious at all why we’d need 15 new frigates. Fewer or other types of ships may be what’s really required. There is broad agreement that we shouldn’t join in ABM plans. Bercuson surely knows that the “increase” in % of GNP spending on defence is just an accounting trick. The % spent on DND is actually slated to go down some years.

    The idea that everyone agrees on more spending on DND so we shouldn’t really discuss it is undemocratic and smacks of militarism. “Defence” should be seen as a unfortunate insurance policy not as a regional welfare tool, corporate welfare or a career builder. DND is badly organized and the CF isn’t the proper agency to deal with the minimal threats from criminals and terrorists we do face.

    A much better consensus to reach would be an all party agreement to clean out DND of ineffective and unnecessary bureaucracy and to organize the CF into effective units while selling off underused bases and disbanding non-operational nice to haves. Keeping the navy in our waters with a reduced frigate purchase and limiting the new fighter buy to what’s needed for NORAD would also prevent billions of dollars from being wasted.
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