Liberals lift Harper government’s controversial ban on opposition MPs’ visits to military bases
by Lee Berthiaume (feat. David Perry)
June 5, 2016
OTTAWA — The Liberal government has quietly reversed a controversial policy that saw opposition MPs barred from most military bases, continuing a trend of opening up the Canadian Armed Forces to increased public and parliamentary scrutiny.
The base-visit policy came to light in September 2014, after several opposition MPs complained that their requests to tour military facilities outside their ridings had been rejected. Among those affected was the Liberal defence critic at the time, Joyce Murray, who had asked to visit nine bases.
Then-defence minister Rob Nicholson blamed the ban on the military, saying the Conservative government was following a directive drawn up by senior commanders. The Conservatives said the policy applied to MPs from all parties, and was designed to ensure military resources were used “effectively.”
But the opposition accused the Tories of playing political games, noting Conservative MPs were allowed to attend photo ops on bases outside their ridings. They said the ban was an obstacle to performing their roles as parliamentarians, which included understanding the military and its challenges.
On Friday, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s office confirmed the policy was no longer in force.
“Members of Parliament have a responsibility to learn about what the government does, what the military does, and to bring this information back to their constituents,” spokeswoman Jordan Owens said. “And if they feel they need to go and see what’s going on on a Canadian Forces base, we’re not going to say no.”
Individual base commanders will have some discretion if there is a compelling reason a particular visit cannot be accommodated. “We’re not going to step in if they say this is a really bad weekend,” Owens said. “But we’re also not going to have a blanket order of never, ever do this.”
Meanwhile, a directive issued by Vice-Chief of Defence Staff Lt.-Gen. Guy Thibault and provided to the Ottawa Citizen confirms that past visits required ministerial approval. The new directive requires base commanders to notify the minister’s office of an MP’s visit, but otherwise leaves approval in their hands.
Conservative defence critic James Bezan, who served as parliamentary secretary when the Tories were in power, was travelling overseas Friday with Sajjan and unavailable for comment. Nicholson could not be reached for comment.
The new directive describes the military as an “important national institution,” which is why base visits should be facilitated. “However, visits must not interfere with operations, routine unit administration or negatively affect security,” it reads, “and incremental costs should be avoided or minimized whenever possible.”
The Liberal government has opened up more than bases in recent weeks. Restrictions on interviewing and photographing military personnel have been relaxed to the point where select journalists were given unprecedented access to Canadian special forces troops in Iraq last month.
This represented a sharp departure from recent practice. Under the Conservatives, access to military personnel was severely curtailed on security grounds. This included all military members, not only those involved in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Defence analyst David Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute said the move to make the military more accessible to the public and parliamentarians represents a marked change in tone. He said MPs are expected to understand the military given their role in holding the government to account.
“Members of Parliament are constitutionally supposed to approve the defence budget,” he said.
“As long as it’s not an imposition on the base commander. There could be legitimate situations in which it is. Otherwise it should be a policy that members of Parliament can visit military installations.”