The Liberals’ midpoint record on defence and security is mixed

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COMMENTARY

by David Carment, Nabil Bhatia, Natalie Lamarche & William O’Connell

The Hill Times
March 28, 2018

OTTAWA—At the midpoint between its ascent to power and the next federal election, the Trudeau government gets an overall grade of a B- on its foreign policy, having improved in some areas while underperforming in others.

These are the findings from our Foreign Policy Report Card, produced annually by Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal.

The dichotomy between the Liberals’ improvement and underperformance is most pronounced in the related realms of security and defence.

On national security, the Liberals sought to repeal a number of problematic elements in the former Harper government’s much-criticized Anti-Terrorism Act. The government began to undergo what is perhaps the largest reorganization of the Canadian security and intelligence community since the creation of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service in 1984.

With the long-overdue introduction of Bill C-22, Canada is establishing the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), joining its Five Eyes allies by allowing legislators to review its security agencies.

The proposed Bill C-59 would also significantly improve Canadian national security review. The bill would establish the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA), a body that would simultaneously review the activities of CSIS, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), and the RCMP, allowing for more integrated and robust review that should reassure a wary public.

The creation of an intelligence commissioner adds another layer to Canada’s national security bureaucracy, but should increase oversight and accountability. Additional bureaucratic measures include the creation of the Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence.

Despite the Liberals’ commendable efforts on security, on national defence, the government’s performance has been nothing short of abysmal.

For example, the Liberal budget made a big deal of increasing the percentage of women in the Canadian Armed Forces to 25 per cent. This is a principled and essential objective, but it is also a diversionary tactic to distract from the fact that the defence budget has not increased all that much and that recruitment levels are at record lows. Contrast, for example, the $1-billion for CSE and other security measures against the trifling $23-million for Operation Impact in Iraq.

A closer look at defence spending shows that the 2018 Liberal budget does little to improve the maintenance of defence infrastructure other than by making certain buildings more environmentally friendly. The money set aside for Armed Forces members affected by family and gender-based violence will likely play only on the margins. Similarly, $1.24-million for the National Security Review Program will not deliver the equipment needed to improve defence at home.

A common theme in the Trudeau government’s handling of defence matters has been to stall, and then go back on its word. The government managed to stall the launch of an open and fair competition to replace its CF-18s for more than two years. Despite claims by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan that Canada would not purchase refurbished equipment, just months later, the government announced that it would purchase 18 used F-18s from Australia.

This example of stalling and backpedalling is not isolated. Following Minister Sajjan’s fact-finding trips to East Africa and the Sahel, and the Liberals’ announcement of their peacekeeping plan, Canadians were unaware for more than a year as to where peacekeeping forces may be deployed. With an estimated 250 peacekeepers now being deployed to Mali as part of an aviation task force, the government has significantly scaled back its original offer of 600 troops.

The discrepancy between its performance in the domains of security and defence is symptomatic of a larger issue we highlight in our report card: inconsistency has come to be the defining feature of the Trudeau government.

The Liberals’ myriad of policy mistakes—from the underwhelming peacekeeping effort, to the lack of sufficient funding for their Feminist International Assistance Policy, to their inability to develop a robust climate change framework—have raised questions about their ability to deliver on their stated goals. Furthermore, and rightfully so, these mistakes have detracted from the Liberals’ policy successes, such as the introduction of Bill C-59, and the assembling of a NAFTA negotiating team with bipartisan support.

Looking ahead, the Liberals’ actions must meet their words, and must do so consistently across the board, if they wish to successfully distinguish themselves from their predecessors. Given the Liberals’ mixed track record in key areas, such as defence, a change in policy direction may be in order.

David Carment is a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and professor of international affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Nabil Bhatia, Natalie LaMarche, and William O’Connell are all with NPSIA.

Image credit: Andrew Meade

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  • commented 2018-04-06 10:19:24 -0400
    “….increasing the percentage of women in the Canadian Armed Forces to 25 per cent. This is a principled and essential objective.”

    An essential objective? How so? Quotas lead to reduced average performance in two ways. First the targeted group will be given preference in hiring and secondly standards will be reduced to aid the group. The CF has already done this by ending fitness testing of applicants and reducing the fitness standards needed to deploy on operations. The CF will probably fail to reach it’s goal for female participation and further reductions in standards will be made- which most importantly will allow male soldiers to become less fit without consequence.

    Principled? Again how so? There is no great push to increase male participation in elementary education, government clerical positions or nursing. Why is the government so keen to push women into the military? Perhaps it simply isn’t an appealing job to most women- it isn’t to most men so why should we operate on the notion that if X number of women don’t join it is a sign of failure.

    Quotas for targeted group participation in the CF are neither principled nor essential. They will inevitably lead to reduced capability.
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