In The Media

Mulcair’s defence policy: a delicate balancing act

by David Pratt

June 12, 2012

Tom Mulcair has plenty of work ahead of him as he seeks to establish himself as a credible leader of the official Opposition and develop new policies. Perhaps nowhere will the NDP’s vision, creativity and discipline be tested more than in foreign and defence policy.

During the leadership campaign, Mulcair produced a broad foreign and defence policy backgrounder. He advocated a values-based foreign policy and noted that “for too long Canada has been sheltered in the shadow of our closest friend – the United States.” He said we must recognize that “new partners and new challenges are emerging.” Mulcair also pledged to scrap the F-35, called for a defence review and promised to “fortify the ability of Canada’s armed forces to respond to crises and disasters.”

With the leadership race over, Mulcair has made some deft political moves. On policy, he is reaching out to his former leadership rivals and all party members for the “best ideas” to move the party forward. His appointment of shadow cabinet members Paul Dewar as foreign affairs critic and Jack Harris as defence critic also means he will have two experienced, well spoken and well briefed MPs.

Inasmuch as Mulcair might wish to remake the NDP as a political force on the centre left, he will have to tread very carefully. On foreign and defence issues, he does not start with a clean slate. The party’s history looms large. As the perennial third party, past NDP policy resolutions were typically self-indulgent and moralizing statements that tended to be anti-American, neutralist and pacifist.

In recent years, Jack Layton moderated some of these positions and the NDP became more astute about what it said on foreign and defence matters. It did not openly advocate getting out of NATO or NORAD. Instead, the party’s 2004 election platform talked about working with other nations to develop alternatives.

The party’s 2011 election document was an indication of how far the NDP has evolved on defence issues. It promised to maintain current planned levels of defence spending and pledged that the Canadian Forces would be “properly staffed, equipped and trained to effectively address the full range of possible military operations”.

Importantly, the 2011 policy platform established three NDP priorities for Canada’s military which are a significant departure from our traditional defence policy. Since the Second World War, the policy under Liberals and Conservatives has been based upon the defence of Canada, the defence of North America with the United States and contributions to international peace and security.

In contrast, NDP policy speaks of defending Canada, supporting peacekeeping and peacemaking and assisting with natural disasters at home and abroad. This change is noteworthy for two reasons.

First, providing peacemaking and peacekeeping support is quite different in scope from contributions to international peace and security. With the exception of the Libyan bombing campaign, the NDP has shown a marked reluctance to commit the Canadian Forces to combat missions. Consequently, it is reasonable to believe that the party will be predisposed against any future combat missions.

Second, the absence of any reference to the defence of North America with the United States certainly leaves the impression that NORAD and the multitude of defence agreements we have with the Americans would be abrogated under an NDP government. In a post 9-11 world where security still trumps trade for our American partners, lack of cooperation with the U.S. on security could result in negative economic consequences.

As official Opposition leader, Mulcair can expect enhanced scrutiny on these and other foreign and defence policy issues. Indeed, he will have a delicate balancing act to perform especially considering the party’s history and traditions, its large Quebec caucus and its outspoken left wing. Success will probably be determined on the basis of party discipline and whether or not he can convince Canadians that we do in fact need new partners to confront new challenges in the years ahead.

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