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Liberal defence plan puts national interest ahead of its own partisan concerns, for now

by John Ivison (feat. Dave Perry)

National Post
June 7, 2017

OTTAWA — Now we know why Chrystia Freeland went to such lengths to sell the idea of “hard power” in her speech Monday – it was an effort to soften up Liberal voters to the idea of billions being spent on swords, not ploughshares.

The Strong Secure Engaged policy unveiled by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is a defence plan you might expect from a Conservative government. Indeed it is difficult to see how the Tories will be able to criticize it, beyond the plan making it even harder for new leader Andrew Scheer to balance the books within two years of taking power. Already bulging deficits are set to distend further still.

It is not a document that will appeal to the herbivore wing of the Liberal party.

But the government appears to have been so spooked at the prospect of becoming, in Freeland’s words, “a client state” of Trump’s America, that a declaration of independence was deemed necessary.

The president will probably consider that mission accomplished.

The plan is to spend an extra $6.6 billion in the next five years and $62.3 billion over the next 20 years. This will pay for increasing the size of the regular force by 3,500 troops, to 71,500.

Spending increases will follow in each year until, by 2027-8, defence expenditure reaches $33.4 billion a year, from $18.9 billion this year.

Capital spending will get a major $47.2 billion boost over the 20 years covered — taking the total for planned projects and new investments to $164 billion, on a cash basis.

The bulk of that capital spending increase is accounted for by surface combatant ships and fighter jets.

The $26 billion set aside to build 15 warships will be increased to the $60 billion it is estimated it will actually cost to build them.

The Royal Canadian Air Force has been promised 88 advanced fighter aircraft to replace the CF18s. The Conservatives had earmarked $9 billion; the new plan estimates an acquisition cost of up to $19 billion.

The $9-billion “interim” purchase of 18 Boeing SuperHornets barely warranted a mention, suggesting the “capability gap” the minister was so concerned about has mysteriously vanished. “The government continues to explore the potential acquisition of an interim aircraft,” was all the review said.

It was a curious document in many ways, spending much of its time on a new health and wellness plan, family support program and efforts to improve gender balance. It was replete with images of cute, multicultural military families, native drummers and Forces members doing all manner of good works around the globe.

Important as all that is, many in the military would surely prefer to know where they might engage — there was no mention of peacekeeping in Africa or new deployments in the Middle East.

There was ambitious talk of the Forces being able to handle a number of concurrent missions but no sense of strategic priorities — where in the world should we engage? Our ally south of the border is preoccupied by Kim Jong-un and his desire to build an inter-continental ballistic missile. Yet the government made clear it has no intention of signing up for ballistic missile defence.

The focus was on investments in equipment, aimed at providing the Canadian Armed Forces with the capacity to wield “the principled use of force” referred to by Global Affairs Minister Freeland.

Yet, as one veteran of such bureaucratic wars put it, having the commitment in a defence policy review means Sajjan is “only 10 per cent” of the way to delivering it.

The 2005 defence policy statement promised increased defence budgets, which saw a 35 per cent spending uptick by 2011. But the 2008 financial crisis curtailed that growth and cuts followed.

The 1987 White Paper had an even shorter shelf life and was gutted after the fall of the Berlin Wall two years later.

At that time, the Mulroney government had just started becoming concerned about the national debt. The Trudeau government appears to be unburdened by any such concerns – the new spending will simply be piled on the deficit.

But who’s to say the prime minister won’t have a blinding conversion to fiscal conservatism if confronted by imminent unemployment?

There are logistical issues, too.

David Perry, senior analyst at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said the government has committed to spending serious amounts of new money, “if it all gets delivered as promised.”

But on that point, he expressed himself “very dubious.”

The Defence Department has long had major problems spending the money it has, never mind an extra $47.2 billion.

As one close watcher of the Defence Department put it, “Strong, Secure, Engaged” is a nice, clean, well-articulated document but it has no timelines and no implementation plan.

Sajjan echoed Freeland’s sentiments in his speech. “The Canadian Armed Forces are an indispensable instrument of Canada’s foreign policy. If we’re serious about our role in the world, we must be serious about funding our military. And indeed we are,” he said.

At least, they are for now.

But they weren’t particularly enthused during the 2015 election, when they promised to merely “maintain current National Defence spending.”

This is not an issue on which the Liberals are trusted on motive. It is not a vote-winner for them and their faith will be tested in the future, when other priorities become more pressing.

For now, though, the government should be commended for putting the national interest ahead of its own narrow partisan concerns.

There is no particular political upside for them. They will be judged on results, not intentions — and they won’t be in for another decade.


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