In The Media

When cabinet decides: Parsing Canadian defence politics

by Marie-Danielle Smith (feat. David Perry)

Embassy News
March 9, 2016

Is it possible to divorce the future of the Canadian military from the politics of the day?

The idea of all-party support hasn't exactly been attached to Canadian defence policy for a while now, from the "decade of darkness" label affixed to the Chrétien Liberals in the 1990s to the more recent Conservative F-35 fighter jet debacle.

Concerns persist today that defence policy is too politicized—and these concerns aren't exactly assuaged by news of cabinet involvement in major defence procurements under the current government.

But the Liberals' ad hoc cabinet committee on defence procurement isn't the first time defence policy has been drawn up by a closed group of ministers.

Multiple sources in the defence community—who would not go on the record because of their ongoing involvement in defence policy or procurement—have said that it was an ad hoc cabinet committee under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government that oversaw Canada's most recent defence plan, the 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy.

The CFDS is a controversial document. Critics have long said the $490 billion plan was simply a wish list of toys for the military, and pointed to Harper-era defence cuts as making the whole thing unaffordable. The latter eventually became official departmental advice to Julian Fantino, then the associate defence minister.

Yet others continue to support it. James Bezan, the Conservative defence critic, writes in an Embassy op-ed March 9 that his party “fully supports” the CFDS, saying it “provides a detailed road map for the modernization of the Canadian Armed Forces.”

In an interview with Embassy March 8, Vice-Admiral Mark Norman confirmed the cabinet committee supported the CFDS during the second half of its development, from 2007 to 2008.

The military held more than a dozen meetings with the committee chaired by Chuck Strahl, who was agriculture then Indigenous affairs minister, a senior official suggests.

Mr. Strahl, who is no longer an MP, told Embassy in an email that ministers around the table plowed through components of the strategy and developed consensus as they went along.

Mr. Harper had a “clear interest” in the file, he wrote. “When the boss loves an idea, the rest of cabinet generally reads the tea leaves and joins in with enthusiasm. Partly this is because you’re pushing on an open door.

“By the time you’re back to cabinet for approvals, the rails have been pre-greased for success.”

An ex-departmental official who could only speak on background said it was worrisome to have so much interaction with cabinet, absent researchers assigned to the committee—there weren’t any, the official said—because ministers became dependent only on what DND told them to make their decisions.

But V.-Adm. Norman said it was useful to have cabinet members participating in the conversation.

The current government is operating an ad hoc cabinet committee, chaired by Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, to look at major files within defence procurement. The Tories criticized the Liberals for keeping the committee "secret," despite never having publicly released details about the CFDS committee.

“I don’t think it is terribly unusual one way or another to deal with defence procurement this way,” David Pratt, who served as the minister of national defence in 2004 under Paul Martin, told Embassy.

Strahl: avoid 'motherhood statements'

Several sources active in the defence community have also confirmed to Embassy that at its launch, the CFDS was not intended to be released as a public document.

It was only in the last few months of the process that officials scrambled to put policy priorities and a series of announceables together into one codified paper, sources say. It lays out an overarching policy framework before launching into a section with specific recommendations for military acquisitions.

“Missing from CFDS and most other policy exercises in Canada is actual fiscal realism,” said Dave Perry, a senior analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

“The money wasn’t right from day one,” with CFDS, Mr. Perry said in an interview.

Despite the department facing austerity cuts along with many other departments after the 2008 financial crisis began, “it wasn’t adequately funded in the first place.” That’s something the current reviewers can work on.

Still, Mr. Strahl said that at the time, “there may also have been budget restrictions,” as “there almost always were/are for Conservatives,” so that “the wish list didn’t approach the stratosphere.”

He had some advice to offer to current policymakers. “The more specific you can make your observations and recommendations, the more likely you may get some of what you hoped and worked for,” Mr. Strahl wrote.

“Especially in foreign affairs and defence policy, the tendency is for people to make broad, general statements of good intent. But by making such motherhood statements and milk toast recommendations, they risk trying to be ‘all things to all people.’”

Canada has a limited budget and ability to influence others, so it should focus resources on a limited number of activities, he said—even though the branches of DND “battle tenaciously,” as Mr. Strahl put it, to get their big-ticket items on the priority list.

1994 review was 'fresh sheet of paper'

Sources complain that some within DND actively dislike public consultation, worrying that outside influence could negatively impact internal ambitions.

But, as one source put it, the wider the consultation the greater the likelihood that political leaders will own up to a policy review’s commitments.

The CFDS offered a comment box on a website, but its findings were ignored, one source says.

The 2005 policy review led by Gen. Rick Hillier didn’t involve any public consultation at all. The last time the public was widely consulted on defence was with the review of 1994, under Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government.

Eric Lerhe, a retired commodore with the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at Dalhousie University, wrote his doctoral thesis while serving as naval adviser to the joint Senate-House of Commons committee that oversaw consultations for the 1994 review.

It was a “fresh sheet of paper defence review,” Mr. Lerhe told Embassy in an interview. “There was no dictation of what the government itself was going to do with defence policy, separate from what they would hear from the public consultations and the report from the parliamentary committee.”

That’s a little different from the current Liberal government, which has already offered a variety of commitments—for example, stating its review will result in a “leaner” and “more agile” military, but implying that it won’t touch personnel numbers.

The parliamentary committee in 1994 produced a report that won all-party support, despite including significant cuts to defence, Mr. Lerhe said.

Though DND concurrently produced its own white paper, it was asked to rejig that paper based on the committee’s public consultations.

It went like this, Mr. Lerhe said: after Mr. Chrétien was elected in October 1993, the committee formed in March; work started in April; public hearings were held until June.

The committee went to 12 cities. They would open the doors in the morning and hear people all day. Members of the general public got five minutes. Noted writers and academics would be given more time or asked to write papers for the committee, said Mr. Lerhe.

A draft report was done by October; and DND’s final white paper, including the committee report’s findings, was published in December.

“All of that was done in almost an identical time frame [as the current review] with no email, no internet,” Mr. Perry noted.

He pointed out that if the Liberal government can publish a policy by the end of the year it will be well-positioned to include any spending commitments in the 2017 federal budget.

Look to Australia, UK

It’s unclear whether an all-party parliamentary committee is even being considered for this year’s defence review. If the document is produced internally, despite including public consultation, that could put its credibility into question, Mr. Lerhe said.

Another option could be to hand the reins to an external committee, like Australia did with its review, released this year. But then, the question would be: who gets to sit on such a committee?

The Australian review contained a few other key elements that Canada could learn from, Mr. Perry noted, including a huge, detailed list of investments with precise, independent costing—something much more robust than the current Defence Acquisition Guide.

It was also done in a more bipartisan way, he said. They’re “another like-minded Commonwealth country with a very similar political system” and they managed to come to more-or-less a broad consensus, Mr. Perry said. Why can’t Canada?

The UK’s review of defence and security, encompassing more than just military considerations, is also often held up as an example.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan told Embassy at the beginning of the year that its method of public consultation was being looked at for a formal review of defence policy, with a deadline set to the end of December. He has also said that defence isn't being reviewed in isolation of foreign policy, though no formal foreign policy review has been launched.

Sources indicate officials recently met to narrow down how the public will be consulted. It’s hoped consultations will wrap up around the end of June.

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