Why debate on defence policy has been AWOL in this federal election campaign

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Canada Politics

Kim Campbell, destined to lead the Progressive Conservatives to oblivion in 1993, famously said a 47-day election campaign was not the time to discuss complex issues.

Despite outraged reaction at the time, she was right. And even with the current campaign stretched to 78 days, strategies built around sound bites and 140-character tweets don’t lend themselves to deep examinations of party policy.

As the long campaign reaches its climax Monday, it’s clear important issues got short shrift; for instance poverty, especially in aboriginal communities, or criminal justice, which Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have remade during their tenure.

Defence has also been AWOL on the stump. That’s surprising, considering security has been a major campaign theme for the Harper Tories and Canada is involved in a war in the Middle East while bolstering allies in Europe against Russian expansionism.

“I’m not really surprised because even with the monster election writ period that we’ve had, there’s a lot of ground that parties need to cover,” Charles Davies, a research fellow at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, said in an interview with Yahoo Canada. “Defence is a high-investment, low-return thing for them to try and go after in an election campaign.”

To be fair, defence rarely gets a substantial airing. In the sixties, Tory John Diefenbaker and Liberal Lester Pearson debated Canada’s role in stationing troops in Europe to help forestall a Soviet invasion. The 1984 campaign that put Brian Mulroney’s PCs in power also looked at Canada’s defence stance in relation to the Cold War.

The faltering Liberals tried to sideswipe Harper during their losing 2006 campaign with an attack ad suggesting the Conservatives’ promise to increase the military’s presence in Canadian cities meant their would be “soldiers with guns” in the streets. It backfired.

The parties’ platforms do of course contain specific proposals affecting defence strategy and procurement.

But it remains largely absent from public discussion except for scoring points on issues such as delays in replacing the CF-18 Hornet fighter and an ambitious program to build new navy and coast guard ships.

The Conservatives, not surprisingly, have stood on their record, claiming to have strengthened the military and promising to spend more if re-elected, including a boost to Canada’s special forces to counter threats such as Islamist terrorism.

After stiff reductions following the 2008-09 financial crisis, the current budget stands at more than $20 billion. It’s rising at a rate of two per cent a year and the Conservatives have promised to increase that to three per cent by 2017-18, a little higher than the projected inflation rate.

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Spending is still only about half of NATO’s preferred standard of two per cent of gross domestic product, though only a handful of alliance members meet that standard.

The Liberals pledge, among other things, to continue the Tories’ promised funding increases, return Canada to a more prominent UN peacekeeping role and to clean up the military procurement process.

NDP promise to make Canada top peacekeeper

The New Democrats, who until fairly recently were committed to pulling Canada out of NATO, promise to make Canada the No. 1 peacekeeper while modernizing the armed forces and making them more “agile,” a word the Liberals use, too. The NDP’s NATO withdrawal fell off the table under late leader Jack Layton.

All three parties have pledged to maintain the government’s existing defence budget allocations. The Liberals and New Democrats are promising major defence policy reviews – the NDP a full-blown white paper, the last of which came out in 1994 to help set policy after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Governments have done reviews on specific aspects of policy, such as procurement, which resulted in changes. The Conservatives also produced a blueprint in 2013 known as the Canada First Defence Strategy (CFDS) that purports to chart the evolution of the Canadian Armed Forces’ mission and capabilities.

The Conference of Defence Associations, an advocacy group that supports the CDA Institute, put a number of issues to the parties before the election call, including a need to reset the CFDS and for a long-term approach to defence and security that transcends the normal election cycle.

“We’ve engaged all political parties to at least put their positions forward with regards to a new defence policy,” CDA executive director Tony Battista told Yahoo Canada.

Last month, the CDA Institute posted a detailed analysis by Davies advising all parties to take long-term approach to defence planning.

“The time horizons involved in defence policy and defence capability management are such that, unlike most other policy areas, the ministers of any given government are their stewards, not their owners,” Davies wrote.

“The decisions they make typically have little strategic impact today but major impact on future governments.”

“The challenge is that defence policy is not conducive to the four-year cyclical focus of democratic societies,” Battista explained. “Defence policy is something that you’re looking at a minimum of two decades to plan it properly.”

But it’s all too tempting to take a short-term approach when you can use things like problems with the proposed F-35 purchase to paint the incumbents as incompetent, said David McDonough, the CDA Institute’s research manager and senior editor.

Election platforms are about what your party plans to do if elected and, McDonough said, all three major contenders have provided a mixture of short- and long-term proposals.

The Tories pledge to carry on with their program, whatever its merits, while the challengers promise comprehensive reviews.

Policy goals may skew objective defence review

The problem is the Liberals and NDP have set specific policy goals that will make an objective review difficult because they essentially prejudge the result, McDonough said.

The Liberals, for instance, might find their defence review hamstrung if they’ve already decided an improved version of the CF-18, known as the Super Hornet, is preferable to the increasingly costly, stealth-capable F-35, which is better suited to expeditionary tasks abroad than to home air defence.

“You basically constrain what sort of policy you have,” said McDonough.

The same goes for the NDP’s promise to make Canada the world’s top peacekeeper, which will influence the direction of any white paper, Davies said.

“They also have a very unrealistic interest in peacekeeping operations as a global security solution for the future,” he added.

The Pearsonian model of peacekeeping, with blue berets policing a ceasefire line, that the NDP and Liberals cherish may be defunct. It’s been abandoned for a more muscular peacemaking approach seen in recent African conflicts, not always under UN auspices.

“There aren’t too many places in the world where there are two or three belligerents who have agreed to a peace and therefore you introduce a peacekeeping force,” Battista said.

David Perry, senior analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said it’s unrealistic to expect the parties not to set out some policy goal and simply promise a review.

“As part of their platforms they’re going to stake out some positions,” he said. “To greater or lesser degrees by putting it down specifically in your platform before you do that, you’re either excluding some options or you’re shaping the review in some way or another.

“That’s inevitable but at the same time I don’t think that detracts from the overall value and the point of doing the review to try and more clearly map out the full set of activities.”

Davies said he sees little in the NDP’s platform that suggests they understand the link between defence and foreign and security policies. Any defence review needs to start with a document that thinks through Canada’s security environment, either prepared by experts within National Defence or those from the academic community or think tanks.

Party platforms necessarily can’t reach that level of detail but should reflect that those who prepared the platform have given it that kind of thought, Davies said.

“I don’t see any evidence of that level of thinking,” he said, referring to the NDP.

Defence policy development requires two things: First decide what the nation wants to do, then look at the capabilities needed to do it. That leads into procurement policies, which is where governments often stumble.

Bolstering defence costs money. Campaigning parties are unwilling try to sell voters on policies that won’t bear fruit for 20 years. And in times of austerity defence is an easy target for spending cuts in a comparatively safe country like Canada because there’s almost no voter backlash.

Parties need to balance commitments with capabilities

The parties have also not done a good job of balancing capabilities with commitments, the analysts said.

They may agree on the current defence-funding envelope, said Perry, but “their appetite exceeds the capacity of that envelope to sustain [it], especially with the machinery of government we have, which is hugely inefficient at turning bucks into bang.”

Another key element of Davies’ September analysis was the value of a consensus on long-term defence policy that crosses the political divide. It’s not impossible for the three main parties to reach such a consensus, he said.

“If you look at Australia, they have parties of the left and parties of the right who see Australia differently,” he said. “Now they live in a really nasty neighbourhood so with the attitude we either hang together or hang separately much more than we do. So that has concentrated their minds a lot more than we would be.”

Canada may have been spared that level of immediacy because its security is largely guaranteed by its powerful neighbour to the south. Still, Canadians can benefit from finding common ground.

Perry argued that there already is some level of consensus.

“There’s actually a fair amount of agreement about the kind of broad brush of defence policy,” he said.

Witness the parties’ agreement on increasing defence spending over the next four years, said Perry. The Conservatives’ opponents also appear to support the incumbents’ naval ship-building program, he said. And while they challenge the F-35 program, the Liberals and Conservatives differ little on the overall mission for a new fighter – the ability to execute overseas missions that require stealth capability is the big sticking point.

“There’s not a total disagreement, at least at face value, about how they view how that particular defence asset should be used,” he said.

Then there’s the Canada First Defence Strategy. The CDA’s proposals to the parties included the need for a reset of the CFDS, Battista said.

Defence strategy broad enough to sustain revisions

However, Perry said policy document is so broad – the world is a dangerous place; Canada will do something to defend Canada, North America and enhance international security – that revisions will be fairly general.

“If you want to stay at that level of abstraction there’s not that much needs to change,” he said.

Davies agreed its themes will likely crop up in different guises.

“The Liberal and NDP platforms imply quite a different type of defence policy document,” he said. “But the strategic imperatives they face will undoubtedly force them to the same fundamental priorities as the CFDS states, which in turn are the same priorities most Canadian defence policy statements have identified for decades.”

The Conservatives apparently had a revised CFDS on the cabinet table for approval when the election was called, said Perry. It’s not clear what changes were proposed but a new Tory government might not feel compelled to follow through.

What does need to be tweaked, he said, is the capability aspect. Some programs are no longer considered affordable and planned acquisitions such as a close-combat vehicle and the multi-mission fighter have been either postponed or cancelled.

Some significant revisions will be needed if future defence policy aspires to be “an honest matching of ends and means,” said Perry.

No matter who emerges with the reins of power on Monday night, no substantive changes in defence policy should be expected for at least a year.

The Liberals, who’ve been out of power for almost a decade, and the NDP, who’ve never formed government, would need some time to find their feet, adapting to new rules on accountability and administration and reviewing the classified reports and financial material integral to any substantive defence review.

Even a re-elected Conservative government will need time to get its bearings, Perry pointed out. Of Harper’s cabinet, there are four members of his foreign affairs and defence committee, five from the key planning and priorities committee and four who sit on the operations committee who are either not running or in danger of losing their seats.

“There will be a new government regardless of which party wins the election ,” said Perry. “Even if it is the Conservatives re-elected it will be a very different cabinet.”