Parliament should scrutinize, not have a say, on military deployments


by Philippe Lagassé

What role should Parliament play in military deployments? The question has come up again owing to the Trudeau government’s pledge to deploy the Canadian Armed Forces on a UN peace operation.

Although they only held votes in the House of Commons for combat missions, the Conservatives are demanding a vote for this new operation. The NDP, meanwhile, tends to call for votes whenever there’s a whiff of controversy or danger surrounding a deployment. The Liberals have never been strong advocates of holding such votes, though they did hold one earlier this year for their revamped mission to Iraq.

Bureaucrats may have warned the Trudeau government that extending this practice to peace operations could unduly constrain the executive in the future, and the Liberals are doubtlessly aware that they have a limited number of sitting days to devote to their legislative agenda. Given the success they had in using a wholly symbolic vote to box in the Conservatives on the Paris Accord, however, we shouldn’t be surprised if the Prime Minister’s Office decides that a vote on the UN operation could be equally advantageous.

Pundits, for their part, are in favour of having the Commons vote on the new mission. There’s no risk that the government will lose the vote owing to the Liberal majority, the official opposition has been calling for it, and asking to House to support military deployments gives off a warm and fuzzy democratic feeling, despite the fact that it’s not binding or necessary. (Bonus: the vote makes good political theatre on a slow news day.)

The votes come with downsides, however. When the opposition votes in favour of a military deployment, their ability to hold the government to account is dulled afterwards. Dulled doesn’t mean it disappears, but it makes the opposition’s job harder; the government can use the vote to deflect questions and criticisms, and it’s more difficult to critique something you previously supported. As a result, votes tend to end parliamentary debate about a military deployment until it’s time to hold another one.

The government can also use the votes to sow confusion about who should be held to account if the mission runs into difficulties. Rather than accepting responsibility for the decision, the government can declare that it was simply following the ‘will of the House’. A crafty government, moreover, can use the votes to give the impression that Parliament is responsible for the decision, laundering the constitutional accountability of ministers through the legislature (see chapter 3 here.)

These concerns are lessened when the opposition votes against a deployment. When the government-opposition dynamic is respected, the opposition is better placed to question the mission and the government has a harder time trying to launder its responsibility and accountability.

Yet this is still not ideal. The vote forces the opposition parties to express a binary choice for or against a mission. In many cases, the factors are stake are more complex. For example, the opposition may support the mission’s objectives, but not how it’s being undertaken or the risks that the government is accepting.

As well, the government can use the votes to make the opposition look bad. If a vote is held on the new mission, chances are the government will be hoping the Conservatives will vote against it, allowing the Liberals to decry their lack of support for UN peace operations. With polls showing widespread support for the return to ‘peacekeeping’, this would be an attractive wedge issue for the Liberals –unless the operation goes sour, of course.

In spite of these negatives, the allure of holding military deployment votes is evident. Votes allow parliamentarians to express themselves on a matter of national importance and they raise awareness of what the Canadian military will be doing abroad.

Arguably, though, our focus on votes is taking attention away from other reforms that would give a Parliament larger role when the Canadian Armed Forces are sent overseas. The key to improving parliamentary involvement in matters of war and peace doesn’t lie in pretending that the House is a decision-making body. Rather we should leverage actual institutional Parliament function when it comes to matters of executive competence: a scrutinizing body.

Here are four steps we could take to enhance parliamentary scrutiny of military operations:

First, when the government has decided to deploy the military on an operation, the Prime Minister or Minister of National Defence should be required to provide the House with the mission objectives, anticipated threats and risks, the operation’s expected duration, detail of which units that will be deployed and their rules of engagement, the sustainability of the deployment and its effect on training and readiness, rough order of magnitude mission costs, and the legal justification of the operation. A substantive take note debate should then be held based on this information.

Next, the Standing Committee on National Defence (NDDN) should be tasked with overseeing the mission. Although it is good that senior commanders brief the media on the mission’s progress, appearing before NDDN alongside their minister should be their priority. The committee could also call upon outside experts and other witnesses to hear various perspectives and concerns about the mission. NDDN should then periodically report on the operation to the Commons, and the House should hold additional take note debates to discuss the committee’s findings and further question the government.

Third, once a mission has ended, the Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence should be tasked with reviewing the operation and producing a report on lessons learned. Benefiting from a less partisan and hurried working environment (in principle), the Senate committee report could provide Parliament’s assessment of the mission’s successes and failure, and what could be done to improve future operations.

Finally, the government could be required to respond to the Senate committee’s report, and include a summary of its own, internal lessons learned exercise.

Of course, none of these recommendations are incompatible with holding a vote. But the unintended consequences of holding a vote could arguably affect how well these other measures would fare. An opposition that votes in favour of the mission may be less rigorous in scrutinizing the operation at the committee level, while a divided House would likely make NDDN’s oversight a baldly partisan effort.

Either way, our focus on votes isn’t helping us find ways to veritably deepen Parliament’s involvement in holding the government to account for military operations. Instead of demanding that the House have a symbolic say on a predetermined government decision, let’s help Parliament scrutinize the executive.

Parliament and Treaty Ratification: Why Accuracy Matters

by  Philippe Lagassé

The House of Commons voted to support the government’s ratification of the Paris Accord yesterday. Contrary to what was reported in several media outlets, the Commons vote was not the legal instrument that ratified the agreement, nor was the House’s support necessary for ratification. The power to ratify treaties is exercised by Cabinet. Canada’s House of Commons has no formal role in the process. In fact, Cabinet may have ratified the Accord before the vote was even recorded. Yesterday’s vote was political theatre, not an expression parliamentary authority.

Is acknowledging these realities merely pedantry? No. There are good reasons why the media should report these facts accurately.

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Nuclear weapons and the ‘Letter of last resort’: what my students think

By Jez Littlewood

NPSIA’s disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation course began last week (INAF 5201). Once the administrative side of the first class was completed I began the class with the 2015 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists What would happen if an 800-kiloton nuclear warhead detonated above midtown Manhattan? However, to inject some additional reality into the subject each was tasked with deciding on how the UK would respond to a nuclear attack.

The scenario was simple: each was to assume they had been elected (or appointed) Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and each had to decide the nuclear response in the event of a surprise attack. Pre-reading included Richard Norton-Taylor’s story in The Guardian from July 2016 – Theresa May’s first job: decide on UK’s nuclear response. Thus, sixty minutes after arriving in class task one for my 21 students was the drafting of what is generally known as “the letter of last resort”.

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The Next Canadian Deployment

by Steve Saideman

Many people are asking the right questions about the much ballyhooed next Canadian military deployment, including where and whether there will be a vote or not.  The problem is that we are getting the questions in the wrong order, which is creating more confusion.  We cannot ask some questions until we know the answers to the others.  The vote question should be after we know much more about the mission.  The where question actually is not first either.  So, here is the correct order of questions:

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Pan Canadian Defence Review

by Steve Saideman

Today, the Centre for Security, Intelligence and Defence Studies at NPSIA along with the Conference of Defence Associations Institute and the Centre for International Policy Studies (Queens) held a workshop that involved much of the Canadian defence academic community.  The idea was to feed into the Defence Review Canada is running this summer.

Andrea Charron, our Centre’s director, did a great job of organizing so that the day was very engaging.  We were split into four groups: threat environment, the forces, readiness, and missions/allies.  Each group was tasked to come up with five ideas/priorities.  Then each group would Red Team (criticize, respond/react) to two of the other groups.  My group was Missions/Allies led by Andrea C and Jim Fergusson.   This group included Sjrdjan Vucetic and Thomas Juneau of U of Ottawa, Justin Massie of UQAM, Theo McLauchlin of U of Montreal, and Kim Richard Nossal of Queens.  

I really didn’t know what I was going to say going into the event, as I had never done something like this before (of course, anyone who knows me would have predicted that I would talk alot).  Also, the missions for Canada are pretty established–that we will not be changing what Canada is likely to think its role is in the world: defending Canada, jointly via NORAD with US, NATO, UN, and occasional coalitions of the willing ops.  We did come up with a bunch of questions that one should always ask when considering a mission–what are the rules of engagement, who is involved, what are the desired goals, etc.  Kind of akin to the Dutch’s Article 101 letter procedure (see the Dave and Steve book).  

The big point I pushed was that the classic Canadian question of whether to provide small units in many operations or concentrate in one place for extended period of time should be resolved thusly: do the latter.  If you want to make a difference, concentrate the effort and be patient.  

The challenge for any review is that there is not much room to move Canada. That is, the budget is mostly set, 47% is dedicated to personnel, the big procurement decisions are decided/have a process of their own, AND Canada faces few threats and has limited capabilities.  So, neither our review nor the big government one can really alter the path of the CAF and DND much.  Still, it was a very useful exercise for thinking about this stuff and giving input to government.

Personally, it was mighty good for me both because I could connect with the many folks I know who attended and help set the stage for one of my major sabbatical priorities: applying for a partnership grant to create a Canadian Defence Research Network so that we can meet more often, develop shared research agendas, communicate our results and train the next generation of defence scholars.  

In short, woot!

Defence Review Roundtable: Montreal

by Steve Saideman

I got the chance to participate in the Defence Review via a roundtable in Montreal.  Since I pooped all over the project when it was first announced, I have to say that I am both impressed and thankful that the Minister of Defence and his staff invited me to join the process.  That was mighty big of them.

The meeting was governed by Chatham House Rule, which means I cannot attribute stuff to anyone.  So, I will apply Saideman House Rule–I will describe the event and then say what I said.

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Brexit and national security: the short term – second thoughts

by Jez Littlewood*

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has voted to leave the European Union. The close vote, 52% in favour of leaving and 48% voting to remain, also underlined the regional divisions within the UK. As such the vote to leave may act as a catalyst for dissolution of the United Kingdom itself. Indeed, within hours the First Minister of Scotland has stated a second vote on Scottish independence is very likely.

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