Last week, I attended the Ottawa Conference on Defence and Security. The two days provided a huge contrast. The retired politicians on day one, Jean Charest of Quebec and Kevin Ruud of Australia, were engaging, insightful, and informative. The incumbents on day two, Rob Nicholson, the Minister of National Defence, and Diane Finley, the Minister of Public Works, were none of these things. Indeed, they were incredibly disappointing.1
Before moving on, I need to be clear. This will read like an anti-Conservative screed, but I am not a huge fan of the defence stances of any party. But because the Conservatives are in power, I have higher expectations—with great power comes great responsibility.
Back to the Conference: Nicholson’s speech was about as bland and as uninformative as a Ministry of Industry tweet that had been vetted through a 12-step process. I could take few notes and write few tweets as the material he uttered was pretty empty. A later panel, defence analyst Dave Perry quickly demolished most of Nicholson’s speech by noting that the government is spending less on defence now, controlling for ordinary inflation (which was being generous since military equipment’s inflation is far higher), than when it released the Canada First Defence Strategy.
Chief of the Defence Staff Tom Lawson was put in a difficult position as he followed Nicholson’s talk. Because the government has not made any decisions, Lawson could only be vague about potential tradeoffs—cutting x to pay for y. However, just the mere utterance of “tradeoff” was a huge improvement, a recognition that Canada cannot have it all, that there will be some choices that must be made.
Diane Finley’s talk was not as inaccurate, perhaps, as Nicholson’s, but was chock full of contradictions. My favourite one is that the new procurement strategy will provide bonus points to proposed programs that provide jobs to Canadians (which is swell, especially for courting voters) AND will be aimed at exporting weapons abroad. That is, the new strategy will try to engage in protectionism, favouring Canadian-produced military equipment, and expect that other countries will not respond in kind but instead will buy up these systems (which are likely to be more expensive than alternatives). This is basic trade politics—if you raise barriers to trade, others will do so, too.
The reality is that everything is going to be more expensive than estimated, so Canada is going to have to make choices, and make do with less. The Navy will become smaller, as former Chief of the Navy Paul Maddison indicated later. The Air Force is likely to have to cut back on its F-35 (or whatever) order. The Army is already spending far less on practicing war.
The government should be, dare I say it, honest about where things stand. Yes, it is in a difficult spot because the Liberals botched years of defence procurement. There should have been enough planning so that the government would not have to replace the entire fleet and entire set of fighter planes at the same time. I tried to sequence my car purchases so that I don’t have to pay loans on two cars at once (except my plans were disrupted by car thieves and poorly driven buses). So, yes, they can blame the Liberals. And they should do so. But the Conservatives have been in government for about eight years, so it is time for them to bear some responsibility and make choices.
Let me propose a stance that could potentially work: Canada is going to have an operational pause, given the stresses of the Afghan mission (and others before it). For a short time, Canada will spend less on readiness (maintenance and training), which will entail some risks but given the pause, the risks will be manageable. We will have to cut the size of the force (since personnel costs represent 50 percent of the defence budget), but responsibly so—instead of sticking to a symbolic 100k that is entirely unrealistic. We will focus on buying a bit less of what we had hoped, given the escalation in costs of 21st century military kit. Once we make it through this period, we can “re-balance” again and focus on readiness.
This makes sense because Prime Minister Harper has learned that significant operations overseas is costly at home and interferes with the priority of the day—message management. He wants a long operational pause so why not justify it via responsible stewardship of the defence establishment. Just as only Nixon could go to China, the Conservatives are best-positioned to make the hard choices on Defence. Can the New Democrats gain votes by trying to be more supportive of the military? Can Justin Trudeau? Probably not.
Of course, the fact that the Ministers could not answer questions at a forum full of active and retired military personnel and other government officials suggests that the Conservatives, for all of their bluster and for all of their negative politics (see the Leslie mess), are actually incredibly insecure. Sure, all politicians are running scared, always seeking votes, but, in this case, the Conservatives could take action and it would make them appear to be responsible. I am sure that most Canadians would be okay with balancing the budget via cutting the military. Just be honest about it and own it. Or not.
By Steve Saideman
1. Of course, it could have been worse—the lunchtime speaker on the second day was disgraced former Minister of Defence of Germany Karl Zu Guttenberg, who lost his job due to a plagiarized dissertation. His talk was about the internet with much concern about the relationship between Google and national governments. No one seemed to notice the irony or contradiction in all of this since it was online crowd-sourcing of Guttenberg’s dissertation that brought him down