Public Critics vs Informed Monitors: The Parliament and Overseeing the Canadian Armed Forces

by Steve Saideman

I am mighty pleased that the first piece of the Phil/Dave/Steve project on legislatures and oversight over the armed forces of the world’s democracies is now published: “Public critic or secretive monitor: party objectives and legislative oversight of the military in Canada.”  The big question, of course, is how did a paper on Canada get into West European Politics?  The answer: tis part of a special issue on executive-legislative relations and foreign/defence policy.

Our entire SSHRC-funded project started with me being puzzled, driven by my growing up in the US: what do you mean, the defence committees of the Canadian Parliament do not have security clearances?  That they cannot see the secret stuff and ask generals/admirals about operations?  If the legislators don’t have access to classified info, then how can they hold the executive to account?  Information is EVERYTHING in principal-agency theory–that information asymmetries mean that agents can do more or less than what the principals desire.  Usually, principals try to figure out ways to overcome the asymmetry, but in Canada, not so much.  So, the paper ponders why parliamentarians would prefer to be a public critic (ignorant critic) rather than secretive monitor (informed overseer).

The answer focuses on how institutions and party politics focus parliamentarians not in good governance but on point-scoring.  We use the Afghanistan detainee controversy to figure out this puzzle, ultimately realizing that politicians doing oversight behind closed doors get little political advantage while shouting in parliament, with or without good info, is viewed as better for the next election.

Why is this relevant today?  The Liberals came into power seeking to create some oversight over the secret stuff, giving some parliamentarians some access to the secrets.  However, this new body does not really fix the problem that we identify (our comparative project aims to understand not just the attitudes towards oversight but the effects of different forms, so perhaps Canada is not so problematic).  Why not?  First, as Phil has written elsewhere, it is not a parliamentary committee–the real principal for this new committee is not the Canadian Parliament but the Prime Minister who can restrict access to information quite easily.  Second, the focus of the entire discussion has been on surveillance/intel and not on military operations.  This body is not going to be overseeing the Canadian Armed Forces, so the only elected officials in Canada that have any clue about what secret stuff the CAF is doing are the Prime Minister and Defence Minister.

For me, that is problematic.  Why?  If war is too important to be left to the generals, as Clemenceau said amid the increasing piles of bodies coming home in World War I, then democratic oversight of the military is too important to be left to the executive. Why?  Because Presidents/Prime Ministers/Ministers and Secretaries of Defence have incentives to hide mistakes (Abu Ghraib anyone?) and also might be tempted to use the military secretly in ways that are either unlawful or unwise.

Living in Canada made me realize that not every country has multiple Armed Services Committees who are tasked by the greater legislative body to oversee the deployment of the armed forces.  Indeed, it may be that the US is very exceptional (and Congressional oversight may be lacking these days due to polarization, with show trials like the Benghazi hearings replacing real oversight).  Yes, other countries have legislatures that can and do vote about whether to deploy or not, but the question for us is: what next?  Do these bodies follow through and see that their intent, their limitations, their caveats are adhered to?  Not so sure, so the work continues.

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