Learning Too Few Lessons

by Stephen Saideman

Several years ago, I had heard in various bars in the Byward Market that the Canadian government under Stephen Harper had engaged in a serious Lessons Learned exercise about Afghanistan.  I heard that the document was buried (I used the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark to illustrate).  I tried an Access to Information Request in January of 2013, but got rejected because the document was viewed as “advice to cabinet” and containing sensitive information about Canada’s allies.  I thought this was hogwash, so I appealed.  I got the document just before my recent trip to Brazil (here it is),* so I didn’t have time to process it.

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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.

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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Canada’s development finance plan: How to go beyond low-hanging fruit

By Aniket Bhushan

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his coterie of eloquent ministers went to considerable lengths last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos to rebrand Canada and double down on the “Canada is back” message. While it was good to see that innovation in development financing was one of the many areas the government targeted, its focus on one relatively small initiative is problematic.

In a joint release, Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s Minister of International Trade, and Marie-Claude Bibeau, Minister of International Development, welcomed the launch of a “new Canadian initiative [that] will support investment in emerging markets.” The initiative is a platform called Convergence and it will be run out of Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District. Canada is investing $23.5 million to get Convergence started, and the expectation is that this relatively small investment will lead to projects worth $10 billion over the next five years.

This is great and very welcome. Except it is not new.

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#WelcomeToCanada: This is how to win a propaganda war

By Steve Saideman

Lots of folks criticize Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about being more about style than substance (see his Vogue pics), but the style can be substance.  How Canada has welcomed the first batch of refugees could be seen as a photo opportunity. And 25,000 refugees can be seen as too little.

However, it can also be seen as a vital effort in the war against ISIS/ISL/IS/Daesch.

The videos and pictures counter the messaging by our adversary that the West will not welcome Muslims into their country, that the West is hostile, and all that.  And the images are going viral.

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