No boost for defence spending

July 31, 2017 by David J. Bercuson
Finance Minister Bill Morneau (left) is joined by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau before delivering the 2017 budget speech.
Adam Scott / Office of the Prime Minister

When Finance Minister Bill Morneau delivered the Liberal government’s 2017-18 budget in March, the surprise to many observers (and incurable optimists) was that there was, fundamentally, nothing new for the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces. Despite some fuzzy hints from the defence minister and friendly meetings between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump that suggested a willingness of the government to increase defence readiness, there was nothing. In fact, there was less than nothing.

The Trudeau government removed some $8.5 billion set aside to build defence capital equipment and infrastructure and shifted it from six to about 20 years down the road. The finance minister gave hints that his document may not be the last word on the defence budget, given the defence review which was expected to be released on June 7. But clearly, any effort to raise the defence budget will await the fall budget update at the least, if not the next full budget for 2018-19.

Canada has become one of NATO’s lowest contributors to defence spending, not only with respect to its NATO obligations, but also to North American defence spending and international expeditions to prevent war, such as significant UN missions. As of May, the government had still not selected a robust UN mission to join, although it announced last year that it would do so.

Rather than complain that Canadian governments almost always disappoint the military and Canadian citizens who want an adequate military, I’m going to try to explain some hard realities about Canadian defence.

There is no solid constituency for increased defence spending. An Angus Reid Institute poll released before the budget revealed that although a slim majority of Canadians felt NATO countries should match their defence spending to two per cent of their GDP, many fewer Canadians favoured doing so within Canada.

That should not be surprising. Despite terror attacks, wars against terrorist groups and dangers of war in far-off places, Canadians feel very safe. In 1924, Canadian Senator Raoul Dandurand declared that Canadians “live in a fireproof house, far from inflammable materials” and most Canadians today would probably agree with him. The tragic reality is that within 15 years of his declaration, Canada was in a total war alongside its partners in the greatest military conflict in history. With the exception of the two world wars, Canadians feel safe because Canada is, fundamentally, safe.

Short of actual war, Canada’s defence policy is to send troops, or planes, or ships, simply to be there. Where is there? Wherever the Canadian government believes it is important to wave the Maple Leaf for whatever intangible (though sometimes tangible) result that Canada can earn. We’ve heard it all before: a seat at the table; a chance to make our voice heard when key international decisions are being made; a chance to convince our allies to “take us seriously” after wars end and we played a role, important or not, in an allied victory.

That was not true of the two world wars, but it has been true almost ever since. From where comes the physical threat to Canadian territory today? From Russia, which is building a formal military presence on its side of the Arctic Ocean? Is it going to seize islands in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago? Nonsense. Or from China, which pokes the odd Arctic research vessel into the Arctic Ocean? China has far more pressing problems in the South China Sea, East China Sea and, possibly, the Indian Ocean.

Canada takes part in military actions when Canadians get their blood up—such as after 9/11—or when we believe there is something to gain from joining our traditional allies.

We have a token military because Ottawa always has “better” things to spend its money on and doesn’t really believe Canada can make a meaningful contribution to diplomatic/military crises anywhere.

The current government’s policy of sending small packets of Canadian military resources to trouble spots allows it to answer complaints about Canadian defence spending the same way: “Don’t look at how much we spend; look at what we accomplish with the scarce dollars we do spend.”

It is possible to forecast what the defence review will actually recommend and it’s hard to expect any deviation from decades of Canadian defence policy spending. In fact, the only real threat to our national sovereignty will come when Washington washes its hands of our feeble effort and begins to take over virtually the entire role of North American defence. As Winston Churchill once said, everyone has an armed force–its own or someone else’s.

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