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One-On-One With The Defence Minister

by Mac Johnston

John McCallum (L-Markham) was appointed minister of National Defence on May 26, 2002. A star Liberal candidate in the Greater Toronto Area in the general election of November 2000, he was a political neophyte when elected to the House of Commons. The bilingual economist initially served as parliamentary secretary to the minister of Finance and then as Secretary of State for International Financial Institutions.

McCallum was senior vice-president and chief economist for the Royal Bank of Canada from 1994-2000 and, prior to that, dean of the Faculty of Arts at McGill University in Montreal from 1992-94. He has taught economics at McGill, the University of Québec at Montreal, Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., and the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

As might be expected, McCallum is well educated, having obtained a bachelor of arts from Cambridge University in the U.K., a diplôme d’études supérieures from the University of Paris and a doctorate of philosophy in economics from McGill.

Born April 9, 1950, the 33rd anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, McCallum is married to Nancy Lim. They have three children.

Minister McCallum’s knowledge of military history, or more precisely his limitations thereof, attracted comments in newspapers and on radio and TV across the country in late August, shortly before he sat down on Sept. 17 for an interview with Legion Magazine Editor Mac Johnston.

Q Your professional career has been characterized by two major changes in direction. First you had a distinguished career in academia, then you moved to the Royal Bank in a senior position. What prompted the shift to politics?

A Well, I guess my resumé indicates that I like to have a certain variety in life and I was approached by the prime minister’s people. So when that happens, you take it seriously. And I believe strongly in the values of the Liberal party, rather than the Canadian Alliance. And so you put those three together and I jumped into it. And, so far at least, I have no regrets.

Q The transition has been smooth?

A The only negative really is that I have less time with my family. That’s an occupational hazard of politics. But we manage that. And the life is exciting. I enjoy my colleagues and I’m absolutely thrilled and honoured to be minister of National Defence now.

Q The House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs report released this past spring noted that among North Atlantic Treaty Organization members Canada trails only Luxembourg and Iceland in its annual spending, which, at 1.1 per cent of gross domestic product, is about half the NATO average. At the same time, opinion polling shows public support for the Forces and defence spending is at its highest point in recent years. What’s your reaction to the committee recommendation that defence spending be increased annually over the next three years to between 1.5 and 1.6 per cent of GDP?

A Well, the government has increased defence spending. I think between last year and over the next five years, $5 billion over that period. So, we haven’t not increased defence spending at all. That is quite a lot of money. But, at the same time, we are stretched. I, as Defence minister, you won’t be surprised to hear, will certainly be asking for more resources.

I think just to do what we are currently doing but in a sustainable way, we need additional resources because we are stretching our people and we are forcing many of them to spend more and more time away from home. And this has implications for the family life of our men and women in the Canadian Forces and for stress levels and for attention issues.

And also we’ve been mortgaging our future because we have had some initiatives over the time of my predecessor to improve the quality of life of the Canadian Forces. And I think this is very positive and very much needed, but in part we finance that by raiding the capital budget.

So, I think to be sustainable both on the people side and on the capital side, we need more resources and I will certainly be making that case to my cabinet colleagues. I don’t know what we’ll get. I don’t control that. That is a government decision and governments have many, many demands on them. But I will be working as hard as I can to get more money for the Canadian Forces.

Q How does the defence update fit into that picture? Already, long before it is completed, it has drawn the ire of some prominent critics who advocate a full review leading to publication of a new defence white paper.

A Well, when I’ve presented the case to these critics, and I’ve met many of them as a part of the defence update over the course of the summer, I haven’t had one person who disagreed with me in terms of what we are currently doing. And the first and essential point is that we want to make sure that we are a part of this year’s budget process, which is October, November, December sometime. We don’t know for sure, but probably it’s likely that there will be a budget by December. I don’t know that for sure, but I’m guessing. In any event, I have to be prepared. So if we have a full-blown study now which would prevent us being a part of this year’s budget process, then another year will have gone by. And we have a need for money which is very strong.

So what we are doing is we are having a defence update. We have a Web site. Many Canadians have responded to questions that we’ve asked or presented their views on the military. And I’ve been holding a series of six, seven meetings so far with large groups of stakeholders, academics, former chiefs of the defence staff and others to discuss what we should do in defence. We have had, as well, many, many studies and recommendations in the recent past from the C.D. Howe Institute, from the Institute for Research on Public Policy, from the Senate, from the House. So we’re using all of that as input and proceeding with our update in such a way that we will be, without knowing how much money we’ll get, we’ll at least have a shot to get more money in the upcoming budget.

Now that doesn’t rule out or rule in a larger defence review and white paper at some future date. We haven’t made that decision yet. But if we were to have such a larger defence review, it would have to be part of a foreign policy review and there is no time for that between now and the next budget.

Q What response would you give those who fear that the update is a method of shoehorning the roles of the Forces into the current $11 billion budget? In other words, they fear that there’s not going to be any more money for defence.

A Well that is certainly not what I am arguing for. I am arguing for significant additional resources to make us long-run sustainable in what we are currently doing. I don’t think we can continue to do what we are doing with the budget that we have today because of the problems facing the people and the problems of mortgaging our future through a dwindling capital budget. That having been said, I can’t guarantee how much money, or even if there will be any money, because that is a decision for the prime minister, the finance minister, the cabinet and I will be one of a number of groups competing for the resources available. But all I can say is that I will make my case as forcefully as I can because I do believe we have a critical need at this juncture.

(EDITOR’S NOTE–The federal cabinet decided one week after this interview to delay presentation of the budget until the new year and instead produce a fiscal update in October.)

Q Turning to capital spending, you alluded to it earlier that sometimes the pot has been dipped into for other things. In the long term, how do you view it? Do you think that you need a plan to make it immutable, that capital spending is in one area and it’s a more secure, stable long-term approach? My experience as an observer is that it’s always a crisis, it’s left until the last moment or beyond in some cases.

A Well, we have to show some discipline, which is only appropriate in military circles, and not raid the capital budget. I think if there is a true emergency maybe one year and there are no other alternatives, that’s understandable. But to do this on a sustained basis so that capital spending continues to drop as a share of total spending and continues to be low relative to other countries, then if we take a long-term view, which we have to in defence, then it means maybe we’ll survive for a little while but things will continue to deteriorate if we don’t look after the future. So I don’t think we’d have a law saying that capital spending has to be a certain per cent of the total, but I think it would be our policy, which we would have to adhere to in a disciplined fashion.

Q Afghanistan. You were there. You met the troops. Are we winning the war on terrorism?

A Well, let me say something about Afghanistan before I get into that. I went to Afghanistan in July. And I can say as one who was then quite new to the job that my respect for the Canadian Forces took a quantum leap in Afghanistan. Because first of all the conditions under which they lived were absolutely terrible, temperatures over 50 degrees C, sand in people’s faces, no air conditioning or hardly any. And you know I found it pretty awful and I was only there for six hours, wandering around talking to soldiers, but they were there for six months and doing dangerous things.

And I spoke to some of the ordinary soldiers with no officers present and to a person they were pleased to be going home. But they’d been there almost six months and they were very proud of what they had achieved and very pleased that they had been there serving their country in the first combat operations we have had since the Korean War. And I heard from a number of third party sources, an American lieutenant-general, an American sergeant, some of the Afghani people, that they had indeed done a wonderful job. And so I think we should all be very proud of them.

And not just the army. I also visited (HMCS) Algonquin and we have in terms of hailings and boardings done way, way more than our share. If you look at all the ships in the area, we sent a third of our navy to the region in the early days. In the early days we were the fourth largest deployment of any country in Afghanistan. And our air force as well has done great work in surveillance and transport.

So this was really my first exposure to our active military…and it really made me proud and I think Canadians should be proud and it also increased my determination to do what’s right for the military and for Canada. So it was a turning point, if you like, in my experience, that visit to Afghanistan.

Are we winning the war on terrorism? I think we are doing quite well. It’s not the moment to declare victory. I think Afghanistan remains a very unstable place. There are important al-Qaeda leaders still at large. So I think we’ve made substantial progress, but I think this is going to be a struggle that goes on for many years.

Q What shape do you see Canada’s contribution taking in the future?

A Well, I think we can be proud of our contribution to the Afghanistan operation. I think at one point we had approximately 2,000 people there and we were the fourth largest contributor. On September 11th itself we welcomed I think a large number of airplanes, allowed them to land in our country and we assisted with the defence of North America with our CF-18s under Norad.

In the future, the decision on where to deploy and how many ultimately is the decision of the prime minister. But I think we remain strongly committed to work with the Americans in the war on terrorism. And so I would imagine that we will continue these efforts into the future.

And we have a number of different kinds of operations. The contribution in Afghanistan was a combat operation, our first since the Korean War. Our operation in Bosnia is more of a traditional peacekeeping/peacemaking operation. So I would imagine that we would do a mix of different kinds of overseas deployments.

Q You mentioned North American defence. Many observers believe that we are approaching a new era that will require closer military ties with the U.S. What types of cooperation or continental defence arrangements do you foresee?

A Well, certainly September 11th brought home our role with our American friends in defending the continent. But that’s nothing new. Since Ogdensburg in 1940 (the formation of the Permanent Joint Board on Defence), we have shared with the Americans the job of defending the continent. So it is not as if we are entering brand new territory. But I think the nature of the co-operation will change over time and what we are doing currently is we are having negotiations with the United States to work more closely together on the land and sea fronts to defend the continent.

I think there are two words that are important here. One word is saving lives and the other word is sovereignty. Because the idea of this is that if there were a major terrorist attack on one of our cities or even a natural disaster like an earthquake in Vancouver, if it were so large that we would want the Americans to come and help us, I think the Americans would come. But if we don’t have joint planning to anticipate these things, so we have an idea of who would do what if such and such a tragedy happens, the result would be chaos. So entering into this joint planning is necessary purely from the standpoint of saving Canadian and American lives.

But the second word, sovereignty. There are no standing troops under this group. This is a planning group. And so if, let us say, an earthquake were to happen in Vancouver, there’s the possibility that American troops would come into Canada to help. But only if the government of Canada of the day invited them to do so. And when they came in they would be under Canadian control, command. So I think, if you like to put it this way, we’re having our cake and eating it, too….Hopefully it will never have to be used. But it’s our job to plan for unpleasant things and hope that they won’t happen. So we’re both enhancing Canadian security and not giving up our sovereignty.

Q So, protecting our sovereignty. You don’t share the concerns of those who fear a loss of sovereignty?

A I am very concerned that we preserve and promote our sovereignty, but my belief is that the way in which we are negotiating this does that.

Q Canadian military history: Your candid comments recently that you were not taught many specifics about Canada’s contributions in World War II precipitated a spurt of comment nationwide. But it’s obvious that you are not alone, that indeed perhaps 90 or 95 per cent of Canadians may not have a very good grounding in military history. Has that experience led you to conclude that you can improve your grasp of our military history and do you feel that you, as minister, can play a role in helping to educate or encourage Canadians?

A Well, I’m glad you phrased it the way you did because you said I hadn’t learned much about military history in school, which is true. Some newspapers said I never heard of Dieppe, which is untrue. I certainly cannot claim to be an expert. I know the rudiments of it and I think it’s extremely important to our heritage because in many ways it’s the military history that made this country. I wish I knew more, but I am learning on the job. When I went to Dieppe I Iearnt a lot about Dieppe. When I went to Nijmegen, I learnt about Canada’s role in Holland. And actually my father was a part of the liberation of Holland and I went to the room where a Canadian general accepted the surrender of the Germans. And so part of it is learning in my job.

But I think in a way the little bit of embarrassment for me might become a positive for the country, because it drives home the point. You know it’s not as if I don’t have any education at all and I’m sure I’m not alone in having less than total knowledge, shall we put it, in this area. So it might encourage others to become more active in promoting the study of military history. I’ll give you one example of a good project. Historica is an association chaired by John Cleghorn and the executive director is Tom Axworthy. They have a project under way to improve Canadians’ understanding and knowledge of our military history and I can only wish them the greatest success in that.

Q But part of this, probably, is an offshoot of our political system where the provinces are responsible for education, so there’s no national core curriculum.

A And I think you can be quite sure that the version of Canadian history taught in Quebec is quite different from the version that is taught in British Columbia.

Q No doubt, no doubt. The Land Force Reserve Restructure. After a protracted period of tenuous relations between the Army and the Militia, the restructure seems to be moving in the right direction toward complementary roles to the relative satisfaction of all concerned. Growth goals are 15,500 for the army reservists by the spring of ’03 and 18,500 by ’06. There’s a fear that if these goals aren’t achieved relations between the army and the reserves will deteriorate again as the two sides fight for limited resources.

A We’re currently at 15,000. So I believe that we’re on schedule to hit the Phase 1 target. You know I obviously think that the reserves are a fundamental part of Canadian heritage. They’ve been there longer than the regulars. They’re a vital link between the Canadian Forces and communities right across the country. One of the first meetings I had was with John Eaton and many of his colleagues who work to promote the reserves with the Canadian business community in terms of employment stability.

How much we can do for the reserves depends in part on how much money we get overall. And so, as I say, I don’t know the answer to that yet, but I will be doing my utmost to persuade the government to provide more resources. And part of those resources I’m hoping will go to Phase 2 of the reserve restructuring.

Q The cost figure I’ve seen was $147 million.

A Yes, that’s the figure I’ve seen.

Q So, you are optimistic then?

A I’m guardedly, cautiously optimistic. I think that, as you said, public support for the military has never been higher. I think many Canadians look at the world and see it as a dangerous place and partly that is why support for the military is up. I think we saw that in Afghanistan. Three quarters of Canadians thought we were doing the right thing to be in Afghanistan and you saw the response of Canadians, not only to the troops coming home in Edmonton, but also to the four who were killed.

So in that sense, the timing might be quite good. But I still have to be cautious because the surplus is probably not as big this year as last year and there is no shortage of competing demands, whether it’s health care or education or environment. And so I will do my very best, but at the moment I can’t offer any guarantees since I simply don’t know.

Q But the reserves are part of the mix?

A The reserves are certainly part of the mix.

Q The last subject, peacekeeping. We’re now in the sixth year of our deployment in Bosnia. And that commitment has been cited as a major factor in the Canadian Forces high operational tempo. Has any consideration been given to withdrawing from Bosnia or reducing the size of the contingent to allow resources to be redirected?

A Well we have reduced it somewhat. I think it’s from 1,800 to 1,500. It’s a reduction of 300. And there was a NATO-wide reduction and that’s good news. It’s not because NATO’s pulling out, it’s because the region is becoming more stable and fewer are required. It’s still unstable but it’s less bad than it was.

Canada’s stated policy in what we try to do is first in, first out, so that we go in the early stages when it’s more difficult and then we allow others to do the longer term. Now that doesn’t always seem to work. And we do have commitments to NATO and if we didn’t have, if we withdrew from Bosnia, we would not be honouring our commitments unless we redeployed them to another NATO project. So the answer to your question then is I think we may see some gradual reduction in our commitment, but I don’t think we’ll be totally out of there soon.

Q Do you fear anything like the Cypress situation where we were there for 29 years?

A Yeah, I think this is a risk that one has to guard against and try to avoid. Sometimes once you’re there you have to find someone to replace you and if you can’t do that then it’s difficult to get out. But I think we have to try as much as possible to honour what I think is a good policy of, generally speaking, trying to be early in, early out, but understanding that in the real world, you can’t always do exactly what you want.

Q Like you I’ve been to Bosnia, there are some intractable situations.

A Yeah, yeah. I mean if we just left, if everyone just left, I think the region would explode again. So I don’t think it’s responsible to do that. But I think as the situation there improves we may see further gradual reductions.

Q Coming full circle to wrap up. When you mentioned the budget later this year, do you see that as being a mini-budget or more a full budget?

A Well I guess you’d have to ask the Finance Minister for a full answer. But the thinking around Ottawa seems to be that, and he hasn’t told me so this is not inside information, but people seem to think it will be probably a regular budget. And it could be into next year but most people seem to think around December, possibly November as the most likely time.

The Legion’s Position

When it comes to keeping an eye on the state of Canada’s military, The Royal Canadian Legion’s National Defence Committee advocates for a strong national defence force with proper funding, equipment, training and compensation for those who serve.

The committee, chaired by retired Lieutenant-General Lou Cuppens, shares the view that Canada’s security capabilities are woefully inadequate and that something must be done on an urgent basis to rectify a very dangerous situation.

The Legion believes most definitely that in the longer term a full defence review is necessary in order to create a more effective and balanced force structure. The more pressing need is that the Canadian Forces must be awarded more funding to increase its manpower to an effective and sustainable level of 60,000 as a minimum.

The defence committee and the Legion–in conjunction with like-minded defence organizations such as the Conference of Defence Associations–says it will continue to monitor the state of Canada’s military. It will also continue to support efforts to ensure Canada’s combat capabilities are equal to the tasks assigned by the government for current and future operations.

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