Moncton Times & Transcript - September 3, 3007
Edmonton Journal - August 18, 2007
Calgary Herald - August 7, 2007
Hill Times - August 5, 2007
By Colin Kenny
If there were a national contest to determine the most active, robust, blood-stirring institution in Canada, the Canadian Forces would probably win – and deservedly so. While citizens are divided over the value of the current mission to Afghanistan, the image of Canadian soldiers hasn’t glowed more brightly for a long time.
On the other hand, if there were a contest for the most passive, drowsy, turgid institution in Canada, the Canadian Senate would probably win. I firmly believe that senators often produce more useful work than those elected folks over in the Commons. But I can’t deny that we had an image problem even before the prime minister began his campaign to discredit us.
Say, did I actually just have the audacity to claim that senators often produce more useful work than elected MPs? You want proof, you say.
Well, let’s get back to that blood-stirring institution I mentioned off the top – the Canadian Forces. Which institution has a more useful vision of Canada’s military – the Commons, or the Senate?
Our national government rules the country from the Commons. The primary role of that national government should be the physical protection of its citizens, plus the advancement of their interests at home and abroad. To do this effectively – particularly in times of domestic or international crises – a country needs a military with a little muscle on its bones.
Not everybody agrees. There are many Canadians who decry the use of military force generally. And given the number of stupid wars that have taken so many lives over the centuries, they have a point. But anyone who lives in the real world knows that tyrants don’t bend to diplomatic pressure unless there is the threat of force behind that pressure. We’re simply not going to help contribute to a better world by eviscerating our military.
I believe that the people who have been running our country for the past couple of decades – be they Liberals or Conservatives – have declined to invest reasonable amounts of public money into Canada’s military. I also think that this is likely to leave the physical, economic and cultural protection of future generations of Canadians largely to chance.
How, you ask, can I lump the Conservative government currently ruling the country with the preceding Liberal governments that allowed our military to slip into such steep decline? Aren’t the Conservatives out announcing that they intend to buy all kinds of expensive weaponry? Didn’t they extend the Canadian mission in Afghanistan – a mission that follows the sensible adage that threats to Canadians are best dealt with at a safe distance from our shores?
I acknowledge that “yes” is the honest response to both these questions.
But the greater truth is that Canada currently spends about half of what reasonable (and peace-loving) countries spend on defence, and the Conservative government’s announced budgetary planning would do almost nothing to change that.
Countries like the Netherlands spend about two percent of Gross National Product on their armed forces. That’s pretty well the norm for mid-sized industrialized countries that use their military judiciously, rather than aggressively.
Back in 1991 Canada spent 1.6 percent of GNP on defence. We’re now down to about 1.1 percent. Although the long-overdue “Canada First Defence Strategy” has yet to be released, spending options have been leaked and none of them would change that percentage by more than a hair.
Yes, the “new” government has set aside money for trucks, helicopters, transport planes and replenishment ships, and it has purchased tanks for Afghanistan. But nearly all of these are purchases that even the frugal Liberals would have to have made.
Meanwhile, the transformation and growth of the Canadian Forces promised under the stewardship of Gen. Rick Hillier is in disarray. Transformation can only take place if a lot of experienced, insightful officers are giving it their full attention. With Afghanistan at the centre of everything, this can’t happen.
Growing the Forces requires more than recruitment – it requires the training of recruits. With a rotation in Afghanistan every six months, a large part of the army is either in Afghanistan, returning from Afghanistan, or preparing to go to Afghanistan. That leaves a shortage of experienced personnel to train newcomers.
Growth and transformation will require a lot more personnel, more equipment, and most importantly, more money. If Prime Minister Steven Harper doesn’t come through with the money, he is going to leave Gen. Hillier and his hamstrung plans for Canada’s military out to dry.
Of course the Afghanistan mission is sucking vital funds away from the rebuilding initiative. The price tag for Afghanistan – without salaries –will undoubtedly be well over $4 billion by February 2009.
But while Afghanistan certainly contributes to the problem of rebuilding Canada’s military, it is by no means the crux of the problem. The crux of the problem is lack of political will. This lack of will is based on what various national parties think they can get away during election campaigns.
One minority party – the NDP – is naïve, bordering on pacifist. The other – the Bloc Québeçois – would undoubtedly be willing to spend plenty on creating viable armed forces for Quebec, but not for Canada.
The Liberals are not pacifists. But Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin spent a decade fighting debt on the back of the Canadian Forces, and Stéphane Dion has shown no sign that he considers military reconstruction a national priority.
The Conservatives have been clever, which certainly isn’t the same as being honest or honourable.
By default, they have already won the votes of most people who pay attention to military issues – people who believe that sovereign states need a reasonable military capacity to protect citizens against foreign and domestic threats.
These people may well understand that there isn’t much of a chance that this government intends to spend the money required to bring Canada’s military capacity up to respectable, Dutch-like standards. But what other party are they going to vote for? At least the Conservatives make the occasional gesture.
But the Conservatives have no intention of alienating that vast array of Canadian voters who believe that our nation should be peaceful, and friendly, and very unlike those war-mongering Americans. So the government refuses to commit to more than token increases in military expenditures – it will honour its election commitment to spending approximately $1 billion a year over and above what its Liberal predecessors were spending.
Most, if not all of that money will be eaten up by Afghanistan.
Which brings us back to my mention of the Senate, which I claimed sometimes does things better than the Commons does.
One thing the Senate does better is not playing these sleight-of-hand political games. Being (despicably) unelected, it doesn’t have to. Nor, admittedly, does it have to balance military spending against other kinds of spending that voters demand.
So the Senate can be honest. The Senate – through our Committee on National Security and Defence – can tell you that if this government’s military spending plans continue on course until 2011-12, Canada’s defence budget will be about $21 million in that budgetary year.
It can also add up the basic needs of the military by then – without any frills – and inform you that a more realistic budget for a reasonably-funded armed forces would be more than $30 billion – perhaps $35 billion – in 2011-12.
And I can tell you that our Committee came to that conclusion (a) in a bipartisan, unanimous way, and (b) without taking the cost of the extended Afghanistan mission into consideration.
Nobody likes this kind of ugly honesty (which may be part of the reason that we senators have such a lousy reputation). But, like it or not, Canadians deserve to know what no Canadian political party seems brave enough to tell them: that if Canada is going to be prepared for the foreign and domestic crises that are likely to come at us, that preparedness is going to cost quite a bit more money than the politicians are pretending it is.
That’s the message from the Senate. Hey, just trying to earn our keep.
Colin Kenny is Chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org