Tony Battista is the Chief Executive Officer for the Conference of Defence Associations and CDA Institute. Christopher Cowan is a Research Analyst and Editor at the CDA Institute. He has a Master’s in Strategic Studies (Advanced) from the Australian National University and a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Political Studies from Queen’s University.
It is a good time to be interested in Canadian security and defence matters. The Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence recently released two reports on Canadian defence policy and the Trudeau Government’s own Defence Policy appears to be following soon. In fact, the Minister of National Defence, The Honourable Harjit Sajjan, made it clear during a speech to the Conference of Defence Associations and the CDA Institute on 3 May that the Defence challenge is a major one that the government is serious in wanting to address.
But all too often the fervor that accompanies significant government announcements on Canadian defence policy fades quickly. This lack of sustained engagement on defence issues by both elected officials and the Canadian public has led to the chronic under-funding and under-equipping of the Canadian Armed Forces.
There are several reasons for why defence issues occupy so little of the average Canadian’s time. Perhaps the most important is that Canada is lucky. It is located far from global trouble spots and borders the world’s most powerful country, that happens to be our closest ally. Arguably, there are no existential threats to Canada, and the threats we tend to worry about are to the broader international order that has allowed Canada to prosper. But these threats are not immediate and rarely impact the daily lives of Canadians. As Kim Nossal succinctly puts it in his book Charlie Foxtrot: “…we Canadians do not need to take defence seriously.”
This was not always the case. As Kim Nossal notes, there was a consensus between the Liberal and Progressive Conservative Parties on Canadian defence policy during the Cold War. The two parties shared a common view of Canada’s security environment and had similar approaches to dealing with its challenges. This bipartisanship broke down with the fracturing of Canada’s political party system in the 1990s, taking with it the ability of the Government of Canada to devote the resources necessary to adequately fund and equip the Canadian Armed Forces in the long-term.
The breakdown of bipartisanship, combined with Canadians’ lack of interest in defence, has created a political environment where defence policy is under-discussed and failures in defence project management go unpunished, with only lukewarm desire to fix the problems in a serious way. Mishandled defence procurement projects are used for political point-scoring, and precious defence dollars are often either wasted or deferred. Yet, since defence is not a priority for most Canadians, governments of all political stripes have realized that their electoral fortunes do not turn on defence issues and prioritize other issues instead.
Nevertheless, for Canada to continue to thrive in an ever-changing and complex international security environment, defence issues need to be taken seriously by both those in power and the average Canadian. What’s needed is a sustained national dialogue on defence policy and defence issues that frames Canada’s security interests in a way that engages both politicians and the public. The recommendations contained in the Senate reports make important statements in this regard.
The foundation of a successful defence policy is the clear articulation of the country’s interests and the desired political outcomes that will flow from the implementation of the policy. However, the world is a complex and ever-changing place, and these interests and outcomes are rarely static. Thus, it is critical that they be subject to regular, non-partisan review for Canada to be able to quickly adapt and shift as needed. But clearly, this does not mean that successive governments need to change the defence procurement strategies and commitments every few years. Defence procurement, especially those for major capabilities must be planned, funded and sustained in the long-term. Recommendation 7 in the Senate first report—which calls for a review of Canadian defence policy cyclically—is a step in the right direction in this regard, and does not diminish the importance of long-term procurement strategies. In fact, it reinforces these strategies, thus moving them away from electoral platform promises!
However, defence policy cannot be successfully implemented without support from the public. Making sure the public is informed on defence issues—which can be complex and counter-intuitive at times—requires a sustained public discussion on Canada’s role in the world, its domestic and international interests, and the role the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) should play in achieving the political objectives that flow from those interests. This discussion must include the Government of Canada and those who have expertise in defence issues outside of government. If the public does not agree with one party’s vision of Canadian defence policy (including levels of spending) then it is up to them to make their voices heard, including through the ballot box.
It is critical that Parliament become more engaged with defence issues as well; several of the Senate Committee recommendations speak directly to building a broad, mature dialogue. Raising Parliamentarians’ awareness of defence issues can be achieved through increased contact with the defence community, as well as through debate in the House of Commons and the Senate, where the Government of Canada strives to achieve a degree of consensus on security and defence matters. This would facilitate the long-term sustainment of our security and defence goals as well as the CAF.
It would be naïve to say that achieving a cross-party consensus and bringing about a sustained national dialogue on defence are easy feats. Nonetheless, it is crucial that Canadian defence issues be brought into the mainstream of Canada’s political consciousness more than once every four years. The CDA, with its more than 40 member associations and its research arm, the CDA Institute, will continue to do their part in supporting that discussion – fully and broadly. Educating Canadians and getting them to discuss these issues with one another (and their political representatives) is an important step in ensuring Canada’s future security. The incoming Defence Policy is an excellent starting point for that discussion to bind both Canadians and our Government to commitments that we all support. It is time.