Davies: Which Way to go in Defence Exports?

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)


The federal government is once again mired in a political muddle about defence exports – this time the aborted sale of utility helicopters to the Philippines.  Then there is the recurring debate about armoured vehicle exports to Saudi Arabia.  The government has consistently struggled with these files but appears to be finally trying to develop a response of sorts.  As the Ottawa Citizen‘s David Pugliese reported in Postmedia on 14 February 2018, it now plans to revise its export assistance to Canadian industry by reducing the emphasis on the defence and security sector.

This is the first substantive divergence by the Trudeau Liberals from the Harper government’s 2014 Defence Procurement Strategy, which was very much aimed at supporting development of a stronger domestic defence industry as an engine of national economic growth.  Defence industries tend to operate across a wide range of high technology disciplines and employ proportionally more highly skilled, well-paid technicians, technologists, engineers, scientists and other professionals than most other Canadian manufacturing sectors.  In fact, they are exactly the kinds of enterprises that the current Finance Minister’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth has identified as being key to the country’s future prosperity.  Consequently, the government’s move away from active support to defence and security exports has material consequences for its wider economic development strategy, but so far there is no sign that it has a clear view of how it intends to compensate for this decision.

To be sure, defining the national interest here is a difficult exercise in balancing a broad range of considerations, including economics, human rights, global security and many other factors – and the government has clearly been trying to find such a balance.  The process, clearly, has been equally ad hoc and at no time has the kind of rational, broad-based narrative needed in a public discussion of this kind been articulated by ministers.  Instead, the government has effectively ceded the public debate to advocates of the single aspect of human rights.  That issue is indeed important, but it is a profound disservice to the nation for this or any other single element of this complex question to dominate debate or unduly sway political decisions – especially given the potential economic impact.

As it struggles through this complex problem, the government surely must rue the fact that its predecessors over the years have not sought fit to develop a coherent defence industrial strategy for Canada.  A number of other countries do have such strategies and supporting policies that connect national economic development, technology development, defence-related export, foreign policy (including human rights concerns) and defence policy objectives in a way that is designed to deliver long-term value to the nation.  Among other things, it provides a sound and consistent basis for making decisions and supporting informed public debates.

In every case, the process took years to develop the level of political, industrial and public consensus needed for the strategies to be durable and effective, so this kind of solution is not available to the Trudeau government (although it could certainly benefit the country and future governments by starting the ball rolling).  Therefore, it will need to quickly find a way to get beyond its hitherto ad hoc, reactive approach and look systematically at how – or whether – defence exports should figure in its economic development strategy.

At the moment, an outside observer can but see the shadows of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in her conversation with the Cheshire Cat – with the government not knowing where it wants to go, uncertain about what defence and security industry support or encouragements would be appropriate to obtain what economic returns, and unable to rationally articulate its intentions in a persuasive way.

Charles Davies is a CDA Institute Research Fellow.

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