For the military, is the cheque in the mail?
By John Gray, CBC.ca Reality Check Team | January 12, 2006 | More Reality Check
For the first time in years, if not decades, the problems of Canada's armed forces have managed to secure a place in the thinking of at least some of the country's political leaders.
And unless the next government forgets its promises to the military – as governments have often done in the past – the armed forces will actually emerge from the election in much better shape than they have been for years.
Even before the election was called, the Liberal government had racked up promises to expand both regular and reserve forces and to increase the military budget by $13 billion over the next five years.
In the course of the election campaign the Conservatives have promised to maintain the promises of the Liberals and add another $5.3 billion for military needs.
The Conservative promises range from three heavy-duty naval icebreakers to doubling the size of the Disaster Assistance Response Team, known as DART. Whether all that can be done for another $5.3 billion is another question.
As the military learned long ago, promises at election time are like saying the cheque's in the mail.
The problem is that in the past, both Liberal and Conservative politicians have found it too easy to take massive spending cuts out of the big budget items that are military manpower or military hardware.
For example, in 1987 the Mulroney Conservative government concluded after a long study that Canada should buy eight nuclear submarines to patrol Canada's coastal waters, including the Arctic.
Two years later, the nuclear sub program was quietly dropped. That meant that the review to replace the aging Oberon submarines had to begin all over again from scratch. It was another 10 years before Canada decided to buy four conventional submarines from Britain.
The problem with those subs, as Canadians discovered in 2004, was that they had been sitting in the water for a decade; 10 years in the water did not help the subs that already had problems.
It was the last of those jinxed subs, Chicoutimi, that caught fire on its maiden voyage to Canada, killing one submariner and endangering the lives of everyone aboard.
The footnote is that none of the subs has yet performed up to par. And because the government opted to buy relatively inexpensive non-nuclear vessels, they cannot patrol under the Arctic ice.
An even better known example of politics fouling military matters came during and after the 1993 election when the Liberals were eager for high visibility spending cuts.
There was no mystery about what was going to happen. As Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien said during he campaign, "I'll take one piece of paper, I'll take my pen, and I will write zero helicopters, Chrétien. That will be it, and I will not lose one minute of sleep over it."
And that was what happened. At the first cabinet meeting of the new government, Prime Minister Chrétien cancelled a $4.8-billion contract for 43 helicopters to replace choppers that were older than their pilots.
The first problem was a $478-million cancellation penalty. Five years later, the government bought 15 helicopters that were virtually the same as those cancelled.
After another six years, the government committed itself to $5 billion for a helicopter that had never flown and for which there were no other military orders.
After that it was hardly surprising a few years later that the newspapers were carrying stories about how military families had to rely on food banks because military salaries were so low.