Defence figures suggest headquarters not cut as directed

Spending at National Defence headquarters was 27 per cent higher in the first half of the last budget year, despite the Harper government's insistence the department cut overhead, according to the most recent quarterly forecast by the parliamentary budget office.

Year-over-year comparisons reveal opposite of 'more teeth, less tail' spending pledge

Chief of Defence Staff Tom Lawson, left, and Defence Minister Peter MacKay, seen here announcing Lawson's appointment last August, are under pressure to trim defence budgets. New figures suggest headquarters spending hasn't been cut the same as front-line forces. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Spending on headquarters administration at National Defence was 27 per cent higher in the first half of the last budget year, despite the Harper government's insistence the department cut overhead, according to the most recent quarterly forecast by the parliamentary budget office.

The figures look at the first six months of the just-completed 2012-13 budget year, and compare actual expenses with previous years.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper repeatedly insisted last year that Defence have "more teeth and less tail," and reducing the administrative burden should be the department's No. 1 priority.

Yet the budget office forecast, posted online, shows the reverse is taking shape.

Spending on internal services and property management is forecast to rise, while there are major reductions to surveillance, known as situational awareness, readiness within the army, including training, international operations, and environmental stewardship.

A final tally for the last budget year won't be available until this August.

Comparisons 'misleading'

The budget office compiles its figures using reports from the Receiver General of Canada and the Finance Department.

A spokesman for National Defence said the department is a responsible steward of the public purse and increases in overhead spending can be cyclical.

"Year-over-year comparisons can be misleading as spending is not linear and priorities change," said Robert Hawgood, in an email statement.

He attributed the increase to "new funding received for the military pay system project."

But the overall trend seen in the budget office numbers is reflected separately in planning and priorities reports released last week by the Harper government, following the March 21 federal budget.

That set of documents shows the budget axe is expected to fall on civilian support positions that directly serve front-line or base operations through maintenance and planning, including a reduction of 34 jobs at military health services.

Former army commander, lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie, told the Harper government in a landmark 2011 report that National Defence needed to take an axe to its bloated headquarters in order to meet future obligations.

Leslie also recommended the number of private of contractors be slashed by 30 per cent, suggesting that all of his recommendations could save the deficit-minded government more than $1 billion at the Defence Department without affecting operational capability.

Despite that, figures put before Parliament last month show spending on consulting and professional services for the military rose by $500 million between 2009 and 2011.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay has promised over $450 million in reductions to contracting out, but the plan still puts Defence well over the starting benchmark established by Leslie's transformation report.

Resistant to change?

There has been resistance to following Leslie's advice, prompting Harper to write to MacKay last June with pointed instructions.

The letter, leaked to The Canadian Press last fall, sheds light on the divide between Harper's office, which has been determined to wrestle the deficit to the ground, and a defence establishment resolved to protect its budget gains since 2006.

The three-page letter set out what cuts the prime minister was prepared to accept and what wouldn't work.

"It is important that we reduce the current overhead in regular force military and civilian personnel, and in those activities that do not directly contribute to operational readiness," he wrote.

The country's top military commander, Gen. Tom Lawson, recently told a Senate committee there was almost no fat to cut within the military.

Leslie was specific in the kind of administration he wanted to see cut. He singled out the Ottawa-based National Defence headquarters for the axe and insisted that administration and support at bases across the country, or those jobs that directly impacted on troops, be preserved.

Federal budget planning documents show internal services — those at national headquarters — are expected to face reductions starting in 2014-15.

Those same records also outline planned civilian job cuts in areas such as health care, army equipment maintenance, support to air force units on deployed operations, contingency planning staff, and even the people who write course material for training.

The plans and priorities document for 2013-14, released late Thursday, commits to holding the number of full-time military members at 68,000, just shy of the Harper government's promised complement of 70,000.