Cost is one question — but partisan politics may undo Liberal defence plan

It is Parliament and not the bottom line that may be the undoing of this week's much-hyped Liberal defence policy.

Without bipartisan consensus in Parliament, defence policy will be short-lived, expert says

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, stands with Minister of National Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, centre, and Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance as he holds a press conference at NATO headquarters in May. The Liberals have just unveiled a new defence plan meant to unfold over years. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

There was a very instructive moment this week amid all of the political messaging, applause and back-slapping involved in the arrival of the long-awaited Liberal foreign policy statement and defence review.

It happened when Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was asked, in front of a sea of uniforms, to guarantee his exhaustive, occasionally thoughtful piece of policy homework would survive beyond the life of the current government.

The report, after all, is supposed to be a 20-year document.

His response was somewhat awkward: "We as a government and future governments owe it to the Canadian Armed Forces that we fully fund the Canadian Armed Forces on a long-term footing."

Much of the post-policy coverage has, justifiably, focused on fiscal skepticism.

Do the Liberals have the money? If so, where is it? Will it add to the deficit? If so, by how much?

The answers were: Yes. Stay tuned. No. And see the previous answer.

The skepticism, however, has deep and tangled roots, some of them fresh in terms of the string of broken Liberal campaign promises; others stretch back decades where history is littered with well-crafted — and some not-so-well-crafted — defence policy plans.

The Trudeau government may have given Canadians some crisp, well-honed ideas and fact-based conclusions in the report about a world in turmoil, many of which run contrary to what they campaigned on.

But what Sajjan's rather tentative call to arms indirectly exposed is perhaps the biggest failing of this latest endeavour and maybe even the ones that preceded it: The absence of clear, unambiguous, long-term political support.

So, forget about the budget for a minute. Think Parliament.

"Unless you do get a consensus, some kind of bipartisan consensus, which I think is possible, then this policy is going to be very short-lived," said Richard Cohen, a retired military officer who served in the Canadian Forces and the British Army.

He should know.

A member of the military looks on as Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan unveils the Liberal government's long-awaited vision for expanding the Canadian Armed Forces Wednesday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

As an adviser to former defence minister Peter MacKay, Cohen was one of the people who helped craft the ephemeral 2008 Conservative defence strategy document.

That 20-year plan survived a little less than 20 months from the time it was introduced, said Dave Perry, of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

The Conservative plan was sacrificed in a bid for a balanced budget, but in light of the toxic politics of the day succeeding governments, regardless of their political stripe, would have had a tough time swallowing even the more palatable portions.

The survival of this plan will depend on "whether there is cross-parliamentary and cross-partisan support," Perry said.

The two major overseas deployments in recent years have been either politically divisive — think Afghanistan — or languished in misunderstood obscurity, such as Iraq.

Talk of 'hard power' from Freeland

The defence minister wasn't the only one in the spotlight this week.

Behind Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland's measured, sometimes chirpy, delivery of a major policy speech on Tuesday were some stark words and reality.

"To put it plainly: Canadian diplomacy and development sometimes require the backing of hard power," she said in her speech.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland delivering a speech on Canada's foreign policy future in the House of Commons Tuesday. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

The notion that Canada can no longer be entirely comfortable under the U.S. security umbrella is remarkable in its sobriety and significance.

Yet, it was politics as usual in the House of Commons after Sajjan delivered his plan.

"The previous government announced a lot of things, didn't put the kind of money forward in stable, long-term predictable ways, and that's what we've done," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said answering opposition criticism.

What the Liberals haven't done is the kind of painful, political bridge-building that may be necessary in times that they themselves acknowledge are extraordinary, said Cohen.

"Neither [opposition] party is very supportive of the end result it seems to me," he said.

Building bipartisan consensus

The Liberals would argue that both the Conservatives and NDP had their chance during the months of public consultations held during development of the policy.

And, in fairness, neither opposition party has shown any inclination towards ratcheting back the partisan rhetoric.

But Cohen argues the government has an extraordinary opportunity to take politics out of national defence and build some kind of long-term consensus in the implementation of its policy.

"I think this is a time when parties are more or less aligned on what they see in terms of our national goals. It is the means they are arguing about," he said. "I think it's possible to come to a consensus, but who knows, maybe it's too late."

Cohen said an overhaul of the House of Commons and senate defence committees, or creating some other kind of body, might provide a venue for bipartisan co-operation.

The almost-established parliamentary oversight committee on national security — promised by the Liberals during the election — could have provided such a bipartisan forum.

But defence is not included within its already sprawling mandate.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.