Harper still overspending on defence

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Despite shifts, Harper still overspending on Defence

by Steven Staples

Embassy News, February 26, 2014


It was an uncomfortable moment. People cringed when they heard her say it. But, looking back, she was absolutely right.

It happened quite a few years ago now, just as the big defence budget increases started kicking in after the 2005 federal budget—the budget that brought in the largest five-year defence spending increases “in a generation,” as the defence minister of the day described it.

A Canadian senator who was well known for his vocal defence of the Canadian Forces was addressing a seminar at a downtown Ottawa hotel. The event was organized by an advocacy group run by retired military brass, and the ballroom was filled with defence department officials, right-leaning academics, military contractors and lobbyists. It was a friendly crowd.

“Who thinks the military needs more money?” the senator asked, leaning into the podium. Some hands went up, but not as many and certainly not as enthusiastically as he had hoped. Sounding frustrated, he devoted the rest of his speech to urging pro-defence groups to be much more vocal in calling for more money for the military.

When he was finished, a young woman in military uniform nervously went to the microphone in the centre of the room to ask a question. “But sir, what happens if we have too much money? There is only so much the military can handle, and we don’t have enough people.”

You could feel the air being sucked out of the room at this point. “You can’t just pump money into the system all at once—a lot of it will be wasted,” she said.

The hawkish senator would have none of it. He said her remark showed a naïveté about politics. “Look, if you want 50 dollars, you don’t ask for 50 dollars—you ask for 100 dollars. Get it?”

In the years that followed, the groups took his advice and demanded that 100 dollars, as he advised. After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, US military spending jumped, and so did the pressure for Canada to follow suit. By the time Paul Martin was prime minister, all of the parties supported his big defence boost; even the typically dovish Jack Layton of the NDP boasted of his party’s backing for more military spending.

When elected, Stephen Harper undid almost every one of Paul Martin’s policies except his defence spending increases. In fact, Prime Minister Harper went even further, and with the war in Afghanistan raging, defence spending was increased by more than 10 per cent per year at times. Canada was the 14th highest military spender in the world and the sixth highest in real dollars among the 28-country NATO alliance.

When it finally reached its peak in 2009-10 at more than $20 billion, Canada was spending more on the military than at any time since the Second World War, including the height of the Cold War, when we were locked in a struggle with the old Soviet Union, according to defence spending expert Bill Robinson. Did Osama bin Laden pose the same threat to Canada as the nuclear-armed Ruskies?

But then, just as that soldier had predicted after the senator’s speech, the military found that it couldn’t spend all of the money being shoved toward it, and fiscal years were ending without spending all of the money they had been allocated.

No wonder: the Afghanistan combat mission finally ended, and the list of procurement fails started to pile up: shipborne helicopters, stealth fighters, close combat vehicles, Arctic warships, drones, search and rescue planes, transport trucks.

Last week Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said he was going to withhold $3.1 billion over four years, money the military would likely be unable to spend on equipment, given the procurement delays. He argued that the military’s budget was not being cut. “We’re not reducing spending on the armed forces,” Flaherty told reporters. “There is no point in having money there to spend, if they can’t spend it, which they can’t.”

This is a reasonable move, but Flaherty could go further and begin scaling back defence spending to pre–Sept. 11, 2001 levels again. The 2000-01 defence budget was $11.876 billion, or $15.835 billion in 2013 dollars. So the current $19.047-billion budget could be reduced by at least $3.2 billion per year. This would mean that an additional $3.2 billion could be used for job creation, and avoiding punishing cuts to social services.

The truth is that the government, and the opposition parties, need to come to grips with the fact that Canada is dramatically overspending on national defence. Our challenges have changed in the last 12 years, and now it’s our economic security, not military security, that poses the greatest threats to Canadians. The government needs to scrap its current defence plans, set new priorities, and use the billions of dollars in available resources to boost the economy and preserve our social programs.

Tags: Afghanistan, Arms industry, Canada, Canadian defence policy, Canadian foreign policy, Canadian military mission in Afghanistan, Canadian military spending, Defence lobby, Defence policy, Defence spending, Department of National Defence, F-35, Joint Strike Fighter, Military procurement, Military spending, Rideau Institute, Steven Staples