Bipartisanship, minority government, and defence affairs

I had a chance to exchange emails with Carl Meyer of Embassy Magazine about how defence affairs have been handled by the Conservative minority government. 

Here are a few thoughts on the matter (totally unscientific and speculative, of course). 

Those who read Andrew Potter over at Maclean’s will see some similarities with what he’s said about how the CPC has managed the Commons since 2006.

1) The consensus between the Liberals and Conservatives

with respect to the overall direction of defence policy has produced a

fair degree of consistency and reduced potential areas of


2) We see this most plainly with the Afghan mission. The votes held

in the Commons (facilitated by the Manley Commission and the Liberals)

have helped protect the Conservatives from a good deal of criticism. In

fact, they kept Afghanistan a bipartisan issue, which diminished the

number of critiques that might have been levelled by a more aggressive

official opposition. Also, it ensured that the mission was essentially off the

table during the past two elections. In that sense, involving the Commons

and the Liberals in major Afghan decisions placed the mission ‘above

politics’, and a result, largely beyond scrutiny (and hence robust

accountability). We’re seeing the same thing happen with the current Libya


3) The one exception is, of course, the Afghan detainee issue. Here again,

though, once the Liberals agreed to the special committee of MPs and the

supervision of a former SCC judge, the issue was hidden from view. It may

come back later this year, but it helped shelter the Conservative

government over the past two minority governments.

Had the Conservatives been a majority government, they could have blocked the creation of the special committee. This, in turn, would have led the Liberals and the other opposition parties, to continue hammering the CPC on the detainees and calling for the creation of a public inquiry. 

4) In terms of defence spending, the popularity of the CF (which the

Conservatives leveraged quite well), the casualties in Afghanistan, and

the Liberals’ own military budget increases ensured that this issue also

garnered the support of all the major parties. Even the NDP is on board

with projected defence budget increases until 2014-2015.

5) Procurements have been a bit more controversial, as the F35 shows. The

Conservatives were most vulnerable here. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they

were caught off-guard by the negative reactions to the F35. They

had made previous procurement announcements (including of sole-sourced

contracts) without much comment from the other parties. I suppose they

underestimated the degree to which the F35’s price tag would change the equation, as

would the plane’s primary utility as an expeditionary war-fighting platform.

6) So, I think the Conservatives have been

emboldened by their minority government situation. Combined with the

Reform Party-inspired decision to bring military missions before the

Commons, the Liberal leadership’s support of the CPC’s policies sheltered the

Conservative government from strong criticism on the defence file. 

In fact, the Liberals might have been bolder in their critiques had the

Conservatives been a majority government.

Simply put, the emphasis on bipartisanship with respect to Afghanistan and the

minority situation emboldened the Conservatives because it

gave them an excuse to have their major decisions vetted by the Liberals. In

effect, the minority government and an acquiescent LPC laundered difficult

decisions that could have been made by the executive alone, and for which

the executive could have taken all the responsibility.

The notable exception is the F35, where the Conservatives have exercised their discretion and the Liberals opted to criticize more aggressively, as one would expect the official opposition to do.  

This line of thinking builds on what I argued in my March 2010 IRPP Study “Accountability for National Defence” (PDF):

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