Defence and Election 2011: Initial Thoughts

The Conservative Party of Canada now holds a majority of the seats in the House of Commons. 

How might their majority standing affect their defence policies? Here are my initial thoughts.

1) Defence spending: On the one hand, a majority government will give the CPC an opportunity to further augment defence expenditures. They will arguably need to do so if they want to close the gap that has appear between the defence program found in the Canada First Defence Strategy and projected defence budgets. On the other hand, an increase in defence spending doesn’t mesh well with a commitment to balance the books. The increase in defence spending has been an important contributor to the growth in government. Accordingly, it will be difficult for the CPC to eliminate federal deficits while increasing defence spending, unless the government makes important cuts to other discretionary federal program spending. So, it is hard to tell where defence spending might be headed. 

2) Continental defence: A majority government gives the CPC a clear opportunity to expand the North American Defence Command  (NORAD) as part of the planned Canada-US security perimeter agreement. An expanded NORAD might include greater cooperation between the two countries on land and at sea. As importantly, a Conservative majority could lead to a formal NORAD and Canadian role in the American ballistic missile defence (BMD) system. Canada is currently the only member of NATO that does not support BMD. If the CPC wants to change this stance, they are now perfectly placed to do so. And if they announce an acceptance of BMD early in their mandate, the issue will probably be forgotten by the next election.

3) The F-35 and shipbuilding: I suspect that the CPC’s victory means that the Canada will go ahead with the F-35 procurement. However, even the Conservatives may have second thoughts if the cost of the aircraft climb too high. At this point, though, I doubt that the price will reach an utterly unacceptable level. Also, once a contract has been signed, the F-35 purchase will probably disappear from public debates, provided that there are no major technical difficulties with the aircraft, unexpected delays, or later cost increases. I also expect that the national shipbuilding program will go forward. Here too, though, costs may interfere, making the planned shipbuilding program far less impressive than currently suggested. The Navy may still be facing a bleak future. 

4) Afghanistan: Rumor has it that PM Harper has grown wary of the mission in Afghanistan. If so, that may mean that Canada will not redeploy to a significant combat mission in Afghanistan under his leadership. That said, my sense is that the Canadian government will ultimately follow NATO trends. Above all, Canada will look for signals from the United States. If it seems that the US is planning to stay for the long haul and asks allies to send more forces to the south, I wouldn’t rule out a new combat mission for the CF. But if the US begins to gradually withdraw, Canada is unlikely to stay. 

5) Parliamentary votes: The CPC made it a matter of principle to involve the Commons in military deployment decisions. Although they have been uneven on this score (adjusting parameters of the Commons’ involvement as was convenient), I expect that they will continue the practice. Why rob themselves of the privilege of declaring that they are following the “will of the House” when deploying the CF on controversial missions, after all? In a majority government, though, these votes will be rubber stamps that will confuse perceptions of the existing roles and responsibilities of the executive and Commons in these matters. I do hope, however, that these votes will allow the NDP robustly scrutinize the government, thereby improving accountability for matters of national defence.  

6) Defence consensus: Finally, I think it is fair to say that the consensus between the government and official opposition on matters of national defence is now at an end. While many see this as unfortunate, I don’t. I think it will improve the national defence debate by broadening the marketplace of ideas about Canada’s military affairs. 

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