Parliament should scrutinize, not have a say, on military deployments

What role should Parliament play in military deployments? The question has come up again owing to the Trudeau government’s pledge to deploy the Canadian Armed Forces on a UN peace operation.

Although they only held votes in the House of Commons for combat missions, the Conservatives are demanding a vote for this new operation. The NDP, meanwhile, tends to call for votes whenever there’s a whiff of controversy or danger surrounding a deployment. The Liberals have never been strong advocates of holding such votes, though they did hold one earlier this year for their revamped mission to Iraq.

Bureaucrats may have warned the Trudeau government that extending this practice to peace operations could unduly constrain the executive in the future, and the Liberals are doubtlessly aware that they have a limited number of sitting days to devote to their legislative agenda. Given the success they had in using a wholly symbolic vote to box in the Conservatives on the Paris Accord, however, we shouldn’t be surprised if the Prime Minister’s Office decides that a vote on the UN operation could be equally advantageous.

Pundits, for their part, are in favour of having the Commons vote on the new mission. There’s no risk that the government will lose the vote owing to the Liberal majority, the official opposition has been calling for it, and asking to House to support military deployments gives us a warm and fuzzy democratic feeling, despite the fact that it’s not binding or necessary. (Bonus: the vote makes good political theatre on a slow news day.)

The votes come with downsides, however. When the opposition votes in favour of a military deployment, their ability to hold the government to account is dulled afterwards. Dulled doesn’t mean it disappears, but it makes the opposition’s job harder; the government can use the vote to deflect questions and criticisms, and it’s more difficult to critique something you previously supported. As a result, votes tend to end parliamentary debate about a military deployment until it’s time to hold another one.

The government can also use the votes to sow confusion about who should be held to account if the mission runs into difficulties. Rather than accepting responsibility for the decision, the government can declare that it was simply following the ‘will of the House’. A crafty government, moreover, can use the votes to give the impression that Parliament is responsible for the decision, laundering the constitutional accountability of ministers through the legislature (see chapter 3 here.)

These concerns are lessened when the opposition votes against a deployment. When the government-opposition dynamic is respected, the opposition is better placed to question the mission and the government has a harder time trying to launder its responsibility and accountability.

Yet this is still not ideal. The vote forces the opposition parties to express a binary choice for or against a mission. In many cases, the issues at stake are more complex. For example, the opposition may support the mission’s objectives, but not how it’s being undertaken or the risks that the government is accepting.

As well, the government can use the votes to make the opposition look bad. If a vote is held on the new mission, chances are the government will be hoping the Conservatives will vote against it, allowing the Liberals to decry their lack of support for UN peace operations. With polls showing widespread support for the return to ‘peacekeeping’, this would be an attractive wedge issue for the Liberals –unless the operation goes sour, of course.

In spite of these negatives, the allure of holding military deployment votes is evident. Votes allow parliamentarians to express themselves on a matter of national importance and they raise awareness of what the Canadian military will be doing abroad.

Arguably, though, our focus on votes is taking attention away from other reforms that would give a Parliament larger role when the Canadian Armed Forces are sent overseas. The key to improving parliamentary involvement in matters of war and peace doesn’t lie in pretending that the House is a decision-making body. Rather we should leverage Parliament’s primary role when it comes to matters of executive competence: scrutinizing.

Here are four steps we could take to enhance parliamentary scrutiny of military operations:

First, when the government has decided to deploy the military on an operation, the Prime Minister or Minister of National Defence should be required to provide the House with the mission objectives, anticipated threats and risks, the operation’s expected duration, details of which units that will be deployed and their rules of engagement, the sustainability of the deployment and its effect on training and readiness, rough order of magnitude mission costs, and the legal justification of the operation. A substantive take note debate should then be held based on this information.

Next, the Standing Committee on National Defence (NDDN) should be tasked with overseeing the mission. Although it is good that senior commanders brief the media on the mission’s progress, appearing before NDDN alongside their minister should be their priority. The committee could also call upon outside experts and other witnesses to hear various perspectives and concerns about the mission. NDDN should then periodically report on the operation to the Commons, and the House should hold additional take note debates to discuss the committee’s findings and further question the government.

Third, once a mission has ended, the Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence should be tasked with reviewing the operation and producing a report on lessons learned. Benefiting from a less partisan and hurried working environment (in principle), the Senate committee report could provide Parliament’s assessment of the mission’s successes and failure, and what could be done to improve future operations.

Finally, the government could be required to respond to the Senate committee’s report, and include a summary of its own, internal lessons learned exercise.

Of course, none of these recommendations are incompatible with holding a vote. But the unintended consequences of holding a vote could arguably affect how well these other measures would fare. An opposition that votes in favour of the mission may be less rigorous in scrutinizing the operation at the committee level, while a divided House would likely make NDDN’s oversight a baldly partisan effort.

Either way, our focus on votes isn’t helping us find ways to veritably deepen Parliament’s involvement in holding the government to account for military operations. Instead of demanding that the House have a symbolic say on a predetermined government decision, let’s help Parliament scrutinize the executive.

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