Staples op-ed: Prime Minister Chretien, don’t listen to Bush Administration

The next federal budget is the battleground for the future of Canada’s military spending.

But like the old saying goes, the truth is often the first casualty of war. Canadians and decision-makers need a serious reality check to ensure that they have all the facts before making any decisions.

In recent months, the defence lobby has fielded an army of retired generals, academics, and CEOs to convince the Chrétien government to push $1-billion to $2-billion a year into the Department of National Defence’s (DND) coffers.

But the debate is so clouded by spin that it is even difficult to agree on Canada’s current level of spending. For example, defence lobbyists claim that Canada’s military spending is as low as Luxembourg’s. Of course this isn’t the case; but by using a misleading model comparing military spending as a percentage of GDP rather than real dollars, the defence lobby confuses the debate right from the start.

In fact, according to DND, Canada’s estimated military spending for 2002-2003 will be more than $12.3-billion. In actual dollars, this makes Canada the sixth highest military spender amongst NATO’s 19 members, and the 16th largest in the world. With cost-overruns and a war against Iraq, the final bill for the military could cost more than $13-billion.

Some members of the public will accept that lobbyists will use misleading statistics to support their arguments, even if it stretches the truth a wee bit. After all: boys will be boys.

But in May, members of the influential Commons Defence Committee took leave of their senses and issued a report calling for a whopping 50 per cent increase in military spending from its current 1.1 per cent of GDP to 1.5 or 1.6 per cent of GDP in only three years. In real dollars this would require an additional $6-billion of government revenues to be devoted to the military by 2005.

But wait, there’s more: the report said that the government should keep increasing military spending upward to the NATO average of 2.5 per cent of GDP. This would take the military budget to nearly $28-billion higher than any time in history.

The demand for such large increases may be a cynical negotiating ploy on the Commons Defence Committee’s part, but Canadians expect Parliament’s committees to be more responsible in their multi-billion-dollar recommendations. Who can blame Prime Minister Chrétien for not taking these guys seriously?

The Chrétien government is rightly suspicious of the military and the defence lobby. The Prime Minister feels that more spending now would garner little additional public support and would reward a history of mismanagement inside DND.

Take, for example, the defence lobby’s call for more money to buy a fleet of heavy transport aircraft such as Boeing’s C-17s. These $200-million planes could have been bought years ago from the existing budget. Instead, the military wasted $750-million on used leaky British submarines that have no clear purpose. Even more, the Auditor General found that DND squandered $174-million on a military satellite communications system that it has never used, and $65-million in pilot training that it didn’t need.

In the current debate on defence spending, the most powerful voice for increased military spending is coming from south of the border. Publicly, U.S. Ambassador Paul Cellucci and other U.S. officials are urging Canada to purchase more U.S.-made military equipment. Privately, they are warning that if Canada does not increase defence spending we will be treated as a U.S. protectorate.

The Bush Administration expects Canada to contribute to Homeland Defence by integrating our military with theirs under Northern Command. Spending billions more on U.S.-built equipment will be just a start.

The Chrétien government can easily rebuff Canadian retired generals and academics, but troubled U.S.-Canada relations could cause serious problems.

The government risks provoking a reaction from Canadians who jealously guard national sovereignty and expect that budget surpluses will be used to fund the ailing healthcare and education system.

Six months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a Compas poll found that only seven per cent thought more money should go to defence against terrorism, while 72 per cent of Canadians wanted the government to focus spending on health care or education.

More recently, the National Post reported last month that a GPC poll found that, “even after months of studies and newspaper stories about the state of Canadians Forces, military spending has not gained ground as an area where Canadians think the government should increase spending.”

The next federal budget will hold the prize for the winner of this debate between military and social spending. The Romanow Commission will likely recommend $6-billion more for health care, while the Commons Defence Committee pushes for an equal amount for the military. There’s not enough money for both. The Chrétien government should not let the Bush Administration or the defence lobby undermine Canadians‚ desire that social programs be put ahead of military spending.

This op-ed by Steven Staples was published in The Hill Times on November 18, 2002.

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