Staples op-ed: Martin’s defence policy dilemma

It was almost too painful to watch defeated Defence Minister David Pratt offering his congratulations to his Conservative rival, the 25-year-old political neophyte from Alberta, Pierre Poilievre.

The election of a Liberal minority government and the defeat of Canada’s hawkish Defence Minister leave many defence policies and billions of dollars in new military spending in doubt.

Pundits are predicting a left-leaning political agenda for the foreseeable future because of the new influence of the New Democrats and the Bloc Québécois on the Liberals. The smaller parties want tough conditions set on any military spending increases and fervently oppose joining the Bush administration’s missile defence system.

Will the NDP and the Bloc turn the Liberals into doves on defence policy?

Maybe — and maybe not.

Conservative Party strategist Hugh Segal spent his morning after Election Day on CBC Newsworld predicting that Paul Martin could rely on Stephen Harper’s support on defence issues, sidestepping resistance from the NDP and the Bloc. Former NDP premier Bob Rae agrees. He told CBC correspondent Brian Stewart that, on missile defence, the question for the Liberals is “Are you going to let the tail wag the dog?”

Despite the finger-pointing and pounding on podiums during the campaign, the truth is that Paul Martin and Stephen Harper agree on most defence and foreign policy issues.

Both men are willing to trade more U.S.-friendly security policies and military spending for better relations with the Bush administration. For example, the achievement of “interoperability,” so that Canadian forces can fight alongside U.S. forces in the War on Terrorism at home and abroad, will continue to drive National Defence decisions.

Martin and Harper equally support Canada’s maintaining an expensive and over-extended “multi-purpose, combat capable” defence policy rather than focusing the Canadian Forces on a few core capabilities, such as United Nations peacekeeping or territorial surveillance. Neither wants to make the tough call that peacekeepers don’t need submarines, anti-submarine warfare helicopters, or laser-guided bombs affixed to CF-18s.

On military spending, the Conservatives’ campaign promise of $7-billion more over five years appears much higher that the Liberals’ commitment of $3-billion over the same period. But voters may have forgotten that just before calling the election Paul Martin announced a $7-billion plan to purchase a long list of military aircraft, tanks and warships.

The only apparent differences between the two parties’ priorities are that Liberals prefer tanks with wheels instead of tracks, and the Conservatives think the new warships should carry more helicopters.

The first challenge for Paul Martin’s government will be missile defence. The pressure is on from the Americans. U.S. Ambassador Paul Cellucci is warning that “the clock is ticking” on a Canadian decision to join the Americans as they prepare to activate a crude, land-based system in the fall, just in time for November’s presidential election.

Paul Martin has the procedural luxury of not having to put missile defence to a vote, because Canada could agree to participate by amending NORAD with a simple exchange of letters or a memorandum of understanding.

But the question is, would he be prepared to start off his minority government with such a politically contentious move as joining George W. Bush’s missile defence scheme?

Probably not. Seat-counting aside, it is hard to imagine Martin relying on political support from Stephen Harper so soon after the hard-fought election.

To avoid the mistakes of previous minority governments, Martin needs to govern with some humility. He needs to develop a workable political relationship with Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe, and he won’t want to poison the well with an abrupt missile defence decision.

Even more, he needs to avoid opening old wounds within his own caucus. Many Liberal missile defence skeptics were re-elected, so the situation requires a long overdue reining-in of his aggressive political advisers.

Apart from replacing the Sea Kings, most major defence decisions will likely be delayed in favour of smaller, incremental decisions. The internal security-related policy review currently underway on the Hill will be unearthed from its bunker, and the government may be obliged to listen to advice from outside of the usual circle of National Defence-funded think tanks.

This is good news for Canadians in uniform. An American-style military posture was rejected by voters, so a more clearly defined defence policy that is in keeping with traditional Canadian values of peacekeeping and diplomacy will only enhance public support of the Canadian Forces. And less interference from special interests will free resources currently squandered on unnecessary equipment and weapons programs.

And what will David Pratt’s fate be? I expect he will land on his feet in the private sector. Watch for an announcement in the business pages proclaiming the hiring of the former Defence Minister by General Dynamics Canada, one of Canada’s largest defence contractors.

This op-ed was published in the Hill Times on July 19, 2004.

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