Why not spend more on defence?

I saw an article in today’s Ottawa Citizen about the problem my city faces with ambulance service. According to the article politicians will meet and discuss, the mayor says that “public safety is paramount and we take these concerns seriously,” but, ultimately, as the city’s emergency services chief says, “the only fix is more resources.”

The problem is multifaceted:

In response to political pressures the ambulances are spread fairly evenly relative to population (thats the supply side) … but not to demand;

Demand is higher in the urban core because of ~

  • Big public events, which people from the suburbs attend in great numbers and for which they demand adequate emergency services,
  • A higher density of seniors who are more frequent users of ambulances, and
  • A much higher density of the homeless and other indigents who also are very high volume consumers of emergency services, and
  • The entertainment industry which, every night, spawns a few bar fights and injuries and consequential ambulance calls.

One problem for the mayor is that the homeless and indigent and the young people who get involved in punch-ups or knife fights in the city’s entertainment districts don’t vote much, and they certainly don’t vote for him. He has no incentive to serve a clientele that doesn’t support him ~ just as the Liberal Party of Canada has no incentive to support the few (and scattered) people who actually worry about the sorry state of our defences. (And, in fairness, nor did the Conservative government, after about, say, 2012.)  Equally, the occasional suburban resident who actually suffers from waiting a bit longer for an ambulance is hardly an existential threat to the city ~ just the way Da’esh/ISIL/ISIS is hardly an existential threat to Canada.

In many respects we should and often do see our national defence as the national equivalent to the city fire department and ambulance services: essential but something that, thankfully, most of us rarely have to use and which we all hope we will never have to use. And just like the city ratepayer, we, at the national level want more and better services of the sorts that benefit us on a regular basis ~ the national equivalents to garbage pickup and street maintenance ~ and, however improbably, we want all our services at a lower cost than least year, or at least at no increase in cost.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson doesn’t want to spend more on emergency services and, for very similar reasons, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau doesn’t want to spend more on national defence.

One has to feel more than just a twinge of sympathy for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan: hardly anyone will ever bother to read Robert Kaplan’s frightening essay about the increased threats posed, somewhat counterintuitively, by Chinese and Russian 5df52fa3-73b2-41b8-bee2-e20d15ed0875_1b269570-76fb-11e5-9d61-41ab8e878eddweakness. Fewer still will bother to connect them to Canada’s defence preparedness and the defence budget. But the Liberals do have a constituency ~ the Laurentian Elites ~ who are, broadly and generally, opposed to military “adventures,” especially if they are led by the US, and, therefore, see no need to spend much on defence. (The Laurentian Elites will concede a few of my points on a few baselines, even for home defence, but  they will not agree to spending anything like enough to give us military power worthy of a G7 nation … that’s simply nowhere on their agenda.)  Absent any clear, easily understood and existential threat to Canada there is no compelling reason to increase defence spending or even to maintain the defence budget at its current levels.

So what can our prime minister and his minister of defence do in order to do the least harm?

At the risk of repeating myself, here are some ideas you can count on one hand:

First: do not make any further cuts to the defence budget. That, in my mind is critical.

Second: set priorities, and here I will repeat myself ~

  • Priority One should be to save the service or capability that  is easiest to damage and the hardest to restore. That is the Navy.
  • The second priority must be to continue to do our share to defend North America. The key to this is to buy a new fighter aircraft … as few as we can manage because money is tight, but enough so that the Americans will not feel obliged to violate our sovereignty in order to protect their strategic nuclear deterrent.
  • Priority three must be the army …

Third: stop spending on unnecessary frills which, includes, just for example, reopening the Collège militaire royal de Saint-Jean. That, like the “buttons and bows” issue, is just a fringe issue, important only to a very tiny handful of retired officers, that brings no value to the men and women serving in our ships, in the field force and in our aircraft. Stop all the nonsense!

Fourth: make some useful cuts to the bloated morbidly obese C² superstructure in the Canadian Armed Forces, and audit and then, as necessary (and I believe it will be seen to be necessary) reform the management of the Department of National Defence so that it serves the country and the forces, not vice versa; and

Fifth and finally: start thinking strategically.

I don’t expect Prime Minister Trudeau to want to spend more on defence. I suspect that he and his government are not, as Andrew Coyne (tongue in cheek) suggests, suffering from a bad case of cognitive dissonance, rather I think they are just coming to grips with the realities of governing. They are figuring out that not everything Prime Minister Stephen Harper did was either stupid or the epitome of evil, that they cannot keep all their promises and budgets will not balance themselves, and that Abu Omer al-Shishani and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadiand Ayman, and Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping did not get the memo about “sunny ways,” and they are just waiting exploit any weakness on our part.

What I do expect (just hope, I guess) is that he will do as little harm as possible to Canada’s national defence.

By Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.


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