Too Much Democracy?

“Indeed,” Winston Churchill famously observed in 1947, “it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” That was more than two years after his wartime government was unseated, so whether it was lingering bitterness or more of his sarcastic humour is open to debate. However, it begs a question: is it possible to have too much democracy?

The question occurred when Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced in April that the still-nascent Liberal government would be proceeding with a Defence Policy Review (DPR) – the first attempt in a generation to change how Canada plans, funds, delivers and uses its military resources.

The government committed to broad foreign and domestic consultation, the latter in the form of six roundtables plus Senate and House of Commons committee studies. There was also a call for on-line contributions. “We invite all Canadians to get involved,” the government said, explaining that participants could sign up to a discussion board or submit their views anonymously.

Due to time constraints at Sajjan’s appearance at National Defence Headquarters, the question about democracy wasn’t asked. But it lingers. Were he around today, Churchill might have some typically trenchant comments about such anonymity. He did say, in the latter stages of the Second World War, that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

Anonymity is potentially useful for Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) members and others with a direct interest who don’t want to jeopardize their careers. Considering the fate of many whistleblowers and other honest critics, it’s completely justifiable.

Social media being what it is though, anonymity is also a licence for ill-informed or anarchic debate on just about any issue, let alone defence policy. However, as discussions unfolded at (the forum managed by the Ipsos polling firm), the moderator has at least been vigilant about dealing with questionable language.

Well into the second month of the DPR, with a July 31 cut-off looming, some blindly partisan, blatantly irrelevant and even amusingly weird comments have managed to slip in among the many thoughtful and occasionally encyclopedic contributions.

So maybe the open forum has yielded useful comment, notably from self-identified former CAF members, as the four-member advisory panel of blue-ribbon members works on what their mandate of “testing ideas and approaching issues from their own unique perspectives.” That said, why not leave it to those who know what they’re talking about?

Christyn Cianfarani, President of the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries (CADSI), says the success of a new policy is contingent on the CAF having appropriate equipment and services they need. That means effective procurement should be part of the government’s policy.

“Our industry plays an essential role in our nation’s security and sovereignty by ensuring ongoing readiness of existing and building new capabilities with world class, innovative technologies made across Canada and sought the world over,” she said in a statement. “The Canadian defence industry and Canada’s defence policy are interdependent and need to be considered as such.”

This could be considered a fox-in-the-henhouse scenario but, as Cianfarani pointed out, CADSI’s nearly 1,000 member companies and their more than 109,000 direct employees generate $12.6 billion in annual revenues, half of which come from export markets. As a registered lobby, it deserves to be heard, and Cianfarani has the professional chops to substantiate the rhetoric.

A Royal Military College graduate and then Maritime Surface and Sub-surface Officer with the navy, she spent 17 years at CAE before her CADSI appointment in late 2014. She represented industry on Tom Jenkins’ Review of Federal Support to Research and Development in Canada, which presented its final report to the government in October 2011, and she contributed to David Emerson’s Aerospace Review, presented to the government in November 2012.

Both of those reports were chock-a-block with constructive criticism and recommendations, but to what end? As has happened with so many other reports to various governments over the years, it seemed the studies were little more than a thinly-disguised ploy by government to delay actually doing something. They evidently were concerned about the political fallout of having to make good on lofty aspirations.

A Progressive Conservative white paper in 1987 reasserted Canada’s commitments to our allies and promised major equipment funding – all eventually undercut by deficit reduction.

In 1994, a new Liberal government’s white paper promised increased spending, but this also fell afoul of deficit reduction and then, in 2008, the rebranded Conservatives’ Canada First Defence Strategy promised to increase DND’s budget from roughly $18 billion in 2008-2009 to more than $30 billion by 2026-2028.

Some of that has borne fruit but, as with previous administrations, too many promises have languished on the procurement vine because of political and bureaucratic indecision.

Retired Vice-Admiral Bruce Donaldson, Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff from July 2010 to September 2013, stated in a written submission to the DPR panel that  “there is a culture of risk intolerance that has infected the federal level – financial in the case of public servants, and political in the case of ministers – that has led government to prefer additional process, ‘third-party validation’ of responsible officials’ work, and serial delay to achieving results.”

Is the DPR another tactic to give the government wiggle room? Hopefully not, but it’s possible. Donaldson added that “it appears that there is now a view that avoiding spending on intended outcomes is somehow a desirable ‘result’ for Canadians.”

He faulted governments for failing to educate taxpayers sufficiently on the costs of doing business as a country, overseas deployments, North American protection, and disaster assistance at home. None of these will ever be cheap.

DND’s main estimates for 2016-2017 total $18.64 billion or 1.6% less than the comparable year-earlier total and representing 7.4% of the current year’s total. Adjusted for inflation, DND’s budget as a percentage of gross domestic product is below “decade of darkness” levels.

Even though the spending estimates and reams of other information are readily available, Donaldson said Canadians lack context for understanding how their money is managed at the federal level.

They have been “encouraged,” he wrote, to view defence spending as wasteful and unreasonable. It’s unlikely that residents of Fort McMurray, Alberta, after being helped by the CAF during the recent wildfire crisis, would still consider it wasteful or unreasonable.

When all is said and done, will the panel produce constructive recommendations? That obviously remains to be seen but, given the history of previous reviews, it’s inevitable. And who knows at this stage whether those will lead to real action by the government? The history on that has tended to be disappointing.

In the meantime, delays in sorely-needed capital programs (such as ships, fighter jets, and a true Arctic capability), inevitably lead to significantly increased costs in the long run.

As the DPR consultation document puts it, defence policy is not only critical in guiding complex decision-making within DND and the CAF, it also is integral to investment planning to ensure that funds are available and, critically, are managed responsibly. “Canadians deserve to understand the costs of defence and how that money is spent,” it states.

Cianfarani has reiterated the need for stability and a national strategy as CADSI members and others work through their current order books. If that work ends without an effective policy in place, industrial capability could wither in Canada.

“Isolating and resolving capital spending lapses is a task that needs urgent attention if we’re to ensure that projects critical to the operational effectiveness of the CAF start moving,” she wrote in a published commentary.

Churchill would have appreciated that, and had while he may have denigrated the “average voter”, he also said a few months later that democracy’s foundation is the “ordinary” man or woman who casts a ballot at election time.

“It is also essential to this foundation that this man or woman should do this without fear, and without any form of intimidation or victimization,” he added. “If that is democracy, I salute it.”

In hindsight, that perhaps should answer the question. There is no such thing as too much democracy. We all have a right to express our opinions, even anonymously. That’s one of the things the CAF defends.

Hudson on the Hill
The role of Hudson is being filled by contributing editor Ken Pole.