Hudson on the Hill

The 41st Session: Interest vs Value
HUDSON ON THE HILL  |  Jul 15, 2011

It’s nice to be back. I’ve been away at the gargoyle spa for the past couple of months, having my hair carved, the moss cleaned out of my ears and my skin sand-blasted so it is once again smooth as rock. I returned to my perch on the Peace Tower just in time to hear the Speech from the Throne on 3 June 2011.

While the new government might have something of the same look and feel of the previous ministry, there is more horsepower behind it. Given such a majority, it is now time to see what they can do with it, and how they will do it.

The House of Commons, on the other hand, is an altogether different place. It is definitely quieter than the old model, but it remains to be seen whether pathological partisan habits have really died a natural death, and whether government will actually exhibit any more respect for parliament than it has in previous years.

Superficial changes are apparent enough. The Conservatives have a comfortable majority; the NDP have formed the official opposition for the first time in history; a sulking Liberal Party, sidelined by the stiffest straight-arm in their history, sits further away from the Speaker; four Bloc Quebecois members are simply remnants of a bad idea; and one Green Party member will try to be all she can be.

So far though, it seems the Conservatives are no more comfortable in their own skin than they were last session, when party members appeared to be perpetually angry and carried a very large chip on their shoulders. Many Conservative ministers still seem unable to differentiate between members of the political opposition and ordinary Canadians – they talk down to both. One wonders if they even like real people. We await the day when government leaders, Mr. Harper in particular, learn how to talk to Canadians, not at them.

Within this parliamentary context, the defence portfolio is in for some interesting times. As we expected months ago, the government has begun to cut defence spending, while still promising to equip the Canadian Forces with new, or modernized, equipment. The recent federal budget provided an opening salvo. Future budgets will also contain defence cuts, but they will be hidden or disguised by a government that finds it difficult to be open and transparent.

On the other hand, within the next few months, expect misguided calls for some kind of ‘post-Afghanistan peace dividend’ from the official opposition. They should be ignored. The notion of a peace dividend is a myth.

There are other things to watch for too, when parliament resumes in the fall.

First the good news. The Honourable Peter MacKay has returned as Minister of National Defence. He is a popular choice inside and outside the department and the Canadian Forces. He has the respect of the CF leadership and the troops love him. His leadership is exemplary, and uniquely so. Within a government that some see as lacking character and integrity, Mr. MacKay is one of the few senior parliamentarians who truly deserves the designation ‘Honourable.’

The Honourable Julian Fantino is the new Associate Minister of National Defence. He is expected to oversee the extensive and complicated DND procurement program. It remains to be seen how effective he will be, given he has no experience in the field and the same senior bureaucrats remain in place. One can only imagine how Deputy Minister Rob Fonberg and Assistant Deputy Minister (Materiel) Dan Ross must feel about having two bosses (MND and Associate MND) scrutinizing their work.

Chris Alexander, the newly elected Conservative for Ajax-Pickering and former Canadian Ambassador to Afghanistan has been appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence. As such he will be the principal government representative on the House of Commons Committee on National Defence. If things go well, he will have a bright future. His status as Parliamentary Secretary precludes him from chairing that Committee. That role will go to one of the other five Conservative members.
Across the table, Mr. Alexander will face Jack Harris, the NDP defence critic, who now finds himself in the role of principal opposition member on the committee. Mr. Harris is ready and waiting to ‘get stuck-in’ after spending two years at the far end of the table, with little opportunity to question witnesses. During the last session, he seemed to be hamstrung by questionable NDP party positions, but now both he and his Party have the opportunity to engage in more mature and substantial debate about important defence issues.
Liberal defence critic John McKay is an unknown quantity at this point. If he doesn’t come up to speed quickly, he, and his party, could be (remain?) irrelevant.
In the upper house, the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence will reconvene under the Chairmanship of Senator Pamela Wallin. Other conservative members include Senator Daniel Lang, Senator Donald Plett and the very capable and experienced Senator Pierre Claude Nolin. The fifth Conservative member is the twice defeated and twice appointed (along with the title of ‘Honourable’) Senator Fabian Manning.
Liberal Senator Tommy Banks is no longer a member of the committee, as the Conservatives finish the job of removing all lingering links to the former Chair, Senator Colin Kenny. However, Liberal Senators Romeo Dallaire and Joseph Day return, bringing their considerable experience to the table, supported by Senators Grant Mitchell and Robert Peterson. In this 41st session, we will be looking for more substance than noise from this committee.
Finally, Canadians should remain attentive to the quality and depth of defence discussion from parliamentarians generally. The recent debate on the continuation of the Canadian participation in the NATO mission against Libya should serve as a ‘floor,’ below which the calibre of future debates should not sink. A number of speakers used the terms ‘values’ and ‘interests,’ sometimes accompanied by the adjective ‘Canadian.’ During this debate, the Honourable John Baird, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister MacKay, and others, incidentally alluded to freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law as being Canadian values, but no one specifically revealed what vital Canadian interests are at stake, or why we need to protect them. All speakers devoted their exclusive attention to circumstances in Libya, without any apparent consideration why it is in our national interest for Canada to act as it has. The terms “national interest of Canada,” “Canadian national interests” and “Canadian interests” are absent from the record of debate. Parliamentarians may get a warm and fuzzy feeling talking about values, mainly because such talk does not require any serious thinking or hard decisions. Effective national grand strategy, on the other hand, requires definition of vital national interests and mobilization of the instruments to execute that strategy. We heard no such discussion during the debate.
Maybe parliamentarians could spend their summer break thinking about what really matters to Canada, particularly if they are going to send members of the Canadian Forces into harm’s way. Every member of parliament should be required to answer the question: Why is this mission important enough for Canadians to put their lives on the line?
Enjoy the summer.

© FrontLine Defence 2011