Hudson on the Hill

From the Tower: Doing Something Useful
HUDSON ON THE HILL  |  Sep 15, 2011

A principal role of parliament is to hold government to account for its policies and the implementation of those policies. While government could do more to explain its policies to Canadians, parliamentary committees, particularly those dealing with defence issues, can certainly do more to critically examine such policies.

The 41st session of Parliament began in mid-September, but there is little evidence that parliamentary examination of defence issues is going to be any more effective than it was during the last three successive minority governments. Moreover, indications are that the government’s membership majority on parliamentary committees is working to stifle worthwhile committee work.

Look at defence committee proceedings posted on the parliamentary website. At the time of writing, the Senate Standing Committee on Security and National Defence, chaired by the Honourable Pamela Wallin, had completed two meetings. The first was devoted to organizational issues. During the second meeting, retired Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie explained details of his report on transformation. He pointed out that it was eminently reasonable that the CDS and DM would take time to consider the report’s recommendations in the context of other government initiates before delivering their own recommendations to the Minister of National Defence. Nothing to get excited about here. The committee’s second witness that day was former defence minister David Pratt, who reviewed his recent paper on the Reserves, written for the Canadian Foreign Affairs and Defence Institute. Nothing new here either. At press time, no further meetings had yet been scheduled.

Over in the East Block, the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence, chaired by Mr. James Bezan, is mired in the mud. Of their six meetings, four have been devoted to committee business. Once again, like defence committees before them, members have decided on a panoply of subjects so diffuse it defies in-depth study of any issue and therefore denies them the ability to effectively hold government to account. Their list of topics includes: Canadian Forces readiness; defence of North America (against what?); NATO’s strategic concept (old news); Canada’s role in international defence cooperation; care of ill and injured Canadian Forces members (again); the role of reservists and their connection to communities across Canada (again); to remain seized of the current military ­missions in Libya and Afghanistan (what about other Canadian military missions?); and an examination of the DND estimates. The committee has no focus.

These agendas reflect at least three problematic issues.

First, committees are often their own worst enemies when it comes to deciding on subjects to study. They usually select issues based on media profile of the moment, rather than spend time seeking authoritative advice on topics of real strategic importance. Most topics chosen deal with current or past issues. There seems to be no interest in examining future challenges about which something should, and could, be done.

The second concern arises from the government majority on every committee. So far, it seems that government members are controlling committee agendas to the point that they will not allow discussion of any contentious subject, or agree to hear evidence from any but the most pliant witnesses. This may be something in the way of ‘pay-back’ because during the previous minority regimes, the opposition majority on defence committees insisted on hearing mainly from witnesses with an axe to grind.

While troubling, these two concerns pale in comparison to a third circumstance that has emerged.

Since the Second World War, every new Canadian government has conducted a comprehensive foreign and defence policy review shortly after assuming power. The last formal review of foreign and defence policy was Prime Minister Paul Martin’s 2005 International Policy Statement. Conservative governments, in power since 2006, have not conducted any such review. This is no small omission because there are times when it seems that the current government was been operating ‘off the back of a cigarette pack’ when it comes to foreign and defence activity. For instance: Why is Canada active in Libya, but not in Yemen? Why did Canada apply sanctions against Syria and not Zimbabwe?

At present, there is no explicit Canadian foreign policy to explain all of our overseas actions. Foreign Minister John Baird’s address to the United Nations ­General Assembly last September came close to expressing overall foreign policy, but one-liners do not a policy make.

As well, there is no legitimate Canadian defence policy. There is no higher document that defines policy framework within which the CF will operate. When and why will Canada fight? We don’t know because the government hasn’t told us. The Canada First Defence Strategy is not a policy, at least not in the true sense of the word. In fact, it describes itself as a road map for the modernization of the Canadian Forces. Besides it is currently unaffordable and needs revision or more money.

Government may indeed have a coherent understanding of its own global intentions, but these intentions must be shared with Canadians. Public discussion will enhance policy legitimacy and this is precisely the kind of exercise parliamentary committees concerned with defence issues should be pursuing. Both the Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence and the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence should be taking the government to task over why there is no clear public expression of Canadian foreign and defence policies.

The committees should now be focused on hearings from a large number of foreign and defence policy academics and specialists to support a comprehensive ­foreign and defence policy review that ­government ought to undertake as soon as possible.

These are the kinds of issues on which parliament should be focused – not dabbling in curiosities inflated by hyperbolic media babble. There is no need to get excited over the rumour that the government wants to replace A Mari Usque Ad Mare on the Canadian coat of arms with We don’t go along just to get along. Let’s move on to something more important.
Hudson on The Hill
© FrontLine Defence 2011