Hudson on the Hill
In an effort to inform Canadians about a variety of important issues related to national security and defence, FrontLine publications have interviewed prominent individuals, described a variety of organizations, critiqued a number of processes and discussed a wide range of plans, operations and equipment. We have not yet paid attention to one important group of Canadians who play an important role in the national security and defence field – our parliamentarians. To fill this serious gap in our coverage, FrontLine’s Hudson will report regularly as he watches The Hill spinning ‘round. Hudson aims to provide non-partisan, unbiased and informative views of Parliament’s contribution to the security and defence sector. House of Commons and Senate proceedings and respective committees will be reviewed, as will the efforts of individual parliamentarians or what various parliamentary committees may, or may not, be accomplishing. Of particular interest will be how effective Members of Parliament, Senators, or committees are in representing the best interests of Canadians in holding government to account.
General Rick Hillier, when he was Chief of the Defence Staff, often spoke of a ‘decade of darkness’ – the 1990s, when operational tempos increased dramatically, defence budgets plummeted, equipment rusted out and defence capability generally declined.
Another decade of darkness is returning and Canada’s parliament is once again oblivious to the coming collapse. There are three reasons for this. First, acute political partisanship has put party politics ahead of national interest. Parliamentarians slavishly submit themselves to direction by un-elected party hacks, many of whom have never held a real job. In this, elected Members are not only weak and hypocritical, they are disloyal to their constituents and Canadians at large. Second, there is such a general lack of character and backbone on the Hill that many MPs seek to gain favour by exhibiting behaviour in the House of Commons that would not be tolerated in most junior high schools. They play fast and loose with the truth. Televised question period is a national embarrassment. Finally, parliamentarians are largely too self-centered and cannot look objectively beyond their collective noses, and certainly not beyond the next expected election. Future important issues of state do not get the consideration and deliberation they deserve now. Today’s parliamentarians simply do not have the right stuff.
Parliamentarians should recognize the dark clouds of another decade of defence darkness rolling in across the horizon. The signs are ominous and unmistakable. The national debt is growing again. Federal and provincial governments will be mired in deficit spending for a number of years into the future. Previously-heralded major equipment projects for the Department of National Defence have been stalled and silenced, with no real sign of going anywhere soon. There is a good chance the Navy will never see a Joint Support Ship. The Air Force will likely not see a top tier replacement for its fighter aircraft, and while the Army is excited about a fleet of new trucks, the vehicles aren’t here yet. Don’t count on getting all the tanks up and running either. The Canada First Defence Strategy is going nowhere fast.
Few, if any, seem interested in avoiding the impending decay of warfighting capability.
In many ways, Prime Minister Harper seems focussed on the only area in which he truly feels comfortable – economics. He has been forced to retreat on virtually every principal policy plank in his original party platform. Senate reform has failed to materialize. Environmental policy is indeed important. No new national infrastructure has appeared in the high north.
Announced in a flippant remark during an election campaign, the 2011 retreat from Afghanistan represents uninspired leadership. It is strategically inept to publicly announce a future withdrawal, yet unconscionably continue to send troops into harm’s way. Those troops, and all Canadians, deserve clear articulation of our national strategy in Afghanistan. What is it, exactly, we are trying to do now?
Does the Prime Minister see defence spending as an impediment to returning the country to deficit-free spending and lower taxes? Canadian governments have always cut back on defence after a period of conflict. It is our historical habit to reap a ‘peace dividend,’ and it is happening again. Spending cuts have already begun and will last about 10 years. A passive parliament that is blind to the future, in an environment of increasing threats from non-state actors, nuclear proliferation, stresses of immigration, and global impacts of climate change, risks a return to a style of government much like that of the 1990s – tight-fisted, with its head in the sand. Will a new generation of soldiers once again be asked to do more with less?
If, as stated by this government, the safety and security of Canadians is the highest priority of government, then, when parliamentarians return to work in March 2010, they must change their petty ways and show genuine interest in real national issues in a responsible and mature way. Having at last rebounded so well from the last decade of darkness, it would be irresponsible to sleepwalk back into that abyss. Government owes Canadians a clear and robust Defence policy. Parliament must lead the way, if government will not. This will take dynamic leadership, but from my perch up here on the tower, there’s none of that around here these days.
Hudson on The Hill
© FrontLine Defence 2010