Thursday, August 07, 2008

Politician first, minister second

You can read the whole article, but here's the key passage:

“It doesn't cut it,” he said. The Tories also injected $5.3-billion in one-time defence spending in 2007, on top of $7-billion in cash doled out by the former Liberal government in 2006. But Mr. Kenny says Ottawa should be spending $35-billion a year on defence today, not $18-billion.

Conservative Defence Minister Peter MacKay rejected the charge that the Tories are under-funding the military. “Mr. Kenny, in particular, has too much time on his hands and is engaging in a sort of mid-summer, drive-by smear in an attempt at self-aggrandizement,” he said in an interview.

Mr. MacKay said Mr. Kenny's own Liberal party starved the defence budget when it ran Ottawa in the 1990s, adding that the Tories have now set in motion tens of billions of dollars in military spending.

Mr. Kenny said the Tories have oversold their contribution by adding up decades of future defence budgets to produce figures such as $490-billion over 20 years.

“They've gotten away … with taking 20 years of spending, adding up the cumulative total, and pretending it's something they're going to do in this minority government.” [Babbler's bold]

I generally lean towards MacKay's side of the political spectrum rather than Kenny's, so if I have a political axe to grind on this exchange, it would normally be with the Liberal and not the Conservative. But as an observer of all things martial in this glorious country of ours, I have to say that MacKay is full of crap on this, and Kenny isn't.

If Kenny was simply playing politics, how is it that his statements on defence budgeting have been so consistent over the past few years, criticizing the Liberal Martin government as well as the Conservative Harper one?

The Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence recently stirred up a hornet’s nest with the contention, in its recently released report on the state of defence in Canada, that the budget of the Department of National Defence should be increased from its current level of about $14 billion to “$25 to $35 billion”.

The Senate report was in fact the first volume of three, and it focused on the nature of the problems besetting the Canadian Forces. The remaining volumes, to be published over the next few months, will present the consequences of the current situation and recommend solutions. Unlike typical federal government reports, this one is exceptional in its use of rather direct and quite un-senatorial language, a reflection, no doubt of the dynamic and forceful approach of its Chairman, Senator Colin Kenny.

Since General (ret'd) Manson agreed with the senator's prescription, does that make him complicit in this "drive-by smear in an attempt at self-aggrandizement" that MacKay sees? Retrospectively, of course, since the general wrote that piece in 2005.

What about the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute? Are they just playing politics as well (pdf)?

We are not calling for a Second World War mobilization with an army of 750,000 and government expenditures that came close to absorbing half or more of the GDP. Instead, the ideal would be spending on defence that meets the NATO average excluding the United States from that calculation) of 2.2 per cent of GDP (about $25 billion in 2007 dollars). Such a defence budget would allow Canada to sustain a regular force of some 80,000 men and women, an increase of under a third over our present strength. That is what we need, but it is unlikely that any Canadian government in the foreseeable future will have the political courage to do it.

Any observer of the Canadian military worth his or her salt is calling for more money. That doesn't automatically make us partisan hacks.

To my mind, the most illuminative support for Kenny - and the one that explains this exchange between him and MacKay most clearly - comes from David Pratt and the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs (SCONDVA) in a May 2002 report. In that report, the parliamentarians' very first recommendation was as follows:

Recommendation 1
Increase the annual base budget for the Department of National Defence to between 1.5% to 1.6% of GDP, with the increase to be phased in over three years, and continue to move towards the NATO average [of 2.0% to 2.1%].

Subsequent to that statement, the committee chairman, David Pratt, was made MND in the Paul Martin government. And Pratt did nothing like increasing the DND budget to 1.5% of GDP. Not even close.

Here's the truth of the matter: Kenny's right about the budget - both about what we need and what the Conservatives are actually providing. I'll make you a bet that if MND MacKay were sitting on the Opposition benches, looking at a Liberal government that was spending exactly the same way his CPC government is, he'd be saying the same things Kenny is.

But at the end of the day, Kenny doesn't have to go to the polls on his recommendations - he has nobody to answer to for his spending decisions with billions of taxpayer dollars. MacKay does. So Kenny can say what he thinks is true, with no fear of the consequences, whereas MacKay has to deal with what's politically possible. And a $35B military budget isn't politically possible right now.

So instead of taking a partisan cheap shot that was so transparent as to make one cringe, here's what MacKay should have said:

"I wish I was in Senator Kenny's position, where he can call for the moon and not have to answer to the Canadian public for his spending priorities. But unlike the senator, I have the real-life responsibility of leading this department, with all the practical considerations and compromises that entails. Could DND use a $35 million budget? Of course! In a perfect world, money would grow on trees and we'd all have a merry Christmas. But this government, unlike our predecessors, is balancing the desires of the Defence Department against our serious fiscal responsibilities, and plotting a course of action that meets Canada's national defence needs. If Senator Kenny feels that strongly that we need to double the defence budget, I'd encourage him to resign his senate seat and run for office on that platform. I'd be very interested to hear where he'd get the money from, and to see if the voters agree with his priorities."

I would have respected that response a lot more than I respect what MacKay actually said.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Or he could have done his version of the political drive by smear tit-for-tat and said:

"Perhaps Senator Kenny could provide a list of the Hospitals we should shut or which Universities we should close in order to generate the funds he wants our Armed Forces to have. Perhaps he is suggesting we should take the $1.1 billion we currently give to the CBC or the $10 Billion we allocate to Aboriginal spending in order to fund his DND budget preferences."

12:48 p.m., August 07, 2008  
Blogger Mark, Ottawa said...

Babbling: Bravo!


1:01 p.m., August 07, 2008  
Blogger Mark, Ottawa said...

This is a thoughtful comment by E.R. Campbell at


1:08 p.m., August 07, 2008  

Post a Comment

<< Home