It would be a great leap forward if, in the coming federal election, there was a separate debate on national defence and security. The denizens of debate negotiation and management at the networks and political parties may not have the freedom or courage to make it so but it would be of immense value nonetheless.
While there is usually a passing reference to some defence matter in the two 90 minute debates that take place in each of our official languages (and that would be two more mentions than the entire issue of poverty received in the 2011 English language debate), the nature of the world we share makes those passing mentions deeply insufficient.
Political parties may say they will commit to financing for procurement or modernization of our Armed Forces. But the true dynamic on defence issues, as we have seen in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Ukraine and the battle against ISIS, is usually unpredictable before the onset of an international crisis – which is precisely why a TV and multi-platform debate on defence is crucial.
Knowing where leaders stand on having rapidly deployable forces, the nature of our alliance engagement and obligations and the readiness and conditions for any deployment is a legitimate expectation of the voters in a parliamentary democracy. And, if a panel of questioners with defence expertise and experience were those to question the leaders, it would be better than having a TV personality, however bright and well-researched, manage the debate by himself or herself. Viewers and listeners have the right to know how much or how little prospective prime ministers understand about the core choices and base expertise are needed relating to the military prospective. Viewers and listeners, as well as readers of the ensuing debate coverage, would benefit, in our present Canadian geostrategic context, from having answers to these questions:
- What is the actual defence strategy in the Arctic in the face of increased Russian installations and apparent adventurism elsewhere?
- Are we able to manage our global and domestic defence interests with a total of sixty thousand men and women, of whom only a small fraction are combat trained or ready?
- Why are the Armed Forces Reserves reducing in size at the precise moment this critical training and supplementation link with the citizenry at large is most vital?
- Why is naval procurement so slow and why do government departments on this file seem to be more at war with each other than committed to helping Canada prepare to deploy reasonable sea power?
- Is the Department of Defence, organized in the same fashion since the time of Paul Hellyer (the 1960’s Defence Minister who pushed the disastrous “unification” strategy for our Armed forces), as an inter-mingling of civilian and uniformed members, properly structured for present challenges?
- What is the strategy best-suited to our vast geography, huge borders and critical infrastructure exposure – are we getting it right?
These are not the sorts of questions that can get any meaningful engagement in a small fraction of a national three or four leader ninety minute debate, with each leader getting sixty seconds to respond. This set-up only trivialises what could well be survival issues in the long term. And, even if the negotiations around leaders’ network debates are rigid and fractious, making real progress for a defence debate impossible between the party leaders, then a debate between defence spokespeople for the respective parties (including both incumbent and prospective Defence Ministers) would be of great value, making plain the strategies of all parties on this issue.
In the same way as an appointment with the gallows can focus one’s mind, so too would a nationally televised debate on defence and security focus all the parties and the media on the need for policy coherence, depth and acuity on the legitimate defence interests of a modern, geographically large, three ocean trading and dynamic multi-ethnic democracy.
These interests should not be set aside for the shallow promises and empty rhetoric of stump campaign speeches. They merit real debate by the men and women selling the voters’ trust.
This article appeared in the summer issue of The Dispatch, published by the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.