Why the Conservatives Can Cut the Size of the Military and Get Away With It

Steve Saideman on the politics of making personnel cuts to the Canadian Forces.
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November 20, 2013
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The Chief of the Defence Staff, Tom Lawson, has now allowed that efforts to cut the military’s budget could include personnel cuts.  Given that personnel expenses are one of the biggest categories of spending, this makes a great deal of sense.  Cutting the budget without cutting numbers or big ticket items like planes and ships would mean very deep cuts into operations, training, and maintenance.  Canadians don’t use the phrase “hollowing out the force” like Americans do, but the principle is the same – if you do not spend on the practice of war, then the military will lose their edge in this at its very dangerous business. 

The government has been most reluctant to consider personnel cuts, saying that it can save money without reducing troop numbers.  Of course, this fits into a larger pattern of denial, it is not necessary or advantageous in this case.  This recent article on personnel cuts suggests that there are political risks in moving away from the magic numbers to which Harper has committed.  I frankly do not see how this is the case. 

Yes, it would mean a broken promise, but who would vote differently based on personnel cuts for the Canadian Forces?  Which party could take advantage?  Obviously, the voters most concerned with the size and health of the Canadian Forces would be … the base of the Conservative Party.  Would these folks abandon the Conservatives in the next election because of personnel cuts?  Given how much Harper plays to his base on other issues, it is more likely that this one policy change would not matter that much.  If cast in terms of doing the best the government can to maintain a capable military, perhaps using retired General Rick Hillier’s quotes on the subject, it is hard to see much erosion of support among Conservative voters.

Where would alienated voters go?  Is it credible that the New Democratic Party could outflank the Conservatives by portraying themselves as more committed to a large and expensive military?  Given that the NDP’s base is in Quebec, which has tended to be less enthusiastic about the deployment of the Canadian Forces, it is hard to see how criticizing personnel spending cuts would make sense for them.  The NDP has learned it is good politics to argue that the government is wasting money on such programs as the F-35.  I doubt that they will now find it good politics to demand that the government maintain the CF’s current size.

The Liberals, by bringing aboard retired Lt. General Andrew Leslie, now have one voice that can potentially criticize this move.  Leslie’s stance has been that the government can cut CF spending by cutting contractors, consultants, and other non-uniformed expenses.  But cuts like these may ultimately require more CF personnel rather than less, as uniformed personnel would have to pick up some of the jobs currently being done by these other folks.  However, again, the question is about votes – are Liberals going to pick up many voters by arguing that Canada needs a larger (relatively) military than the government suggests?

The Conservative Party has many vulnerabilities that might cause it to lose votes and seats, but it is not clear that either of the major opposition parties can take advantage of this potentially broken promise.  The aphorism that “only Nixon can go to China” applies here ­– the party best equipped to cut the military without much criticism is the one on the right side of the political spectrum.  Given that Harper is betting on balanced budgets as the key to the next election, it makes a great deal of political sense to cut the CF’s personnel numbers.  It is far less likely to swing voters away from the Conservatives than cuts in other areas.

Politics is always about tradeoffs. Any change in policies will have advocates and critics.  The trick is figuring out how to finesse the tradeoffs in ways that are least costly to one’s own political ambitions.  And if figuring this out can actually produce policies that are better for the country – a smaller, less hollowed-out force – that might not be so bad.