This blog has moved!

All new post by Steven Staples to the Ceasefire Insider blog appear on out new blog, located at http://www.ceasefire.ca.

September 23, 2008 at 2:52 pm Leave a comment

Canadians leery of Stephen Harper’s plan to spend a half trillion dollars on defence as national economy weakens

A new poll commissioned by the Rideau Institute reveals a high degree of public anxiety with Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party’s 20-year, $490 billion defence strategy, with half of Canadians supporting a reduction in this planned spending.

Canadians are questioning Conservative Party priorities. With storm clouds forming over our economy and federal budget surpluses vanishing, the next government will have to decide whether it wants to protect funding for social programs such as health care, or commit a half a trillion dollars to a new mega-defence strategy.

“One in two Canadians (51.8%) would like to see the spending on Stephen Harper’s 20 year defence strategy reduced,” stated Nik Nanos, President and CEO of Nanos Research, the firm that conducted the poll. “Only one in four Canadians (27%) would like to see the plan continue as proposed, while one in ten (11%) would like to see defence spending increase. Ten percent of Canadians were unsure.”

In every geographic, age and party preference category, more Canadians prefer reducing planned Conservative defence spending rather than maintaining or increased it. Support for the reduction in spending is highest among Quebecers (62.4%); Bloc Quebececois supporters (72.9%) and Canadians aged 18-29 (56%). Slightly more female voters (54%) to males (49.7%) prefer reduced spending.

Such strong concern about increased defence spending may reflect Canadians’ uneasiness over the continuing war in Afghanistan. While military costs associated with the war continue to rise, so too does the human cost in terms of the lives of Canadian soldiers, military personnel and Afghan civilians. At the same time, cynicism is growing over the lack of positive results from the conflict as well as concerns over non-competitive government contracting for new military equipment.

These numbers should be a wake-up call to all political parties to carefully re-evaluate their defence strategies, particularly when it comes to costing them out and funding them. Canadians are paying attention.

Download the poll

September 25, 2008 at 11:02 pm 1 comment

Harper, the war, and wedge politics

Yesterday the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released an impressive new ebook that compiles more than 40 chapters on Stephen Harper’s track record in the Prime Minister’s office. The Harper Record was edited by Teresa Healy, a researcher at the Canadian Labour Congress (and talented musician, I might add).

On the Afghanistan issue, John Warnock contributed a chapter entitled “Peace and Democracy for Afghanistan,” while my own chapter looked at the war and the military from a political viewpoint. It is titled, “Harper, the War, and Wedge Politics.”

Here is an excerpt from my chapter:

Harper visited Afghanistan within weeks of taking office, and appointed retired General Gordon O’Connor, a former defence industry lobbyist, as his first Minister of National Defence. These early moves signalled that national defence and the military would be one of his unofficial priorities.

While he ignored or cancelled programs initiated by the Liberals, such as the child care program and the Kelowna Accord with First nations, Harper pledged to fulfill Paul Martin’s 2005 Budget promise to increase defence spending massively, by $12.8 billion over five years. In his own first federal Budget, Harper went further and committed an addition $5.3 billion on top of what was already the largest increase in military spending in a generation.

Today, Canada’s military spending is rising above $19 billion a year, sixth highest in NATO and 15th highest in the world, dollar for dollar. When adjusted for inflation, Canada’s military spending is at its highest since the Second World War, even exceeding the Cold War peak in the early 1950s.

Conservative Party enthusiasts loved it. The moves to wrap the government in camouflage-green garb strengthened Harper’s political base. Red-Shirt Friday rallies to “support the troops” were backed by the military, and government officials used them to rally support behind the Conservatives. Remembrance Day ceremonies and other memorials to mark past military milestones, such as the 90th Anniversary of Vimy Ridge, were politicized to glorify the military and the Conservative Party’s support of it.

Even more, the Conservatives used these opportunities to try to write a new Canadian historical narrative, one that recasts Canada as a war-fighting nation, not as a peacekeeper. Canada is a nation that came into being in the bloody (and pointless) military battles of the First World War, in Harper’s historical memory.

The Conservatives view Canadians’ support for peacekeeping, the United Nations, soft power initiatives, and disarmament treaties such as the Landmines Treaty as Liberal symbols. It is important for them to create a new national narrative, with new symbols to replace the Liberal ones.

In the future, under a Conservative government, Canada’s international standing would be based upon pursuing “national interests,” and our influence would rely upon delivering hard military power.

September 24, 2008 at 7:38 pm Leave a comment

Spinning civilians killed in Afghanistan

In a comment to an earlier post, Siamdave mentioned today’s “The Current” on CBC. He says

…almost the entire hour was spent explaining, first, why Canadians should not expect this to be an issue in the election, and then why Canadians needed to get with the program and support the mission.

I tuned into the CBC archive to listen to the showand was surprised to hear Col. Alain Pellerin (ret.) of the military-funded Conference of Defence Associations arguing that Canadian troops have only been responsible for the deaths of 10 civilians in Afghanistan.

That’s quite a feat, since thousands of civilians have died in fighting, and Canadians have been battling insurgents for three years, but have only killed 10 civilians?

The figure is based on some DND documents obtained by Ottawa’s Embassy magazinea few weeks ago. They were mostly civilians killed by Canadian troops travelling in convoys who used lethal force when drivers didn’t heed warnings to stay away (at least we hope there was a warning).

Many Canadians have been injured or killed by suicide bombers attacking convoys, and soldiers’ rules of engagement require them to shoot-to-kill, if required, to defend the convoy.

But I think that Col. Pellerin (ret.) was “spinning” listeners about the low number of civilians killed by Canadians.

The number is likely much higher when you consider air strikes called in by Canadians, but conducted by other countries’ air forces (Canada does not have combat aircraft in Afghanistan).

Just as I told Embassy Magazine at the time, Canada frequently relies on air strikes during the fighting, and it’s from these bombings that civilians are getting killed in appalling numbers.

For instance, it took me only a few minutes to locate this CTV news report from May 25, 2006describing how at least 16 civilians, maybe more than 20, were killed in Kandahar province during a coalition battle with insurgents when “someone” called in an air strike:

Coalition forces engaged about 200 Taliban fighters near the village of Azizi, about 35 kilometres west of Kandahar, on Sunday [May 20, 2006].

Late Sunday or early Monday, the fighters retreated into the village, but continued fighting coalition troops. They took refuge in homes and a religious school.

Someone ordered air strikes.

At least 16 villagers were killed, but some estimates put the death toll at 25 or higher.

The U.S. military confirmed the death of at least 20 militants but believes they may have killed up to 60 insurgents.
The area has been closed to journalists.

Unofficially, I have heard rumours that this was not an isolated incident, and that many more civilians have been killed during battles involving Canadians.

But it may take years for this to be confirmed, if it is true. Let’s hope it’s not.

September 19, 2008 at 7:24 pm Leave a comment

Don’t prejudge soldiers’ votes

Jeff Davis’s article in this week’s Embassy Magazine would have readers believe that soldiers will vote overwhelmingly for the Conservatives, but the article does not actually quote any soldiers.

Instead, it cites a trio of spokespeople from military-funded organizations such as the Conference of Defence Associations, and the hawkish historian, Jack Granatstein.

Davis quotes retired colonel Alain Pellerin, executive director of the Conference of Defence Associations: “I would suggest that most of the members of the Canadian Forces would probably vote Conservative in this election,” he said, “I think the message from the current Conservative government probably resonates more with the troops.”

We could all easily guess that Dinosaur Jack Granatstein and Col. Allain Pellerin (ret) will vote for Stephen Harper, since their groups get a lot of funding from his government, but do they also have some “Vulcan mind-meld” with Canada’s 62,000 regular military personnel that allows them to know who soldiers will vote for?

I think that we would all be surprised to learn that military families have the same priorities as the rest of the Canadian population.

During the 2006 election, I listened to an incredulous reporter interviewing a military wife who said she was far more concerned about health care funding than more money for military equipment.

And again, this week the CBC interviewed a military wife in CFB Petawawa who said that many wives wanted the troops home right away. Could they be planning to vote NDP? Sacre bleu!

In fact, when I last checked, Alexa McDonough, Canada’s leading voice for peace in Parliament, has been elected four times as MP for Halifax, one of Canada’s most military of cities.

I’d like Jeff Davis to get outside of Ottawa’s defence lobby beltway, and go and talk to real soldiers, veterans and their families. I bet we’d all be surprised to learn that they hold a wide range of voting intentions, just like other Canadians.

September 18, 2008 at 2:46 pm Leave a comment

Le Devoir reporter pockets $2500 defence lobby prize

Le Devoir's Alec Castonguay is taking a $2500 prize from the DND-funded Conference of Defence Associations

Le Devoir reporter Alec Castonguay accepted a $2500 award from the DND-funded Conference of Defence Associations

This week Le Devoir’s military affairs reporter, Alec Castonguay, was announced as the recipient of the Conference of Defence Associations’ Ross Munro Media Award. Mr. Castonguay will receive the award, including a $2500 cash prize, at a ceremony in November.

Why is such a well respected newspaper like Le Devoir willing to permit a reporter accept a large cash prize from a lobby group like the Conference of Defence Associations, especially when the CDA received $500,000 over five years from the Department of National Defence through an agreement that requires the group to receive media coverage in return for the funding?

I raised this with Mr. Castongay. He had lots of good reasons why he should take the money. But I still think Le Devoir readers deserve better.

September 16, 2008 at 4:38 pm Leave a comment

The Liberals blew it on the Afghanistan file: Yaffe

Barbara Yaffe, columnist for the Vancouver Sun, hits the nail on the head in today’s column. Steve 

 

The Liberals blew it on the Afghanistan file

Barbara Yaffe
Vancouver Sun
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Liberals last spring squandered a potent issue that could have boosted their sagging fortunes in the current election campaign.

Because leader Stephane Dion was so keen to avoid an election call last February, the party cobbled a compromise on Afghanistan, agreeing with Conservatives that Canadian troops would stay in Kandahar until 2011.

The Liberals, in week two of the campaign and failing to find a groundswell of support for their Green Shift program, are badly in need of a popular wedge issue to differentiate themselves from Conservatives and New Democrats.

Polls show voters deeply unimpressed with Dion. Canadians don’t think Liberals have performed well in opposition or that they’re ready to govern again.

The partisan team that used to be called Canada’s Natural Governing Party has lost its longstanding edge over Conservatives in Quebec and nationally is fighting to maintain a lead over the New Democrats.

The Liberals’ valiant bid in June to gain traction by way of their bold environmental plan has been neither well understood nor broadly embraced by an electorate spooked by an economic downturn. They find themselves on the defensive in relation to the program.

Meanwhile, Dion has been forced during the first week of the campaign to awkwardly endorse both the Conservative party’s GST cut and its child-care benefit program.

Afghanistan could have been a defining issue for Liberals. They had a winning position on it that was in keeping with the views of a majority of Canadians.

Dion reasoned that Canada had done its share in the dangerous Kandahar region since July 2005, that it was time to move troops to a more stable region where they could focus on reconstruction and development work. Some 2,500 soldiers now are in Kandahar.

Dion’s position reflected the fact that Canada had suffered a disproportionate number of casualties and deaths in relation to other NATO countries. Several European countries have given their troops mandates preventing combat engagement, resulting in light casualties.

Harper has never explained to Canadians why Canada should be making such an outsized contribution to the war effort.

A Harris/Decima poll in August showed 61 per cent of respondents believe the cost to Canada “in lives and money has been unacceptable.” An Angus Reid poll last week revealed 75 per cent of Canadians believe Canada is bearing too much of the burden of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan. Nearly 60 per cent oppose it.

Conservatives are aware of their political vulnerability on the issue.

To mitigate damage, Harper has announced his government wouldn’t renew the mission beyond 2011. Never mind that previously Harper said it would be irresponsible to advertise an end date to the enemy.

In response to Harper’s statement, Steven Staples, president of the Ottawa-based Rideau Institute, pointed out that “continuing until December 2011 will mean another 40 months of combat in Kandahar.

“A lot can happen in that time, including, ironically, a potential escalation of our commitment there in the next year following the U.S. elections.”

With the Kandahar death toll approaching 100, the military assignment has become a visceral issue for many voters.

Further, the Taliban has warned it plans to escalate attacks during Canada’s election campaign; more casualties could weigh heavily on the dynamics of the current political contest.

Last February, the Liberals relinquished their political edge on Afghanistan, agreeing to a plan to keep Canadian soldiers in Kandahar until the date set by the Harper government, 2011.

The philosophical flip-flop was prompted by a pending vote on a Commons resolution on the mission. Dion feared triggering an election if the party opposed it.

The compromise the party reached was a phony one based on political expediency.

Liberals agreed to support the resolution because Canadians would remain in Kandahar to train the Afghan army and provide security for reconstruction and development.

But the party had to know that keeping troops in Kandahar meant a continuation of the dynamic whereby Canadians were doing a disproportionate share of NATO’s heavy lifting.

Thus Liberals lost a chance to stand up for fairness and oppose the Conservatives on an issue where opposition was and continues to be warranted. Their unfortunate capitulation has come back to haunt them in the current campaign.

byaffe@vancouversun.com

© The Vancouver Sun 2008

September 16, 2008 at 2:44 pm Leave a comment

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