Archive for September, 2008
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.
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.
All new post by Steven Staples to the Ceasefire Insider blog appear on out new blog, located at http://www.ceasefire.ca.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
© The Vancouver Sun 2008
Oddly now, the revolt over the war is coming from the Right wing, not the Left.
Stephen Harper’s pledge that Canadian troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan in 2011 has been received with a lot of scepticism. And for good reason – Canadians have been fooled before.
Even I was caught wearing rose coloured-glasses when I wrote an oped for the Ottawa Citizen in the summer of 2007 that argued that Harper had finally seen the light and that the mission would end in 2009.
In June of that year, just after Parliament started its summer break, Mr. Harper said that “this mission will end in February 2009.” He added that the only way the mission would continue would be with the agreement of the Liberals.
But…start with one report by John Manley, add a flip-flopping Stephane Dion, then bake with the threat of an election and…presto! By March 2008 Harper had managed to extend the war to 2011 when the Liberals voted with the Conservatives in a Parliamentary vote.
My mistake at the time? Underestimating the power and influence of the defence lobby.
While everyone this week was pointing out “what a change” these new comments from Harper had been, the DND-funded Conference of Defence Associations was telling people to check the fine print.
Discussing the Harper pledge with me on CPAC, CDA director Col Alain Pellerin (ret.) said,
“If you look back to the agreement in the House it does say ‘summer 2011, out by the end of the year.’ Also I think you have to read the fine print of his comments today because he talks about the bulk being out but we might leave some technical capabilities and advisors. So what I foresee is yes the combat mission will end in 2011, summer 2011, to be replaced as we see today.” CPAC Interview – September 10, 2008 (Season 7, Episode 3)
To be sure, defence lobby groups like the Conference of Defence Associations don’t like these end dates. Are they planning their own campaign to help Harper avoid this pledge?
Now, facing criticism from parent of a soldier killed in Afghanistanand having to fire a communications staff member for accusing the father of being a Liberal supporter, Harper may be wondering if his bid to win votes in Quebec and remove the contentious Afghan war issue from the table risks angering his political base.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay rushed out to further clarify Mr. Harper’s comments:
“I was surprised by the reaction,” Mr. MacKay said. “A vote has been taken twice under our government to allow the members of Parliament elected in every riding in Canada to have their say on this issue and what the Prime Minister said [Wednesday] is completely consistent with what he said all along: We respect the parliamentary mandate.”
Is Harper risking his political base? This was debated last night on the CBC’s right-leaning At Issue panel. Chantal Hebert asked, “Where would those angry Conservatives go?” since there was no more right wing party that the Conservatives for war supporters to vote for. Andrew Coyne thought they might just stay home in protest (not very likely, tho).
Oddly now, the revolt over the war is coming from the Right wing, not the Left. Will pro-war Canadians be the ones to keep the issue in the spotlight?
Rideau Institute’s response to Harper announcement on Afghanistan, that regarding Canada’s military contribution to the war in Afghanistan, “We intend to end it [in 2011].”
- Canadians should greet this election promise with some scepticism, since Mr. Harper is likely to say whatever it takes to win a majority. This is an attempt to remove the Afghanistan war from the election campaign.
- The end date of December 2011 puts Canada at less than halfway through its mission in Kandahar, which began officially in February 2006, or 30 months ago. 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.
- Mr. Harper’s new position is trying to address a growing public unease with the war. 61% say that the cost to Canada “in lives and money has been unacceptable” (Harris/Decima Aug. 28-31, 2008). It is unrealistic to expect that Canadians will accept another three years of sacrifice.
- Instead, Mr. Harper should make a commitment to refocus Canadian efforts to ending the war, not handing it over to the Afghans to fight after we’re gone.
Expect to hear a lot of discussion about Canada’s war in Afghanistan during this election? Don’t hold your breath.
The truth is that for the policy elites in this country, the war has been taken off the table by the flip-flop of the Liberals when they supported the Conservatives (again) for an extension of the war to December 2011.
So far, only Global TV has contacted the Rideau Institute to explore the impact of the war, and you can watch our program Director Anthony Salloum in the TV debate.
The lack of interest is surprising, since pollsters consistently put Afghanistan in the top four issues on the minds of Canadians.
But frankly, the war is a wildcard. For instance, a recent Canadian Press-Harris Decima poll found that 61% of Canadians believe the war has been too costly.
But in a bizarre twist, a poll by Environics found that a majority (36%) of Canadians think that the Conservatives are the best party to handle the war, even though they have been running it into the ground since they were elected in 2006.
Of course, with the death toll rising, the war will be thrust back into news again when the 100th soldier is killed in the coming weeks. It’s a morbid deathwatch, but I know of at least one newspaper that is planning a major feature, and I expect that the others are doing the same.
There is a truism that Canadians don’t cast their vote based on foreign policy questions. That’s why you will see the NDP focusing on the same “kitchen table” issues it has in the past, such as jobs and healthcare, and probably won’t discuss the war very frequently.
It’s a missed opportunity, because the war is an important issue for them to distinguish themselves from the flip-flop Liberals. The war is also having an impact of social programs, in that the $150 million per month Canada spends on the full cost of the war is not available for social programs at home.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could redefine what Canada’s national security needs really are? Shouldn’t we be concerned about job security? Energy security? Environmental security? Those are issues that I would cast my ballot for.