Staples op-ed: Defence spending must be brought under control

by Steven Staples

It’s hard to walk down Ottawa’s Sparks Street these days without tripping over some lobbyist or public relations consultant for the arms industry. Strategically located only a block from Parliament Hill, the street is a beachhead for firms vying for a larger piece of the military budget.

Year after year defence spending has been rising. Increases brought in by the Paul Martin Liberals, and later boosted by the Stephen Harper Conservatives, have created a lucrative market for Canadian and international (especially U.S.) defence contractors.

Military spending will reach $22.3 billion in 2010-2011, according to a report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives authored by Rideau Institute senior advisor Bill Robinson – 54% higher than before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

As the total budget increases, so does the amount spent on equipment. Last year DND told NATO that it intended to devote 17.5% of its spending to equipment expenditures in 2010, a 38% increase from the previous year.

Bill Robinson

This is good news for firms such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and General Dynamics. These US-based firms have been selling fleets aircraft, helicopters, vehicles to the Canadian Forces, and hope to sell a lot more. But how much longer can the party last?

Military-funded lobby groups, such as the Conference of Defence Associations, have lobbied for increases to military spending by arguing we are a relatively small spender and are shirking our responsibility to NATO.

But they are ignoring the fact that NATO and other international authorities rank Canada as the 13th largest military spender in the world in real dollars, and the 6th largest within the 28-member NATO alliance.

Canada’s military spending is sure to come under increased attention as the financial deficit increases. Demands for more spending on social programs on the one hand, or tax cuts on the other, will compete with the military’s bulging line item on Finance Department spreadsheets.

Canada’s finances are in poor shape, and Finance Minister Flaherty expects to post a budget deficit of around $50 billion, potentially the worst on record. Like a tap that only turns one way, the Conservatives are committed to increasing military spending for years to come.

How can more increases be justified given that Canada’s spending is now higher than at any time since Adolf Hitler’s defeat at the end of the Second World War, in adjusted dollars?

Reducing military spending is becoming the norm in NATO, and Canada’s Conservative government is falling out of step with its allies. Most governments in NATO are looking to reduce their military spending, not increase it. NATO’s annual report on Defence Expenditures of NATO Countries (1990-2010) shows that 17 of 28 member countries plan to reduce the amount of dollars spent on defence.

When defence spending is compared to national economies, Canada stands alongside Poland, Luxembourg, and Albania as the only NATO countries planning to increase the defence spending as a percentage of GDP.

The reality is Canadians are turning their attention toward issues at home, such as jobs.

A Leger Marketing poll this month found that almost 60% of those questioned believe that “Canada should take a peace dividend and cut back on military spending to focus on other more pressing social issues at home.” An increase of 10 points over a similar poll taken a year ago.

But the main question here is, will these people find a federal party to represent their views? The truth is that for many years, no political party has been prepared to say “no” to increased military spending: not the Liberals, not the NDP, not the Bloc Québécois, and certainly not the Conservatives whose political base eats up military spending like red meat (despite their party’s reputation as low-tax, no-deficit supporters).

The first sign of a break with the recent past has been the Liberals’ questioning of the F-35 stealth fighters.

It should be noted that Michael Ignatieff has not called for reducing military spending. The party supports replacing our CF-18s with new fighter-bombers – they just don’t like this particular stealth fighter deal. The other parties also oppose the deal, but the Liberals have seized the issue to distinguish themselves from the Conservatives.

Whether this evolves into a larger debate about government spending priorities and the demands of the defence lobby remains to be seen, but it certainly could become emblematic of the public’s desire to bring the post-9/11 chapter to a close, and refocus on issues at home.

Steven Staples is the President of the Rideau Institute, and author of Missile Defence: Round One. Twitter: @stevenstaples

This commentary appeared in the April 2011 edition of Esprit de Corps magazine.

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