Hugh Segal – The Need for a Real Leader’s Debate on Defence

This article was originally published in the Canadian Global Affairs Institute’s Quarterly Publication, The Dispatch, June 2015.

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 previously took
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 comprehend about the core choices and
base expertise needed to understand the military
perspective. 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:

  1. What is the actual defence strategy in the Arctic in
    the face of increased Russian installations and
    apparent adventurism elsewhere?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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?
  6. 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.

Hugh Segal is Master of Massey College, Fellow at the Canadian
Global Affairs Institute and a Senior Fellow at the Munk School of
International Affairs

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