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National Security: The Election Issue that Wasn’t

National Security: The Election Issue that Wasn’t

It has been a long and tumultuous federal election campaign in Canada, now coming to an end with a bang not a whimper. Whatever the result on October 19, one promised election ground was largely, and strangely, vacated by all three main parties. The missing issue was national security. Not that Canadian elections are routinely fought over security issues—they aren’t. But this time around, the promise was there.

On the day that the election writ dropped, back in early August, Conservative leader Stephen Harper told Canadians from the grounds of Rideau Hall: “This is an election about leadership on the big issues that affect us all—our economy and our nation’s security.” Contesting leadership styles have been on display, challenges issued on leadership competence, notably in attack ads aimed at Justin Trudeau, and there has been plenty of talk about economic plans and Canada’s economic health from all three major parties.

National security, on the other hand, has been treated as a matter of political sideswipes and sideshows. Perhaps the most effective sideswipe has come from the Liberals, with their persistent charge that the Harper Conservatives are wallowing in the “politics of fear.” As for sideshows, there have been plenty—banning the niqab at citizenship ceremonies; debates over citizenship revocation (currently under Charter challenge); Conservative promises to introduce legislation to prevent Canadians of some stripe or other from travelling to so-called “denied areas;” and arguments, also from the Conservatives, that a go-slow (what Stephen Harper called in the Munk debate “responsible”) policy on screening Syrian and Iraq refugees was justified on security grounds. These sideshows were silly in terms of substance and relevance, and of doubtful merit as vote winners.

The absence of a serious discussion of national security at this juncture in Canada’s history reflects the persistence of a deep-rooted political immaturity.

What has not been on display from any of the parties has been a vision for Canadian national security going forward. This is, after all, an election campaign occurring in the aftermath of the first terrorist attacks on Canadian soil since 9/11 and in an environment of heightened concern about a wide range of threats, including from new terrorist groups such as the Islamic State, cyber aggression, ramped up global espionage, state adventurism (read Putin, and maybe China), growing insecurity in the Arctic, and the mounting effects of climate change.

Two of the scheduled candidates’ debates looked set to explore the national security waterfront—the Macleans’ debate early on, and the subsequent Munk debate on foreign policy. The Macleans’ debate featured some strictly on-message exchanges over Bill C-51, the government’s new anti-terrorism law, while the Munk debate had its moments on such issues as Canada-US relations and who had the necessary testosterone to stand up to Vladimir Putin. But neither debate served to bring national security issues into any kind of focus, to give them prominence, or to give any particular edge to a party and its leader. Perhaps the same, strictly political, lesson was drawn by all—we’re not sure where the votes are here, or how to go after them.

If Canadians are in doubt about where a party stands, there is one last place to turn—its official election platform. These are large-ish documents (the Conservative party’s platform comes in at 159 pages) issued at a moment in the campaign of the party’s choosing, and tend to be ignored by the media and voters. Nevertheless, these platforms are important documents which set out promises (even if many will be subsequently broken), provide sometimes rich ground for future political debate, and represent a party’s earnest efforts to find its soul and chart its path in a consensual manner.

Elizabeth May’s Green Party was the first to issue its election platform on September 9. It comes across as the most soulful. May declares at the outset: “At heart, I am an optimist.” But on national security the Greens had little to say—beyond a promise (shared with the NDP) to repeal Bill C-51.

The NDP election platform was issued in lock-step with that of the Conservatives on October 9, relatively late in the campaign. It was an enlarged version of a more folksy statement hosted on the NDP website, “Tom’s Plan,” which listed six issues, but not national security (although “retirement security” was there). However, the NDP’s broader election platform devotes eight pages (of 81) to the topic of “Safe and Secure Canada,” with the front end given over to increasing crime prevention resources. On national security proper, there is a half-page, largely focused on reiterating the NDP’s promise to repeal Bill C-51. The party also borrows from the Liberal playbook in backing the creation of a special committee of Parliament to provide “oversight” of national security intelligence activities.” There are some useful tidbits added in, but nothing beyond the terrorism threat (a strange obeisance to the Harper Conservatives’ approach to national security).

The Conservative’s platform was also issued on October 9, with the media speculating that the timing was somehow related to a desire to take advantage of the declaration of the (future) Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal. National security issues are dealt with mid-way through the 159 page document, under the chapter heading: “A More Secure Canada” (which begs the question: more secure than what?). The chapter trumpets Harper’s “principled foreign policy,” particularly on such issues as the Ukraine, Israel and military intervention against the Islamic State. On a slightly Reaganesque note, the Conservatives argue that under Stephen Harper “Canada walks tall in the world and stands for what’s right and just.” Much of that tone pervades the sections on the terrorism threat, whether abroad (Islamic State) or at home (in the shape of foreign fighters and would-be jihadists). The Conservatives, not surprisingly, stand by their previous efforts to legislate tougher anti-terrorism powers. There is very little new on offer, with the exception of a promise to do more against cyber threats. There is nothing on the espionage threat, nothing on climate change security impacts, nothing on proposals for changes to the machinery of the government, and certainly nothing on improvements to transparency and review of intelligence and security powers. The political message is stay the course, but this does not amount to a national security strategy

Do the Liberals do any better, by way of strategic vision or new ideas, than their counterparts? The Liberal election platform was released on October 5, a few days before the NDP and Conservative ones, and is of roughly the same heft as the NDP document (88 Liberal pages vs. 81 for the NDP). Discussion of national security for the Liberals, as with the Conservatives and NDP, comes in the middle to back pages of the platform. Their discussion (in Chapter 4, “A Strong Canada”) is similarly broad-based, leading off with a section on domestic violence and sexual assault, and including new approaches to guns, assault weapons and marijuana. The Liberals have managed to defend and sustain their position on C-51, calling for repeal of problematic elements of the bill and the introduction of more balanced legislation. There are signs the electorate is prepared to allow what Thomas Mulcair called the Liberals’ “desire to have their cake and eat it too.” By cake, Mulcair presumably meant poison pill.

Is there a Liberal national security vision or strategy on offer in their election platform? No. Are there any new ideas? Not really. Most are repeats of Liberal pronouncements from the debate on Bill C-51. The one exception—the promise to require a new legal authorization/warrant regime to control the collection of Canadians’ communications by our signals intelligence agency, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE)—drew virtually no attention.

What does the manifest weakness of all the party election platforms on national security really mean? Does it reinforce Kim Campbell’s famous adage that elections are no time for a serious discussion of policy? Does it reflect a lack of certainty about where votes lie in such issues? Does it reflect a prudent calculation about maintaining public calm? Probably all three calculations are at play. But there is one other, more damning, conclusion. The absence of a serious discussion of national security at this juncture in Canada’s history reflects the persistence of a deep-rooted political immaturity.

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