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Will the New Defence Review be “Open and Transparent”?

Will the New Defence Review be “Open and Transparent”?

By Srdjan Vucetic

The Trudeau government is giving itself twelve months to come up with a new defence document—most likely a Strategy, but quite possibly a White Paper combined with a Statement.   Apart from setting out Department of National Defence (DND) priorities, activities, and budget estimates for many years to come, this document will also be used to declare to the world that a certain Canada is back—a more responsible Canada,Canada the peacekeeper, smart-power Canada or whatever the chosen slogan might be. Much like with immigration, climate change and many other policy areas, the success of this particular rebranding move will hinge on both substance and process.

A defence policy-making process that is open to the public, the media, and, especially, the Parliament should be welcomed.

The process that led to the 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy (CFDS) can be described as closed.  Policy ideas that became the CFDS received ample bureaucratic input, but the Canadian Parliament and the Canadian public got little or no chance to discuss them.  While prototypical of the Harper era, this process was to some extent rather similar to one that generated the 2005 International Policy Statement, an umbrella policy document with which the Liberal government led by Paul Martin defined its defence priorities.  The Trudeau government has promised to do things differently.  Judging by the Minister of Defence Mandate Letter and the Throne Speech, the new defence strategy will be created in the spirit of openness and transparency.  One possible historical model for this is the Chretien government’s 1994 White Paper.  Generated through two heretofore untested mechanisms—a National Forum on Canada’s International Relations, co-chaired by DND and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, and a joint Senate-House of Commons committee—this document came to be hailed as a major improvement, especially in relation to those much-maligned defence policy-making practices of the government of Pierre Trudeau.

Assuming that it wishes to set the new gold standard for an open and transparent defence policy review, the government of Trudeau the Younger might want to take a closer look at what Canada’s allies are doing.   Consider Germany’s recent review.  Launched in May 2014 and completed in February 2015, it involved vigorous online and offline debates (some of which were conducted with foreigners, in English), a battery of public opinion surveys and even student essay competitions.  If this appears to be hyper-democratic for the Canadian taste, one might consider Australia’s ongoing road to its defence white paper, underway since April 2014.  Although plagued by delays caused by ministerial changes, partisan upheavals, and budgetary recalculations, this process has notably succeeded in drawing in the parliamentarians and the public at large, not just the usual wonks and stakeholders.

A cynic might be tempted to say that such openness and transparency is nothing but window-dressing.  At the end of the day, this argument goes, the making of defence policy is always placed in the hands of the select few who understand the unique uncertainties, contingencies, trade-offs, and confidentialities that arise in the business of protecting the nation and projecting its interests.  This thinking has many merits, but reducing the democratic deficit is not one of them.  A defence policy-making process that is open to the public, the media, and, especially, the Parliament should in fact be welcomed because it cultivates the culture of oversight and accountability.  Absent appropriate democratic scrutiny, a relatively small group of people from the top government offices may be tempted not only to inflate threats and defence budgets, but also to insist that the new global realities necessitate adoption of a defence posture that may be either excessively ambitious or overly timid and oriented toward free riding. Another major benefit of openness and transparency concerns the so-called public buy-in.  The Canadian defence community often bemoans the fact that ordinary Canadians do not always “get” why defence matters.  But this is precisely where style can help substance.  The more Canadian voters and their representatives feel included in the defence review now, the easier it will be for the government to later generate the political capital needed to finally replace all those ageing fleets, while also providing the men and women in uniform with the appropriate and timely recognition for their service.

The piece was first published in The Hill Times on 21 December 2015.  

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