Parliament Neglects its Duty to Debate Military Deployments

by Philippe Lagassé

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, May 6, 2014

It is easy to blame Parliament’s failings on an excess of executive power in our system of government. In certain cases, however, the legislature is the source of its own marginality. The absence of a substantive debate in the House of Commons regarding Canada’s military deployments in response to the crisis in Ukraine is one example.

Two weeks ago, the Canadian government announced that six CF-18s would be deployed to a NATO assurance mission in eastern Europe. This was followed by the redeployment of a Canadian frigate from the Arabian Sea to the Mediterranean, and the dispatch of 50 soldiers to a training operation in Poland.

When the government does not invite members of Parliament to vote on a deployment, therefore, opposition parties should realize that they have an opportunity to debate the mission and perform their accountability function more resolutely.

The government’s legal authority to deploy these forces is sourced in a Crown prerogative, monarchical powers that are exercised on the advice of the prime minister and cabinet. Although they are regal in origin, today they are best understood as discretionary authorities that allow the executive to fulfil its constitutional functions. The military deployment prerogative, for instance, endures because it allows the executive to act efficiently and decisively when defending Canada or Canadian interests overseas.

Governments do not require the Commons’ approval when exercising prerogatives. Instead, our parliamentary democracy has evolved such that it is the government’s exclusive responsibility to make decisions under this prerogative, and the opposition’s role to hold the executive to account thereafter. Indeed, even if they support a military operation, the opposition are still expected to question ministers about the objectives, requirements, and expected duration of the deployment.

Unfortunately, the distinct responsibilities of the executive and the legislative opposition have been blurred recently. Under the Conservative government, the Commons has been invited to vote its approval of military deployments that involve combat. This is supposed to increase the democratic legitimacy of operations where the armed forces may be required to kill or be at risk of being killed.

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Yet it has also meant that, in most cases, opposition parties have diminished their primary role as critics by voting to approve military operations that are the executive’s purview. In effect, the practice has meant that the opposition faces a trade-off between their accountability function and offering bipartisan support for combat operations.

Seen from this perspective, we can appreciate how holding military deployment votes has actually benefited the executive. During the first deployment vote held by his government in 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated that the outcome would not be binding. This suggests that the aim of the votes is not to provide a check on the executive, but to secure the Commons’ endorsement of government policy.

Deployment votes allow the executive to launder controversial or highly consequential deployment decisions through the House, making it more difficult to say that the government alone is responsible for sending the military on a dangerous mission. Moreover, although the votes can force the government to outline a deployment’s goals, and occasionally offer up a possible end date, once the Commons expresses its approval, the incentive to debate the mission dissipates, as occurred after the 2008 vote on Afghanistan and the 2011 vote on Libya.

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When the government does not invite members of Parliament to vote on a deployment, therefore, opposition parties should realize that they have an opportunity to debate the mission and perform their accountability function more resolutely. Of course, their willingness to do so will depend on the nature of the deployment. Small or routine missions may not be worth the effort. But missions of greater significance merit scrutiny, whether they involve combat or not.

Canada’s military deployments in reaction to the situation in Ukraine amount to such a mission. Although the military is being sent to provide reassurance, not engage combat, the operations are not trivial or typical. Whether they are interpreted as a signal to Russia or Canada’s allies, the deployments are an important part of the government’s response toward the crisis in Ukraine. As well, the expected length and precise nature of the deployments remain vague and are worthy of a detailed discussion in the Commons.

Regardless, the opposition parties are silent about the military mission in the House, refusing to debate with the government about the deployments, while offering lukewarm support or limp critiques in the media. Within the confines of the Commons at least, the opposition appears to believe that is better to offer tacit support for the deployment, rather than holding the government to account. In so doing, the opposition is making Parliament irrelevant in Canada’s military reaction to the events unfolding in Ukraine.

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