Thursday, July 26, 2012

Accountability, Eh?

For the past couple of years, I have had much fun going back and forth with Phil Lagassé, an expert on Canadian defence institutions, about how accountability works up here.  I have been asserting that there is no parliamentary oversight over the Canadian Forces, and his rejoinder is that oversight is a ministerial responsibility, and it is the job of parliament to oversee the Minister of National Defence.  

Which means I am right--no parliamentary oversight over the military.  But when the Minister, um, underperforms, and parliament does not do much about it, it raises questions about this whole process (process, by the way, is the dead giveaway when you are talking to someone--Americans say pra-sess, Canadians say pro-sess).   

Just in the past couple of days, we have had a series of stories about Canadian civil-military relations that remind us that this stuff is really hard.  One story focuses on Libya: that the Minister, Peter MacKay, either didn't know what he was talking about or lied when the question of costs came up.  In the new story, one of the papers got the emails where the military folks were pondering how to react to MacKay's announcement that the mission cost half as much as it really did and that he didn't get any different info from the Canadian Forces even though the Canadian Forces, via General Jon Vance said it indeed did tell the Minister about the costs.  So, was the General wrong, that they told the Minister the wrong info?  Not clear but the exchange is:
Cyr said finance officials were working to confirm what MacKay knew, but "bottom line is that if MND says he did not know, then he did not know."
"If I was wrong I'll certainly own up to it," Vance replied.
"Not suggesting you are or were wrong," Cyr answered in the last email of the chain. "A political truth can sometimes be different."
 Ah, truthiness with a hint of maple flavor.

The second recent story is that DND is cutting the program whereby the CF takes members of parliament on rides--airborne or otherwise--to demonstrate their programs.  This is in reaction to another MacKay mistake--using CF helo on a vacation trip.  Folks in DND got the CF to find information about opposition critics using CF for transport in order to silence the criticism, but these other trips were well within the parameters of educating members of parliament about weapons systems and not about convenient vacation rides.  I engaged with Phil at the time about how questionable it was for the CF to either be compelled to or be enthusiastic about digging through the records to make the opposition look bad.  So, to protect itself, the CF is now out of this business.  Which means that members of parliament can be comfortable in their ignorance about how the military works.

Crisis or not, the system here seems broken.  Not to say that the American system where Congress actually does have a significant role is better or unbroken.  Just that the Canadian system seems broken.  The Minister of National Defence has been overseeing a series of train wrecks--the F35 purchase, truck bids that have to be cancelled, mistakes about the costs of Libya (still darned cheap for what they were trying to do), and so on.  MacKay, because he was leader of one of the major Conservative fractions in Canada before they united, is, dare I say it, bullet-proof.  Harper cannot get rid of him, and so he cannot really be held to account for whatever is going on at DND.  So, accountability at the ministry?  Not so much.  Parliamentary oversight over someone at DND?  Not so much.

The good news is that this will raise heaps of good questions for my first class at Carleton--Civil-Military Relations. 

Update:  See the comment thread as Phil was strawman-ed while out of town.  He responds in the comments and then I respond to him.  The important thing is this: I distracted him from his lovely vacation in France.  So, I win.


Phil said...

The process is broken or your understanding (ie willingness to read up on Westminster) of how the process works is broken? ;-)


Phil said...

Question is this: what exactly would accountability look like if it worked? Seems to me that the MND is getting plenty or scorn, so much so that his removal from the portfolio was seen as a given up until a few weeks ago. Every time he announces something, the media is critical or sceptical. He has lost significant credibility, as has the government for keeping him on. The PM retains the right to retain him as MND, but there are political costs. Therein lies the accountability.

Phil said...

More to the point, let's look at the record since MacKay became MND.

Afghan policy: significant, undesired govt policy change.

F-35 policy: significant, undesired govt policy change.

Procurement structure: significant, unsought govt policy change.

Libya mission cost: embarrassment to the government and credibility lost.

Forcing the govt to change it's policies and respond to critiques is how accountability works under a majority govt situation. Ideally, of course, MacKay would be moved portfolios. But that was likely undermined by all the expectations and calls for his removal. But the govt will absorb political costs, as a result.

Steve Saideman said...

I guess I had higher expectations. But Phil, who I strawman-ed, has a good set of points here. My response is three fold:
1) expect to be strawed when you flee the city the month I moving there (not very neighborly);
2) Has DND/CF/the Minister shown any learning curve? Given the most recent truck fiasco, I would have to say nope.
3) MacKay really should have lost his job.
4) I would be hesistant to look at the four examples mentioned above and say accountability did its job (Afghan policy--ignorant parliament ignored the core issues for years, focusing on one small but highly salient dimension to exclusion of all others; F-35: not clear yet what is going to happen, so not sure we can chalk this up as a victory for parl power; Procurement--change?)

Phil said...

Heh. I accept that being in France allows for strawman-ing -except that it's a working vacation (bites a croissant)!

The truck fiasco is actually a perfect demonstration of a learning curve. They pulled the request for proposals *before* industry threw it back in their faces as being way over budget, unlike JSS which was canceled after industry laughed at them.

As for the F-35, the government has been backtracking since March. Considering what they were saying up to then, it's a huge policy shift, one that may result in them abandoning the program altogether if it becomes too much of a liability. That's in larger part a result of parliamentary pressure.

With respect to procurement, even the government has been expressing frustration and has been setting up secretariats to deal with all major projects. That's a big shift, one that wouldn't have happened if Parliament had been silent.