Monday, June 20, 2016

Engaging the Object of My Research: Parliament and Civ-Mil

Parliament owns the small building that appears to be
part of the big hotel to the right but is not.
Today, I had the chance to participate in the Opposition's Defence Review.  The Conservatives are running a parallel process to that of the Minister of Defence.  I will be participating in the latter Def Review next week in Montreal.  I am not sure what the rules are for today's, in terms of Chatham House or whatever, so I will only discuss my views and my experience with some broad descriptions of the event itself.

It was a smallish group of around 12 participants plus two members of Parliament (James Bezan, the Defence Critic, and Cheryl Gallant, one of the two Vice-Chairs of the Standing Committee on National Defence), and their staff.  Besides Hon. Gallant and a staffer, the participants were male, and I was at or below the median age.  The group included retired military officers, retired public servants, defence contractors, and two academics (my colleague Jeremy Littlewood and myself). 

What did I have to say?  Well, I was reacting in part to the Conservative defence review document, which was fairly (extremely) partisan.  My basic point was that the problems Canada faces in dealing with its various defence challenges are not due to any party, but due to structural dynamics (including the partisanship that focuses on point scoring rather than improving governance).

Which structural dynamics?
Spiffy room with heaps of technology
for translation, video, etc.
  1. Every democracy screws up defence procurement in its own special way.  For Canada, everything is more expensive, takes longer, etc.  If we can figure out how to just fix it a little bit so that things cost 5% less, things are just a little bit less late, etc, that would be a major contribution.
    1. I did raise the problem of "industrial benefits" as being a major factor in choosing contractors.  How so?  That any protectionist measure ultimately costs more per job than whatever that job pays.  It is unlikely that Canada will develop a comparative advantage in naval ship-building, for instance.  And in those areas where Canada can compete, it ends up selling stuff to yucky places like Saudi Arabia.
  2. The forces of the status quo will always raise the argument that Canada needs to be flexible and have stuff across the full spectrum of military capability so that it can do combat. Yes, conflating niche/specialization with not being able to do combat. This rhetorical device is ever present in Ottawa and is aimed at avoiding decisions.  I hammered away at this:
    1. Canada is already a specialized force as it has no aircraft carriers, attack helicopters, etc, etc.  Choices have already been made about what Canada can bring to the fight, and "not everything" is that choice.
    2. The example I raised is the troubled shipbuilding program--that we can either have ones that are good at fighting subs or good at knocking down missiles but probably not both.  What do our allies need/want us to do?
    3. A key military mantra--don't reinforce failure, only reinforce success.  Do not invest additional resources into something that is not working (I hinted at subs).
  3. When we speak of the budget, there are three categories: personnel, procurement, and operations/training/maintenance.  The first two have fan clubs/advocates.  At any of these meetings, there are folks who say not to cut personnel and to spend more on personnel.  Personnel is nearly 50% of the military budget, and this is a big problem. All of Canada's allies face a similar problem but not to this degree.  The procurement issues always have fans/advocates as well: the defence contractors who are involved, the politicians representing the ridings (districts) where the stuff is built, etc.  But outside of the military, there is no one lobbying for money to be spent on maintenance, training, and operations.  Sure, the government can promise to give the military more money for a new operation, but in reality that usually means that some other defence program is cut to pay for that operation.
Anyhow, that was my two bits, plus a short rant in the Q&A about how Russia is not a threat to the Canadian arctic.

As someone doing research in the role of parliament in overseeing the military, this was very much a participant-observer kind of thing. Good times.


Anonymous said...

Great stuff, Steve. In respect to all versions of Chatham House you must not respond to this, but I bet Hon. Gallant didn't like your Russia threat rant at all :) said...

Thanks for sharing the bits you have been able to share.

Is Cheryl Gallant an Hon., though? She's never been in
cabinet that I can remember, and her profile
doesn't list her as Hon.

Looking forward to more tidbits - enjoy the ride!

Steve Saideman said...

I have no idea how to refer to parliamentarians