Sunday, December 15, 2019

The 2019 Mandate Letter to Minister of Defence: Some Reactions

The mandate letters were released this week, so I thought I would take a look at the Defence letter.  These letters are from the Prime Minister to the rest of cabinet, and, in parlance of principal-agency theory, are the instructions and discretion given by the principal to the agents.  It starts with stuff that applies to all ministers with references to a plan for the middle class and a reference to working within "the minority parliament."  Which ain't easy, of course.  References to dealing with provinces and Indigenous Peoples are part of the generic instructions.  For DND, provincial challenges exist but are not central.  Regarding Indigenous Peoples, they are quite relevant to two obvious areas and perhaps one less obvious area: the Canadian Rangers as the primary Canadian defence force in the north, the desire to recruit a more diverse force, and ... maybe land claims regarding where the CAF bases and exercises.  That last is just a guess, as I don't recall any recent stories. 

The document calls for transparency, which would be a chance for DND, according to those who deal with it.  I remember long ago a parliamentary staffer saying that when they wanted to know what DND was up to, they would call the Pentagon as the Americans would share information more freely. 

The part of the document that is specific to Defence starts with reference to Strong, Secure, Engaged--the product of the 2017 Defence Review.  Given that this was only two years ago and presented a fully costed (or so they say) assessment of the defence picture, it makes sense to stick with it rather have it serve as a baseline.  Indeed, in my interactions with DND/CAF people, it is quite clear this document remains the focal point of thinking and planning for pretty much everyone.

Onto the specifics:

  • "Ensure the Canadian Armed Forces have the capabilities and equipment required to uphold their responsibilities through continued implementation of Strong, Secure, Engaged, including new procurements and planned funding increases."  Good luck with that, as DND still lacks the procurement staff needed to process all of this.  I do think there is progress being made, but no one can expect quick changes here.
  • "Work with the Minister of Foreign Affairs to ensure that any deployment of the Canadian Armed Forces aligns with Canada’s national interest, our multilateral commitments and the Government’s policy objectives."  There are heaps of deployments, but mostly are NATO-flavored--Latvia, Ukraine (even if not formally NATO), Iraq (even if recently NATO-ed).  Very few UN deployments--the Mali mission was small and brief.  It provided a critical asset--helos and medical teams--but it did not last long.
  • "Work with the Minister of Foreign Affairs to expand Canada’s support for United Nations peace operations, including with respect to new investments in the women, peace and security agenda, conflict prevention and peacebuilding."  The WPS agenda?  Sure.  The peace ops?  Given that I have heard that the Minister is risk-averse, and the PM probably does not mind that, I don't expect much in the way of significant peacekeeping deployments over the next four years.
  • "Expand Canadian defence cooperation and training assistance, in particular by drawing on the expertise of the Canadian Armed Forces to help other countries at greater risk of disasters due to climate change."  Training is relatively easy and relatively risk-free, so this is likely to happen.  The linking of training with climate change-related risk/disasters makes a lot of sense, alas, and will be much in demand, double alas.
  • "Work with the Minister of Public Services and Procurement to manage the competitive process to select a supplier and enter into a contract to construct Canada’s fighter aircraft fleet."  This is, indeed, a priority.  It will be the subject of much controversy not matter what happens. Time to bite the bullet and make a decision.  
  • "Work with the Minister of Public Services and Procurement on the renewal of the Royal Canadian Navy Fleet, continuing the revitalization of the shipbuilding industry, creating middle class jobs and ensuring Canada’s Navy has the modern ships that it needs."  I hate that jobs (and what they mean by jobs are votes) is so central to this.  But, yes, it is inevitable that the ships will get built, all of them, since all of the parties are held hostage of Halifax and Vancouver.... and perhaps now Davie, Quebec.
  • "Support the Minister of Public Services and Procurement to bring forward analyses and options for the creation of Defence Procurement Canada.... This priority is to be developed concurrently with ongoing procurement projects and existing timelines."  This was a campaign promise.  Many questions:
    • It is not clear what it really means--will a new agency do most of the heavy lifting, reducing the roles played by Public Works and by DND?  Or will it add another layer of oversight, which means slower, longer, more expensive?  
    • How will Public Works and DND resist this?  Because, yes, bureaucracies resist.  Also, trying to procure a lot and build a new institution at the same time is kind of working at cross-purposes because people have limited time and energy.  So, building a new agency might make sense for the long run.  BUT it might slow things down in the short run.
    • Other places have done something like this.  In South Korea, a procurement agency does all of the heavy lifting, leaving out their Ministry of Defence and their legislature to a large degree.  
  • "Work with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Northern Affairs and partners through the Arctic and Northern Policy Framework to develop better surveillance (including by renewing the North Warning System), defence and rapid-response capabilities in the North and in the maritime and air approaches to Canada, to strengthen continental defence, protect Canada’s rights and sovereignty and demonstrate international leadership with respect to the navigation of Arctic waters."  Oh my.  This is a lot.  The renewing of the North Warning System was not in the SSE costings, if I recall correctly, and is subject to much negotiation with the US.  This means it is both expensive and politically dangerous.  The existing deal, again if I remember correctly, has Canada paying 40% with the US paying the rest.  Is this a deal that Trump will let stand or will he seek to renegotiate.  I understand that this is fairly urgent, but if possible, I recommend delaying until December 2020... when Canada knows what kind of partner it will have.  Better to bargain with a Democrat, any Democrat, than Trump.
  • "Continue to improve support for the women and men of the Canadian Armed Forces and to ensure a workplace characterized by professionalism, inclusion and valuing diversity"  including "Achieve the goal of 25 per cent of Canadian Armed Forces members being women by 2026."  Sorry, but the goal is not going to be reached.  The CAF has a hard enough time retaining the women it recruits.  There has been much talk, study, and, indeed, action on this file, but it is hard to make substantive change in an organization's culture in a short period of time.  Yes, women have been in combat positions in the CAF for three decades now, but the efforts to change the culture have not been so consistent.  The Deschamps Commission was in 2015, so expecting big changes in four years or ten is unrealistic.  But I definitely agree that this should be a major priority.  The best way to improve the CAF is to double its recruiting pool.  If women were truly comfortable in the armed forces--that their equipment was designed for women, that there would not be jokes across the CAF about Operation Honor would be called Up On Her, and so forth, then the recruiting pool would be wide and deep.  Same for making people of color and immigrants more comfortable in the armed forces.  Slapping white supremacists (who are always misogynists) on the wrist is not going to do it.
  • "With the support of the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, introduce a new framework governing how Canada gathers, manages and uses defence intelligence, as recommended by the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians."  Woot, more oversight!  Of course, my question is: this only covers intel, not operations, so who will be overseeing Canadian secret opsJust the PM, MinDef, and civil servants?  Hmmm...
Overall, these are not bad priorities.  I am just a bit skeptical about how realistic some of the goals are, and I worry that some of the efforts to make things better might make things worse--the new Defence Procurement Agency is no panacea.  I do appreciate the transparency about the priorities.  The fun part for the government is that they will be held to account much more seriously now that the committees no longer are dominated by the Liberals.  Minority government means committees matter.  Alas, the Defence Committee lacks staff and clearances, so I expect the government to resist quite a bit in terms of giving them the info they need to ask tough questions.  Which means... alas... crappy questions and position-taking.  Expect the F-35 program fighter replacement program to be a magnet for parliamentary and media attention to almost the exclusion of everything else.  While the Dave/Phil/Steve project on legislative oversight does not have Canada at the very lamest end of the spectrum (that would be Japan these days), it ain't that far away either. 

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