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Why the NDP needs a new defence critic

Progressive politicians should be challenging defence budgets and the military’s outsize influence over policy makers

Canadian PoliticsWar Zones

CAF members along with American and Polish forces participate in medical evacuation training during Operation REASSURANCE in Adazi, Latvia. Photo by Corporal Zebulon Salmaniw/Canadian Armed Forces/Twitter.

What should progressive Canadians expect from the defence critic representing the country’s only left wing party? An easy answer might be legitimate criticism of cost overruns within the military, or the army’s participation in dubious combat operations at the behest of our southern neighbour. Yet, in the case of the New Democratic Party, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

The Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces constitute the largest federal government ‘department’ in the country. While they are technically separate entities under the National Defence Act, together they represent by far the biggest budget, staff, public relations machine and intelligence-gathering capacities of any arm of the Canadian state. With approximately 24,000 employees, DND alone spends $30 billion annually, 15 times the budget of Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Across the country, DND manages the “largest infrastructure portfolio in the federal government” with its many bases and stations covering over two million hectares. Combined, the DND and the CAF are also the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases in the federal government.

Offensively oriented, the Canadian military has innumerable ties to the defence apparatus of the United States. Canada has hundreds of cooperation agreements with the US military and the CAF are deployed on more than 20 international missions with their American counterparts.

Despite numerous accords, deployments, and expenditures that justifiably warrant critique by duly elected members of Canada’s opposition parties, the current NDP Critic on National Defence, Randall Garrison, barely challenges the DND (with the notable exception of sexism within the army). In fact, Garrison is a longtime supporter of increased defence spending, and he has remained mum on the Canadian Surface Combatant program, the largest military procurement in Canadian history.

Garrison has stayed silent on Canadian naval vessels taking over NATO’s Standing Naval Forces in the Baltic, North and Norwegian Seas. He has also said nothing about Canadian vessels participating in provocative maneuvers in the South China Sea or Canadian ships engaged in multinational patrols with their Saudi Arabian counterparts. Nor has the NDP defence critic mentioned rotations of Canadian pilots in Romania or the small detachment of troops at a US base in Saudi Arabia. What’s more, Garrison openly backed Canada’s sizable ‘training’ deployments to Iraq, Ukraine and Latvia.

The MP for Esquimalt—Saanich—Sooke has also been quiet about Canadian defence attachés (diplomats who maintain and advance Canada’s international defence materiel relationships with allies) promoting arms exports in more than a dozen countries. Further, Garrison has shown little concern about the costly, ecologically damaging and violent nature of Canada’s planned fighter jet purchase.

As I wrote recently, Garrison’s most egregious position concerns the Canadian Surface Combatant procurement, which is the largest in Canadian history. “Amidst growing media criticism,” I noted in early January, “Garrison has said nothing regarding the frigates’ cost, secrecy or weaponry. He hasn’t released a single tweet (or retweet) about any of the recent stories on the surface combatant vessels.”

The silence continued after the Parliamentary Budget Officer estimated last month that the cost of acquiring 15 heavily armed surface combatants could be as high as $77 billion, three times the initial estimate.

In a recent Hill Times article, former Assistant Deputy Minister of Materiel at DND and Assistant Deputy Minister, Supply Operations Service in Public Works and Government Services Canada, Alan Williams, suggested the full lifecycle cost of the surface combatant will be an eye popping $286 billion. That would cover tuition for every university student in the country for 15 years or guarantee safe drinking water on every First Nation reserve 100 times over. Despite this, the project’s ballooning costs have not stirred Garrison to speak out in the House of Commons. His silence suggests he supports plowing a quarter of a trillion dollars into strengthening the navy’s ability to engage in operations at home and abroad. This is curious considering his riding is home to CFB Esquimalt, Canada’s Pacific Coast naval base and home port to Maritime Forces Pacific and Joint Task Force Pacific Headquarters.

Garrison’s uncritical deference to the military is a consistent feature of his politics. In an interview with Canadian Defence Review in September 2020, Garrison was asked a question about spending millions of dollars to upgrade the ecologically destructive public relations tool known as the Snowbirds (officially, the military aerobatics or air show flight demonstration team of the Royal Canadian Air Force). In his response, Garrison said: “I go with what the Canadian Forces say they need and want to do, so I don’t have a personal opinion about whether this is what they need to do. If the Canadian Forces tell me, and they clearly have, that this is an important part of what they do and we need to spend money on it, then I’ll support them.”

NDP members, activists and MPs shouldn’t accept this. It is long past time for Canada’s progressive political party to appoint a defence critic who has an interest in calling to account the military’s seemingly untouchable budget and its outsize influence over policy makers.

On the eve of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 72nd anniversary, the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute is hosting a webinar titled “Why Canada should leave NATO.” For more information on how to register, click here.

Yves Engler has been dubbed “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left today” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I.F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), and “part of that rare but growing group of social critics unafraid to confront Canada’s self-satisfied myths” (Quill & Quire). He has published nine books.

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