Where the Canadian Conservative Leadership Candidates Stand on Defence

2 February 2017 – Toronto, CA

by Alim Jiwa

As the world continues to be reshaped on an almost daily basis in these early days of the Trump administration, The Trudeau government has found itself in a rather difficult position.  It is attempting to perform a complicated balancing act between signaling its opposition to what it sees as the isolationist and discriminatory approach being taken on foreign and security policy by the White House and maintaining a productive working relationship with its new counterparts south of the border.

The Canadian government has already had to reassess its looming peacekeeping mission to Mali to ensure its defence priorities do not fundamentally conflict with those of the new American leadership.  This is occurring in spite of the objections of France and Germany, who have both been counting on Canada to provide support to their ongoing operations in the increasingly dangerous North African country.  Additionally, the prospect that Canada may have to make progress towards meeting NATO’s 2%-of-GDP threshold on defence spending, despite the significant fiscal pressures the government currently faces, is another major preoccupation of Canadian lawmakers.

All of this has been occurring on the backdrop of the 14-participant-strong Conservative Party of Canada leadership race, which is due to elect a replacement to former Prime Minister Stephen Harper on May 27th.  The leading candidates to become Canada’s Leader of the Official Opposition, and possibly Prime Minister-in waiting, have now begun to paint a picture of how they might navigate the contentious new global landscape in which Canada finds itself.

The three current front runners to replace Harper are Maxime Bernier, a Quebec MP with libertarian inclinations and former Minister of Industry and Foreign Affairs, Kevin O’Leary, a businessman and TV personality, and Kellie Leitch, an Ontario MP and former Minister of Labour and Status of Women who has gained notoriety for her adoption of the Trumpian policy proposal of screening immigrants for “Canadian values.”  None of these individuals is known for their intellectual and professional background in the areas of foreign and defence policy. This is in spite of Maxime Bernier’s short stint in the Foreign Affairs portfolio in the early years of the Harper government which came to a crashing, scandal-ridden end. However, they have each provided at least some indications of how the direction they would take Canada’s international policies would diverge from, and overlap with, the Trudeau government.

Maxime Bernier

Bernier recently released a policy statement in which his campaign professed that a future Bernier government would ensure that “foreign policy [would] focus on the security and prosperity of Canadians – not pleasing the dysfunctional United Nations” and would “work with allies to defend Canada’s security, especially against radical Islamic terrorism.”  There is much language here that would correspond with that of the Trump administration, which takes a similarly security-focused view its international role while maintaining a skeptical eye towards the United Nations.  The viewpoint also contrasts with that of the Trudeau government, which has made the revival of Canada’s role in the United Nations as cornerstone of its internationalist foreign policy.

Kevin O’Leary

O’Leary has come out in favour of greater military spending, saying he supports seeing Canada get closer to meeting the 2%-of-GDP defence spending threshold set out by NATO, which would put him onside with the Trump administration’s demand for American allies.  He has also made criticisms of Trudeau’s defence procurement policy, having expressed support for Canada moving away from using the Lockheed C-140 Aurora on cost-related grounds and advocating for a Canadian aerial combat drone program.  In an area in which an O’Leary government would diverge significantly from Trudeau’s new foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland’s highly critical stance, the candidate has said that he would treat Russia as “neither an ally nor a foe.”  Such a position might also be seen by the Trump administration as closer to its own than the one that is currently being pursued by the Canadian government.  In one particular area, however, O’Leary seems to dovetail with the Trudeau government on matters of principle: peacekeeping and military intervention.  O’Leary has signaled that he supported the Trudeau government’s decision to end airstrikes against ISIS and would support sending peacekeepers to Syria at a time in the future when they would be needed.   Notably, this reflects a significant departure from past Conservative Party policy on foreign and defence policy, which has tended to be skeptical of peacekeeping and opposed to the Liberal government’s decision to withdraw Canada’s fighter jets from the anti-ISIS coalition.   Bernier has also not expressed similarly pro-peacekeeping and anti-airstrike views.

Kellie Leitch

Kellie Leitch provided scant indication of the type of foreign and defence policy a government led by her would pursue, and has chosen to spend most of her campaign touting hot-button wedge issues such as her “Canadian values” screening proposal and the legalization of mace and pepper spray for women’s self-defence.  It should be no surprise, therefore, that her only foreign policy proposal thus far is also a rather hot-button wedge issue: moving the Canadian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  This proposal would likely find favour with the Trump administration as it mirrors its own.  However, it diverges from the position of the current Trudeau government, which, while pro-Israel in orientation, is supportive of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Erin O’Toole

In review, we see some clear indications of the direction that a Prime Minister Bernier or O’Leary would take in foreign and defence policy in their past pronouncements, and scarce information about the policies that would be pursued by a Prime Minister Leitch.  Notably, none of these three candidiates seem to match the comprehensiveness of Erin O’Toole.  O’Toole, an Ontario MP and 10-year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces, is only viewed as having an outside chance of winning the leadership race.   Furthermore, his stint as Minister of Veterans’ Affairs in the last months of the Harper government was not without its controversy; he was both accused of misleading Canadians on Veterans’ mental health and making public an important report on benefits for Veterans before the community was consulted on it. Regardless of all this, he merits an honourable mention for the extent to which his platform outclasses his opponents on the defence portfolio. In his 14-page policy document entitled “A True North Strong and Secure”, O’Toole has stated that he would develop “a responsible plan to meet Canada’s 2% of GDP NATO target on a strategic timeline that reflects the strength of our economy and the priorities of Canada…to ensure the capabilities required for Canada to contribute to domestic, continental and allied defence needs” and engage in the “streamlining and de-politicizing [of] defence procurement so our troops have the equipment they need on-time and on-budget.”  In order to achieve this, O’Toole says he “would establish a new non-partisan and professional Defence Procurement Agency under the responsibility of a dedicated Minister of State.”   Among other crucial points, he has also stated that he would pursue “protecting the Arctic by developing our Arctic security assets, upgrading our radars and satellite coverage and by deploying drone technology”, as well as “increasing military exchanges and implementing new defence cooperation agreements with key allies Israel and Ukraine”.  He has also committed to “establishing a new cyber warfare division in CAF, and proposing that it become a NATO Centre of Excellence.”  This particular proposal, however, could be redundant due to the fact that Estonia has already established a NATO  Centre of Excellence for Cyber Defence and the United Kingdom has made an exceptionally strong contribution to cyber warfare research that would be expensive and difficult to surpass.  Additionally, it is notable that O’Toole has expressed his concern about both “Russian aggressiveness and Chinese geo-political posturing”, which signals potential foreign policy divergence from the Trump administration on the first count and divergence from the Trudeau government and its efforts to cozy up to China on the second.

Overall, there is still much uncertainty about what kind of foreign and defence policy would be pursued by a future Conservative government.  As debate over the future policies of the Official Opposition continues, it is bound to be shaped by the challenges and roadblocks that the Trudeau government will encounter as it navigates the complexities of the new global order in the months ahead.

 

Feature Photo:  “Canadian troops at UNITAS Gold amphibious landing demonstration” – Wikimedia Commons, 2017

DefenceReport’s Analysis is a multi-format blog that is based on opinions, insights and dedicated research from DefRep editorial staff and writers. The analysis expressed here are the author’s own and are separate from DefRep reports, which are based on independent and objective reporting.


About

Alim Jiwa is an international public policy professional and commentator. His specialities are international conflict and peacebuilding and Canadian foreign policy. He holds a Master of Arts in Conflict Studies jointly awarded by the University of Ottawa and Saint Paul University and an Honours Bachelor of Public Affairs and Policy Management with a Specialization in International Studies from Carleton University’s Arthur Kroeger College of Public Affairs. He is currently based in Toronto, Canada and can be reached at ajiwa@defencereport.com


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