A first impression

Those who have been uneasy about the prospects for significant increases in government expenditures on the Canadian Forces in general, and on their Maritime assets in particular, presumably have found little comfort in the 2007 budget.

The relatively small allocations to environmental allowances ($60 million per year), the creation of five new Operational Stress Injury Clinics ($10 million per year), and the establishment of a Veterans' Ombudsman's office ($5.3 million in 2007-2008 and $6.3 million "thereafter," with an additional $13.7 million per year to enhance veterans' services and deal with problems the Ombudsman brings to light) are doubtless important initiatives in their own right, but they have little bearing on operational capabilities.

With regard to the latter, the budget merely asserts that DND "has made significant progress towards the implementation of the Canada First Defence Strategy to strengthen Canada's independent capacity to defend our national sovereignty and security." In that connection, it reminds us of the approvals already given to "the acquisition of joint support ships, a medium-sized logistics truck fleet, medium- to heavy-lift helicopters, as well as enhanced strategic and tactical airlift capability."

For the rest, it simply "accelerates" the implementation of the Canada First plan by providing a $175 million additional DND budget increase for the 2007-08 fiscal year - a sum that the government expects to retrieve (assuming it survives in office) through a corresponding reduction in the increase of $1,400 million previously scheduled for fiscal 2009-10. In effect, the Department is getting the $175 million extra now, rather than two years down the road - a decision that may simply reflect the need to deal with the enhanced cost of operations in Afghanistan between now and 2009.

Since the Canada First plan itself seems to be mired down in processes internal to the DND, the CF and the government in general, the details are difficult for residents of the peanut gallery to divine. That said, if observers friendly to the naval arm were worried before, they should still be worried now.

Those with a defence expertise that runs far deeper than mine are obviously much better equipped than I to dissect the implications of all this in detail. At the most general level, however, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the "new Conservative" government has begun to react to the defence file in relatively standard - and predictable - fashion. That it has done so may seem somewhat surprising, given that it appears to entertain a relatively muscular view of how Canada ought to perform in the world. (James Travers reported in the Toronto Star as recently as May 17 that the views of Roy Rempel, the 'realist' author of Dreamland: How Canada's Pretend Foreign Policy Has Undermined Sovereignty, who is currently working for Stockwell Day and used to advise Stephen Harper when he was in Opposition, are now "mainstream.")

But I have been reminded by the political scientist, Jennifer Smith, that the conservatism of the Harper government includes a strong element of populism, and as it turns out, this was powerfully evident not only in the domestic policy parts of the budget, but also in Chapter 6 (entitled "A Safer Canada: Building a Stronger Canada in a Modern World"). This is the Chapter in which the defence budget is discussed, but in which even more attention is devoted to "public security" issues of the "law and order" variety (e.g., the drug trade, the sexual exploitation of children, the problem posed by criminal gangs, the requirements of policing and correctional services, and the like). Even the Liberals - who have traditionally been more inclined to attribute criminal misbehaviour less to individual misfires of nature than to collective failures of nurture - have apparently decided that getting tough on crime is now the politically prudent way to go. It also happens to be the populist way.

The new Conservatives, in short, may come by their populism honestly (even if captains of industry in the oil patch and elsewhere are now surprised by it), but it happens at the moment to coincide with political advantage - an advantage that their adversaries also detect. It is an advantage that any party with a serious interest in improving on its minority political position is likely to find attractive.

The problem from the defence point of view is that military expenditures are not a populist priority, and rarely become so unless something happens in the international environment that arouses a prolonged and deeply rooted sense of public outrage. From that perspective, the government's decision to emphasize giving extra allowances for soldiers who are in harm's way (and in so doing to match the practice in the navy and air force), along with new investment both in the treatment of "operational stress injuries" and in a more empathetic approach to caring for the needs of veterans, makes perfect political sense. (It may also make good moral sense. But that is a different issue.)

Spending large amounts of money on expensive "blue water" naval gear for use overseas - by this sort of political test, at any rate - doesn't measure up. It is conceivable that the pattern might be a little different if the Conservatives had a comfortable majority and were in no visible danger of losing it, particularly since Ottawa is still awash in money.

But I wouldn't count on it.