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Federal Defence spending versus Federal Health and Education spending

Tim Dunne’s article on government expenditures shows that provincial spending on health and education are huge in comparison to what the federal government spends on defence. The province of Quebec spent 30.4 percent more and the province of Ontario spent 108 percent more on health care alone than the estimated $23B the federal government spent on defence in Fiscal Year 2013-14.

However, the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace raised the criticism that the federal government “spend[s] twice as much on the military as they do on education and health care combined.” It is true that the federal government expends funds in these areas and does so via the Transfer of Payments Program. So, to answer their question we need know what was given to the provinces by the federal government for them to spend on health care and education.

Data for federal transfers to the provinces for FY 2013-14 can be found on the Department of Finance website here. The information shows total transfers to the provinces amounted to $62.3B. The amount for the Canada Health Transfer within that total was $30.28B. Therefore, the amount spent by the federal government just on health was $7B or 30 percent more, not less, than what was said to be spent on defence. Unless some very creative accounting was employed that I am not aware of, it is fundamentally impossible that federal spending on health and education was less than half of what was spent on defence.

The FY2013-14 Main Estimates from the Department of Finance shows total federal expenditures for defence as $17.985B. So, an argument could be made that the defence budget is actually even lower than the $23B presented as ‘too high’ in relation to federal health and education expenditures. Major capital programs are irregular expenditures. People hearing the large numbers for aircraft and ship replacement assume it all being expended at once. In fact, it is paid out in small amounts over a very long period of time to reduce its impact on the federal budget.

What does it all mean? Passionate supporters of causes will latch onto any statistic if it supports their position and will defend the argument built on these numbers vehemently because they feel their cause is morally just. Supporters of the military see the defence of the country and the citizenry as the government’s most important responsibility. The dilemma between the peace and security agendas is being played out on the world stage right now in places like Libya, Ukraine and Syria.

Peace as a societal value is a good thing but it must be tempered by the understanding that threats to both peace and security come from a wide variety of causes. Dunne’s article shows that the Canadian military has become a very diverse and utilitarian organization. It has a number of capabilities that, in combination with military readiness to respond to the call for assistance, makes it responsive and useful in a wide variety of roles, missions and tasks. This is seen by some as secondary employment for the military that erodes their ‘traditions and values’. Others view it as the ‘militarization’ of aide and assistance efforts. The truth is somewhere between these two opposing views, although it is extremely hard to get the zealots to see it that way.

The Government of Canada has chosen to address a number of security issues in this post-911 era by re-roling the military into new areas of responsibility that brings them into closer contact with both the Canadian public and societies abroad. I think that this is a natural reflection of how  Canadians view themselves and how we want to be represented in the world. The most fundamental of these values include respect for rights, adherence to the law and compassion for people that suffer. Peace operations might be the military outcome from any of these values but there are plenty of recent examples to show that more typical combat-related missions still occur and are motivated by the same values.

There is a broad spectrum of conflict in the world but it is not static. Incidents that first flare up on the lower end can rapidly escalate to much higher levels of conflict if errors in risk assessment or force employment follow the decision to engage. Deciding what is the right course of action is both an art and a science that must be at the heart of all military education. Risk is almost impossible to assess with complete accuracy. That means an assumption to limit military capability, or eliminate it altogether, comes with a great degree of uncertainty. All Canadian governmental institutions and organizations, and lots of private ones, should recognize this basic fact.

Is it logical that the military is used to uphold basic Canadian values? I think that there are two answers to the question. Yes, when the circumstances dictate that the risk of either waiting for other government departments and branches of civil society will take too long to respond or when the danger of armed opposition threatens the original purpose of the mission. No, when law and safety are adequately covered by the regulatory and enforcement regimes and agencies that already are in place. There is not one blanket-statement that answers the need for security in all cases and in all circumstances. Perspectives on risk and appropriate action vary with the individual. Typically, the needs changes with time as the situation develops. Knowing when to hand over authority and responsibility is one of the hardest decisions to make, as the situation in Afghanistan shows.

To hold blindly to the cause of peace without understanding that there are nations, organizations and people who do not respect our values is, as Dunne says, naïve. However, to argue just as stubbornly that the military must be preserved in some old organizational structure that holds to the form and purpose of a bygone era is just as blind and naïve. Another important Canadian value, compromise, means that an acceptable discussion process and impartial decision must be the precursors to change.

The question of how much gets spent for what kind of military capabilities is an important one, just as important as deciding what our health care services should be able to provide. The debate over priorities, which change with the circumstances, needs to be a full, open and ongoing dialogue, and it needs to be founded on a clear understanding of the numbers.

If there are better numbers than the ones I found, I would be very willing to look at them.