The federal government’s new khaki uniforms

Next week, the federal government will unveil its budget for the coming year. With projections pointing towards a $3.7 billion surplus in 2015-2016, there is every reason to believe that the Harper government will be able to face the electorate sticking its chest out. With pockets that full, it will be in a position to put forth its priorities without any compromise. If the past is any indication, you can bet that during the next elections, along with economic issues, there will be much talk of how “urgent” it is to invest massively in internal and external security. My colleague Guillaume Hébert and I published this week a study which debunks a certain number of truisms. Of course, Stephan Harper and his troops will be leaving a heritage with a heavy tinge of khaki green. However, the tendency to prioritize “security” spending over “social” spending is well embedded in the federal government’s fundamental dynamic and has been since the mid-90s.

Security escalation

Exploding expenditures to satisfy the demands of the police force, military and security intelligence organizations stand out when scrutinizing in detail Ottawa’s budget documents. We’ve added up all the allocations for National Defence, Correctional Service Canada, Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and the results speak for themselves. Over 16 years, there has been a 56% increase, equal to $9.4 billion in constant 2013 dollars.

For comparison, the increase in overall federal spending over the same period only reached 29%. If security expenses had been similarly capped, Ottawa would have $4.5 billion more at its disposal this year.

That is to say that even in an era of great budgetary hysteria, the call to manage public funds responsibly does not seem to apply to fighter jets, prisons, or any other organization with law enforcement tasks. The state is thus unabashedly positioning raising the operational capabilities of our armed forces as a national priority just as it’s asking the unemployed to make grave sacrifices!

Let’s take a closer look: within a 16-year span, allocations for National Defense went up 48% ($6.5 billion). Over the same period, correctional service funds exploded by 95% ($1.5 billion); the RCMP’s by 70% ($1.1 billion) and the CSIS’s by a whopping 141% ($308 million). In short, public funds always come flowing when it’s time to discipline and punish.

Canada, bestest country in the whole wide world?

We image Canada in relatively simple, and flattering, terms. “We” are easy to describe: our soldiers are nice Blue Berets, we have a public healthcare system from coast to coast and, when it’s time for international men’s hockey, we want gold and nothing else!

Yet beneath this portrait of Canada as a happy wonderland, there lies another, darker face, one that promotes repression and the use of force. Allowing for law and order-type policy —in addition to turning Canada into a colder version of the United States— forces upon us cuts into social spending. With inequality widening in Canada, that just seems like a very unfortunate ranking of federal budget priorities.

This article was written by Philippe Hurteau, a researcher with IRIS—a Montreal-based progressive think tank. 

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