Which Party Will Bring Military Spending Under Control?

It’s hard to walk down Ottawa’s Sparks Street these days without tripping over some lobbyist or public relations consultant for the arms industry. Strategically located only a block from Parliament Hill, the street is a beachhead for firms vying for a larger piece of the military budget.

Year after year defence spending has been rising. Increases brought in by the Paul Martin Liberals, and later boosted by the Stephen Harper Conservatives, have created a lucrative market for Canadian and international (especially U.S.) defence contractors.

Military spending will reach $22.3 billion in 2010-2011, according to a report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives authored by Rideau Institute senior advisor Bill Robinson – 54% higher than before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

As the total budget increases, so does the amount spent on equipment. Last year DND told NATO that it intended to devote 17.5% of its spending to equipment expenditures in 2010, a 38% increase from the previous year.

This is good news for firms such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and General Dynamics. These US-based firms have been selling fleets aircraft, helicopters, vehicles to the Canadian Forces, and hope to sell a lot more. But how much longer can the party last?

Military-funded lobby groups, such as the Conference of Defence Associations, have lobbied for increases to military spending by arguing we are a relatively small spender and are shirking our responsibility to NATO.

But they are ignoring the fact that NATO and other international authorities rank Canada as the 13th largest military spender in the world in real dollars, and the 6th largest within the 28-member NATO alliance.

Canada’s military spending is sure to come under increased attention as the financial deficit increases. Demands for more spending on social programs on the one hand, or tax cuts on the other, will compete with the military’s bulging line item on Finance Department spreadsheets.

Canada’s finances are in poor shape, and Finance Minister Flaherty expects to post a budget deficit more than $40 billion. Like a tap that only turns one way, the Conservatives are committed to increasing military spending for years to come.

How can more increases be justified given that Canada’s spending is now higher than at any time since Adolf Hitler’s defeat at the end of the Second World War, in adjusted dollars?

Reducing military spending is becoming the norm in NATO, and Canada’s Conservative government is falling out of step with its allies. Most governments in NATO are looking to reduce their military spending, not increase it. NATO’s annual report on Defence Expenditures of NATO Countries (1990-2010) shows that 17 of 28 member countries plan to reduce the amount of dollars spent on defence.

When defence spending is compared to national economies, Canada stands alongside Poland, Luxembourg, and Albania as the only NATO countries planning to increase the defence spending as a percentage of GDP.

The reality is Canadians are turning their attention toward issues at home, such as jobs.

A Leger Marketing poll this month found that almost 60% of those questioned believe that “Canada should take a peace dividend and cut back on military spending to focus on other more pressing social issues at home.” An increase of 10 points over a similar poll taken a year ago.

But the main question here is, will these people find a federal party to represent their views? The truth is that for many years, no political party has been prepared to say “no” to increased military spending: not the Liberals, not the NDP, not the Bloc Québécois, and certainly not the Conservatives whose political base eats up military spending like red meat (despite their party’s reputation as low-tax, no-deficit supporters).

The first sign of a break with the recent past has been the Liberals’ questioning of the F-35 stealth fighters.

It should be noted that Michael Ignatieff has not called for reducing military spending. The party supports replacing our CF-18s with new fighter-bombers – they just don’t like this particular stealth fighter deal. The other parties also oppose the deal, but the Liberals have seized the issue to distinguish themselves from the Conservatives.

Whether this evolves into a larger debate about government spending priorities and the demands of the defence lobby remains to be seen, but it certainly could become emblematic of the public’s desire to bring the post-9/11 chapter to a close, and refocus on issues at home.

Steven Staples is the President of the Rideau Institute,  a CCPA Research Associate, and author of Missile Defence: Round One. Twitter: @stevenstaples


  1. One of the main reasons why our defence spending is costing us more right now, is simply because defence spending was not a priority for a great many years through the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s.

    Quite a bit of our equipment was/is approaching “block obsolescence”, meaning ‘all’ of it is so old that it needs to be replaced all at once, which is not cheap.

    All of our Canadian Patrol Frigates were built in the early-mid 1980’s, the same is true of our CF-18’s. Our armoured vehicles were bought throughout the 70’s and 80’s as were all of our 2.5 ton trucks. I could go on, but you get the idea.

    Throughout the 70’s and 80’s, Canada was one of the lowest spending countries in NATO. There wasn’t much of a peace dividend to gain when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, because we were already running a bare bones military. That didn’t stop the bean counters though who cut things even more in the early 1990’s.

    I’m not a big fan of the F-35 at all. I think we’d be better off if we bought Super Hornets instead. But at the same time I realize we ‘need’ to get new equipment for our soldiers if we are going to ask them to go into harm’s way.

  2. it is not likely that the US, Canada, the UK and the EU will have a war against each other so why don’t they just pool their resources and share the equipment?
    instead of a car share program it could be a jetshare

  3. The great bulk of our military spending is for making war, not defending our country. For example, the very name “F35 stealth fighter bomber” implies evading radar in some other country in order to bomb them. The best way to keep Canada safe is to develop a reputation as a peaceful country by doing no harm to others.

  4. Military spending was sadly diminished while the Libs were in power and we’re now getting our troops equipped as they should be. We have a responsibility to defend people that are not able to defend themselves (Afghanistan, Lybia). We cannot sip lattés in Second Cup and wish the world would come into harmony. In good conscience we cannot just watch Americans adding to their incredible deficit defending democracy and human rights. Take the rose- colored glasses off kids – there’s a harsh world out there.

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