Federal budget 2017: Lack of defence spending draws fire
There were some tough questions for the Liberal government on Thursday as the dust settled on its second budget and critics took a hard look at one area in particular: defence.
The budget devoted just a few short pages to defence spending and procurement, noting that plans are in motion to replace aging CF-18 fighter jets, fixed-wing search-and-rescue planes and navy warships.
WATCH: Federal Budget 2017 highlights
But notably absent were any references to increased defence spending to meet targets set by NATO (2 per cent of gross domestic product is the stated commitment), funding to prop up the government’s much-touted defence policy review, or new money for the ongoing mission in Iraq — which was only renewed until the end of this month.
A decision about the future of the mission will be made before March 31, according to the office of Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.
“I was less surprised about the no mention of Iraq than I was about the fact that there was no money at all for the defence policy,” said Dave Perry, a senior analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
“(That) indicates to me that we shouldn’t expect much in the defence policy review, because there’s no budget to underpin it yet.”
WATCH: Liberals slammed for lack of defence spending
Perry said money to extend the Iraq mission — also known as Operation IMPACT — might simply be moved around from other areas in the coming months.
“They haven’t made an announcement that anyone’s coming home,” he added.
“They’ll provide funding through another mechanism or basically make national defence make an internal reallocation to be able to fund that operation.”
WATCH: Trudeau says it’s ‘high time’ for ‘deep reflection’ on defence policy
Billions in bumped spending
Also raising a red flag among the opposition Conservatives was the decision to push back $8.48 billion in equipment spending, until after 2035-36.
That’s a massive reallocation, following a smaller one last year, that the finance department is chalking up the requirement for more funding down the line for search-and-rescue planes and new light-armoured vehicles.
“I wasn’t expecting much in the budget, but (an) eight-and-a-half-billion dollar cut even blew my socks off,” said Conservative defence critic James Bezan outside the House of Commons on Thursday.
“This is also not only the biggest deferral of capital investment in Canadian armed forces in history, it’s also the longest deferral in history … It doesn’t live up to what NATO is expecting of us.”
Perry said the bumped funds are a reflection of the fact that in 2005, 2006 and 2008, successive federal governments wanted to increase defence spending, “and outlined very ambitious plans to buy new ships, aircraft, vehicles for the army.”
“Our procurement system has just simply not been able to deliver that bulk of procurement on schedule … the surprising thing to me was that this is a really significantly much larger sum of money than any of the other amounts that have been moved before.”
The $184 million in fresh cash for military operations in this budget was seemingly one bright spot. But it had been earmarked by the previous Conservative government years ago, and the Liberals simply kept it in place.
NATO meeting could be ‘very uncomfortable’
Speaking to Global News following a meeting with Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland on Thursday, Latvia’s foreign affairs minister, Edgars Rinkēvičs, was hesitant to criticize the Canadian government for failing to work toward NATO’s target.
Rinkēvičs noted that Latvia has bumped its defence spending to 1.7 per cent of GDP and will hit the 2 per cent target next year.
WATCH: Canada under pressure to boost NATO funding
Canada can be given more time to comply, he added, and has contributed in other ways — such as through the Russian deterrence operation underway in his country.
“If we really want to be serious about the alliance, we have to increase our defence capabilities and spend more. But I think we can’t do it in one year, or two years,” Rinkēvičs said.
“I’m more concerned that the alliance needs modern defence capability. If you can get it with less than 2 per cent, for me that’s the issue that’s worth considering.”
Other countries in the alliance may not be as forgiving when their foreign ministers meet in Brussels in early April, said Perry.
“I think it’s going to be a very uncomfortable meeting at the NATO ministerial (meeting) for the Canadians that are going, given this budget,” he said.
— With files from Mike Le Couteur
© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.