Defence spending isn’t a priority in Ottawa, but this week showed that it should be

Click to play video: 'Trudeau speaks on Canada’s defence spending following NATO summit' Trudeau speaks on Canada’s defence spending following NATO summit
WATCH: When asked why the Canadian government has failed to spend over $7 billion in money promised for defence since 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated that a new plan for future defence investments will ensure that “Canadian forces have the equipment and the ability to do the work that Canadians expect of them.” – Dec 4, 2019

After what turned out to be an awkward and forgettable NATO summit for the prime minister, it’s not surprising that Justin Trudeau‘s government would want to avoid reminding Canadians of his foibles.

So it’s also not surprising that Thursday’s throne speech focused very little on the NATO alliance, or the question of our commitment to collective defence.

But ignoring these issues doesn’t make them go away — quite the opposite, in fact.

READ MORE: NATO’s future in question as Trudeau, world leaders mark alliance’s 70th birthday

The NATO summit was just the latest reminder of the American government’s considerable frustration with what it perceives to be a chronic lack of defence spending on Ottawa’s part. We benefit tremendously from our defence relationship with the U.S., in both the bilateral sense and also through alliances like NATO.

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But if we’re perceived to be freeloaders, that could all be in jeopardy.

Therefore, this needs to be a priority. Unfortunately, there’s little sign that it is.

Click to play video: 'Throne Speech key priorities analyzed' Throne Speech key priorities analyzed
Throne Speech key priorities analyzed – Dec 5, 2019

This is an issue on which U.S. President Donald Trump is right, even though he’s often quite incorrect in how he voices these concerns. This is not about any sort of “payment” to NATO, which is often how the president frames it.

NATO countries have committed to spend two per cent of their GDP on national defence by the year 2024. So no NATO country is “delinquent” in any sense. However, while that deadline is still just over four years away, Canada still has a long way to go.

Our defence spending currently represents only around 1.3 per cent of our GDP. That’s up slightly from five years ago, but that does not put us on a pace to get to two per cent by 2024.

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READ MORE: Climate change, healing regional divides key planks for Trudeau Liberals in Throne Speech

Which brings us to the speech from the throne. There was no acknowledgement of these pressing concerns and no vision laid out for how we’re going to get where we need to be. If the speech was meant to be a reflection of the government’s priorities, then these absences are telling and worrying.

The only reference to NATO in the speech was a pledge to “renew Canada’s commitment to NATO and United Nations peacekeeping.” The only reference to military spending was a pledge to “support better outcomes for Canada’s veterans.”

We’ve certainly fallen short when it comes to supporting veterans, and it’s laudable that the government intends to make this a priority (although we’ve heard such pledges many times in the past), but this hardly addresses the question of our overall commitment to adequately funding our armed forces.

And just because the NATO deadline is still a few years away doesn’t mean we can be complacent.

Click to play video: 'U.S. slams Canada’s NATO defence spending' U.S. slams Canada’s NATO defence spending
U.S. slams Canada’s NATO defence spending – Nov 24, 2019

As Global News reported late last month, the Department of National Defence received a “blunt” letter — described by sources as “frustrated” and “critical” in its tone — from the U.S. government, criticizing our defence spending levels and urging us to meet our NATO targets.

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Clearly our most important ally doesn’t have the patience to wait and deal with all of this in 2024.

And there may be additional pressure coming to bear. At a time when we’re fretting about the ratification of the new CUSMA, Trump is now threatening trade action against allies who are falling short of where their defence spending needs to be. Given the recent history of NAFTA uncertainty and steel and aluminum tariffs, the last thing we need is more trade drama with our biggest trading partner.

READ MORE: Ottawa failed to spend almost $8B in promised defence cash over recent years

But ultimately this isn’t just about placating the Americans or our NATO allies. Yes, we should want to be a reliable partner, but this is also about our own sovereignty and our ability to defend our own borders — our northern border, especially.

The problem of shortchanging our military didn’t begin with the Trudeau government, but after four years it definitely bears responsibility for the choices it has made. We learned just recently, for example, that the federal government actually failed to spend nearly $8 billion in money earmarked for procurement, equipment, and facilities. We’re still five years away from replacing our 35-year-old fighter jet fleet.

There are serious challenges we need to address, and our allies are acutely aware of that. It’s disappointing that the government’s throne speech seems detached from this reality.

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Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.

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