OTTAWA – A retired admiral is telling the Trudeau government’s defence review that National Defence is often paralyzed by timid bureaucrats and politicians who pass the buck on decisions.
Retired vice-admiral Bruce Donaldson, who until a few years ago was second-in-command of the military, says in a written brief that the system is set up to avoid risk and accountability.
“I suggest that there is a culture of risk intolerance that has infected the federal level — financial in the case of public servants, and political in the case of ministers — that has led government to prefer additional process, “third-party validation” of responsible officials’ work, and serial delay to achieving results,” Donaldson wrote.
He is referring to a trend that has developed since the political fiasco surrounding the F-35 stealth fighter purchase, which has seen government increasingly turn to outside experts and panels to assess and rubber-stamp its plans.
“Indeed, it appears that there is now a view that avoiding spending on intended outcomes is somehow a desirable ‘result’ for Canadians.”
Instead, Donaldson says the net result is costly delays and failure to deliver necessary equipment and support.
Donaldson, who retired in 2013, also says the public has little understanding of federal finances, and doesn’t realize that less money is spent on defence than in servicing the country’s debt.
“Canadians lack any context for understanding the management of public funds at the federal level, and have been encouraged to view the expenditure of hundreds of millions — or billions — of dollars on military capability as inherently wasteful and unreasonable and has been encouraged to see spending on the military as wasteful.”
He suggests government has done a poor job of educating citizens on the necessary cost of doing business as a country.
The Liberals held the first in a series of six public consultations this week in Vancouver as Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan attempts to craft an updated vision for the military.
It is the first time in over 20 years that citizens have been asked what role they believe the Canadian Armed Forces should be playing in the world and with what equipment.
The panel also heard from the country’s leading organization representing defence industry contractors, which encouraged the Liberals to talk about more than just capabilities and hardware lists.
Christyn Cianfarani, head of the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries, says the defence review should commit the federal government to crafting a vision of how the defence industry can address the country’s unique security and economic challenges.
Canada, unlike other countries, has not sat down and determined which industries are key national security assets. The notable exception is the shipbuilding industry, where the Harper government made a conscious decision to build both warships and coast guard vessels in the country, rather than off-shore.
Other nations, such as Britain, France, Japan and even Australia, have a more sophisticated relationship with their industries and weapons-makers and have decided to nurture and support key industrial sectors.
Cianfarani says she is not advocating anything as radical or expansive as the national shipbuilding strategy, which was also intended to stave off the collapse of the sector.
In an interview with The Canadian Press, she said more focus and organization could be put towards encouraging development in cyber-technology, Arctic mapping and communication, even unmanned aerial vehicles.
That could open up the Liberals to charges of picking winners and losers in the corporate world.
“I would rather have you pick a winner, than pick nothing and end up with losers,” she said.
“In the absence of making a decision, inevitably the decision will be made for you. If we do not signal to foreign nations and foreign suppliers that there are things in Canada — things we are willing to invest in — then inevitably business will decide for you. Other nations will decide for you what you are left with.”