Monday, 28 March 2011

Defence and Federal Elections

by James Fergusson, Professor of Political Studies, University of Manitoba

It is rare that defence issues have any salience in federal elections, notwithstanding the conscription issue in 1917 and 1944. The most notable case was the defeat of Diefenbaker in 1963. In the lead up to the election, Diefenbaker prevaricated on acquiring nuclear warheads, which would be under American control, for the Bomarc-B surface-to-air missile. This led to the resignation of his Defence Minister and subsequently an election on the government’s competence. The Liberals under Pearson campaigned on acquiring the warheads as part of Canada’s defence commitment to its allies, and the U.S. Even so, it is difficult to ascertain the degree to which Diefenbaker’s indecision on the Bomarc-B issue was significant in itself to the election of a minority liberal government, or simply symptomatic of larger problems with his government.

Since then, only on two occasions has defence issues appeared as potentially significant at election time. In the lead up to 1988, the opposition parties initially planned to make the decision by Mulroney to acquire nuclear submarines, as outlined in the 1987 Defence White Paper, a major election issue. The issue subsequently disappeared in an election dominated by Free Trade.

In 1993, Chretien and the Liberals focused upon the EH-101 shipbourne helicopter purchase in the election as a wasteful, Cold War, gold-plated platform, promising to the cancel it if elected. During the campaign, Campbell announced a reduction in the number of helicopters to be purchased, suggesting that the Conservatives felt vulnerable on the issue.

Of course, the reduction had no impact, and other issues, including the GST, dominated the election and the worst defeat in Conservative Party history. Moreover, the Chretien decision to cancel the EH-101 at a cost estimated between 500 and 1 billion dollars had no subsequent political impact, and was never raised in future campaigns.

Since then, defence has simply been absent. Even though election campaigns have occurred during periods of significant Canadian military deployments overseas, including the war in Afghanistan, neither the ruling party or opposition have made defence a major issue.

Today, two defence issues exist that could have electoral relevance. The first is the issue of detainees in Afghanistan, which dominated the Ottawa political agenda prior to Christmas. It has simply disappeared, and at best it might be raised as part of the current trust and accountability issue surrounding the contempt of parliament ruling. In and of itself, the detainee is not likely to have any significant impact not least of all because the public has little interest in the question.

The second is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter decision, which has already been mentioned several times by Ignatieff. Reminiscent of the EH-101, the opposition see the decision as wasteful, Cold War oriented, and a gold-plated solution, and threaten to either re-examine the decision if elected, or possibly cancel it outright. If the issue remains on the campaign agenda, the Conservative response will likely concentrate on the economic value of the decision for the Canadian aerospace industry.

With perhaps the exception of select ridings in Montreal, southern Ontario and Winnipeg, with a significant aerospace industrial presence, the past suggests that the F-35 will disappear from the election campaign, like all defence questions. Defence simply has little relevance in the minds of the voting public.

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