While researching Canada’s efforts in Afghanistan as part of a larger project on NATO in Afghanistan, I was stunned to discover that Canadian members of Parliament, even those on the defence committee, do not have security clearances. This means that they were ignorant about the rules of engagement that Canadian Forces followed in Afghanistan, among other things. I was remanded by none other than former prime minister Paul Martin during an interview that I ought not to be comparing the Canadian system to the American one. As I talked with other MPs, I was repeatedly told that the job of Parliament is not to conduct oversight but to hold the minister accountable, and it was the minister’s job to conduct oversight over the Canadian Forces. Given the stories of the past few weeks, it is not clear that the process works very well.
On the other hand, the past few weeks of U.S. oversight is enough to make Canadians feel better about their largely blind and toothless Parliament. First, outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before both Senate and House committees about the events in Benghazi last fall. The hearing was mostly a show – for the Republicans to take Ms. Clinton and President Barack Obama to task for failing to protect four diplomats.
This horror show was repeated when Chuck Hagel went before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where the Republicans focused mostly on issues way outside the domain of the secretary of defense, who ordinarily does not determine U.S.-Israeli relations. Afghanistan, drone strikes, and other topics more solidly in the SecDef’s area of responsibility got much less play. Again, this was position-taking/grand-standing for select audiences in the U.S. – mostly those who vote in primaries – as Republican Senators have learned that they are most vulnerable on the right flank from Tea Party-supported candidates. And what better way to demonstrate one’s fealty to the hard right than to haze a Republican nominated to serve in a Democrat’s cabinet?
So, is the lesson that Canada cannot learn much from the U.S. system of oversight? I am not quite so sure, as I am just on the very beginning stages of an effort to compare the impact of legislatures on defence policy across the democracies of the world. But my initial hunch is that it is not just about the institutions that empower some legislatures (members of the Bundestag’s defence committee meet with the minister of defence every week in closed sessions to get the classified updates), but also about the maturity of the parties. Historically, in the U.S., House and Senate Armed Services committees were constructively critical of Presidents, even when the same party controlled the Presidency and either or both of the Houses. Generals, admirals, their staffs and the civilians in the Pentagon knew that their feet would be held to the fire in committees on the hill. This does not mean that the U.S. military and its civilian overseers were always transparent, but anticipating of a possible grilling in front of Congress served as a critical means by which civilians controlled the military.
These days, I am not so sure the system operates. The two parties are now so polarized that neither party is very critical when the Presidency is held by their nominee, and both parties may go way over the top when the other party controls the Presidency. So, in the Hagel hearings, the Democrats did not really ask any tough questions, while the Republicans asked very few relevant ones.
This leads back to Canada – can the defence committee in Parliament have any relevancy, given the constraints of the parliamentary system? If the parties can be mature enough to focus on the more important issues, where the Canadian Forces and the Ministry of National Defence fall short, then the pressure they can create can induce the government to change its policies. Parliament ultimately did compel the government to reconsider the F-35. On the other hand, when members of Parliament get sucked into other, less central issues, the more important ones get crowded off the agenda. The focus on Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s helicopter rides draws attention away from more severe failings of his time in this position: Systematic denial of procurement problems. When the opposition is using its time to attack the governing party as opposed to using its time to criticize government performance, the public and ultimately the parliament lose.
Sure, the job of the opposition is to oppose, but as the old Monty Python argument sketch reminds us, an argument is more than just saying “it is” and “it isn’t”. Being critical and being opposed are not identical. The U.S. parties have lost sight of this, so oversight is not nearly as effective. The Canadian parties seem blind to this distinction, so that accountability is pretty flawed these days. While the institutions in the two countries vary, right now the two countries’ parties seem to have the same level of maturity – which leaves both countries far worse off.
Stephen Saideman is the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. This article is published in partnership with the Canadian International Council and its international-affairs hub OpenCanada.