Budgets are about choices. With Tuesday’s budget, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland hasn’t confronted the growing threat to Canada’s security from both Russia and China. This budget puts the security of Canadians at risk, and puts at risk as well Canada’s commitment to the Western alliance.
The world has entered another cold war, one even more dangerous than the last. This war has seen NATO training and arming Ukrainian troops to kill Russian troops who invaded their country. This war has seen China openly threatening to invade Taiwan. It’s not really cold at all.
In such a world, Canada’s highest priority should be moving defence spending to at least 2 per cent of its gross domestic product. Many of our allies have already reached or are moving toward that NATO benchmark. Canada has contributed to Ukraine – the budget claims Canada’s per-capita financial, military and humanitarian outlays as leading the Group of Seven – but the NATO benchmark is another matter. This budget instead trumpets a paltry $30-million initiative to finance a new NATO Climate Change and Security Centre in Montreal.
Canada has previously committed to spending almost $40-billion over 20 years – a meaningful though probably not sufficient commitment – to upgrading NORAD’s radars, sensors and satellites, with an initial commitment to spend $5-billion over the next six years.
All well and good. Continental defence must be the highest priority. But our American allies are impatiently asking when that promised money will be spent. It does not appear to have arrived in this budget.
The United States will not tolerate an outdated and underfunded NORAD that places its own security at risk. If Canada will not make the necessary investments, then the U.S. will make them for us, taking part of our sovereignty from us along the way.
The Liberal government has, to its credit, finally committed to purchasing 88 F-35 fighter aircraft – the same aircraft the Chrétien government originally invested in and the Harper government committed to purchasing. Decades-long procurement processes are standard fare in this country, undermining the credibility of our military.
Meaningful spending on continental security would not only make Canada a more reliable ally, it would contribute to several of the goals outlined in Tuesday’s budget. New satellites and sensors for NORAD would provide Canada with access to leading-edge technology.
And a greater ability to monitor conditions in the Far North would measurably contribute to Canada’s efforts to combat global warming.
A serious commitment to doing our part in upgrading NORAD still won’t be enough. Canada must also purchase submarines (we’ll have more to say on Saturday) that will allow Canada to deter, detect and if necessary, to fight.
The Canadian Forces also suffer from a serious labour shortage, with 10,000 unfilled positions. That can only be met by improving the pay and working conditions for those in the army, navy and air force.
And then there is the critical new front of cybersecurity. We must be in that game, too, which means competing with employers in the tech sector.
All of this costs money – an estimated $21-billion a year – to close the gap between current levels of defence spending and the 2 per cent commitment. And though many Canadians will not want to hear it, even spending 2 per cent of GDP might not be enough. In the hot-and-cold war between the West and Russia and China, Canada is a frontline state. The Arctic is growing more important by the year, as Russia bolsters its military assets in the region, China constructs icebreakers for its Polar Silk Road and Sweden and Finland, two polar states, seek to join NATO. Estonia spends 2.12 per cent of its GDP on defence. Estonia shares a border with Russia. For all intents and purposes, so do we, in the Arctic. Yet our GDP share of defence spending is 1.29 per cent.
Sustaining a military is expensive, which is why governments have shied away from meeting defence commitments for decades. New social programs deliver tangible benefits and votes for the party delivering them. Spending on defence requires sacrifice. But we live in dangerous times, and this country is not prepared. Budget 2023 fails to acknowledge either of these truths.