Stephen Harper's Conservatives, should we go by oversimplified stereotypes, are the party that never saw a war it didn't like. The New Democrats by contrast have a long-lasting pacifist image. They were the types back in time with the well-meaning salutes. Two digits in the air, a disarmingly dorky look and sotto voce, "Peace brother." Probably made your day.
Given the stark divergence it would be rather strange to expect the New Democrats to propose higher military spending than the Conservatives. But don't be dumbfounded if it happens.
"You might well imagine," an adviser to Thomas Mulcair was telling me, "Tom coming out in September and saying Harper has driven down defence spending to one per cent of GDP. We're going to raise it to 1.2 per cent. We have a military that's being allowed to rust out and we're going to fix it."
Another adviser cautioned the level of support might not be that high – a 20 per cent increase – but significant enough to show Canadians the NDP is by no means soft on defence.
In raising the military budget, Mr. Mulcair could risk alienating parts of the party's base, which might go all squirrelly. But in political terms, party strategists realize the Dippers could be vulnerable come voting day if they appear weak-kneed in the face of foreign threats; especially if there is more terrorism, ISIS savagery, or Russian sabre-rattling. The New Democrats oppose Ottawa's modest contribution to air strikes against ISIS and also stand square against the controversial anti-terror legislation, Bill C-51.
But with their own limp record on defence spending, the Tories have left the NDP an opening. Team Harper came to power in 2006, talking about ramping up military spending to 2 per cent of GDP, a level not seen since the early 1970s. Outlays went up during the Afghanistan war but never got close to that level. Budget-balancing priorities then brought reductions, and spending has now settled in at a level about half the government's original goal. Canada now places a dismal 22nd among 28 NATO countries on defence spending.
But the Conservatives, adept at military tributes and warrior-nation marketing, have created an image which belies the statistics. Their muscle-flexing is with itsy-bitsy biceps, but they have somehow projected an image of global tough guys. They defend their record, saying they have increased overall military spending by 27 per cent, a number which doesn't factor in inflation. They plan on boosting outlays beginning in 2017.
The approach being considered by the NDP would abandon the Tory plan to purchase hyper-expensive F-35 fighter jets and aim for something more reasonably priced. Among the NDP's other priorities are search and rescue helicopters, armoured trucks for the army, supply ships for the Navy, more spending on housing and health care for the troops.
A big emphasis would be put on cleaning up the procurement process. While the Tories like to boast of being prudent financial mangers, they have overseen one procurement debacle after another.
Michael Byers, a defence specialist and former NDP candidate, says that given the resulting shortfalls in military hardware "any government that is serious about completing necessary procurements would therefore incur higher costs."
Another area where the NDP can score points is on the shoddy treatment of veterans. It reached shameful proportions under former veterans affairs minister Julian Fantino.
Entering the election, two perception headaches for the Dippers were defence and economic management. One problem on the economy was their lack of a player ably suited for the finance minister's role. But they announced last week they have recruited Andrew Thomson, a tax-cutting former finance minister in Saskatchewan as a candidate.
On defence, the old New Democrats used to be comfortable with their peacenik image because they were not a serious contender to form a government. Now that they are in the running, they realize, rightly so, that they have to bolster their military credentials.