George Petrolekas is a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. He has served in Bosnia and Afghanistan and has been an adviser to senior NATO commanders.
Normally, in Canadian elections, defence is an afterthought. In the past decade, defence featured because of our engagement in Afghanistan. This time, defence may form, in part, the path to power.
More than any other party, the heretofore unseen NDP defence platform will have much to do with whether the party forms the government.
For years, the NDP has functioned as the social conscience of the nation. Its base of committed voters historically has not been large, but NDP policies have influenced every other party's social platforms for decades. But to affect other parties' platforms is not the route to power, only to influence.
In the 2012 election, the NDP captured the imagination of many Canadians, particularly in Quebec, vaulting the NDP to official Opposition status and putting the party within striking reach of forming a government. But its being on the cusp of power induces fears in some that an NDP government would displace what is positioned as a more principled and muscular vision of the country.
For the Liberals, an outlook that appears to be at variance with the grand liberal internationalist viewpoints appears to be struggling to find a foundation on which to rest. Is it activist? Is it isolationist? Is it globally responsible? These elements do not seem clear at all so far in this campaign.
To achieve power, the NDP will have to balance its perceived root philosophies with enough centrist positions to attract on-the-fence Liberals, and even some Conservatives willing to take a chance on Thomas Mulcair as prime minister. It is doing so with middle-of-the-road economic positions, but will have to be seen as more centrist on the defence file as well.
The NDP has narrowed its margin of manoeuvre, given its current stand on the anti-ISIS mission by declaring its first act would be to bring the troops home – in contrast to what most Canadians believe. In three national polls conducted during the mission-extension debate, a majority of Canadians (as many as 74 per cent) supported the air campaign and its extension. In earlier polling by Ipsos Reid, Canadians agreed that "everything possible" needs to be done to stop ISIS from establishing its self-declared caliphate – the Islamic State, as the group now refers to itself – and that included putting Canadian boots on the ground. Surprisingly, this pro-mission support was echoed in Quebec as well.
The whole NDP history on defence will be ridiculed by Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, including its long campaign to have Canada leave NATO during the Cold War. Mr. Harper won't do that with Mr. Trudeau, because previous Liberal governments decided to send Canada to Afghanistan. As such, Mr. Trudeau's current ideas on interventions abroad will be questioned.
And so for the NDP, the tipping point to power may indeed become the position it will take on its vision for the Canadian Forces.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair will likely try to offset a perception of weakness in this area by outlining a comprehensive defence policy, likely reaffirming peace missions and care for veterans. It would go over well as many centrist Canadians have not abandoned the attachment to Canada's blue-beret past.
The Liberals, in comparison, have a far more difficult task in front of them. So far, they have not been able to carve an identity that is clearly identifiable in the minds of voters. If anything, they have minutely calibrated on the edges, but not enough to create a discernible difference. No air strikes for example, but far more training of advisers.
If the Liberal position is unclear with respect to current engagements, so far, there has been little indication from either the NDP or the Liberals on what kind of military Canadians should be entitled to or how they would use it, except to say that fixing the Royal Canadian Navy would be a priority.
Mr. Harper is not immune on this file, either. Given past experience on the F-35, various procurement delays, and veterans, Mr. Harper generally gets a free ride because of perception of being action-prone abroad; the deep defence cuts of the past two years glossed over in part by rhetoric, and his willingness to use the Forces in the Ukraine, in support of NATO and also against ISIS.
And so, with an engagement in Iraq and Syria ongoing, the present budget insufficient to afford the military we have, let alone the military we envision, the ultimate differentiator between the three parties may indeed be what they envision for Canada's military.