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Federal Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre speaks at a news conference in the Montreal suburb of Pointe-Claire, Que., on Feb. 15.Christinne Muschi/The Canadian Press

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre says he would make cuts to foreign aid to fund additional defence spending if his party forms government – reductions that would include assistance to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees and Canada’s stake in the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

In addition, Mr. Poilievre said he would find more money for Canada’s military by cutting bureaucracy and reforming the process of purchasing equipment for the Canadian Armed Forces.

He was asked Thursday about a commitment by the Opposition Leader’s office – made to The Globe and Mail this week – that a Conservative government would “move towards” spending on the military that is equivalent to 2 per cent of a country’s annual economic output.

Mr. Poilievre’s first target, he said, would be “wasteful foreign aid that goes to dictators, terrorists and multinational bureaucracies.” His office later elaborated on this statement, pointing to his past comments that this would include support for UNRWA and the Asian infrastructure bank.

It’s not clear how Mr. Poilievre would free up enough government funds through what he is proposing to close the gap between Canada’s existing military spending and what this country has promised its allies.

Canada falls about $20-billion short in annual military spending when it comes to meeting its 2 per cent commitment, according to David Perry, president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI). Canada’s existing defence budget is about $26.5-billion and in 2023 NATO calculated Canada’s military spending was only 1.38 per cent of gross domestic product.

Even if the Conservatives eliminated Canada’s entire foreign aid budget – about $6.9-billion per year – this would only yield roughly one-third of the funds needed to reach $20-billion in additional defence spending.

Speaking to reporters in Pointe-Claire, Que., Mr. Poilievre said Canada should not be overly dependent on the United States for defence.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s “plan for national defence is to rely on Joe Biden or Donald Trump to protect Canada,” Mr. Poilievre said. “That puts America in charge of Canada’s future – I don’t want that.”

He said he would “bring home” control of defence and proposed broad categories of cuts. Cutting foreign aid would free up more money for “reinforcing our military,” the Conservative Leader said.

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Mr. Poilievre, whose party has a double-digit lead in the polls over the governing Liberals, has yet to lay out a comprehensive plan for foreign and defence policy. Such documents are normally released during an election campaign.

Asked for examples of cuts, Sebastian Skamski, director of media relations for the Opposition Leader’s office, pointed to comments Mr. Poilievre made in January in which he criticized Canadian funding for UNRWA and its membership in the China-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

In 2023 the federal government halted its activity with the bank and announced Ottawa was reviewing its membership after a Canadian executive resigned from entity, calling it a tool of China’s Communist Party. Canada has invested about US$160-million in the bank. “We should be building pipelines and roads in Canada, not in Asia,” Mr. Poilievre told his caucus in January.

Canada’s next contribution to UNRWA, the UN’s Palestinian relief agency, is scheduled to be made in late March but is under review pending a UN investigation into Israel’s allegations that some of the agency’s 13,000 employees in Gaza were involved in the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

Mr. Poilievre said he would also squeeze savings from procurement and the civil service.

“We will cut back-office bureaucracy and and use the savings to bolster front-line resources” for soldiers, sailors and aircrew, he said Thursday. “We will get rid of the corruption and incompetence in our procurement: We are wasting billions of dollars profiting these defence contractors that should be used to get the best value for our troops and our taxpayers.”

His office cited delays in replacing Canada’s aging CF-18s and cost overruns with shipbuilding programs including the Canadian Surface Combatants, polar icebreakers and Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ship.

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Liberal International Development Minister Ahmed Hussen called Mr. Poilievre’s comments reckless, arguing a cut in foreign aid would lead to “a diminishing of Canada’s influence on the world stage,” and less support for “the most vulnerable people in the world.”

CGAI’s Mr. Perry said a government that dedicated itself to reforming procurement could probably wring a few billion dollars in savings from the system, but nowhere near enough to close the NATO gap.

Andrea Charron, director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba, said a Poilievre government would likely find the problem inside military purchasing is a lack of sufficient personnel to oversee procurement.

“The issues within the Department of National Defence are not waste and corruption but too few procurement specialists,” she said. “We need people to review contracts continuously to catch problems as they begin and hold contractors accountable.”

Kate Higgins, chief executive officer of Cooperation Canada, which represents Canadian aid organizations that work in Canada and abroad, said cutting foreign aid is counterproductive.

“It’s an investment in global stability and prosperity.”

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