The Commons: Who’s on first?

This government has a wonderful plan for the military. Just don’t ask them about it.

The Scene. The Liberal frontbench was particularly sparse this day, so it fell to Ralph Goodale to open Question Period. Which was fun, if only because the Liberal leader so stubbornly insists on applying logic to this business of governing.

“Mr. Speaker, when the Government of Canada has a policy on something, it actually writes it down. That was certainly the case with Canada’s defence policy in 2005, a detailed 35-page document. It defined how the Canadian Forces would align with overall foreign policy. It was funded with the biggest investment in National Defence in 20 years,” he began. “On Monday, the Prime Minister swept all of that away in one vacuous speech: no context, no analysis, no details, nothing. Do the Canadian Forces not deserve more respect than such an obvious political stunt?”

The Prime Minister, looking to turn this into a contest of who could yell loudest, came back with assurances. “That announcement and the buildup to it ever since this government was elected has been very well received by the men and women of the Canadian Forces.”

But onward Goodale marched with his facts and figures. “Mr. Speaker, the independent condemnation of the government’s so-called defence policy is virtually universal. It took over two years to produce it. It ended up being nothing more than a letter to the editor of 755 words. It was writing, obviously, at the rate of one word per day. And it cannot give any details and it cannot say whether the cost of the plan is $30 billion or $50 billion or $96 billion. How could it take two years to produce a plan with no details and a price tag no one over there can explain?”

Au contraire, said the Prime Minister. “Mr. Speaker, let me explain it to the honourable member since he obviously did not bother to read. The $30 billion…”

Let’s pause right there to review the situation so far.
The official press release announcing this government’s new defence plan failed to offer a single comment on financing. Nor was a single dollar figure cited in the Prime Minister’s remarks in Halifax the other day. “Thank you very much,” he concluded, “and now I will call on Minister MacKay to give some of the details.”

Unfortunately for those of us not in attendance, Mr. MacKay’s speech does not appear to have been posted online as yet. The National Defence department has posted four “backgrounders” on the Canada First Defence Strategy, but the section dealing with “long-term funding” cites only “an additional $12 billion” for the military over the next 20 years—a figure that differs substantially from the $96-billion projection being reported today.

Amid various pesky questions about the wheres and whats and whys, a briefing was held yesterday to clarify matters. But the vice-chief of defence staff at one point declined to deal with reporters’ queries on the record. “What’s really important is the government direction of this with regard to public affairs,” he said. “So I have to live within that limitation.”

Anyway. Back to you Mr. Prime Minister.

“The $30-billion figure,” he said, “represents the size of the budget of the Department of National Defence at the end of the 20-year period.”

This seemed fairly straightforward, but the Liberals persisted. So after the Prime Minister was done with his customary three answers, the government turned to… well, who could they turn to?

Defence Minister Peter MacKay was absent, as was his parliamentary secretary, Laurie Hawn. Maxime Bernier, rumoured to still be the Foreign Affairs Minister, was there, but remained seated. As did Helena Guergis, the secretary of state assigned to foreign affairs.

But there, in the back, ah yes, it’s Deepak Obhrai, Mr. Bernier’s parliamentary secretary and arguably the sixth most relevant government member on this file.

“Let me make it very clear,” he clarified. “The operating budget for the next 20 years is going to be approximately $30 billion.”

Wait. Hold on. The Prime Minister seemingly just said the Defence budget in 2028 would be $30-billion. But now Obhrai was saying that $30 billion would have to cover all years between now and 2028 (when, no doubt, all wars will be fought with virtual reality androids anyway).

“Let me make it very clear,” Obhrai repeated with his second answer. “The $30 billion is for the operating budget for the next 20 years.”

With the Bloc picking up the interrogation and the Prime Minister back on his feet, government house leader Peter Van Loan made his way down the government benches to the empty seat beside Obhrai. He appeared to be explaining something. Obhrai listened intently.

Meanwhile, Stephen Harper was, lo and behold, agreeing with Obhrai. “Le budget de la Défense nationale, après la reconstruction des forces que nous avons proposée, sera de 30 milliards de dollars sur 20 ans”—The budget for National Defence, after the reconstruction of the forces we have proposed, will be $30 billion over 20 years.

So back to Obhrai we went. Only now, after a pep talk from coach Van Loan, the parliamentary secretary seemed bound and determined to avoid financial measures—opting instead for “priorities” and “capabilities.”

Bryon Wilfert, the Liberal defence critic, finally dared ask about a specific expenditure related to our fleet of aging aircraft. He probably should have known better.

“As I said,” Obhrai said, “we will continue to spend money where it is needed.”

So there. Just don’t ask him to explain where and when and how. For that, at this point, would be cruel.

The Stats. The military, 11 questions. The Foreign Affairs Minister and transportation, four questions each. Gas prices, government disclosure, Chuck Cadman, communication, arts funding, the Quebec City armoury, fisheries and Canada Post, two questions each. International aid, natives and biofuels, one question each.

Stephen Harper, seven answers. Deepak Obhrai and Dave MacKenzie, six answers each. Lawrence Cannon, five answers. Josee Verner, three answers. James Moore, Jim Prentice and Loyola Hearn, two answers each. Maxime Bernier, Peter Van Loan, Bev Oda, Rod Bruinooge and Christian Paradis, one answer each.

Adjective of the Day. “Vexatious.” Courtesy of Liberal Mark Holland.

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