Poilievre says he wants to rebuild the military while cutting spending. How would that work?

Listen to Pierre Poilievre list his top priorities (tax cuts, housing construction, reducing the federal budget and fighting crime) and you won’t hear a single specific mention of the Canadian military.

The leader of the Conservative Party has promised to change the culture of the Canadian Armed Forces from what he calls a “woke” culture to a “warrior” culture. He has indicated that he is prepared to increase the military’s resources. But what exactly would defence policy look like under a Poilievre government?

The current federal government is under increasing pressure to spend billions of dollars more to meet NATO’s military spending target for member states — 2 percent of GDP. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is facing that pressure as he meets with leaders of other NATO countries in Washington this week.

The Conservative leader faces a different kind of pressure. He must reconcile his promises to “take back control of our country and our defence” and “work towards” NATO’s spending target with his core pledge to cut government spending to balance the budget.

“That’s some pretty tough math to do in a short period of time,” said Dave Perry, president and CEO of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

A $50 billion hole

A Conservative government would need to increase the defence budget by somewhere between $10 billion and $15 billion over five years – on top of the pledges already made by the Liberals – to meet the NATO goal, Perry said.

In the meantime, the Conservatives also want to reduce the deficit, which was set at nearly $40 billion in the Liberals’ most recent budget.

Poilievre has also called for a cultural shift within the armed forces. “We’re going to end woke culture and we’re going to bring back a warrior culture,” he told a reporter earlier this year.

It’s a change that some members of the armed forces are eagerly awaiting, said Peter MacKay, who served as defence minister under Prime Minister Stephen Harper from 2007 to 2013.

“I think there’s been a sense in recent years that there’s been a little bit of an overcorrection,” MacKay said when asked how he interprets Poilievre’s comments.

Conservative politician Peter MacKay waves to delegates at the Conservative convention in Quebec City.
Peter MacKay acknowledges that the Harper government never met NATO’s spending target. He argues that the Canadian electorate is now more willing to spend money on rebuilding the military. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Poilievre’s use of language like “woke” and “warrior” is not meant to signal a rejection of the military’s high-profile efforts to stamp out sexual misconduct, he said.

“I think there’s a red line between anything that is considered abuse or sexual harassment and what is more in the area of ​​overemphasis on appearance, overemphasis on changes in uniform, to the relaxation of certain what used to be called the Queen’s orders and rules within the military,” MacKay said. “And I think that’s what members are concerned about, particularly long-serving members.”

The Canadian military recently reversed a move to relax personal grooming standards. In 2022, the force will lift most restrictions on hair length, hair colour, nail length and facial tattoos. The changes were introduced alongside new gender-neutral uniforms.

Retired Lt. Gen. Michel Maisonneuve delivered a speech at the Conservative Party policy convention last fall railing against a “woke movement” that he accused of destroying Canadian values ​​and accusing the Trudeau government of “apologizing for who we are and what we’ve become.”

CBC News reached out to Poilievre’s office for clarification on his “woke” versus “warrior” comment, but did not receive a direct response. There were only general comments about the Conservatives’ desire to “stand up” for the military.

Perry agreed that there needs to be a “realignment” within the military, with more emphasis on core missions.

But achieving that new balance, he said, requires money, not words: investment in core combat capabilities through the purchase of fighter jets, ground vehicles, tanks and warships.

How much a Poilievre government is prepared to invest in these core capabilities remains to be seen.

Working ‘towards’ the NATO goal

In response to a reporter’s question in February, Poilievre said Canada is too dependent on the United States for its defense.

“That puts America in charge of Canada’s future. I don’t want that. I want to bring control of our country and our defense back home,” he said.

Does this mean that an administration under his leadership would spend the billions of additional dollars needed to achieve NATO’s goal?

Poilievre’s office issued a statement saying the party will “restore” the military, “work to meet Canada’s NATO spending commitments … and reestablish Canada as a trusted partner to our allies.”

“[Poilievre’s] language is not as strong,” Perry said. “It’s certainly not as strong as the commitment that the Canadian government made a year ago [at the NATO summit in Lithuania]but in the meantime has shown absolutely no intention of actually achieving this.”

WATCH: Elections and defense spending set to dominate NATO summit

Elections and defense spending likely to dominate NATO summit

Recent elections in the UK and Europe, as well as the upcoming US elections, are among the topics expected to dominate the agenda of the 75th NATO summit. The other will be defence spending, including Canada’s failure to meet a 2 per cent spending target.

Canada currently has a plan to increase its military spending to 1.76 percent of GDP.

MacKay acknowledged that the administration he served in never raised military spending to 2 percent. But times have changed, he argued — wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, along with other sources of global tension, have shifted the political terrain.

“It’s fair to say that the public has been much better informed recently and I think it’s much more supportive of efforts to invest in the military. Mr Poilievre, if he forms a government, I think he’ll have more wind in his sails to make that kind of investment,” he said.

Asked whether he thought Poilievre should make a firm commitment to meeting the NATO goal, MacKay said he thought the Conservative leader would “reserve some space to look at the state of play” on government spending.

“I personally believe, and I’ve talked to him about this, that he’s very much inclined to invest more in our military and get us to that two percent level,” he said.

Poilievre has offered some tips on how he might tackle military spending.

Could foreign aid cuts increase the military budget?

He has said he would cut “wasteful foreign aid” to “dictators, terrorists and multinational bureaucracies” to free up money for the armed forces. He has also promised to cut bureaucracy and reinvest in resources for troops, and to improve the military procurement process to stop “wasting billions of dollars” on defense contractors.

Poilievre’s office did not immediately answer questions about how much foreign aid he expects to cut.

According to Perry, some of the approximately $16 billion that Canada spends annually on international development aid could be redirected to achieve NATO goals.

“But that’s not taking away some of the money that goes to autocracies that you may not like. That’s not adjusting the aid budget. That’s almost completely reorienting it,” he said, adding that the federal aid budget includes billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine.

Canadian pilots fly a C-130J over Europe, transporting relief supplies to Ukraine.
Canadian pilots fly a C-130J over Europe, transporting relief supplies to Ukraine. (Chris Brown/CBC News)

Both Perry and MacKay said they could not understand what Poilievre meant by “wasting billions” on defense contractors.

Both noted that by acting more quickly on procurement decisions, the Canadian government could save significant amounts of money lost to inflation as prices rise over time.

Although Poilievre has outlined some aspects of his vision for military policy, he has also left many questions unanswered.

“Mr. Poilievre has spent very little time discussing what he would do with the armed forces or the future of Canadian foreign policy or their diplomatic institutions, our intelligence services, other than some aspects of foreign interference,” Perry said.

Poilievre did not say what roles he thinks the armed forces should play, nor which regions of the world he sees as priorities for military operations, he added.

“I think most of Mr Poilievre’s international agenda still needs to be worked out at this point.”

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