Pundits and scholars alike have lamented the lack of attention given to issues of national defence by both political parties and the general public, a dearth that is highlighted especially during election season.[1] Issues pertaining to defence and defence spending have rarely, if ever, played a central role in a Canadian federal election, more often than not being sidelined by issues of the economy, government competences, and other key matters of the day. TBrian Bow (2008) and Jean-Christophe Boucher (2020) argue that external constraints on Canada’s ability to enact policy, in addition to framing defence issues through a partisan lens, further diminish its presence. Bow notes that the “virtual absence of direct threats to Canada means the public generally pays little attention to defence policy issues”, in turn allowing for the governing party to “push through their agenda without worrying about domestic political opposition”.[2] This juxtaposition of “external constraint and domestic permissiveness” explains why party differences seem to have little effect on policy outcomes, at least in the long run. He explains that, even in the 1963 election, where defence policy played a major role, the nature of the debate surrounding the policy was not informed by voters taking sides of the issue and voting accordingly, but rather a questioning of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s competence in handling defence issues.[3] Kim Richard Nossal (1997) further attributes the lack of defence issues in elections as a product of broad agreement and cross-party consensus on Canada’s external threat environment, which is itself a product of the Cold War’s structural realities.  Nossal notes that, regardless of the party in power, Canada maintained a consistent defence and foreign policy stance that featured the U.S.S.R. as our largest security threat, maintained close alliances with the U.S.A. and western European powers, and consistently contributed just enough to NATO and NORAD to hold onto a seat at the table.[4]

Militarism and Internationalism

Timothy B. Gravelle et al. (2014) argue further that, despite the diminished role of defence and foreign policy issues at the electoral level and the appearance of cross-party consensus on the matter, Canadians do have different ideas concerning the role and size of the military, as well as when to contribute to certain missions.  Canadians’ views on defence and foreign affairs could be split into two main camps: “militarism” and “internationalism”.  Voters in the “militarism” camp were more likely to agree that force was a necessary tool, were more in favour of using our military abroad, and appeared overall more interventionist and less willing to put constraints on the use of force than other voters.[5]  Conversely, those in the “internationalism” camp tended to view issues of peacekeeping, the promotion of human rights, and the provision of development aid more favourably.  The key finding from their study was that respondents with higher militarism scores and lower internationalism scores were much more likely to support Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his party, while those with lower militarism scores and higher internationalism were more likely not to.[6]  While their focus was more specifically on foreign affairs issues, attitudes of militarism and internationalism carry over into the defence policy arena, and with it, the same divide of opinions in the electorate. Knowing that defence issues play a minor role in elections, yet views on defence policy are still present among voters and can help predict vote intention, it is important to investigate further whether tangible differences in defence policy can be observed between parties in Canada, and if these differences have evolved over the last decade.

While defence policy continues to remain among the least important issues during our elections, increasing differences in policy stances taken between both major parties demonstrate a cementing of partisan alignment along militarism and internationalism camps.  Despite this, there remains little incentive for either party to make defence a major issue in each election, apart from exposing the apparent incompetence of their opponents, and thus a strong differentiation on defence policy is difficult to observe. This has implications for wider democratic accountability in Canada: by downplaying the importance of defence issues during elections and providing little information to voters, parties are unlikely to be punished at the polls for their decisions, and thus are incentivized to continue sub-par performances on defence.

Defence Policy Ownership

Knowing that political parties will attempt to make the issues they “own” salient to the electorate during an election, we would expect defence policy to appear more frequently on the national stage; either by parties attempting to take ownership of the issue, or by particular parties attempting to make it significant. Boucher and Nossal have argued that a cross-party consensus on Canada’s defence capabilities and priorities has led to this lack of national defence dialogue, as parties do not stake out positions that differentiate themselves enough from their opponents to claim “ownership” of defence in Canada.  It must then be asked: do Canadian political parties have any incentive to make defence policy salient vis-à-vis other issues during an election, and furthermore if any single party “owns” the issue? Gravelle et al. delve into the effects of defence and foreign affairs issues on voter behaviour in the 2011 election to find a qualified answer: defence issues do matter to Canadians and they are able to form their own opinions on topics related to defence, however voter preferences are divided between “militarism” and “internationalism” with regards to their outlook on Canada’s defence posture.[7] Voters who responded favourably to questions of militarism (willingness to use force abroad, necessity of war) were on average more likely to support Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party than those who favoured internationalism.[8]  Gravelle’s findings display the difficulty in treating “defence” as a single issue area: the main issues related to defence are diverse enough that voters’ preferences for how best to solve them vary greatly.  This would, in turn, imply that it is difficult for a single party to “own” defence entirely. Rather, parties would have to own either the “militarism” or “internationalism” aspects of defence policy along which voter preferences align.

2015 Comparison

In their 2015 election platform, “Our Conservative Plan to Protect the Economy” the CPC dedicated approximately 25 pages out of the document’s total 160 pages towards defence and security issues.[9] In their chapter “Our Conservative Plan for a More Secure Canada”, the CPC framed Canada’s defence policy as a means to protecting Canada’s economic security: “Our Conservative Government understands that protecting Canadians’ physical security is as important as protecting their financial security. The two ultimately go hand-in-hand.”.[10]  The CPC were evidently framing their policy platform around their perceived strength of “ownership” of economic issues; even the introduction to their section on defence made more reference to economic prosperity than it did matters of security. Like any incumbent, they also seek to highlight their achievements in the defence sector, contrasting their investments in the CAF to the Liberal “Decade of Darkness” which had preceded them.[11]  With regards to concrete policy proposals, the 2015 CPC platform maintains a focus on combatting jihadi terrorism, continuing participation in the coalition against ISIS, standing up to Russia, and supporting Israel.  The section concludes with a warning of what would happen should a Liberal or NDP government be elected: a return to the “decade of darkness” and an underfunded Canadian Armed Forces,  a weakened law enforcement and counter-terrorist response in Canada, and the abandonment of allies such as Ukraine and Israel.[12] Beyond the political rhetoric one would expect to find in such a document, we can observe clear indications of a defence policy more aligned with the “militarism” camp: greater support for military interventions abroad, as well as less willingness to place restrictions on Canada’s defence and security organizations. [13] Additionally, the platform predictably eschews acknowledgement of any shortcomings in the Conservative’s handling of defence issues during their tenure, instead seeking to highlight past Liberal incompetence.  While the CPC did have a focused set of defence priorities, they chose to frame said priorities through a wider lens of economic prosperity, seeking to highlight their perceived competence on economic issues rather than defence.

The Liberal Party of Canada’s 2015 platform, “A New Plan for a Strong Middle Class”, offers an interesting foil to that of the CPC.  Matters pertaining to defence were included in the Chapter “Security and Opportunity”, accounting for 11 pages out of the documents total of 88.  This section begins with framing security through a more compassionate, humanitarian lens, starting the chapter off by proposing an expanded immigrant and refugee program.[14] The section continues by contrasting how a Liberal approach would differ from that of the CPC’s, emphasizing the need for “renewing Canada’s place in the world”, pledging to “restore  Canadian leadership in the world” and “renew Canada’s commitment to peacekeeping operations” and the United Nations.[15] They also pledge to incorporate climate change alongside other conventional threats when designing security measures. Herein, we find examples of the LPC using defence policy as a means to differentiate themselves from the CPC in both approach and competence, while framing defence through other policies in which they are seen as being more competent: refugees and the environment.[16]  Their commitment to increasing UN peacekeeping participation and bolstering Canada’s presence in international institutions falls in line with Gravelle et al.’s definition of “internationalism”, contrasting directly with the CPC’s more “militaristic” approach.

By framing a low-salience issue like defence through the lenses of other, more salient issues which they “own”, both the LPC and the CPC were seeking to further gather votes from those in the electorate who may not pay much attention to defence issues, but generally adhere to the value systems that underly militarism and internationalism. While qualitatively there were sharp differences between both parties’ platforms, there remained many similarities quantitatively.  The LPC pledged to “maintain current National Defence spending levels, including current planned increases”, showing that both parties agreed on the general amount of spending needed.[17] While agreeing with the CPC on spending levels, the LPC’s platform criticizes the Conservatives over their incompetence on defence issues, citing the handling of the F-35 procurement, the war in Afghanistan, and their Canada First Defence Strategy as examples of the Conservatives’ inability to effectively manage Canada’s national defence.[18]  This is in line with how Bow describes the role of defence issues in elections: rather than taking sides on tangible policy issues and solutions, parties instead choose to highlight an incumbent’s poor handling of the issue as indicative of their wider inability to govern.[19] While there were tangible differences in both platforms, these differences appear to stem from partisan framing around values that appeal to each party’s respective base, rather than taking the form of concrete policy differences.  Defence spending would remain the same no matter which party formed government, and differences between major defence policies would remain relatively marginal.

In the 2015 election, the LPC used defence policy proposals to both highlight their contrast in values with the CPC, as well as to criticize the Conservatives’ handling of Canada’s national defence.  In the 2019 election, we will find that that four years of governing had led the Liberal’s to change their tone surrounding defence, and that the Conservative’s opposition status put them on the offensive in terms of criticisms of Liberal competence.

2019 Comparison

The CPC’s 2019 platform document, “Andrew Scheer’s Plan for You to Get Ahead”, features an eight-page section, “More Strength Abroad”, dedicated to defence.[20] It is the shortest chapter of the document, as well as the only chapter not to feature any subsections. The section begins with pledges to improve veterans’ services and “fix Justin Trudeau’s failures on pensions”, before moving on to criticize Trudeau’s weakening of relations with traditional allies, notably the U.S., U.K., Australia and New Zealand.[21]  They continue to offer policies more aligned with “militarism”, while also undoing those aligned with “internationalism”: pledging to “reclaim Canada’s role in NORAD, NATO, the Commonwealth, La Francophonie, and Five Eyes”, withdraw from the Asian Infrastructure Bank, and decrease foreign aid spending while increasing military contributions to Ukraine.[22]  The CPC also pledges to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to “always defend Israel’s interests at the UN”, a stance that is consistent with their actions under Harper.[23] In addition to presenting a defence approach framed through their own values, the CPC criticizes Trudeau’s shortcomings frequently and pledge to “depoliticize military procurement”, perhaps in reference to the Vice-Admiral Mark Norman affair.[24] Here again we observe the discussion around defence policy focusing more on an incumbent’s incompetence, rather than wider debates of national defence priorities.

The LPC’s 2019 election platform, “Forward:  A Real Plan for the Middle Class”, features a similarly brief overview of the Liberal’s defence policy in the final chapter, titled “Keeping Canada Strong, Secure, and Engaged.” This section is vague on concrete proposals, instead discussing the underlying principles and values that will continue to shape Canada’s defence stance under a Liberal government: “a positive contribution to international peace and security”, support for the UN and NATO, women’s security, and increased international aid.[25] There is clear evidence of the Liberal’s showing their ownership over the “internationalism” approach, citing over 150 years of principled approaches to Canadian foreign policy and defence that prioritizes multilateral international organizations, ethical use of technology, and care for refugees.[26] The section concludes with proposals regarding immigration and refugee services. Similar to their 2015 defence plans, the LPC’s 2019 defence platform is sparse on concrete details regarding priorities and spending, but heavy on principles and values. Defence issues during the 2019 election were barely featured at all, and the planned Munk Debate on international affairs (which would have had a large focus on defence) was cancelled due to Prime Minister Trudeau’s refusal to attend.[27] Trudeau’s apparent lack of care for defence and international relations issues is apparent in the LPC’s official platform; concrete details are sparse, and defence issues are again related back to other issues the Liberals “own”, such as immigration and refugee services.  Despite this, both parties’ 2019 platforms contain many similarities with regards to threat perceptions and wider defence priorities: recognition of climate change as an emerging threat, reinforcing Canada’s role as an alliance member in NATO and NORAD, improving Arctic capabilities, maintaining investments in the CAF, and vaguely alluding to “fixing” Canada’s procurement process. Thus, while both platforms certainly feature distinguished approaches to Canada’s defence strategy, these serve more to signal underlying party values to their respective bases, rather than indicate concrete shifts in the overall direction of national defence policies.  This finding is in line with Jean-Christophe Boucher’s assessment that political elites will “attempt to frame policy decisions according to the prevalent social norms and values” in a given country, so as to gain the widest appeal for their policies.[28]

Without proper attention and coverage during an election, the electorate remains under-informed on key defence issues in Canada, and thus the cycle continues. Knowing that rational, vote-seeking parties have little incentive to highlight issues for which they do not have a strong reputation, defence is thus left on the back-burner come election season.[29] Qualitative differences in partisan approaches to defence policy have emerged in Canada, and perhaps have existed for quite some time, as evident through an appraisal of campaign platforms in the past decade. An alignment of Conservative policy along the “militarism” camp and Liberals along “internationalism” has become reinforced over the past decade, most likely owing to the preferences of their respective voter bases. Despite these differences, substantial debate over Canada’s defence priorities has been absent from both elections and wider political discourse.

Christopher MacDonald is a first-year M.A. candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, Ottawa.  His research focuses on the role domestic politics play in understanding Canadian foreign policy and cybersecurity.

Banner image by Robert Taylor courtesy of Wikipedia. Featured image 1 by Staff Sgt. Perry Aston courtesy of Wikipedia.



[1] For example, both “Ignored and Ignited: lack of discussion about defence ‘surprising and disappointing”, Mike Armstrong, Global News, October 18, 2019, https://globalnews.ca/news/6038330/canada-election-military-defence/ and “Why military funding in Canada is in such a lousy state”, Paul Wells, Maclean’s, May 4, 2017, https://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/why-military-funding-in-canada-is-in-such-a-lousy-state/.
[2] Bow, Brian, 2008. Parties and Partisanship in Canadian Defence Policy. International Journal, Winter 2008-09, 67.
[3] Bow, 87.
[4] Nossal, Kim Richard. The Politics of Canadian Foreign Policy, third ed. (Scarborough:Prentice-Hall), 1997, 281-282.
[5] Timothy B. Gravelle, Thomas J. Scotto, Jason Reifler & Harold D. Clarke, 2014. Foreign policy beliefs and support for Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party, Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, 20:2, 116.
[6] Gravelle et al., 125.
[7] Gravelle et al., 122.
[8] Ibid., 116.
[9] Conservative Party of Canada, “Our Conservative Plan to Protect the Economy”, October 2015, 75.
[10] Ibid., 76.
[11] Ibid., 77.
[12] CPC 2015, 101.
[13] Gravelle et al., 116.
[14] Liberal Party of Canada, “A New Plan for a Strong Middle Class”, October 2015, 62.
[15] Ibid., 68.
[16] LPC 2015, 70.
[17] LPC 2015, 69.
[18] Ibid., 70.
[19] Bow, 87.
[20] Conservative Party of Canada, “Andrew Scheer’s Plan for You to Get Ahead”, October 2019, 79.
[21] Ibid., 83.
[22] Ibid., 83-84.
[23] Seligman, Steven. 2016. Canada and the United Nations General Assembly (1994-2015): Continuity and change under the Liberals and Conservatives. Canadian Foreign Policy Journal 22:3, 2016.
[24] Gollom, Mark. “What you need to know about the Vice-Admiral Mark Norman case.” CBC News, May 8, 2019. https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/mark-norman-case-explainer-1.5127752
[25] Liberal Party of Canada, “Forward: A Real Plan for the Middle Class.” October 2019, 70.
[26] Ibid., 72.
[27] Griffiths, Rudyard.  “Opinion: Why we cancelled the Munk Debate – and why our democracy is in trouble.” National Post, September 24, 2019. https://nationalpost.com/news/politics/election-2019/opinion-why-we-cancelled-the-munk-debate-and-why-our-democracy-is-in-trouble
[28] Boucher, Jean-Christophe. 2020. Public Opinion and Canadian Defence Policy. In Thomas Juneau, Philippe Lagassé, and Srdjan Vucetic, eds. Canadian Defence Policy in Theory and Practice (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 159.
[29] Belanger and Meguid, 489.
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