Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Do we need to buy the F-35? Does anyone speak for the Canadian public?

By now we all know that there has been a big cock up in Ottawa since the Department of National Defence decided to purchase the F-35 Lightning II fighter-bomber from the United States. The Auditor General has issued a scathing report. The Liberal and NDP opposition in the House of Commons has had a field day attacking the Harper government. But absent from all the political hype is any discussion of the central issue: where is the need for this aircraft within Canada’s broad military policy? On this question we can see that the position of all three of our major political parties is at variance with that of the general public.

Public opinion and Canadian defence policy

There is no question that the events of 9/11 had a dramatic impact on Canadians and their views on national security and defence. But an even greater impact has been the history of Canada’s participation in the U.S.-led and directed war in Afghanistan.

Canada’s mass media has consistently been a strong supporter of Canada’s role as the loyal ally of the United States in foreign policy and its military activities. Thus it is even more surprising to discover that over the past ten years Canadian public opinion polls on foreign and defence policy have found that a majority of Canadians are not comfortable with Canada’s role as an aggressive NATO military power and would much prefer to see our country to be committed once again to United Nations peacekeeping. They would rather Canada act through the UN to provide relief for famine than to drop bombs on less developed countries.

In spite of a major government and media campaign for support of the war in Afghanistan, the majority of Canadians have often disagreed. For example, the Focus Canada polls by Environics have consistently reported low support for the Afghan war, once as low as 24%.

Angus Reid polls have reported similar results over recent years: 55% to 59% opposed to the Afghan war; in 2009 82% wanted to end Canada’s combat role with only 12% in support. In July 2009 they reported that only 38% believed that the Canadian government was right to send our troops to Afghanistan in the first place. Ipsos Reid reported in September 2011 that 75% of Canadians did not believe that the war in Afghanistan was worth the cost. An Angus Reid poll from March 2011 found that 63% of Canadians opposed the military operation of Canadians in Afghanistan with only 32% in support.

A number of polls have reported that around 70% of Canadians prefer a peacekeeping role to a military role in “peacemaking.” The Ekos Research poll in 2005 found Canadians preferring peace keeping over “peace making” by a ratio of 2 to 1.
Canadians prefer UN peacekeeping

What do Canadians want as a defence policy?
In October 2010 Nanos Research asked Canadians what their priorities were for the federal government’s budget. Of the five issues listed, health care ranked first followed by education, jobs and the economy, the environment and taxes. Spending on the military ranked last.

When asked what should be the priority for Canada’s armed forces, the results were as follows:
(1) UN peacekeeping.
(2) Security operations with the U.S.
(3) European NATO commitments.
(4) Overseas combat missions.
A key question asked: “Would you support Canada having another mission like Afghanistan?” The results: 54% strongly opposed, 11% somewhat opposed, 12% strongly supported and 9% somewhat supported. The rest were unsure. None of our three major political parties reflect this majority position.

In June 2011 Ipsos Reid conducted a public opinion poll for the Department of National Defence to see what role the Canadian public would like them to play. The results were as follows:
(1) At the top of the list was disaster relief in Canadian communities.
(2) Ranked second was search and rescue.
(3) Third was patrolling Canadian air space, land and maritime areas.
(4) Next came enforcing Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic.
(5) “Fighting the war on terrorism” came last.
A poll by Ipsos six months earlier showed that Canadians expressed strong support for the Canadian rank and file forces, but only four percent said that the military and defence should be at the top of the public’s agenda.