Thursday, June 10, 2004

Liberals blowing opportunity on Harper's Iraq stance

VICTORIA - The Liberals' attack ads are a big mistake.
They're bound to alienate many voters, who associate them with ugly American political campaigns.
And they'll wreck the Liberals' credibility on those issues where Harper should be held to account, like his support for sending Canadian troops to fight alongside the Americans in Iraq.
The attack ads say Harper wanted to send Canadian forces into Iraq - true - and wants to limit abortion rights (false), wants to ally with the Bloc Québécois (irrelevant, since the Bloc won't work with any federalist party) and wants to spend heavily on military hardware (true). All this in front of scenes suggesting health care disaster and a dissolving Canadian flag and .
Scare tactics make the attacking party look both desperate and devoid of their own ideas. And their hysteria means that legitimate criticisms are written off as more of the same political smears.
In fact, there are legitimate issues the Liberals could be raising.
Harper's support for the war in Iraq, for one. He accepted claims of weapons of mass destruction and an imminent threat - claims now proved false. His statements at the time suggest that if he had been prime minister, Canadians would be fighting and dying in Iraq, and our role in the world permanently altered.
That issue leads to an examination of Harper's pledge for a massive increase in military spending. The Conservative platform calls for an immediate 10-per-cent jump, an extra $1.2 billion a year. Over time he wants to see spending increased by $8 billion a year - a 67-per-cent jump. The number of troops would increase by one-third, to 80,000.
None of the other parties propose such a massive increase.
My guess is Harper is out-of-step with most Canadians. Voters do believe that the military should be properly equipped, and that soldiers should not be sent on dangerous missions with inadequate support.
But Canada spends $12 billion a year on its armed forces - about $400 per person. Most polls suggest that health care or other quality-of-life issues rank as higher priorities with Canadians.
Both sides on defence spending find statistics to back their views. Most comparable countries do spend a significantly larger share of their GDP on their militaries. And Liberal governments did cut military spending to help balance the budget.
But Canada is still 11th out of 19 NATO countries in military spending, and in the top 10 per cent of countries around the world.
So why the need for so much more money?
The military's current mission includes three tasks - protecting Canada, defending North America in co-operation with the U.S. and contributing to peace and international security.
But the conventional military threat against Canada and North America seems remote. And there is little evidence that the best way to deal with any threats that do emerge is by adding thousands of permanent troops, or committing to more costly initiatives like the $10-billion frigate program.
And while it is fine that the military has a goal of contributing to peace and international security, it's much less clear that the best way of accomplishing that is with more soldiers and more new weapons. We have only 3,800 troops overseas now - 2,200 in Afghanistan, 200 in the Mideast, 500 in Haiti, 655 in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It's difficult, important work. But it is a small part of what Canada's military does, and one that could be handled without a massive spending increase.
In fact, Harper needs to explain why the extra $8 billion a year he wants to spend on the military couldn't be used to build peace and security more effectively in other ways. About 7,000 people a day are dying of AIDs in Africa, for example; their security could be helped more by medical and economic aid than more soldiers.
There are some real questions to be answered. Too bad the Liberals are choosing ineffective attack ads instead of asking them.
Footnote: The Liberals' attack ads have an inherent flaw. The party is in trouble in part because voters don't trust Paul Martin and company. But the attack ads will only work if voters believe them - if they trust the source. The only significant effect will be to make the Liberals looked panicky.

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