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Liberals Silence Opposition By Fulfilling Their Defence-Spending Promises

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan's spokeswoman suggested the opposition isn't standing up to criticize the new defence investments because well, they have nothing to criticize.

The Liberals announced $62-billion in defence spending this week but you wouldn't know it listening to question period.

The NDP and the Conservatives barely mentioned the 70 per cent increased defence spending announced Wednesday -- the largest boost in decades and one the Liberals didn't specifically campaign on.

The Tories devoted four questions -- out of an allotted 72 over three days -- to comment on the government's surprise funding announcement.

The NDP devoted no questions -- out of 33 -- on defence spending. The NDP did find time though to ask about cuts to the salmon classroom education program. That's the same amount of time the Tories used to question the Liberals on the rights of "self-determination of the people of the Falkland Islands."

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan's spokeswoman Jordan Owens suggested the opposition isn't standing up to criticize the new defence investments because well, they have nothing to criticize.

"The opposition has never hesitated to criticize when they disagree with government policy‎," she told HuffPost Canada.

The Liberals' new defence policy is the result of a year's worth of consultation that sets out a framework for a well-resourced Canadian Armed Forces, she noted. "That's something we can all get behind."

When the Tories did ask about the funding, Conservative critic James Bezan wondered why the cash isn't immediately flowing.

"When will the prime minister take real action on national defence and not punt spending down the road until after the next election when the leader of the official opposition becomes our prime minister?" he asked.

Perhaps Bezan wanted to know why his leader might get stuck with the bill.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used the opportunity Bezan provided to slam the previous Tory government for under-investing in the military and for using them as props. "...the men and women of the Canadian Forces deserve a government that truly supports them, in deeds as well as in words, and that is what today's historic announcement was all about," Trudeau said.

This week on HuffPost Canada's politics podcast "Follow-Up," former NDP adviser Karl Bélanger noted it was "interesting" the parties avoided leading off question period by attacking the new defence policy

Listen to the podcast:

The NDP's socialist caucus is livid the party and the five candidates running for the leadership -- MPs Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton, Guy Caron, Peter Julian and Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh -- haven't raised concerns.

"It is just astounding that they have been able to escape sharp and critical questions on the scale of the amount," said Barry Weisleder, the chair of the socialist caucus told me. "The fact that the NDP is silent on this and the fact that there is a leadership race is no excuse! ... They should have something to say about this Stephen-Harper-like policy -- this exceeds Harper.

"The Liberal government that advocated civil rights, feminism, peace, disarmament, greater equality and electoral reform ... is now advocating and promising to deliver the biggest defence increase in Canadian history. Canada has no business bombing, invading, occupying, punishing, powers abroad!"

Angus is the only NDP leadership candidate to refer to the Grits' defence announcement. He tweeted:

In question period this week, the Conservatives and the NDP focused their attacks on former Ontario Liberal Madeleine Meilleur's withdrawal as the official languages commissioner. They raised concerns over the appointment of a new ethics commissioner, on the set-up of the infrastructure bank, and on the lack of a national security review on a Chinese takeover deal of a Vancouver company that builds satellite receivers for NATO. The Tories also asked about the cancellation of a planned high-risk child sex offender database, which the government says is a duplicate of the national sex offender registry.

On "Follow-Up," Greg MacEachern, a former Liberal advisor, and Rachel Curran, former prime minister Stephen Harper's policy director, noted that the opposition likely doesn't want to give the government a further chance to promote its policy.

"The headlines for the government are really good," Curran said. "[Foreign Affairs] Minister [Chrystia] Freeland came out and gave a substantive foreign policy speech talked about re-asserting Canada's place in the world and took a few swings at [U.S. President Donald] Trump.

"Minister Sajjan came out and talked about billions of new money invested in the military. So despite all the weaknesses underneath that it may just be a bit of a shell, the headlines are great and that is what most people see."

Conservatives won't say if they'll keep Liberal promise

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer's spokesman denied the Tories paid little attention to the defence announcement. Jake Enwright pointed out that Bezan held a press conference Wednesday, stressing concern that Trudeau will fail to deliver on his promises given previous Liberal governments' records of cutting the Forces.

But while the Tories wonder if the Liberals will uphold their commitments, the Conservatives haven't pledged to do the same.

Asked if Scheer would respect the planned military spending, Enwright responded: "We are unable to give you an answer on that given the fact that the government hasn't given its plan to Canadians for how it will pay for this policy."

During the Conservative leadership race, Scheer promised to balance federal books within two years of taking office. It's difficult to see how the Tory leader could keep his promise and also maintain the Liberals new long-term spending pledge -- the bulk of which is planned for after the 2019 election, therefore tying any future prime minister for the next two decades or more to spending $10 billion to $15 billion in additional new money annually on defence.

When asked repeatedly at their announcement this week, Sajjan and Transport Minister Marc Garneau declined to say whether this defence spending would take Canada deeper into the red, though government officials have made clear that the new military commitments will be funded through deficits.

"The government accounted for this in the fiscal framework released in the budget this year," Trudeau's spokeswoman Kate Purchase told HuffPost. "Overall, the spend is spread out over the framework over the course of several years. We planned for it."

The new spending wasn't included in the March budget. The Liberals' five-year projections suggest the overall deficit will drop to $15.3 billion by 2021-2022. With this week's announcement, the defence department's budget is forecast to increase by $6.4 billion, from $18.9 billion currently to $25.3 billion in 2021-2022. And the department's budget is projected to rise consistently until reaching a peak of $33.4 billion in 2027-2028.

While the Liberals can't say precisely what the budget deficits will be 10 to 15 years from now, a senior official told HuffPost that because the government spreads out the total costs of purchases over several years, the long-term impact will be about "$2 billion [annually] maybe on the total fiscal framework of $300 [billion] or $350 billion by that time."

Liberals delivered on opposition's campaign pledges

Sajjan's announcement basically addressed all of the defence-related promises by the Conservatives and NDP from the 2015 election campaign.

During the last election campaign, the Liberals' promised they would not cut a planned increase to the defence budget of $11.8-billion over 10 years starting in 2017.

The Grits meanwhile pledged to "reinvest in building a leaner, more agile, better-equipped military, including adequate support systems for military personnel and their families."

The Liberals said they would not purchase the F-35 fighter jets and instead invest in the Royal Canadian Navy, by fully funding the 15 ships the Tories had intended to buy.

The Conservatives, after decreasing the defence department's budgets as of 2011, used the campaign to re-announce their commitment to rebuild the Canadian Forces with that 10-year $11.8-billion injection.

The Liberals' announcement Wednesday adds another $10 billion more to that promise.

During the 2015 campaign, the Tories also promised "to help the Special Operations Forces maintain their top operational capacity" by bolstering their size by nearly 35 percent by 2022.

On Wednesday, Sajjan announced the Grits would increase Special Operations Forces by 605 personnel, about a 32 per cent increase over the current 1,900 members. The Liberals also outlined other investments for the Special Operations Forces including: new airborne intelligence platforms, armoured vehicles, a modern command centre and next generation soldier equipment.

In 2015, the Tories said they would increase the Reserves by 15 percent, to 30,000 in the next four years, shorten recruiting times, and broaden the eligibility criteria to include permanent residents.

This week, the Liberals said they will increase the Reserves to 30,000 -- though they did not give a timeline -- and pledged to reduce recruiting time. They did not announce non-citizens could join but they expanded the types of jobs available to Reservists and aligned remuneration and benefits with those of regular members.

That is in addition, of course, to a plan to purchase 88 advanced fighter aircrafts, to invest in military family resource centres, to make salaries more generous, to expand the Forces space and cyber capabilities, to purchase drones, and to increase the total size of the force to 71,500 while making it more diverse and women friendly.

During the 2015 campaign, the NDP criticized the Tories for leaving the Forces with outdated equipment, bungled procurements, and showing "a shameful disregard" for troops when they need help.

"A new vision is necessary to ensure that our military can defend Canada, protect Canadians, and contribute to international peace and security with an agile, well-equipped, world-class force," the New Democrats said, pledging a new defence review and made-in-Canada strategy that reflects modern global realities.

It looks like they got it.

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