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Richard Shimooka: Poor public oversight is a major part of Canada’s defence problem

Commentary

Last week, the government announced its long-awaited selection of the F-35 fighter as the replacement for the CF-18. One aspect that sticks out over the 13-year saga has been the cascade of low-quality information that has guided the public conversations and likely affected government policy. Ironically, many of the same commentators who are currently criticizing the broad failure of government policy surrounding the CF-18 replacement are repeating the mistaken thinking that led to this failure when they call to cancel the Canadian Surface Combatant program

This muddled level of civil discourse pervades conversations about defence in this country. When national parties have leadership contests, it’s common to see serious candidates claim that Canada should “return to its peacekeeping roots” despite that concept’s near irrelevance to international security today. Basic knowledge of defence issues is lacking, not only among the general public but, even more critically, at key institutions of governance and society. This has serious consequences for Canadian defence and security policy.

One only needs to look at the series of key institutions that should help to shape policy, contextualize issues, and provide oversight, including journalism, think tanks and academia, oversight agencies, and parliament. However, Canada’s institutions are lacking in each area when compared to our foreign peers. 

Take journalism, for instance. In Canada, there are approximately six full-time journalists on the defence beat, complemented by another seven or so general assignment reporters who spend at least part of their time covering these issues. While they have broken many important stories, their ability to cover the entire scope and depth of the defence file is insufficient.

By comparison, one defence publication group in the U.S. (Sightline Media) has nearly 25 reporters and editors alone. Major general publications, like the Washington Post, Politico, or New York Times, all have significant defence bureaus. The situation in the U.K. is similar, with Janes, Financial Times, and the Economist all providing strong defence reporting outputs. 

The situation in academia and among think tanks is not encouraging. Canada has only a handful of independent think tanks that focus on defence issues, and often only as part of their broader public policy mandate. In contrast, the U.S. has dozens of organizations that do such work, many of which are dedicated to security and defence issues. Most Canadian organizations are also minuscule in terms of size and funding levels compared to their U.K., Australian, or American counterparts.

Of course, the number of Canadian think tanks is higher if one includes those connected to universities (though the same can be said of other countries). But, even here, the situation remains less than ideal—especially following the 2012 demise of the Government’s Security and Defence (SDF) program, which had funded scholarships and university centres throughout the country. While the Department of National Defence (DND) belatedly created the MINDS (Mobilizing Insights in Defence and Security) as a replacement, the funds allocated to universities and researchers remain below the level of funding offered by SDF. 

While government bodies are not traditionally considered part of civil society, oversight agencies and parliamentary committees play a similar role in cultivating knowledge and outside thinking in most countries—that is, except in Canada. Independent bodies like the Office of the Auditor General or Parliamentary Budget Officer simply do not have the staff or capability to be truly effective in their remit. Canada has less than 10 auditors working on national defence issues, and on average they only conduct two defence-focused studies a year, which is wholly insufficient for DND with its nominal annual budget of over $20 billion. The quality of their work should also receive greater scrutiny. Both bodies have far fewer people involved and produce fewer works than equivalent agencies in Australia or the United Kingdom, to speak nothing of the United States, where the Government Accountability Office has over 400 staff involved in the defence-related fields, producing approximately 80 reports in the past year.

Canada’s parliament is another critically under-resourced institution. MPs, senators, and their committees have relatively few staff (typically only one staff member that focuses on the portfolio). The House and Senate defence committees’ work is supported by a pool of approximately five researchers seconded away from the Library of Parliament. These numbers are simply insufficient to support the committees in their oversight role. 

The U.S. Congress is not a great basis for comparison due to the greater power invested in it through America’s bicameral system, but it does provide an interesting counterpoint of a properly resourced system. The four House and Senate defence and appropriations committees have approximately 70 full-time professional staff between them, in addition to each member’s personal staff. Staff members often have a decade or more experience in their position in addition to service within the government and/or military, as well as advanced degrees in the field. They make important contributions to the operation of the Department of Defense. 

None of this is meant as a slight to anyone involved in any of these sectors in Canada, the vast majority of whom are engaged in good-faith efforts. The problem is there’s simply a lack of capacity, skills, and resources to effectively provide oversight and commentary on major defence issues.

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Two groups benefit from this situation more than any other: the political leadership and, by extension, DND. Both frequently skate by criticism or scrutiny because there are too few people reporting on the topic or overseeing their activities. The situation provides our executive greater ability to control the narrative or even ignore queries. 

For instance, last year the government effectively stonewalled efforts by the House of Commons operations committee to dig into the troubled $2.2 billion Fixed Wing Search and Rescue program. In any other country, DND representatives would be hauled in front of the committee to explain themselves, perhaps facing significant repercussions. Yet the issue effectively disappeared from the public debate. The current arrangement helps protect the public image of the governing party, but it comes at a ruinous cost to the country’s security. 

A stronger defence civil society would bring greater accountability and better policies. Problems are allowed to fester for years within DND, like Jonathan Vance’s odious history or the CF-18 replacement saga. Building up a better defence ecosystem may also lead to better public debates and policy outcomes. It might break down the barrier between the department and the public, which seemingly prevents innovative policy ideas from being implemented. 

It will be no easy task to improve our defence civil sector. Perhaps the easiest place to start is by expanding parliament’s oversight and legislative functions in defence and providing it with more resources. This would generate more attention to defence and increase demand for greater civilian expertise. Providing greater resources for independent analytical bodies would also have similar benefits, as would expanding academic funding through MINDS and other outreach programs, which may have cascading effects on the press, academia, and think tanks. Importantly, these are not major sums—millions to tens of millions of dollars against the $20B DND budget—and would have a disproportionate return on investment. 

Addressing this major gap is a serious one. While it may not have any quick outcomes, elevating the defence conversation in Canada will only improve the country’s policy-making in this crucial area. Perhaps the most difficult aspect may be convincing the governing party and the bureaucracy to loosen its grip. Given the 13-year debacle over the CF-18 replacement program, such an effort will be well worth it.  

Howard Anglin: What Shelley got wrong

Commentary

“I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone,

The King of Kings; this mighty City shows

The wonders of my hand.” — The City’s gone, —

If this sounds almost familiar, it’s because it’s from the poem “Ozymandias.” But not that Ozymandias.” This version was written by Horace Smith as part of a competition with his friend Shelley to compose sonnets on a common theme, in this case a passage from Diodorus Siculus’s Bibliotheca historica. (These competitions were a productive pastime for the Romantics: Percy’s wife Mary wrote the novel Frankenstein as part of a similar contest with Lord Byron while the Shelleys were staying nearby on Lake Geneva during the dreary non-summer of 1816.)

Shelley’s and Smith’s sonnets both describe a broken colossus crumbling in the desert above slightly different paraphrases of the inscription that Diodorus Siculus records as “King of Kings am I, Osymandyas. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.” Both poems are parables about the impermanence of worldly renown, and Shelley’s version, with its mawkishly didactic lesson about pride and hubris, is a staple of the high school English curriculum.

The moral is artistically effective and the message memorable, but they are false. No matter how much Shelley tries to convince us that the works of great men are ultimately in vain, his poem’s very existence belies its intent. The truth, inescapable, is that the works of Ozymandias—or Rameses II, as he is better known—do endure, and not just in Shelley’s well-known (and Smith’s less well-known) poem. They can be found from the Nile Delta to Abu Simbel, and we still stand before them in awe. Look on his works ye mighty, or ye average Joe, and despair. 

I was reminded of Shelley’s poem in the Pergamonmuseum in Berlin last year, as I read the mortuary epitaph of the neo-Hittite King Panamuwa I. Carved on a colossal statue of the Hittite storm-god Hadad, the long inscription begins, with echoes of Diodorus Siculus:

I am Panamuwa, son of Qarli, king of Y’DY, who have erected this statue for Hadad in my eternal abode. The gods Hadad and El and Rašap and Rākib-El and Šamaš supported me. Hadad and El and Rākib-El and Šamaš and Rašap gave the scepter of dominion into my hands. Rašap supported me. So whatever I grasped with my hand […] and whatever I asked from the gods, they granted to me.

Reading it, I was struck by just how wrong Shelley was. There, standing in the grand centre of the capital of a country whose power and wealth he could not have imagined, on display to visitors from around the world, was a statue erected by a regional warlord to his immortal memory. Three millennia later, and three thousand miles from where he died, millions of people have read of King Panamuwa’s feats and marvelled at his monument. So much for the tragic evanescence of worldly fame.

Shelley and Smith appear to have understood the weakness of their artifice, as both poets altered their source material to make their points. In Diodorus Siculus’s account, the statue is not “a colossal wreck” and there are no “vast and trunkless legs of stone” (or, in Smith’s version, “a gigantic Leg”). He describes the figure as “seated … the largest of any in Egypt” and “marvellous by reason of its artistic quality and excellent because of the nature of the stone, since in a block of so great a size there is not a single crack or blemish to be seen.” The implication is clear: the greatness of Osymandyas is well-attested by his surviving monument. 

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Nor could the poets avoid the awkward fact that they were writing a poem about the fleeting memory of a pharaoh they knew by name. The fictional Ozymandias may be a forgotten titan, but the real Rameses II is probably the only pharaoh most people can name, other than the comparatively inconsequential boy King Tutankhamen. Shelley may not have lived to see him portrayed in Technicolor by Yul Brynner or in sadistic prose by Norman Mailer, but even he was excited enough about the arrival of one of his surviving sculptures in London in 1818 to be inspired to poetic competition. 

It was a perverse conceit to compose a meditation on ephemeral repute based on an example of enduring renown. Poets may be, as Shelley once boasted, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” but the greatest of actual legislators are also acknowledged in their lifetimes and remembered long after. This may be, in part, thanks to the work of poets and other artists, as Shelley implies when he praises the skill of Ozymandias’s anonymous sculptor. But artistic subjects are chosen for a reason, and in this case crediting the artist for his subject’s enduring memory means forgetting who was in the position to commission whom.